My dad died January 11, 2018.
He didn’t like for us to talk publicly about his cancer. It wasn’t because he was in denial, he just didn’t want to feel like people were feeling sorry for him. He was private and quiet and that was just fine. So, at his request, we didn’t talk about it all that much outside of family, and we certainly didn’t express any emotion on social media as he went through the past three years of his cancer journey.
Over the past three years, my mom, sisters,
and I all learned quite a bit about cancer–pancreatic neuroendocrine cancer, to be exact, with metastasis to the liver, stomach, and eventually, spleen and bone. At the time of diagnosis in November of 2014, he was already stage 4, grade 2-3, considered inoperable, and terminal. We learned how Dad’s cancer was different than other types of pancreatic cancer, which is why he lived much longer than originally expected. We learned about chemotherapy and radiation and immunotherapy. We also learned to celebrate small things and not to allow the big thing–cancer–to trample our spirits.
Along the way, we learned–as if he and our mother hadn’t already taught us–how to live every day with gratitude and dignity.
My dad was a simple guy. He was a football and basketball coach who loved golf and fishing. After his diagnosis, he just wanted to make sure we were all okay. Dad worried about leaving us in situations where we might need him, and he wouldn’t be here anymore. He’s always been here–that’s what he does. He shows up and takes care of things. His death, to him, meant that he wouldn’t be here do that anymore. And how would we be without him? Would we be okay?
When we were girls, Dad wasn’t very emotional about things. He didn’t tell us he loved us. Hugs were what we gave to him, not what he gave to us. Two days before he died, I’d spent the night with him in the hospital room and he woke up early, at 5:00 a.m. or so, and asked that I adjust the bed for him so that he was sitting up. He felt “so-so,” which in Dad’s vocabulary, meant not good at all. By 7:00 a.m., he’d quietly thrown up an unfathomable amount of bright red blood into a plastic bag provided for that purpose as I sat next to him, holding him. The day before, he’d decided that he wouldn’t have any more transfusions. We sat together on the bed that morning after I’d cleaned him up, both of us a bit shaken, both tearful.
“You know what this means,” he said to me. I nodded. His eyes were wet. I was stifling sobs. We both knew Dad couldn’t survive the blood loss without transfusions, but the angry tumor in his stomach continued to erupt.
“I don’t know,” he said with a long pause, “If you three will ever know how much I love you.”
We three meant Kati, Susan, and Claire–his girls. We were always a unit, so I knew that even as he spoke to me alone, he was saying it to all of us.
“I wasn’t a very good Dad,” he said after my tears prevented me from answering him. ” I was too gruff…”
It was early morning then, January 9. Mom and my sisters were on their way to the hospital. Outside, it was cold, gray, and misty. There was no sunrise that morning, just the slow creep of light through fog. I leaned in to Dad on the hospital bed. I hoped to find the right words.
“God couldn’t have given me a better Daddy,” I said. We were both crying then, holding hands. Dad wasn’t the type to praise his children, or to congratulate us too much. He never showered us with gifts or affection. He expected us to succeed, to be kind, to do our best. He expected us to make good decisions and to be good mothers to our children. He expected us to work hard.
He nodded at me with his eyes closed.
Two days later, he died. Kati, Claire, Mom, and I surrounded him, holding him. Holding each other.
What does this mean? I’d asked my husband that night as I cried, struggling to sleep. Where has he gone? How can I sleep without my Dad in the world? I wasn’t comforted that night by much of anything except for my husband’s arms wrapped around me. I wanted my Daddy back–whole and healthy, standing on the bow of a boat, a small-mouth bass hanging by his crook of his thumb.
I wanted him on the beach, a cigar in his hand, one arm draped over my mother’s shoulders. I wanted to see him as a young athlete, running that sub-six minute mile, playing college football and basketball. I wanted to see him at 11 years old, after the death of his mother–second born, eldest boy–figuring out how to take care of his siblings and their father.
I wanted to protect him from anything that could hurt him. I wanted to keep cancer away from him, and I wanted him to still be with us. I wanted everything to be okay.
I also wanted to understand the man my father had been. I wanted more of him–I wasn’t finished with him yet. He wasn’t finished with us, either, of course. He was looking forward to his grandchildren’s graduations and pending engagements and their future successes. He was looking forward to vacations with my mother, watching ballgames with his brother, afternoons by the fireplace with his sisters as they filled in him on the goings-on around town.
Nothing was left unsaid. He died peacefully, not in any pain, and with a dignity that I didn’t expect. I’d opened the shades of the window so that the pink light of sunset streamed into the room. Together, we four held him as he drew his last breath.
I’m so thankful that Chili Ishmael was my father. And I know that he was thankful we were his girls. Each of us so different from each other, yet smart and strong like our mother and kind and athletic like him.
Are we okay? Dad needed to know that in a crisis, we would be. And the answer is, “Yes.” We’ll move with the same gratitude and dignity as he would want. Dad used to joke that he’d lived a charmed life. Everything he’d needed had been provided. A wife who loved him deeply, a family who supported him, and daughters who drove him crazy and made him laugh and in the end, who took care of him. If we all are so lucky, we can also feel that way at the end of our lives.
My Dad taught me a lot throughout his life, but in his death he taught me the most: that life is a gift, and love is worth it all.