Sunday, June 19, 2011

My Father's Cancer: His Daughter's Lesson

I wasn't always daddy's little girl, growing up we had our share of cat fights and father daughter relationship hiccups. At one point it was impossible for us to see eye to eye and we didn't speak for about 7 years when I left home to move with  my mother's family to New Jersey as a teenager.

But you know the apple doesn't fall far from the tree and after I became a mom with my own children we made peace and became great friends.  Over the years we developed a fantastic "friendship" and bond: we laughed at jokes no one else was able to "get" and shared a joint admiration for science and the art of "flirting". Often he would gently give me advice about how to handle a  parenting issue or a single parent financial crisis. He taught me so much, but the most important lessons came through cancer.

My father was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma in November 1998. I remember that phone call clear as day on a Thanksgiving morning. We both cried for a long time but once I recovered from the initial shock I would not take no for an answer and  immediately sent for him so that "we" could seek a second opinion at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center  in Mahattan NY. I was determined to "save" him and I just "knew" that New York was the place that could help me do that.

Each family facing cancer has their own stories of the fear, the analysis of medical advise, opinions and horror stories family, friends and strangers share  from all sides as you deal with the seemingly nonstop medical appointments. That first cancer nightmare, as I became his advocate, caregiver and fierce "protector" our love and admiration for each other was sealed. We spent hours talking, but we also spent hours quietly reading next to each other or just sitting together looking out his hospital room window and the people walking down the street. 

During that first round with cancer my father received successful treatment that included surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and physical therapy. My children 8 and 9 at the time learned to help "care" for grandpa and loved spending time with him and listening to his stories. After a year and a half of treatment he decided it was time to return to his home in Puerto Rico and on a beautiful summer day June 2000 he did.

I remember my dad restored, strong and healthy, but also somehow frail, saying goodbye at the airport smiling, holding back tears but determined to be independent again. I remember holding back my tears until he was out of sight and then crying for hours, and days, and weeks after he left worried he still needed me and was just being stubborn and so afraid the cancer would return, as it did, 6 years to the day I sent dad home.

June 2006  I received a call from my sister in Puerto Rico telling me dad had only a few days to live and she could not handle his care. Once again I refused to believe or to give in to the thought that cancer could win. I sent for him again and immediately sought a  second opinion of  the terminal cancer diagnosis. After another round of medical appointments, hospital admissions and diagnostic testing I wanted a third medical opinion or a fourth or a fifth.  I wanted to save my dad so desperately that I must have called every doctor in the phone book.

Finally, in early September 2006 after months of medical tests and consultations my father decided that it was time to go "home", he wanted to go and spend the last few months, weeks or days with his family. He wanted to be "home" with me and my children, and I agreed to honor his wishes and make him as comfortable as I could, as long as I could.  Those last days were bittersweet and beautiful and terribly sad but also full of joy. My dad died in his sleep November 30th, 2006 at 7:35 PM at home with us.

It has been 5 years since my father lost his battle with cancer and over time memories of round the clock care, doctors, hospitals, medication schedules, calls to insurance companies and family disputes over his decision to receive, and my decision to provide, hospice care at home, have become less painful and less important than the time we shared together and how it shaped my outlook in life and the relationship I have with my children.

Today, we are celebrating Father's Day again without him and I realize that my father's biggest lessons for me were in the ways he showed grace, joy and wisdom about life and survival.

The Lessons:
  • Flattery will get you everywhere! Flattery is always a good idea - flattering caregivers is an even better idea. Of course, Dad didn't even realize he was flattering the hospital staff, doctors or nurses; it was just part of his nature to build people up and flirt a little along the way.
Most of the time the nurses would leave the room beaming smiles and feeling better than they did when they first walked in all gloomy and stern. You could tell my Dad was one of their favorite patients and that's a very good thing to be when they are taking care of you.
  • Laugh Often! Dad and I shared a quirky sense of humor. But who cares? It just feels good to laugh, especially in the face of adversity and stress. Dad constantly cracked jokes to ease the tension. He was working hard at survival the best way he knew how and using humor helped us all.
  • Compassion Feeds Your Soul.  Because Dad was known for his good attitude and reassuring presence, the nurses would often ask him to talk with individuals who were just starting down the same  road. During a time that was difficult for him, he showed concern for other people and a willingness to reach out to others on the same path. How conforting it is for someone with first hand experience to tell you it will all work itself out.  
  • Show Grace Under Pressure.  I watched my Dad pray everyday, then trust, hope, believe and pray some more! He was at peace with whatever came. He was so calm, so trusting and so content. This was one of the hardest moments of my life and it seemed such a hard thing to do, for I am a doer, always trying to fix problems, find solutions, save the world. But by going through this with him, I learned that many things are out of my control. It is much more peaceful to let the body work on healing  while the spirit works on building relationships and connections with the people you love.
  • It's OK to Say No!  A beautiful thing happened during my Dad's first treatment session in 1998 that he carried with him into his hospice care journey, he learned to say no. Whenever he didn't want to do something or he didn't want me or anyone else to do something for him he would simply say no and mean it. "No, I don't want to." "No, I don't need that." "No, I don't like that."  What a fantastic lesson!
Today, I honor all the things my father taught me good and bad about life, love, relationships and cancer. But most of all I hope that through Dad's lessons of praise, laughter, compassion, grace, self-care and hope Stevie JoEllie's Cancer Care Fund can reach many others.  I love you Daddy!


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