Six years ago yesterday I lost my dad to colon cancer. The reason I am writing about him today is that 6 years ago I didn’t have my own blog, and so no real outlet for this. Now that I do, I am going to take advantage of it, so please indulge this somewhat more personal stroll down my own memory lane.
My father was not a walking commercial for early detection, I’m afraid. By the time he had been formally diagnosed with colon cancer it was already far too late – the cancer had spread to his liver and who knows where else.
I say “formally” diagnosed because well before the pronouncement, we knew. We all knew and it was one of those life decisions where “knowing” and “doing” were not going to be linked. My father’s overall health at the time was so poor and he was so frail from many other cardiovascular insults that he would never have survived any sort of active anti-cancer intervention so we all looked the other way when his bowels were telling us long before the diagnosis that all was not well.
Even though I was then the Executive Director of the National Cancer Institute of Canada, I stood by and made sure that we did not treat him for his cancer. I stand by that decision in not being aggressive about fighting his cancer since as you will read below, he was in effect already on borrowed time, and I and the rest of the family did not want to make his remaining days, however many or few those were slated to be, so miserable that we would all wonder after the fact, “why the hell did we put him through that?”. So we ignored, looked the other way, but when the diagnosis came, it was not really much of a shock at all.
His final weeks were not pleasant, but at least we were able to keep him more or less comfortable, and not distracted by the ravages of chemo-for-nothing, he and I had a chance to have some real heart-to-heart conversations about our lives and about stuff that had gone unsaid for decades. I was closer to him in his dying weeks than in some sense I had been in his living decades, and, while that may sound very sad indeed, it was an opportunity that I am grateful for, and that shapes my lasting memories of my dad.
I was there with him in the palliative care unit at the exact moment he died. Since he was heavily sedated at the time, effectively “out of it” for several days, his passing was more about the transition from having vital signs to not having them, as opposed to some major “event”. Even so, since I had never in my life actually witnessed someone’s exact moment of passing, I worried at the time that this vision might end up giving me nightmares for days or months afterwards.
It ended up just the opposite. In the years that have intervened it has been actually a moment of comfort for me, to remember vividly this one last deep drawn breath as he finally got his release, and me (and my sister-in-law Rachelle who was also there with him and me) gently but audibly encouraging him to “let go” of the pain and that it was all right. It was his moment and he should stop fighting it… I held his hand and watched him die – and to this day I am convinced that on some level he heard me, or understood me, and allowed himself to slip from this world to whatever comes after, and that in some small way I had made that “easier” for him.
Six years ago today we buried my father and I had the honour of delivering a eulogy in remembrance. If for no one else’s benefit, I want to share that eulogy with you below:
I really did not want to do this…
Although I am very accustomed to speaking in public, this is different. This was my father and I would have preferred to mourn him a bit more privately.
However, my mother, bless her heart, insisted that I say a few words on behalf of the family about my father – and who can refuse one’s own mother in a circumstance like this?
So, what to say?
Well, I can tell you that my father worked very, very hard all his life, from jobs that ranged from being a chicken peddler with my immigrant grandfather, to being a restaurateur, to an insurance salesman, to owning his own businesses where he worked 18-hour days, to, as his last “career change”, becoming a store manager in the Tip Top Tailors line of men’s clothing stores. And a whole bunch of stuff in between.
In short, he did whatever he had to do to make ends meet and provide for his family. We never had a lot of money, but we always had what we needed.
But let’s face it – most people work hard and provide for their families; that by itself didn’t make him very “special”.
My father had many good traits and some very endearing ones. He was a very affable, happy-go lucky kind of guy, everyone liked him, he told jokes as well as any comedian anywhere on the planet, with both flourish and style. In fact I learned most of my own joke repertoire and my joke-telling abilities at his elbow.
And he had his failings. He made his share of mistakes, and I know that he did some things that I’m sure he wasn’t very proud of looking back.
But that could surely be said of every one of us in this room – all of that just made him human, not special.
In other words, in most respects, my father was a pretty average guy. Not the stuff of headlines or heroes or legends on the one hand, nor of infamy or shame on the other. Just an average Joe.
Given that, in the turmoil that was yesterday, I tried to think about what was it about my father, over, say, the last 10-15 years that stands out the most to me.
And it wasn’t difficult. And I can sum it up in 5 words.
My father was a fighter.
The last dozen or so years of his life were literally a daily fight to survive some serious illnesses that would have killed a lesser man. He fought them all, against sometimes impossible odds and often to the marvel of his very own doctors who couldn’t believe that he continued to shake off health crisis after health crisis. Some of them confided in us that he was living on borrowed time.
My father was a poster boy for cardiovascular disease. I’m sure if you looked up arteriosclerosis in the dictionary you would find a picture of one of his clogged arteries.
Over the last 15 years or so, he suffered several heart attacks. He had a quintuple coronary bypass. He had 2 femoral artery bypasses to unclog circulation in his legs. He had at least 4 different pacemakers over that span of time. As a result of his reduced heart muscle function, he suffered chronic congestive heart failure and associated kidney dysfunction and circulation problems. He had to be hospitalized on a regular basis to deal with all the domino effects of these conditions, including innumerable pneumonias, other opportune infections and, well, you name it.
During the last few years, every time he had to go to the hospital, he would be depressed and would cry genuine tears to the family that he didn’t want to go on like this, that he wished God would just let him die already and be done with it.
That was what his brain told him, but his survival instinct was firmly imprinted on that damaged heart, and it told a very different story.
He proved to me that hearts should not be measured by the volume of blood they pump, or by the amount of heart muscle that actually functions. He had a bum ticker for sure, but at the same time his heart was enormous and said fight and scratch and survive to see another day.
Even if most of those days did not have an especially high quality of life by my standard, those extra days or weeks or months were obviously very precious to him and he was not going to be cheated out of one day of them.
And this was obvious, even in the last weeks of his life. Ironically, almost “freed up” by the diagnosis of terminal liver cancer, we abandoned his diabetic diet and figured, let him eat what he wants. What are we going to do, kill him?
And so began a new ritual – corned beef or pastrami sandwiches that my brother Sheldon or I brought in to the hospital, hot dogs and hamburgers from Harvey’s that I picked up for him on the way to the hospital, and the thing he seemed to enjoy most – a steady stream of pepperoni pizza that my sister-in-law Rachelle dropped in with on a regular, almost daily lunch basis. And he smacked his lips and eagerly awaited his next little “treat”. After all, they didn’t serve food like that in the nursing home…
And finally in one of those ironies of life, and to the total astonishment of us all who lived every day waiting for that inevitable phone call to say that dad had another heart attack and this one was fatal, after all of the trials and tribulations he had with his heart, it wasn’t his heart that got him in the end after all.
His big heart and his sheer will to survive had kept him alive longer than perhaps he had any right to expect, and ironically long enough to allow a new foe to enter the battle – colon cancer and metastatic liver cancer. Even he was no match for that deadly duo. The fighter finally allowed himself the luxury of saying, no more fighting, time to rest…
So, no, my dad was not a great man of accomplishment or renown, he was certainly not a saint. But he was strong and he was stubborn and he clung to life with a vengeance.
Maybe not a hero, but I guess you could say that he was pretty heroic when the chips were down, and by that measure if none else, maybe my dad wasn’t so ordinary after all….
I miss you , Pop….