Tuesday, March 21, 2006

In Memory of My Dad July 27, 1932 - March 22, 1998

My father died 8 years ago today, the day before Paige’s first birthday. It was 1998, a year that would prove to be trying in very many ways.

That year, my family would live through an Ice Storm that left us with a young baby, and a 4-year old, in very cold Ontario, with no power for 9 days. We would watch Paige get progressively sicker, having a horrible 10-day bout with rotovirus, and then suffering from pneumonia over and over again, until we were to finally realize that her esophageal problems were not over…that we hadn’t had a “miracle fix.”

Although we didn’t know it, we would see 4 or 5 more surgeries for Paige in 1998.

And, Wayne and I nearly saw the end of our marriage that year.


The previous October, my father went to see his family doctor, because he was “lame” on the right hand side of his back. Thinking he might have a kidney infection or something similar, the doctor just assured him he was getting older (he was 65), and that working outside in the cold weather wasn’t as easy on his body as it used to be.

Not one to ever visit a doctor unless he was forced to, my dad repeatedly went back to have his back checked. Never did the doctor recommend so much as an x-ray.

Then, that November, my father did something very uncharacteristic of him. He walked in the door on a Friday afternoon and announced he was retiring. That day. He had been talking about it for a couple of years, and always had some excuse for not being ready for it just yet.

He wasn’t one to make such fast decisions; he was dedicated to his job, and would have never left anyone shorthanded.

He also was the caretaker of the lumber mill where he worked; so his house was part of his job at the time. He still owned the house that I grew up in, but had to move out of the house he and my mother were currently living in as soon as he retired.

So, they packed up everything, and by December 1, they were driving across the country in their Winnebago. Their first stop was Florida. On the eleventh day of their road trip, my father woke up, unable to get out of bed. He told my mom that he felt like he had been sleeping on a football, and could not move.

When he rolled over, there was a large mass on his back. My mother, and my aunt and uncle who were also in Florida with him, took him to a local hospital to be looked at.

Immediately the doctors wanted to biopsy the mass. We knew before the short surgery what was happening.

Before my father even woke up in recovery, my mother was told that it was a metastasized tumor that had eaten through his ribcage.

In the space of a few hours, she was being told to take him home to die.

My sister had just seen the death of her mother-in-law; having taken care of Jane in her home for months as she too passed away from cancer…to have this to shoulder one more time seemed more than any human could, or should, have to ever take.

For my sister, too, it would be a terrible year; she would become quite ill and require surgery for many malfunctions happening in her body. Late one night, on the way home from a friend’s house, she and her son would hit a telephone pole and total their car. Miraculously, they would both survive, although she suffered numerous injuries because of it.

And, I suspect that her marriage struggled as mine did that year too. Both of us were overwhelmed with our lives, tired of “faking it” and tired of trying to be heroes.

My sister and brother-in-law flew to Florida to drive the Winnebago back home for my father. The trip home was excruciating for Dad…every bump caused him horrible pain.

When they arrived home, I was able to go down and visit him. He was optimistic about his health, having just the year before seen Jane die of cancer. She had survived about 5 years with it, and that seemed to be what he clinged to…those 5 years.

In early January, we had a horrible ice storm in Ontario that saw power outages for hundreds of miles. Stores were closed, banks were closed, gas stations were closed. We were basically immobilized with no ability to access money or gas, or even food at times.

I was able to visit my father in late January, although Paige was sick with pneumonia. Because Dad had had a round of radiation to try and stop the spread of the cancer, we delayed her immunizations because they were dangerous to him. We had to be very careful about his immune system.

He got ill very fast; he lost weight so fast that he looked like a skeleton. We were told that the cancer had spread to his brain, and was so far advanced that the only treatment he would receive was palliative care.

So began the tough things that one must do to prepare for their death. For the first time in many years, my brother, sister, and I were with him at the same time.

With all of his children present, he signed a living will, saying he did not want any extraordinary measures taken to save his life. This was a tough one for me; as even iv fluids would be withheld…more than anyone, I knew that his inability to take nutrients would end his life even quicker.

He spoke very openly with me about his death. Perhaps because my mother was his daily caretaker, and they were staying with my sister at her house, he kept up more of a brave front with them. He told me that he had the easy part; he just had to die. They had to care for him, and watch it happen…that we would all have to go through the mourning process after he was gone.

Although the cancer, and some of the medications made him very fuzzy, sometimes even delusional, he spoke with great clarity about his death, and how he wanted us to go on living afterward.

Sometimes, he lost touch with reality, and would believe crazy things were surrounding him in his bed. He became a big germophobe, and was convinced that food was making him sick most of the time.

But, in his lucid moments, he would fool us, weaving a story that was totally ridiculous, and then laughing at us for believing any of it.

