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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Only Way Through the &^%$ Storm of Life is Through it, Not Around It - What I did after I found out my father had Stage 4 Cancer


August 4, 2015 was a shitty day. I got a phone call that I was not surprised to get. “I have cancer,” my father uttered weakly. He was quiet and stunned; this was a departure from his usual witty and, often, abrasive self. I, on the other hand, was stoic and not at all surprised. I knew from looking at him that he was not healthy. He was overweight and had heart disease. Several heart attacks and major surgeries left him weak and miraculously alive, but lately he kept complaining of stomach pain, and other symptoms. The cancer diagnosis was confirmation of my gut feeling; that his pale gray skin tone, weakness and decreased mental and physical state were all a result of a cancer that had been growing for some time now.

I felt so bad for him and less for me. After all, I was the result of a short-lived marriage that was tumultuous and left him emotionally scarred and angry. As a child, I only saw him on weekends and sometimes just for a day, so he could take me trick or treating…in the rain. At one point five years passed, because I was not allowed to see him. A lot happened in those five years. My brother ran away to live with him, while I was napping. I was hospitalized. I witnessed my mother’s plethora of boyfriends, most of which were dentists and orthodontists. (I had great teeth!) But for a young girl, I learned to not depend on anyone, and not be disappointed if they didn’t keep their word. There wasn’t any family around, I was self-sufficient, and I didn’t have my father. So when I finally saw him, I wasn’t even sure how I felt; learning that my emotional shut-off valve could be a benefit and a detriment.

The day after I turned sixteen, my mother told me to “Get Out!” (there’s a longer story there, but that’s another article). I was more than happy to leave and go live with my father. I had no idea if his kindness and unconditional love was an act or the real deal. Time would tell me to trust and treasure that I finally had someone who cared. I considered myself to be so lucky to have had this year and a half before college to turn my life around; he helped build my self-esteem, work ethic, encouraged me to become a varsity athlete and work as hard as I could at anything I wanted.

My father instilled in me to be strong, and carry on when life got tough; this mindset was a gift August 4, 2015 when I learned his body was ravaged by cancer. I would remain calm and not fall apart. I wanted to be there for him, no matter how this cancer nightmare was going to play out. My step-mother and father had already decided to sell their house and move to Florida, so days later I was on a plane helping pack up their home of 43 years.

The tension and fear filled their Connecticut home. When he told me to “Shut the ^&%$ up!” because he was on the phone, I just ducked and let his words fly past me. I even laughed, because I knew he was still the same old feisty Dad. He never quite realized what he was saying anyway; there was no filter most of the time, but that’s what made him my Dad. For a man who was fastidious about showering twice a day, shaving and eating French fries and a drumstick with a fork and a knife, his mouth was the antithesis – shocking and blunt, but deep down he was a sweetheart of a man.

After the house was packed, I watched him in excruciating pain as we flew to Florida. I was cringing seeing him trying to get through the flight and make it to our destination. I barely ate and could hardly breathe. Seeing someone you love in pain is the hardest experience in life. You just want to make them better, make them comfortable and take it all away.

In my father’s case, all four doctors we went to said, “There is nothing we can do.” His heart was functioning at only 20%, so administering anesthesia was not an option. Plus, the cancer had spread to other organs. I already knew this because I studied his medical records and read every report and viewed the ultrasound. For a man that was tough and resilient all his life, cancer was a beast he could not defeat. I captured photos and videos of these days with my father and spent as much time with him as possible. Every month, I flew from California to Florida and would watch him sleep and grimace in pain.

The only thing that kept me healthy was my determination to take care of my mental state. I walked and walked…and walked some more. I listened to music and called him, while I was walking. I even recorded our conversations, because I knew at some point I would not be able to hear his voice anymore. I had to come to terms with the fact we were living in this “any day now” mode. No one knew exactly how long he would make it, and he just kept hanging on.

Right before my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, I dyed my hair black. I heard lots of Elvira jokes and comments, but I didn’t care. My hair color reflected how I felt. I was preparing for death and I was going through the motions of everyday life, but I wasn’t present most of the time. How could I be? My phone would ring at 5:00am and my father would be hallucinating from morphine. “Where are you?!” he would yell. “They are bugging the phone!” I would calm him down and talk to him to reassure him he was okay. I could barely sleep those days, because I remained on high alert and felt his life was nearing the end. What would life be like without being able to talk to my father every day? I could not imagine. I called him at least three times a day to hear his voice and let him know I loved him. I also wanted him to know I wouldn’t be who I was without his unconditional love, support and encouragement. He always said the same thing when I mentioned getting freelance work was tough, “Just keep going. Keep going.”

The last time I saw my father was October 31, 2015. As I made my way to the airport to fly home, I planned to fly back again for Thanksgiving. Right before the holiday, life threw us all a curve ball. My step-mother became very sick and could not take care him or even herself. We had to put him in a facility until she was better. Even though we had an aide and hospice care at home, he needed round- the-clock care.

On December 4, 2015, my step-mother was finally ready to see my father. I called him around 8:30am his time and he asked me to call him back because he was “on the john.” He was a constant jokester and never ceased that day. We spoke four times. However, on the final call, I noticed he was weak and there was a lot of silence on the phone. He was tired, but happy he finally saw the love of his life. I told him I would talk to him the next day and we closed with our usual “I love you.”

I consider myself to be very lucky. For four months, I faced cancer with strength and conviction to take care of those I love. I tried my best to take care of me, but that was tough. Getting that call that my father was gone was devastating, but inevitable. I knew the call was coming. I had prepared as best I could, but are we ever ready? Dad was gone, but thankfully he went peacefully, painlessly and this ordeal did not continue with him hanging by a thread in excruciating pain.

I learned a lot about myself in those four months. For someone who grew up incredibly insecure and lacking confidence, my father taught me how to kick the shit out of tough times. He taught me to keep going, keep moving and be a pillar of strength when needed. It’s okay to cry and break down, but I have never wanted to keep my composure more than when I read his eulogy. I wrote my heart out on the plane ride. I barely slept and would normally be a blubbering, weepy heap of tears. However, this was my time to tell everyone just how wonderful Dad was, how tough, but also ridiculously funny with his recycled jokes and pranks. I smiled and gave the best speech of my life, as I glowed talking about his love for f-bombs and colorful stories of breaking people’s limbs. But deep down inside, he was a teddy bear with a love for his family and friends.

I like to think Dad drove off in one of his favorite Cadillacs and is keeping tabs on what he’s been missing. Here’s what I would tell him:

I love your wonderful wife more than ever and I feel lucky to have someone who cares for me like my own mother. I call her every single day and sometimes more; we don’t go a day without talking. She misses you terribly, but I am helping her through the worst funk of her life. And after a year and a half, she is starting to laugh and smile again, and she finally sits in your favorite leather chair. I tell her you would be so happy knowing she sits in your chair, and to imagine your love like she is getting a giant hug from you.

Remember, all the people you told me were a-holes and conniving bastards, well, you were right. You were usually right about a lot of things, except we’ll never see eye to eye on music, food, or politics, but that’s okay. I just needed to grow up to see what you meant about a lot of things.

We all miss you and I miss the sound of your voice. I am so thankful I recorded our conversations, so I can have you with me now that you are gone. Your granddaughters love you and miss you, too. In fact, your oldest granddaughter calls her strong, tough side, her “Sammy.” Named after you Dad.

I love that you had about nine different careers by the way; this makes me feel that there are no wrong turns, only new directions leading to more opportunities. For now, I plan to just keep going. And I will take care of me the way you would have wanted.

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