Long Hair

Recent Memories Of Dad Before He Died (December 2008)

When my Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June, I knew it was imperative that I spend some significant time at home, for we really did not know how much time he had. In early August, I worked things out in my life in Colorado to spend four weeks living with my parents in my childhood home in New Jersey.

Some recent memories of my Dad from that time ...

My parents noticed just how obsessed I was with Dunkin Donuts coffee. One afternoon my Dad and I visited the Dunkin Donuts on Route 46 on the eastbound side. We both ordered a decaf vanilla spice coffee with cream no sugar. Some New Jersey Dunkin Donuts have this flavor that is not offered nationwide. It is an amazing flavor!

Dad was amused that we went through the drive-thru and said he liked the coffee. I am not sure whether he truly meant it or not, but hey, he was a good sport about it. It was a special moment where I could include him in my Dunkin Donuts craziness. :)

Dad had chemotherapy appointments most weekdays and Mom would always take him. However, one morning I drove him to his appointment. We briefly sat in the waiting room and my Dad conversed with practically everyone else there. When you have cancer, there is a good chance you will immediately connect and build rapport with others going through it too.

On the way back, my Dad had a rare moment of disclosure. It probably not a big deal, but considering how quiet and reserved my Dad was, it took me by surprise.

"Mom is the best. She's been very supportive through all of this. You want to marry someone who's going to support you through these types of things." he said.

"They say in 'sickness and health' in your vows. Of course, you don't want to marry someone who's constantly sick from the beginning, but you never know."

Dad expressed gratitude for his wife and exhorted me at the same time. I welcomed the latter.

The experience I will never forget was Dad's final five hours of his life in November. (Read my previous note for some of the details about my immediate rush to fly out of Denver Airport to see him and Dad's poor condition at this point.)

For much of my life, I viewed Dad as physically stronger and more capable than me. Of course, as a child, I was the one dependent on him for all sorts of things. I was a helpless baby that needed my parents to meet all my demands. During my teenager years, I was pretty much useless - I can think of many times where Dad intervened when it was clear I was not quite ready for real life responsibilities. Dad even helped financially when I went through graduate school in Denver eight years ago. So much help.

And now, as I sat by his bedside, the roles were reversed. There I was, the strong one and my Dad was weak. I was the one holding his hand, caressing his head and telling him gently that I loved him. I did not consider my Dad helpless at this point, like the way he and Mom cared for me when I was a needy young toddler, and so maybe the comparison does not quite fit. Yet this was obviously a critical moment and could not help but think about when I was born. Our time of both of us being alive was coming to end.

Dad's physical body was indeed in rough shape, but I believe his spirit was at peace. Cancer had overtaken Dad's body and the internal bleeding that began 36 hours earlier was the final straw. It was only a matter of hours before he would breathe his last breath. Dad died at 12:30 a.m. on early Monday morning, November 10.

My grieving comes and goes. I've learned a lot about grieving in the past six weeks. Experience, of course, is the best teacher.

One story sticks out since I have been back in Colorado.

I was at the gym. Because I was gone for much of August, September and November, I had not seen many fellow gym members for some time. Lynn, a retired military woman who lives a half-mile from my home, greeted me.

"Hey Steve. How you been? I haven't seen you in awhile."

It was nice to see her. Lynn is such a gentle and humble woman. She invited me to her Super Bowl party just a few weeks after I moved to Buena Vista three years ago when I was just beginning to build relationships.

"Well, I haven't been around. My Dad died of cancer and I was preoccupied with that." I was somber yet matter of fact.

"I'm so sorry. Where did your Dad live? Was he in this area?"

"No, New Jersey. That's where I'm originally from. I spent a lot time being with him."

"Oh. So you were helping him."

"Well, not really. He was physically walking around until the end. I mainly lived with him..."

Our conversation was suddenly interrupted. Lynn's step class was beginning and someone came up from behind her to speak with her. No big deal. We would talk later.

I stepped up on a treadmill to begin my workout and the words I just uttered hit something soft inside. Words indeed have power.

What do you mean you didn't help your Dad?

I was solely thinking of physical care. My Dad, to the very end, was physically able. He walked fine and did not feel much pain. He was generally more tired than usual and took more naps than usual, but that was it.

Why are you minimizing the impact of your time with your parents?

These questions hit me hard. Real hard. I began crying right there on the treadmill.

Of course, I helped out my Dad. I have lived 2,000 miles away from my parents for over ten years. There was no question they appreciated having me around.

My parents told me directly how glad they were to have me home, but I never fully accepted their words of gratitude. (This gets me thinking: How many of us have a hard time truly receiving compliments or words of affirmation?) The simple chores I did to keep busy were no big deal for a strong 37-year-old man, but they were definitely questionable for an older man with tumors growing inside him. It was simple stuff that men usually do and Mom shouldn't have to do. I watered the grass. I got a flat tire fixed on their vehicle. I took out the garbage when needed. I was around to do whatever as it came up.

I myself value quality time with friends above almost everything. It really doesn't matter what we're doing (and there isn't much to do in this dinky-ass mountain town), but the fact that we're together means something. This was probably how my Dad saw me being home.

Oh my. I have no business saying I did not help my Dad.

At this point, fighting my tears was futile. I was bawling as I walked on this treadmill.

When I bicycled across America in February and March, I had so many experiences of people helping me in various ways. Fun conversations with teenage restaurant workers were very common. Friends drove long distances just to meet me along my route. Even a dear friend committed to buy me a new bike in exchange for work on the same day my bike was stolen.

But there is one man I want to mention - a man in the California desert who helped in a very special way. My bike had a mechanical problem that rendered me unable to ride, and the bike part I needed was so specific that other bike shops could not help me. I was stranded. It really looked like my adventure was coming to an end, and it was messing with my head. Long story made short, this man repaired my bike, and at the risk of sounding corny, I am convinced this man was my angel.

Six weeks later, I finished my long bike journey by riding my wheels into the Atlantic. I then flew from Jacksonville to San Diego, and the next day drove my car (sitting in a friend's driveway in San Diego) back to Colorado. During the drive, I realized I could make a modest detour and go through the town where I was stranded. I wanted to see him again to thank him and inform him I made it.

Well, he was there at the bike shop alright. I introduced myself and he did remember me. I shared the highlights of my trip and we exchanged small talk. Now this bike shop employee was not cold or unfriendly to me in any way, but the magic was definitely not there. From what I could gather, I had been just another guy who biked across America, and he merely did his job when he fixed my bike. Regardless of his view, I will think otherwise. I am so grateful for what he did for me. He is my hero.

This bike mechanic's seeming indifference to me was similar to what I was doing with my recent interactions with my Dad. I was minimizing the importance of my time with him. Something does not have to be supposedly "important" for it to be important. The small things matter too - perhaps even more than the big things. There will be no more negativity coming out of my mouth about the small things. Those four weeks I was back home in New Jersey were priceless.

Sweet memories. Thank you, Dad.