When a hospital bed was moved into the house, his biggest concern was whether or not it was portable…for he wanted it to fit in his Winnebago so he could keep traveling. He would sit in the dining room window, and make great plans for all of us to go to Florida with him that summer in the Winnebago. He made us promise that we would all go…all of his children, with all of their children.

He got very, very ill in March, and by the middle of the month, we knew that he would soon die. Incredibly, his body held out through so much; he lived many days without any intake of liquid or nutrition at all. He developed such sensitive skin that it became impossible for anyone to touch him, as it simply seemed to dissolve at the slightest touch.

He was so sick, that we begin to pray for God to just take him…to just rid him of this body that was causing pain that we could not even imagine.

And yet…he lived on.

On the morning of March 22, I was just putting Paige in the bathtub at home. It was the day before her first birthday. It was snowing outside, and we were expecting a foot of snow that day.

The phone rang at 8:30. At the time, no one had call display. Calmly, I walked to the phone, picked it up and said, “he’s gone.”

And he was. My father, whom I had adored so much, was gone. Relief and grief flooded over me as I listened to my sister tell me the details of his passing.

We were unable to travel because of the snow, but I begged them to keep his body so that I could see him one more time. He had asked to be cremated, and there would be no body at the service.

The next day was Paige’s first birthday. A day deserving of great celebration for a little girl who had just the year before clung so desperately to her own life.

I had ordered a cake for her at the bakery, and was going to take it with us to NH. I was more than devastated to arrive to pick up the cake and find it covered in dark colors…made for a little boy, not for a sweet young girl. The culmination of everything was upon me, and I was hurt beyond belief that someone had messed up my little girl’s first birthday cake.

I got to see my father later that day. How very strange to be sitting in a funeral home, your father’s dead body laid out on a stretcher, still in the body bag it had been removed from the house in, on the day of your baby’s birthday.

I’m glad I got to see him though, because it confirmed what I already knew. He was not there. What I saw was the physical shell of my father; the part that was sick and defective. I knew he was better now…I said to him, “You beat it, Dad…you beat it. Cancer can’t get you anymore.”

It didn’t kill him…he had killed it. He had killed its ability to feed off him anymore. He had broken free of it, and taken his beautiful spirit to a place that was much more deserving of him.

He had a beautiful funeral…just the way he would have wanted it. Nothing formal, with the Minister sharing funny stories about Dad’s life.
Dakotah and Paige will never know Dad. Dakotah has a few memories of him, although most of them are of the times he was sick. She remembers the details of his illness, but I suspect most of the “memories” that she has of him are those that I have created through storytelling, and ones she has picked up listening to others talk about him.

Oh, how I wish they could know him. He had crystal blue eyes, and a ready laugh. He was a quiet man; speaking when he had something to say, and not speaking much at all when he didn’t.

He loved to read, and read newspapers front to back every single day. He loved being outdoors, and was an avid hunter when he was younger.

He adored his nephews, my sister’s children, Craig and Colin. Those boys meant so much to him, and he would have given anything to see them both graduate from college, and to see Craig get married last September.

I miss his voice the most. The way he would say “Hi, Bets” on the phone to me.

And his hands. His big strong hands. I can remember laying on his bed with him on a Sunday afternoon, when I was perhaps 5 or 6, as he tried to take a nap, and playing “catch the hand” with him…I’d try to slap his hand and pull mine away before he caught it.

I remember him only eating the brown m&m’s, because he was convinced they were the only ones that were truly chocolate.

I remember him smelling like the outdoors when he came home from work at the mill; that freshly cut tree smell.

He laughed when I laughed; we had the exact same sense of humor.

As he walked me down the aisle, he wasn’t offering fatherly advice as one might imagine him to be doing. He was asking for instructions, “so, when I get to the end of the aisle, I lift your veil, kiss you, and then I’m done?”

So much like Dad, lol…get me out of this monkey suit and let me sit on the side somewhere.

Now, he gets to have a bird’s eye view of our lives. He is with me always.

Did you ever know that you're my hero?

You're everything I wish I could be.

I could fly higher than an eagle,

For you are the wind beneath my wings.


shawnjjkate said...

Betsy, your words and wisdom never cease to amaze me. I know this is a hard day for you but I wanted you to know your words helped me more than you'll ever know. My mom is in the last stages of stage 4 lung cancer. You've left me with some comforting thoughts.
Shawn & Kaitlyn

Nicole said...

I have no words, just love and admiration for you both.
In Him, Nicole

Kelley said...

What a touching post Betsy. Reminds me very much of MY dad...he died in Nov. 2004 of lung/brain cancer. I'd love to share that story with you sometime.