I wish I could go back and change things. I used to say that to myself all the time. Time doesn’t work like that though….. or at least not yet. I used to ask “Why me?”. But, that was a little narcissistic because it wasn’t me, it just WAS. When you realize what is out of your control, then you regain some control in your personal life. This post is the reason I started this blog.
I came home one day from doing god knows what, probably golfing, and I knew something was up. Both of my parents were happy people. Genuinely just happy. They woke up happy, maybe had a good day, maybe had a bad day, but they went to bed happy, too. When I walked in that day, I could feel it before they even spoke to me. My sister was in high school and I was home from college on a break because I had flunked out after two semesters. She had just gotten home and they sat us down in the living room, which if you are from the south you know that you don’t sit in the living room because you’ll ruin mom’s pillows, or the dog will get on it, or blah blah blah. So we sat there for a second and I was hit with a hard sentence. My father said, “I have been diagnosed with Stage 3 Esophageal Cancer”. I thought for a second and went into go mode…. “What do we do now? How can I help? How bad is it? Has it spread? What’s our family history of Cancer? Is this hereditary? Will I have cancer? Will my sister have Cancer? Will mom have Cancer?” My head exploded. He would be starting chemotherapy the next week. No time to think. In hindsight, stopping to think in some instances only gets in your way. I’m not a doctor and I didn’t have any of these answers even though I desperately wanted to know.
The prognosis was not good. Initially, my father was given a long prognosis and that he would have to continue chemotherapy of some sort for the entirety of his life. We were still happy though. I can remember laughing all through the chemotherapy sessions. When it comes to family and friends, I am not a serious person. I am the court jester. After a three month regimen of chemo, it wasn’t working. The cancer had not spread, but the tumors on his esophagus were still the same size and had not shrunk. They bumped him up to the “good stuff”, Oxaliplatin. And I guess, the “good stuff” means burns you from the inside out. Basically this stuff slowly shuts down your nervous system to the point your hands and feet go numb, you lose most of your smell and taste sense, your brain functions much slower, along with all the typical chemotherapy side effects. It is so strong the nurses are required to wear hazardous material masks and gloves so they can inject it directly into the patient’s bloodstream. My father was a soldier. He trudged through three consecutive treatments, but the cancer still wasn’t budging. After checking his scans and blood work, the doctors at Vanderbilt had a humbling talk with my family. My father was going to die and they had given him a year. As anyone does with grief, I completely denied it at first. He was strong. Still six-two, two-hundred pounds, and other than a bald head, you wouldn’t have known he even had a terminal illness. I didn’t believe it and I saw him everyday. The next year of my life was beautiful. I know how that sounds. Trust me, I do. But it was. Time is precious and we were completely aware of the time we had and we used it. My father had never been to see March Madness. So we went. He became more open about his prognosis and treatments, sharing them on his television show which had nothing to do with health, but the viewers cared about him and he cared about them. It’s amazing how strong someone can look when they allow themselves to be weak in front of others.
I was turkey hunting on the morning of April 12th, 2013. It was an odd morning. There were turkeys literally everywhere, but I couldn’t call any of them in. I heard them on the ridge above me and down at the creek below me, but never saw one. I got upset and left. Something called me to go see my dad then. He’s the one who had told me to go hunt a couple days before because he knows I love it and we did it together. When I got there, he wasn’t doing well and wasn’t talking. He slipped into a coma and died later that day, just as a bell rang indicating that there was a new addition on the Fetal wing. I miss him every day. Even though I have come to grips with what has happened and how it has shaped me, I still have a tear in my eye right now. It will always touch that part of me…
I am far from the first son to lose his father, but here is where my story becomes somewhat unique. After my father died, I didn’t know shit from apple butter…. (One of his sayings) I didn’t want to do anything except work out and eat. I think physical pain was the only thing that could touch me at that point, because I was so numb emotionally. I was a ghost and I felt empty. My sister had worked her butt off and gotten accepted to Marymount Manhattan and was headed to New York City. She is amazing and tough as nails. Soon after she left, my mom sat me down in the living room….. again. This time it was her, not dad. She had a lump in her stomach and was going for a biopsy. She was more scared than I was. After the biopsy, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 Ovarian and Uterine Cancer. A funny thing happened, though. I was not scared anymore. I didn’t feel helpless. I knew what was about to happen and I was ready. Not knowing and guessing is infinitely worse than getting bad news and being able to act on it. You can’t prepare for these moments, but there is some comfort in not being totally lost. I knew she could possibly die, but it wasn’t the time for that. It was time to focus on her and what we needed to do.
At first, my mother questioned the treatments. We both wondered if they had helped or hurt dad. After some thought, she didn’t necessarily want to take the treatments. I have never been more angry at my mother in my life. I thought it was fear that was guiding her, but she is also a soldier. We had some very, very real talks and I promised to be there every step of the way. And I was. I put aside most of my life, except working part time to help out while at home. We had lunch dates in Vanderbilt. We laughed in the face of death and took it head on for the second time. It’s scary the first time you have to face it, but as with anything, experience makes the journey easier. I won’t lie though. There were many tough times. Sometimes, we could not be around each other and were at each other’s throats. I needed to clear my head, so I would go to a friend’s or meet some friends out and I came home late multiple times….. She was still momma bear and I was still her cub. She wanted the best for me even in the worst moments. I had gotten locked out when I came home late. She told me to move out. We cried. I told her I was lost and didn’t know how to handle this any other way than I was and we moved on. Our relationship became more than mother and son. I was a caregiver and could see her point of view for once. You know how your parents say, “One day you will understand my love for you”. It usually doesn’t happen that fast. You’re usually forty-five with two kids and one day at the house while taking the trash out you think , “Dang, I wish mom was still around to tell her how right she was and that I understand now”. I understood.
My mother fought hard and is now in full remission. Her scans have been clear for over a year now and I can’t describe how that makes me feel. Happiness isn’t a big enough word. I can remember her breaking down one day after we saw the first few scans after her treatments and she couldn’t look at me without crying. She thanked me and said she couldn’t have done it without me. I told her, “No, momma. I couldn’t have done what I did without you and dad”. She had a nickname for me during this: Atlas. The greek god who held up the world. The world gets heavy though and my legs aren’t that strong. Nor do I look anything like a greek god.
You have no idea how strong you are until you have to be.