“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
May 29, 2012 at 4:23 pm
That was a beautiful tribute, I hope the benefit night this week is a smashing success!
May 29, 2012 at 10:03 pm
Wow! What a superb, well-written article. To have your non-beliefs put to the test in this way and to come out the other end having stuck to what is right is simply inspiring!
May 30, 2012 at 10:21 am
Thanks for writing up and sharing your thoughts in this way. They remind me of why I care for you and admire you. I understand why you say that your beliefs haven’t been changed by this experience. In my opinion, beliefs shouldn’t be swayed by “wouldn’t it be nice if…” They should be about what we believe to be true based on the evidence we gather through our experiences in life and our attempts to make sense of these logically, emotionally and spiritually.
May 30, 2012 at 2:44 pm
Very moving. ((((((((((((((Big hugs))))))))))))))
May 30, 2012 at 5:13 pm
Very well written, and very powerful. Thank you for sharing.
May 30, 2012 at 11:10 pm
Thank you for writing this. I am sharing it in multiple places because it very closely mirrors what I dealt with when my own Dad died 18 years ago after a short illness that was not meant to be life-threatening. Most of my family wallowed in their religious beliefs, but I simply saw no use in giving up rational thought. I was raised Catholic and left the church at 14. My father’s sister was a rabid believer and she orchestrated all his funeral arrangements, so I had to sit through a revisitation of what I had happily left.
One of the greatest realizations I ever came to was about 5 years after he died. I realized that the driving force behind my being sent to Catholic school and being made to be devout was my aunt’s doing, not my Dad’s. It hit me like a stone and I feverishly called my mother, who confirmed it: my dad, who I had always considered way too intelligent to swallow Catholic dogma, was an agnostic. He “went along to get along” because he hated conflict and he loved his sister. Everything fell into place and while I was thrilled that my suspicions were confirmed, it made me so sad to have not been able to talk about this with him when I had a chance to.
Sorry for going on and on. I’m sorry for your loss. I hope that writing this helped you. It certainly helped me.
May 31, 2012 at 2:10 am
Thank you for sharing this. It’s very moving.
May 31, 2012 at 3:21 pm
Your dad’s request, (for “Always look on the bright side of life”) is one of the most awesome things ever.
June 30, 2012 at 9:24 pm
My dad died on january 13th 2012, also a friday. He died of non-hodgkins lymphoma too. He had been diagnosed in june 2007. He was so tough, he dealt so well with all the treatments up to the last few months. He had always beaten the prognosis so of course I still had hope even in the end, which makes it even harder for me. Even though he’d been sick for a while, he wasn’t supposed to die (he’d always told me he’d live to be 120, he lived to be 60). He was also supposed to get a stem cell transplant but it got delayed three times and ended up not happening.
Finally, his kidneys gave in and two weeks before christmas I got a call from my stepmom telling me that my dad was not doing well at all and that he might only have weeks to go. I rushed to see him the next day, canceling all my exams that I was supposed to take at school during that week. I spent practically the whole time with him and he actually got better. Doctors thought that they were going to have to put him on dialysis, but they just cleaned out the stuff that wasn’t draining out of his kidneys and he ended up being fine. His kidneys were functional and not damaged. They actually let him out of the hospital.
Unfortunately, the time out was very short and he was back in for Christmas. He was always in high spirits but getting weaker. After the holidays, I decided to go back to the city where I live (an hour away from him) as I had a new job I was starting. About a week and a half later I got a call from my stepmom again, telling me that he was getting weak and starting to have delirious moments. She told me that I had to come soon. Thinking a little bit that I had time (in my mind, though i was crying a lot and thinking it was possible he’d die, I couldn’t help but think this was going to be OK, like last time he was going to beat what the doctors were saying).
I said I’d come during the weekend. The next day my stepsister told me to come ASAP. That day, I tried to go in to work but could not stop crying so they sent me home and told me to go be with my dad. It’s a good thing they did. My brother and I took the bus the very next morning. By the time we got there he was totally unconscious. His body was slowly shutting down. He uttered a few words, even at one point trying to get up and saying over and over ‘I have to get up, I have to get up’, and also saying ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’ when we wiped sweat off his forehead, but none of those words were directed at us. He was just speaking out. Gradually, he got deeper and deeper into a coma. He’d get agitated when his pain medicine was wearing off, and when we would humidify his mouth with some medicinal fluid, but that’s it. It was so hard to witness it but on the moment I was mostly strong.
I spent the night with him, along with step mother. We didn’t sleep much but both managed to rest a little bit, though I had panic attacks during the night (I’ve had many so I know how to take care of them by myself). The next day, my brother and other members of the family came back and we spent the day together, reading books, taking care of my dad.
In the evening, we had a surprise, a longtime family friend whom my dad almost considered as a son popped up. It was unexpected because he has low mobility and lives fairly far away. He was very shaken at first when he saw my dad, but we managed to ease our pain by reminiscing and making jokes. We were even laughing uncontrollably at silly stories of the past. Suddenly, my stepsister noticed that my dad’s breathing was different. We all stopped and watched for a moment, and witnessed my dad passing away in the most peaceful way. We were all astonished, but so relieved that we were all present. The moment was so strange. I developed a huge headache, but was almost cheery, even laughing and comforting our family friend and my brother’s girlfriend (who also lost her dad at a young age). We quickly packed, went home and had dinner, still in shock and mostly happy on the moment because of how he died and how beautiful the moment was, in a way.
The first few months were OK. I was definitely sad but I was busy so I didn’t feel depressed. Now though, hard days come more often. Today was tougher, and that is why I felt the need to do a little research on the Internet about grief and when I saw this, to write my own story. I haven’t cried like this since the night he died. It’s really nice and I think it will have helped me a lot to get this off my shoulders. I felt so heavy and depressed today. I actually called off a thing I was supposed to go to with former coworkers, not feeling strong enough to talk to people that I would have to fake being happy with.
Thank you so very, very much for this.
It’s so weird because the last time I spoke to him, even though we didn’t want to say it, we both knew there was a very good possibility he was going to pass. I don’t remember everything we talked about, I’m sure it was mostly about possible treatments he could still try and how he felt up to it and still hopeful. What I do remember is me crying and him saying that some days would be harder than others. That meant that he was preparing me to cope with his death. Our conversation didn’t last long as I knew he was tired, but I know we said we loved each other. I don’t know for sure that it was the last thing we said but it was one of the last.
Oh, and Always look on the bright side of life was also one of my dad’s favorite songs. At his funeral we sang Summertime and My favorite things.
August 21, 2012 at 2:04 pm
Thanks. You have expressed eloquently how I feel about the death of my parents who died within weeks of each other. I could not have thought clearly enough about how I feel about the events surrounding their decline and inevitable end to have written about them in this way. I’m glad you have been able to.
It does get easier to cope with. And I too think that superstition and quackery have no place in our lives. We had ‘When the Red Red Robin’ and Scott Joplin’s ‘Entertainer’.