“Don’t think of it as dying, said Death. Just think of it as leaving early to avoid the rush.” - Terry Pratchett, Good Omens
A little over a month ago, on April 13th, my dad died. Really though, this story begins much earlier than that. In October 2010, my dad was first diagnosed with cancer, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, after finding a lump in his throat. We were told that it was very treatable, even curable, and he began treatment (CHOP). When he began to lose his hair, I shaved his head. He seemed to respond well to the treatment, and at the end of March, he was given the all clear. Unfortunately, after just 5 months in remission, the cancer returned. It had grown and was continuing to grow quite aggressively, and had spread beyond the initial lymph nodes. So, in September 2011, treatment resumed again. The cancer seemed to respond to the treatments (ICE, GemCis, and then Velcade), but only for a while before it began growing again – it was chemo-resistant and very difficult to treat. The stem-cell transplant that we had hoped would take place in January was postponed, as the doctors simply couldn’t clear his blood of the cancer cells.
Dad began to spend increasing amounts of time in the hospital, spending some nights there virtually every week in March. On April 7th, my dad turned 56. We celebrated his birthday, even though he was feeling quite unwell, and thrush in his throat (a complication of his immunocompromised state) made it difficult for him to eat and drink anything. He returned to the hospital on April 10th, and was diagnosed with pneumonia. He saw his oncologist on the morning of April 11th. The doctors explained that they had done everything they could, but that they could not see a way to beat the cancer. They intended to treat the pneumonia, get him out of hospital, and make sure his remaining time was a easy as possible. We thought that we had a few months of time left. We visited that night, and the following evening, and though a little sleepy due to the pain medication for his throat, dad was able to talk to us all.
On the morning of April 13th, when we called the hospital to check in as usual, the nurses told us that dad had deteriorated quite a lot overnight. We all went into the hospital, and spoke to the nurses, asking them to address the elephant in the room: was this it? They told us that he had deteriorated very sharply, and that they were not going to be able to cure the pneumonia either. We asked for an idea of time, and they guessed at a few days. About an hour and a half later, dad simply opened his eyes and stopped breathing.
The days that followed were difficult, but we were greatly helped by friends and neighbours (who were also dealing with another tragedy – the death of our friend and neighbour, who passed away about 30 minutes after my dad). The two funerals took place, on the 17th and 18th of April, and our community rallied together to support each other, and both families, in a way which makes me proud to be a part of the neighbourhood. And then, slowly, we tried to return to our lives.
In the weeks since, I have thought often about my own beliefs. As I’m not religious, and have no belief in an afterlife, there is no comfort for me in the idea that I will meet dad again when I die. I wondered whether, at a time like this, someone with no faith might feel hopeless or lonely, but that hasn’t been the case. In the deep sadness which has underpinned every action in the previous weeks, I have drawn comfort from friends and family, from the wonderful moments of happiness as we remembered dad in all of his grumpy, practical joking, leaving too early for everything, tv-hogging glory. I have been touched by realising how many people cared about my dad and my family, by seeing our very large local church filled to capacity and then some, by the constant hum of activity in our house as people came to see us and say goodbye to dad. I have found solace in all of the messages that I have received via twitter and facebook, from people who have simply been moved by dad’s passing.
I have also thought a lot about my stance on superstitions, psychics, alternative medicine, and my general efforts to think critically about these things, and I’d like to share some observations. Dad died on April 13th 2012, and anyone who is paying attention will note that that was a Friday. Though that particular Friday the 13th will remain as a beacon in my memory, I have no greater fear of Friday the 13th, the number 13, or any associated superstitions than I did before my dad died. Friday the 13th was not responsible for my dad’s death, any more than Saturday the 14th would have been, if he had died 24 hours later.
Dad died of cancer, or more specifically, of pneumonia (and other conditions) associated with his immunocompromised state and cancer. I still believe that the doctors did everything possible to cure him, and that we would not have been helped by alternative medicine. Since dad’s death, I have watched several video advertisements, read articles, and generally been exposed to a number of alternative cancer cures. Though I am upset, and emotionally fragile, I am still not convinced that switching to an entirely plant based diet, having a daily coffee enema, drinking litres of fruit juice, taking antineoplastons, or any of these other treatments would have cured my dad, and if I was diagnosed tomorrow, I wouldn’t choose them for myself either. I still think that people who prey on the ill and vulnerable are wretched, and dad’s death hasn’t changed that.
In the last week of dad’s life, we were told first that he would have months, and then that he had days, perhaps a week. In truth, once he deteriorated, we had only a few hours. This hasn’t shattered my trust in the institution of modern medicine, but rather, has highlighted how, sometimes, patients and conditions behave in unexpected ways. Though stories of people outliving their expected 6 months are often told, there are, I’m sure, stories like ours to counterbalance that. As dad was known for leaving far too early for everything (in case there was traffic, a flat tire, a road closure, etc.) I’d like to think that he just didn’t want to delay! I would, of course, have liked for dad to be one of those stories, and for him to have amazed doctors by living beyond their expectations or making a recovery, but it simply didn’t happen, and truthfully, another 6 months would have been unfair if he would have had to endure the pain and general difficulties that he saw in the last week of his life.
In the past, it has been said to me that a critical thinking position will crumble when the issue is personal – i.e. when it is one’s own family member (or someone to whom you have a strong emotional connection) who is ill, rather than someone you’re reading about in an article. The past month has been one of the most emotionally charged and challenging periods of my life, and I believe, a fair test of this statement. Having tested the theory, I still don’t believe that having kids, experiencing death, or any other emotional upheaval will make me suddenly change the way I think, place less value on rational thought, or make me regret trusting conventional medicine. Or as I like to call it, medicine.
My dad taught me to think and stand up for myself, and made sure I knew that when something appeared to be too good to be true, that it probably was. Even though our lives are changed forever because dad is gone, I’m still me, and I still think the way I did before.
Dad had long maintained that, when he died, he wanted “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” played at his funeral, and we couldn’t but honour that request. A memory which will stay with me forever is laughing through my tears as I heard the congregation whistling along, and I know that dad would have been amused indeed. I’m grateful that we have so many wonderful memories to choose from when we want to remember dad, and they’ll continue to help us smile when things are jolly rotten.
For life is quite absurd
And death’s the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow.
Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin
Enjoy it – it’s your last chance anyhow