Monday, November 10, 2014

Memories of a Superman

In January 2015, it will be 7 years since my dad lost his battle with cancer.  As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, you eventually come to terms with the fact that they're not around anymore, but you never stop missing them.  You never stop wishing they were still here.

As the years pass, the day-to-day gets easier, but an unexpected trigger of a memory can really knock you off your feet, taking you right back to the time when you first lost them, and you're left a tearful mess, willing yourself to remember the happiest moments so you can at least smile--and maybe laugh--while you continue to mourn the loss of someone so special.

This photo did me in last week.
 I saw it on Facebook, posted by Conyersoutdoors.  

My dad was an avid hunter, bringing home deer and pheasant every hunting season when I was young.  And we had a Fisher Price car just like that one.

I immediately sent the photo to my sister, tears welling up in my eyes, telling her that I wished I could've sent it to Dad, because he would've loved it.  But I couldn't.


I'm currently reading This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper.

Some of you may have already seen the movie with Tina Fey and Jason Bateman.  It's about a family who reunites for their father's funeral.  The father had wished for them to sit shiva after his passing, so his four grown children are forced to spend a week together in their childhood home.  I won't go into much more detail for two reasons: 1) I'm only about 100 pages in; and 2) I don't want to spoil it for you if you want to read/see it.  I just read a chapter in which the siblings are recounting some of their favorite childhood memories of their father, and it had me traipsing down memory lane, reminiscing about my own father.

Many people loved my dad.  He was friendly, always willing to lend a hand, and pretty darn funny.  He told great stories.  He was incredibly handy.  He loved being outdoors.  He was a dog lover.  He was selfless.  He was humble.  He was my most favorite guy.  And he was taken from us too soon.

I wanted to use today's post to take a trip down memory lane and tell you a bit about my dad, his illness, and his passing.  It's been a while since I've visited this time of my life, so I know it will be cathartic.  I feel like a recounting of it all is long overdue.  I apologize in advance if I make you cry.  I've already cried while writing this and I haven't even gotten to the good parts yet.

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My parents divorced when I was in 4th grade.  We lived in southern Michigan at the time, and my dad relocated to central Michigan, where he grew up.  My mom, sister, and I eventually moved to Cincinnati to be closer to her family, so visiting our dad required a bit of a road trip.  When we were younger, our parents met halfway and switched us off, but once I turned 16, my sister, Holly, and I would make the 7 hour drive ourselves, and we ALWAYS had a great time, thanks to one of these:

We knew how to road trip.  Our must-haves were our CD binder, a box of Froot Loops, a big bag of strawberry Twizzlers, and a cooler of drinks.  Oh, the songs that were belted out in my little Pontiac on those drives!  My mom, sister, and I still love a good road trip, even if we're traveling solo.  My in-laws are baffled by our excitement for driving the 7.5 hours between Cincinnati and our home here in Maryland (which my mom and sister do a lot now that Max is here), but it's because of these great times we had driving up to visit Dad. 

Dad always made sure we had a great time when we'd come to visit.  In the summer, we'd visit amusement parks, go to his friend's lake house, ride bikes around his neighborhood, take the paddle boat out on the lake, visit the "swimmin' hole," go fishing, go canoeing or river tubing, go on camping trips...he always wanted us to be outside.
Us at the "Swimmin' hole" near Dad's house

In the winter, we'd go snowmobiling around his yard, take snowmobile trips on the many trails in northern Michigan, go sledding/snow tubing, make hot chocolate, watch movies, or go into town to go shopping.
Dad loved the snow and the cold

We'd snack on saltines and cheese, popcorn, or orange slices throughout our stay.  Oranges were always a favorite after-dinner snack, even when we were little.  My mom would bring huge boxes home from work and we'd sometimes eat 2-3 as a family in one night.  Dad was the best orange peeler.
  I still require my orange slices to be peeled, not sliced.  Because that's how Dad did it.

During one of our visits when I was in junior high, Dad told Holly and I that we needed to stop by one of his friend's houses for a bit.  We whined and protested, dreading being bored while he and his buddy talked about hunting or golf or cars or something else boring.  His friend led us to the back room when we got to his house, where he had a beautiful golden retriever and a basket full of golden puppies.  We were so excited that we got to play with puppies while Dad and his friend hung out!  When it was time to leave, Dad asked if we had a favorite.  Of course, we each preferred the one we were respectively snuggling, but Dad said we had to agree on one.  "Why does it matter, Dad?"  we asked.  "Because we're taking one home when it's old enough, that's why."  Squeals of delight ensued, followed by another 15 minutes of narrowing down which was OUR puppy.  Ginger became Dad's right-hand gal.  She was such a great dog, and Dad trained her well.  She was always so excited when we came to visit, and we filled rolls of film with photos of her.
Dad bred her a few times, and we always delighted in fawning over Ginger's many babies until they found their forever families.  Ginger was there to comfort Dad through his illness, and she was even at his funeral (more on that later).  She was such a loyal dog, and she added immensely to the joy we experienced on our visits to The Mitten.

