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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

They say the first year is the hardest...

One year ago, I lost a very special person in my life. Many of you know him as a teacher, truck driver and friend. To me, he was just Dad.
Dad started experiencing back pain in August 2007, in the middle of his beloved boating season. We knew it was bad when he revealed he was taking up to 21 Advil a day. That red flag got him into the hospital, where the specialists discovered an abdominal aneurysm. They scheduled him for surgery.
“If they open me up, they won’t like what they find!” Dad had said in the past. A smoker since the age of twelve, I think Dad never expected to live to 100. Maybe that’s why he lived his life so fully. He was here for a good time, not a long time.
Once they opened him up, the doctors found a tumor on the pancreas. They told Mom, and then they took off for the long weekend. She was left to tell him on her own. I remember sitting there beside the hospital bed, thinking that I was so grateful to be back in Canada, instead of in Taiwan or Australia or God knows where.
In the following weeks, more tests were done. When Dad found out it was pancreatic cancer, he seemed all too ready to accept that he was dying. He had watched a friend pass away from cancer just a few years earlier, and as a science teacher (almost a doctor, someone once said), he knew just how aggressive pancreatic cancer was.
The doctors informed us that instead of removing the abdominal aneurysm, they were going to have to leave it alone and take the tumor from the pancreas instead. Over the next few weeks, Mom became very well educated in the myriad methods of pain management available. It became her illness too.
One day I stopped in to find Mom in tears, because Dad wouldn’t eat. He was in too much pain. We joked with him, cajoled him, and tried to bribe him into eating. Nothing worked. I think that was probably one of the lowest points for all of us. And it was the only time I saw him in tears throughout his entire illness. Even then, I believe his tears were a simple reaction to ours, rather than his own emotions.
We went to the kitchen to discuss the problem. Mom suspected that the pharmacy had given her the wrong dosage, as the medicine just didn’t seem to be working. Moments later, Dad emerged from the bedroom. “That stuff? I stopped taking it. It’s addictive, you know.” Apparently he had read something on the Internet that made him think he was better off sticking to 200 mgs of Advil at a time. Mom had her hands full with this patient.
September 11th was a dark day for our family. But Dad was determined that it wouldn’t be. He called all of us to the house for a “family meeting”, and we went, half expecting what we would hear.
Dad delivered the message to us that his cancer was terminal by way of a joke. I was horrified, but I knew that was the way he wanted to handle it. For the next few minutes, we were all in some kind of shock. Dad said that he had just joined an exclusive club where addictive pain medications, harmful cigarette smoke, fattening foods, etc. no longer mattered. He even joked to one of his nurses that he was planning a big bank robbery as a finale.
We were told we had 6 months with him. But we were also reminded that the aneurysm could take him at any moment. We made him promise not to lift anything heavy, or to over exert himself. And then we set about the business of making the very best of every moment we had with him.
My husband planned elaborate Sunday dinners at the farm, for anyone and everyone who wished to attend. It was a wonderful idea, a chance for the whole family to see Dad, for Mom to relax and be a guest, and for all of us to just be together.
Many days, particularly after his chemo treatments, Dad had difficulty eating. But at Sunday dinner at the farm, he had second helpings. Perhaps the distraction of a roomful of giggling teenaged girls helped him to eat and feel better. He loved to make them laugh, and to sit there watching as they interacted with each other in their high-energy, oblivious-to-the-rest-of-the-world way. We continue to have a family dinner every Sunday, in memory of Dad and in awareness of the value that such a gathering has in today’s busy life.
Dad loved to snowmobile, and even as he grew weaker we knew that he was anxious to get out in that wonderful snow we had last winter. So he and Mom suited up and drove their two-up snowmobile to the farm one weekend. We all had tears in our eyes as we took pictures, knowing full well it would be his last trip. In typical Larry fashion, he revved his motor and took off down the laneway flying, before Mom even had a chance to get her gloves and hang on. He wanted to make us laugh. And he did. Every chance he got.
When teaching colleagues dropped by to pay a visit during Dad’s final months, they often displayed uncharacteristically uncomfortable behaviour, sitting together on the couch, not knowing what to say to their ailing friend. Until Dad put them at ease with a funny memory: “remember the time we filled Frank’s shoes with water, put them in the freezer, and then put them back so he would try to get them on?” Soon everyone would be roaring with laughter, and it was just as it always was.
Dad’s home nurse, Joanne Thibert, was a Godsend. A former student, she was the perfect match for Dad, scolding him when he didn’t follow instructions (“with the medication you’re on, if you don’t drink enough water you’ll give yourself the biggest hangover ever!”) and following his lead, using laughter to cover the pain.
From the first discovery of his illness to the very end, Dad possessed an almost childlike wonder about what was waiting for him when he died. He never felt sorry for himself and never expressed fear, because I honestly don’t think he felt it. And he had no regrets. He had had a good life. Too short, yes. But good.
In the end, we didn’t have to watch Dad go through the final stages of pancreatic cancer. The aneurysm took him instead. We are very thankful that we had the opportunity to be with him in the final two hours of his life, holding him and telling him we loved him. We gave him the best possible send-off from this world.
We miss you, Dad. Every single day. And we trust that the second year without you will be easier. We celebrate your memory through laughter, not tears. And yes, we know you are there. We can feel you.

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