It’s my Dad’s birthday today. And, it’s just shy of 12 years since he passed away. Twelve years. It feels like forever, but at the same time, I can remember every detail of every moment shared with him in his final days. Like it was yesterday.
I decided to take a break from my normal posting schedule to share my love for my Dad today. And, to talk about how impossible it is to say goodbye to a parent dying of cancer. And how, beautiful it is to have an actual “goodbye”. Like, a real conversation knowing that it will probably be the last one you will ever have with someone you find to be completely magical.
It was this very day, 12 years ago that my brother and I hopped on a plane to visit our Dad in Florida. We had just found out he had cancer and was terminal in a matter of months, and although he had that “I’m going to fight this” attitude, my brother and I were totally realistic and knew, that the end was so close we could practically see it.
My brother cracked me up on the flight, which made it a bit easier, but I remember staring out the window watching the lights as our plane landed, absolutely petrified to see my Dad. I mean, he was my Dad! But, I knew what I was in store for. He wasn’t just sick. He was actually dying. And, I knew that he wasn’t going to look like the healthy, robust guy I visited just 6 months prior.
When we got to the house, we rang the doorbell. We actually rang the doorbell to our own Father’s house, because we were in this weird holy crap we’re about to see our cancer Dad mode and didn’t really know what the hell we were doing.
When we walked in, I saw it…his arm. Dangling over the side of his recliner. I heard the machines and smelled the smell. And, when I turned the corner I saw, exactly what I expected to see, only in the worst form I could ever imagine. Kids aren’t prepared to see their parents as frail and as emaciated as he was. I was in my late 20’s, so it’s not like I was too young to handle it…but, man…that was tough.
We cried. I hugged him so softly because when I tried to give him the normal squeeze I would have any other time, I felt every single bone in his body. These are the memories he didn’t want us to have. But, this is cancer. And, this is what you remember. And, these are the parts that hurt the most.
It was his birthday that day, so we gave him a card. But, no gift. And, that loomed over us like the elephant in the room. We all knew why there wasn’t a gift and that made it that much greater of a symbol.
My brother and I spent the week in “parent” mode. Trying to get him to eat, telling him it was okay if he puked up his food again…cleaning up his spit cups, helping him get up for fresh air, watching every single breath he took as he slept wondering if it was just going to stop. And, it would. When people are dying like that, the breath becomes shallow and kind of quiet in a loud way…and you’re desperate. Absolutely crazy desperate to make the lungs work harder…but they just kind of eek by.
He forced us to go out and have fun. He said he didn’t want us “just staring at him”, so we did. We gambled, and I won two jackpots within 10 minutes of each other. Literally, hit $2500 and while I was waiting to cash out, hit $3,000 on the machine right next to it. We called him so he could hear the machines going ballistic. We thought he’d want to hear it but in hindsight, it probably broke his heart. And, to be honest, although we were doing exactly what he asked us to, it felt so incredibly wrong.
It came time for me to leave and we sat out on his front porch, which is where we said our final “in person” goodbye. Next time you see me I’ll be grilling on the porch…You’ve been my best friend…I love you more than you can know. And, then I left.
My brother stayed for another week or two and I was slotted to go back to help out and spend more time. But the day came. THE day. The one that I was totally supposed to be prepared for knowing my father had stage four terminal esophageal cancer. He had only been given 2 months to live once he was diagnosed. And, the chemo and radiation wasn’t doing anything but aiding in the pain. I won’t go into the procedures and horrible things he had to endure in those 2 months to survive. It’s just too painful and horrific to comprehend.
I was at my Mom’s house doing laundry. I had talked to my Dad that morning like I did every day. But it had been different. He said I’ll always love you when we hung up the phone that day.
He said always. He never said always.
The second I got off the phone I burst into tears to my friend…My dad’s gonna die today. She assured me I was just preparing myself for the inevitable and today was not the day. But I felt it. I can’t explain the feeling but every fiber of every part of who I was, knew that I would not talk to him ever again.
So, as I sat there with my Mom folding my laundry later that evening I said it again.
Dad’s going to die today.
I can’t remember what she said or what I said or what happened in those 30 minutes from when I said the dying thing to the second I was standing against my car, staring at my orange painted toes, listening to a voice on the other end of the phone saying, honey, your dad passed away 10 minutes ago.
My mom came running out of the house as if she somehow knew and screamed. I said what most people say in those moments…no.
But yes. Yes…he was gone. And, I never got to call him one last time, or see him one last time, or hug him one last time. That was that. And, he…my Dad was incredibly and irreversibly gone.
I need to find my brother.
I got in my car and my mom followed me in hers. I needed to be alone but needed her car right behind mine. I called everyone I could think of when my brother wouldn’t answer his phone, but I couldn’t for the life of me reach him and I so desperately needed to spit those words out to him, so I’d never ever have to say them out loud again.
He finally answered and I knew as soon as I heard him say “hello” I was about to crush him.
Dad died. I’m so so sorry, but Dad just died.
In a matter of minutes, I was at his house and we were sobbing. My mom was sobbing and the three of us, stood in my brother’s driveway under the dusk of the summer sun letting months of sorrow spew from our bodies in the form of tears, and sobs and…utter sadness and even disbelief.
That was that. He was gone.
It’s been 12 years. Well, almost. The official 12 years is July 25th. But the Birthday…his birthday. It always starts the cycle of thought. The flood of memories I won’t allow myself to think until these two months arrive each year. The ones I let bring me to tears night after night as I quietly fall asleep thinking of him.
But, that’s life. That’s death. That’s cancer.
It breaks you. It crumbles you. It makes you weak and somehow strong at the same time.
Every year at this time I’m reminded of the unfathomable moments for which I found out my dad was sick, learned he was dying, for which we said our very last words, and for when I stood in front of a crowded church and felt the incredible, insurmountable love from every single person in that room as I eulogized my Dad.
My dad always said he didn’t want a funeral. “No one will come“, he would say. Well, they came and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house for this man, who was crippled with flaws, and guilt and shame…and triumph, and love and pure and utter magic.
Life and death is beautiful that way. It brings you to your knees and somehow, lifts you right back up. It lets you see the best in people, the worst, and the best all over again.
I love that. And, I will always and forever love him.
Happy Birthday in Heaven Dad. I hope you’re grillin’ up something good.