In the fall of 2002, Dad visited his doctor when he started experiencing pain while breathing.  What they thought was a case of pneumonia turned out to be thymoma, or cancer of the thymus gland.  Dad had surgery to remove the tumors and was hopeful that he wouldn't need to undergo chemo or radiation.  Unfortunately, just a few short months later, he learned that his tumors grew back, and his doctors didn't think he had more than a year left to live.  This was in early 2003, the end of my senior year of high school.  Dad didn't tell us about his cancer's return, though.  Instead, we began hearing from him less frequently as he took Tim McGraw's song "Live Like You Were Dying" to heart.


He went hunting.  He took long snowmobile trips with his buddies.  He did the things he loved and withdrew from me and my sister, suffering in silence as he protected his secret, and therefore protecting his daughters.

He came down to Cincinnati for my high school's annual "Odd Couples' Ball" that spring, like he always did, to be my date to the father-daughter/mother-son event.  But it wasn't the same as it had been in years past.  Instead of dancing the night away with me and my friends, he disappeared.  I couldn't even find him during our song, "Brown Eyed Girl," but I didn't think anything of it and simply danced with my friends.  I wouldn't find out until months later that Dad was watching me from the floor above, tears streaming down his face, afraid that this might be the last big event he ever attended with me.
He came to my graduation in June and cried more than I'd ever seen him cry before, again worried that this would be the last big accomplishment of mine that he would witness.  I simply thought he was moved to tears by how proud he was of his oldest daughter.
When Holly and I visited Dad in Michigan that July, he sat us down and first apologized for being so unavailable for the past 7 months.  He told us about the devastating news his doctor gave him early in the year and that his actions were driven by his desire to protect us; he didn't want us to worry about him.  He didn't want us to constantly fear that he wouldn't be around much longer.  He then told us that he got a second opinion, and that his new doctors were hopeful that he could treat his cancer with the help of chemotherapy, which he was going to start very soon. 

Dad underwent several rounds of chemo, and his tumors began to shrink.  As a result, his signature mustache disappeared.
He shaved his head after he drove home from work with the window down in his truck only to find all the hair missing from the left side of his head, a funny story he loved to tell people as a way to add humor to his unpleasant situation.

His tumors stopped shrinking after a while, so he discontinued his chemo treatments and his doctors closely monitored the tumors.  Dad came down to Miami University in Spring 2005, my sophomore year of college, for Relay For Life, an event that I became heavily involved with as a way to support my dad's cancer fight.  He brought a special friend with him, a bubbly blonde named Julie, whom he'd just started dating.
At the end of the event, Dad pulled us all into a huddle to announce that he and Julie were going to be married the following weekend.  We celebrated with ice cream uptown and came to love Julie and her daughters during our visits to Michigan over the summer and again at Thanksgiving later that year.  In late summer, Dad's tumors began to show some growth, so he started treatment with another chemotherapy drug that was proven to be very effective for thymoma patients.
Thanksgiving 2005

In December of 2005, my junior year of college, I was studying for fall semester finals when I got a call from Julie. She told me that I needed to come to Michigan right away, that Dad was in the hospital on a ventilator and things didn't look good.  I remember running downstairs, tears streaming down my face, digging my suitcase out of the closet while my roommates worriedly asked me what was wrong.  "I have to go.  My dad's in the hospital.  I have to go" was all I could offer them.  My mom and sister picked me up and we drove to Michigan in the snow wondering whether we'd make it before something bad happened.

We arrived at the hospital to find dad lying in his hospital bed, tubes going in and out of his still, quiet body.  His body couldn't handle the toxicity of his chemo drug, and he experienced the rare side effect of neuromuscular weakness.  His diaphragm basically shut down, making it virtually impossible for him to breathe on his own.  He had experienced shortness of breath and breathing troubles a few weeks prior and was in the hospital as a precaution.  Neither he nor Julie contacted us earlier because they thought it was minor and he'd recover quickly, but things took a turn for the worse.  My 21st birthday came and went as I sat in Michigan, willing my father to get better.  He was awake and stable during our visit, and he thanked my mom through a scribbled note (he couldn't talk because of the ventilator) for bringing us to see him.

After a long hospital stay, Dad spent the next nine months at a rehabilitation center.  He had a tracheostomy so he could receive breathing help when he needed it, and he worked tirelessly to regain his strength.  He worked up to being off the oxygen during the day and only needing it at night.  Holly and I visited him over Father's Day weekend in 2006, and I brought him his Relay For Life Survivor medal.  It was so great to see him up and moving.
 
