My 15 year old son completed his driver's education class a few weeks ago. He and I have been out doing a lot of driving together. I enjoy this time together and I am doing a good job. I keep calm and give him ownership of the car. Many times as I sit in the passenger seat, I feel like my dad has settled in next to me and is guiding me on how to teach my son to drive. I say things like, "Switch lanes when you feel it is safe," or "Turn left after you make a complete stop." I remember my dad gently giving me the same commands as he took me out for my own driving lessons at 13-14 years old. I feel my dad sitting with me while we drive and I want so badly to go home and give him a call so we can share stories. However, my dad is no longer there for me to call and share stories with. My dad passed away in April. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007.
When my dad was first diagnosed, my five siblings and I were shaken to the core. Since I live 700 miles from my hometown of Wichita, Kansas, I wasn't able to spend as much time with my dad as I would have liked but when I did, those times were good, as they had always been. When I visited, we woke up early and sipped on coffee (dad) and tea (me) and talked. He often shared how proud of me he was for how I was bringing up my kids and how scared he was for me because of my rheumatoid arthritis. He often said, "It's okay for an old guy like me to feel cruddy, but you are too young to be feeling like this." I could feel the pain he felt as I struggled to make it up the stairs from my downstairs bedroom. Whether or not my dad loved and cared for me was never a worry I experienced. It was very clear and definite.
After the initial shock of my dad's diagnosis, life seemed to return to normal for a while. However, when I would return to Wichita for visits, it seemed that the color of his skin was different. As a kid I always thought my dad was tan all year long but remember being amazed at how much darker he got in the summer. Suddenly he seemed very pale. New health issues arose with the onset of prostate cancer and created new issues for him but he continued to have energy when I visited and always wanted to know in advance which evening(s) we would be dining at his house so he could make a special meal for me. When I say special, I don't just mean a delicious homemade meal, I mean a meal where he and my stepmom carefully checked each and every ingredient to make sure it was free of gluten and dairy, and in the early days of my gluten-free diet even laid out the ingredients for my inspection. He was not taking any chances of adding to my pain. I will be forever grateful for this love and support.
Thanksgiving of 2010 my husband, son, daughter, border collie, and I made the trip back to Wichita. As always, our plan was to stay with my dad and stepmom. As we neared Wichita, I received a call from my stepmom. She wanted to warn me that my dad had lost a lot of weight. I appreciated this call so that I could prepare myself. When I saw him, he was thin but still looked like my daddy and was still there with a great big hug. For my special meal he was going to make his famous fried rice, gluten free style. His fried rice never compared to mine at all. His was full of veggies and flavor where mine is always a little bland. This time he also wanted to make gluten free eggrolls. Poor Dad. He would cut the veggies and then sit down in his chair to rest before moving onto the next step. The cancer has spread by this time and his neck was in a lot of pain. He would sit straight up at the edge of the chair with his neck down and sleep. I told him I could help with dinner or even postpone the eggrolls which I knew weren't an easy task, but he was determined that he was going to make this meal for me and he did. As he went back and forth between preparing and sleeping, I sensed that this would be the last meal he prepared for me and I wasn't about to take away his need to give to me.
In March, my family and I made another trip back to Wichita. This time, my dad was really thin and although when I looked in his eyes I could see my dad, he didn't look so much like my dad anymore. Maybe it was different for me because I wasn't close by for the transition, but seeing him so thin was really hard. Yet, he still had a hug for me and was sincerely pleased to see me. He knew I was there to say "good-bye" but he didn't feel the time was at hand. He still felt he had a summer left in him and talked about plans to mow his kind neighbor's lawn and to finish a few jobs around his own yard. While optimistic about his future, he also needed me to know his funeral plans. We talked about them and even made little jokes about being able to still sit on his lap afterwards since he would be cremated and his remains put into a beautiful bench outside.
During this visit I was able to hold my dad's hand when the priest came to his house for Wednesday communion. My dad converted to Catholicism during his Navy years and it was always deep in his soul. Although I am not religious, I felt honored to be sitting there next to him sharing in his prayers for afterlife.
This visit also allowed me to attend Dad's first chemo appointment with him and my stepmom. It was hard for him. He was so thin at this time that he was wearing boy's sweat suits and lying on the table hurt, a lot. Yet, he was optimistic that the chemo would give him energy and reduce the pain he was in so he could continue doing the projects he had in his mind. This determination he had even convinced me that perhaps he was going to make it for several more months. He wouldn't let me say "good-bye" when I left. I needed to say it, but I also knew in my heart that for that determination to stay strong and to continue on the path one has laid out for himself, one can't be strayed away by talk that goes against those plans. I knew this because with my rheumatoid arthritis, my dad had always encouraged me on the path that I felt was right and never said a word that would take me off course. I knew I needed to do the same for him and didn't say the "good-bye" that I wanted to say. I don't regret that decision.
Chemo wasn't the success we all hoped for. He was still in a lot of pain. As soon as chemo was complete, he began hospice services. He had a bed set up in the dining room of the house he shared with his wife of 17 years (I set them up on a blind date and we double dated on the first date.) He was visited daily by my three siblings that still live in my hometown. He knew he was loved. On April 11, 2011 I received a call around 2-2:30am that he had died.
Over the years of living with prostate cancer, I think my dad experienced a lot of feelings similar to those of us with rheumatoid arthritis. He felt a sense of frustration and anger that he was losing the physical strength he once possessed. I remember once giving him a pep talk over the phone sharing how I have had to learn that by giving up some of who I was, I was learning new gifts that I have to give. I shared with him that as hard as it is to give up responsibility and let others help, people really need to help us. They hate seeing us in pain and since they can't remove the pain, helping us at least gives them a way to be there for us. I think my dad also felt frustrated by all the new health issues that arose from having prostate cancer. I think we can all relate to that also.
Although my dad felt frustrations with his limitations and additional new health concerns that occurred over the years, he also had a special gift at looking for the good in a situation which many of us with rheumatoid arthritis have also learned to do. He was so thankful for the full life he had experienced and didn't seem to regret a day of his life. I think this is a good lesson for all of us with chronic illness and even those of us without - life is good. Enjoy it and be thankful for each and every minute.
As my son and I continue on our drives together, I look forward to the time I also have with my dad. I will smile when I hear myself saying the exact same things my dad said to me. I will be grateful that he was so patient with me so that I can now be patient with my own son. If I could call him and share our driving experiences I would tease him that I am more patient than him because I don't even have to hold onto the hanger hook above the window that he would always hang onto for dear life. I would thank him for giving me lessons in life while also showing me unconditional love that stays with me each and every day.
Cathy can also be found writing at her personal blog The Life and Adventures of Cateepoo.
My dad and me soon after my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
Published On: September 07, 2011