When I was 25, I unwillingly said good-bye to my father after watching him suffer a horrible six-month battle with cancer that ended up riddling his entire body before he passed.
It was then that I became a member of the Dead Parents to Cancer (DPC) Club. On July 6, 2001, my oldest niece was born while my father was having a simple surgery at another hospital across town. The surgery had nothing to do with my father’s existing prostate cancer, but the surgery went horribly wrong and caused internal bleeding from an unknown source. This led to exploratory surgery, which caused “the small constricted bit of cancer” to explode throughout my father’s body like a volcano. His quality of life vastly diminished and the next six months were spent mostly sitting in his recliner or lying in a hospital bed in the living room of my parents’ house. He quickly went from being my vibrant, full of life father, who never looked a day over 50 despite turning 70 six days before the surgery to a man who was forced into a wheelchair after eventually losing the ability to walk and most of his functions.
A day I’ll never forget
On the afternoon of January 11, 2002, my father took his last breath while lying in a rented hospital bed and surrounded by my mother, my brother, my sister-in-law, my six-month-old niece, myself, my father’s last surviving sister and her husband and my mother’s best friend, all of us standing motionless in my parent’s living room.
We knew it was coming. But how do I say good-bye to a man who was supposed to walk me down the aisle one day? Or hold my babies when they are born? Or continue to say the right things that just my Pop could say? Or when I just needed my Pop what was I supposed to do now that he was gone?
But when he died, I also became a member of this unspoken club, the Dead Parents to Cancer, that so many before me had already joined and so many will become a member whether they liked it or not.
Where’s my welcome letter?
There was no formal letter welcoming me to the club, no membership pin to wear on the lapel of my suit coat or jacket and no annual picnic for everyone to come together and talk about our dead parents. Sure, there are support groups under other names, but I guess no one would really come if it was called the Dead Parents to Cancer Club.
Since losing Pop, I’ve had friends and co-workers become unwilling members of the club, losing their parents to this god-awful disease that knows no bias or prejudice. There are no kind words to be said for cancer because what can you say about a disease that takes babies who have never even had the chance to live, adults who are as fit as can be and have always taken care of themselves and, of course, any person’s loved one who’s ever died from cancer – mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, best friend, etc.
When you think about it, most of us eventually become members of the Dead Parents Club, as morbid as that sounds. For those who are soon to join the DPC Club, I wish I could offer sage advice on coping, grieving and healing. But unfortunately I can’t.
Does it get better?
Now at nearly 16 years later, not a day goes by that I don’t miss my father as if he died only yesterday. My heart aches for anyone when I find out they are also about to go through the same thing we went through all those years ago. Because while the cancers may be different and types of pain levels and effects different, it all comes out with the same ending.
When I got engaged, I went for weeks thinking there was someone I was forgetting to tell. And then finally it dawned on me that it was him. I had a good cry over it one afternoon in my car because I knew I would never be able to tell my father that his little girl was finally getting married.
When I found out I was pregnant with my first son, I did the same thing, felt for weeks like there was someone I was needing to tell and then I once again figured it out. I went to the cemetery and stood in front of his grave and told him the good news through my tears. But to tell you the truth, I’m guessing that my father knew before we ever did. Same happened with my second son, followed by the same moment in front his gravestone too.
People love to tell you that with time it gets better and that it helps heal the pain. But no matter how much time passes between now and when I lost Pop, time will never help me forget the fact that I love and miss my father and wish he was here every single day that he’s not. I wish he would’ve met my husband, and that he was here to lavish and spoil his grandsons rotten (not like they aren’t already).
What does time really do for us?
By time continuing to move forward, that’s what helps our wounds scab over and our pain continues to dull. Time helps to make the kicking, the screaming, the sobbing and the pushing into less of a necessity and more of “as needed” items. Time slowly tries to re-focus our lives around what is truly important – the living, the thriving and the focus on the ones who are needing our love despite the pain and sorrow filling our hearts.
Life gets easier when we make it easier. Days turn to weeks, weeks to months and months to years, life is too precious to focus only on the ones we’ve lost and the failures we’ve endured. The death of my father and then later my stepson taught me that life is not meant to be taken too seriously because you’re only given one shot at it so why not just try to live it the best you can.
As far as the Dead Parents to Cancer Club, it’s pretty easy to understand that no one wants to join it. No one wants a lifetime membership. And no one wants to have a parent die from cancer to have to join this unsaid club.
But it’s out there. And our members are in abundance. There are no meetings, no membership dues, no t-shirts, no welcome letters and no happy hours. Just us – this enormous group of people who understand exactly what everyone else is going through, when they’re going through it and unfortunately how everyone may come out on the other side when it’s time to say good-bye.
So raise your glass, fellow members, and join me in saying, “F$#k Cancer! You’re welcome to ride out on that same flaming horse you rode in on!”