When he decided to try to make it through the night without the oxygen, he got himself so worried about not being able to breathe that he didn't sleep at all, causing him to become overtired and ultimately setting him back in his recovery.  Through all of the ups and downs, Julie was right by his side.  I thank God every day that she was there to help him through it all.  Since I was finishing college and Holly was finishing high school, it was difficult for us to get up there frequently.  Thankfully, by the fall of 2006, Dad was back home, living the life he loved.

He built himself a custom garage.

Then he got a car to play with.
1970 Monte Carlo

He came to down for Holly's senior year Odd Couples' Ball.

He even went to the Dominican Republic on his first vacation abroad with Julie and her family.
Dad and Julie on the beach

 Dad in front of the gazebo where Victor and I would later be married

Dad and Julie at the steakhouse restaurant where our wedding reception would later be held

Dad was there for Holly's graduation, too.

And he went to a NASCAR race.

At Thanksgiving 2007, he looked better than ever.

During our Thanksgiving visit, Dad sat Holly and I down and told us his tumors were growing.  His doctors said he needed to start treatment to fight their growth.  But he refused treatment.  "Girls, I can't have another year like last year.  I can't live like that.  I feel good, and I'm going to let the cancer run its course, however long that may take."  He told us that since he was refusing treatment, hospice care would be called in.  I was shocked that the outwardly-healthy man sitting across the table from me was telling me that he was going to need hospice care in the near future.  I couldn't wrap my head around it.  But I saw how much my dad had struggled as he fought the damage that his cancer medicine caused, so I supported his decision.  Holly and I went up for Christmas that year, as well, just in case it was the last one we would get to spend with him.

Less than a month later, Julie was summoning Holly and I to Michigan again.  The hospice care nurse thought Dad was nearing the end of his battle.  I flew in from Maryland, where I was in the middle of my first year of teaching, and Holly came from her first year at University of Cincinnati.  Dad was not expecting to see us, and was incredibly upset that we were there.  He looked awful; sick, tired, and in pain.  He constantly had an oxygen mask on his face.  He didn't want us to see him at his absolute worst.  He took us into his bedroom, and through sobs, he asked us to leave.  "I don't want you to see me like this.  I'm going to suffocate.  That's how I'm going to die.  And I don't want you to see that.  Remember me the way I was.  Remember all the fun we had on the lake, with the dogs, in the snow.  I don't want you to remember me like this."

We tearfully said our goodbyes and told Dad how much we loved him, then we respectfully left and stayed at a nearby hotel for the night.  Dad was incredibly restless that night, so distraught that his girls saw what he tried so hard to hide throughout his entire illness.  We always called him Superman, but he didn't feel he deserved the moniker in his state.  His nurse made him comfortable, and he slept.  Julie called us the next day and said it was safe to return, that he was sleeping peacefully and would be until he passed.  We sat with Julie at Dad's house, waiting.  I honestly don't even know how long we waited.  We each took turns sitting next to him, talking to him, assuring him that he could go when he was ready.  I was actually holding his hand when he took his last deep breath.  It startled me, but it was so peaceful.  We all stopped and stared, waiting for the next breath, which never came.  That was January 13, 2008.  Dad was 51.

Julie let Holly and I plan the funeral.  It was a beautiful tribute.  All of his friends brought their snowmobile helmets and placed them around the funeral parlor in salute to my dad, their friend.  Ginger was there, somber and typically well-behaved.  And when the pall-bearers stood to carry Dad's casket outside, Ginger walked up to each one of them, paused at their feet to let them pet her, then moved on to the next person, as if she was thanking each of them individually.  It still gives me chills when I think about it.  It also snowed every single day we were there.  Dad's favorite.

The next several months were incredibly difficult.  I coped by getting a dog and naming him after my dad.
Kenny as a puppy

I went to several weddings that year and broke down in tears when the bride danced with her dad.  It's still tough to witness those dances.

My sister and I had Thumbies made as a keepsake and wore them every day.  I wore mine on my wedding day so Dad could still walk me down the aisle.

And Holly and I took a picture near the gazebo where Dad once stood.


My dad was incredible.  I am in awe of his strength, and I know he continues to protect me, Holly, and our family as he watches over us from Heaven.  He will always be my Superman.
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7 comments:

  1. Tears are rolling down my face… what a beautiful piece- you are an incredible writer. There are no words for how well you did with this- I fell in love with your dad and I know he's so proud of you… xo

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    1. Thank you so much Nelle. He was definitely a lovable man.

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  3. Rachel I am so proud of you and how you shared you story- such a brave thing to do and such a beautiful tribute. I cried through this whole story as it reminded me of the loss of my mom and because of how wonderfully you honored the memory of your dad. You have a great blog and I look forward to reading all of your posts.

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    1. Thank you so much Katrina. It's definitely tough losing a parent as young as we did. I hope you're well and thank you for following!

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  4. Still can't believe it all. Your story will forever be in my heart. Love your blog. Thank you for sharing Rachel, love you.

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