Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Canadian Cancer Society Non-Smoking Week - and A Personal Story of Lung Cancer

While this blog is of a personal nature, my life in Fort McMurray, there are some topics I have written little about. They are intensely personal, held close to me and deep inside my heart. On occasion I mention them but usually only in a passing way to give context to whatever I happen to be writing about. Today, though, I decided to share a more in-depth version of one of those intensely personal stories - and it is about my father.

As some may know this is the Canadian Cancer Society's Non-Smoking Week. Several years ago in March my father died at the age of 81 - from lung cancer caused by smoking. It is not his age at death that troubles me but rather it is the way he died. After a long and successful life full of love and family and joy (and heartbreak, the kind we all experience) he deserved a gentle death, to slip quietly into that unknown outside our door. He did not receive that. His death was very, very different, and it troubles me to this very day.

This morning if you happened to listen to Jerry Neville of Country 93.3 you will have heard he and I discussing the deaths of our fathers, both lost to an insidious disease. I decided to share more of my story with all of you because I want you to understand the impact this kind of death has. I wrote the following story about my father for my personal blog almost two years ago, to commemorate his death, and to explain what that journey was like. It is an ode to him, but it is a reminder of a difficult time when my family patriarch - our leader - left us in the most painful way. He spent the last few years of his life in pain and uncertainty, and his final days on morphine, and yet remained lucid to the very end. He knew he was dying, and that was perhaps the hardest part for me, because this knowledge made me weep.

Today is the first day of the rest of your lives. If you are a smoker this is your chance to stop. This is the chance to change the rest of your life. Do it for yourself, do it for your kids, do it for whatever reason makes sense to you - just do it. I share with you this story, and I hope it helps you understand why I am so passionate about this. I considered sharing with you statistics and numbers, facts and figures - but instead I will take a brave leap and share with you the first man I ever loved - my dad.

I'll Fly Away

John and Theresa, 1973

Five years ago today my father died. That it's been that long seems a bit incomprehensible to me, because while in some ways it feels like forever in some ways it feels much more recent. In some ways my dad's death was easier than my mother's, as he had been ill for some time and we knew it was coming. In some ways it was vastly more difficult. Once again, though, while I could write about his death I'd rather start by writing about his life.

My father had a very similar start to his life as my mother did. He grew up in rural poverty in a fairly large family, and lost his father fairly early, too. His father had been of the old-school of fathers, meaning one you feared and respected, and most of the stories he told of his father involved woodsheds and leather belts. I was always amazed that wherever he learned to be a father he didn't learn it from my grandfather - I don't recall my father ever hitting me, not even once. He was a gentle man, and one you instinctively knew you could trust.

My father came from a farming family, and when he was a young man starting a family that's what he did, too. Farming is not an easy life - it's dirty and hard and, well, menial labour. I imagine this must have been difficult for my dad, because while he also had minimal education he was an incredibly bright man. I suspect farming must have bored him beyond belief some days. I imagine that's why he read as much as he did. Whenever he had free time he had a book in his hand, and from him I gained my love of books, and, I suspect, my ability to write.

As my sisters grew he knew he wanted more for them than the life of a farmer's wife. He knew he had been blessed with daughters with potential, so he did whatever he could to ensure we could all attend university, including eventually leaving rural life altogether to move to the city. I'm sure at times the city seemed restraining to him but he saw the benefits for us, and for him, too. He wanted more for his daughters than he had, and we all did attend university (with varying degrees of success, some of us finishing our academic careers and some, like me, not achieving a degree). He was also a man who did not suffer fools gladly, and as a result nor did his daughters. When the time came for us to marry we all married men of intelligence and ambition (lawyers, accountants, physicists, and engineers).

I see many qualities of my father in my nieces and nephews, and in my daughter. His intelligence shines through in all of them, and perhaps even more brightly in this next generation than my own. I'm actually a bit in awe of the mental power of the younger members of our family tree, and feel like a bit of a dullard in comparison. I know they are all going to achieve great things, and I know how proud he would be of every one of them.

I too resemble him in many ways, including my love of animals. After he retired my father began taking long walks in his neighbourhood, and would stuff his pockets with dog cookies. His route would be lined with the local dogs anxiously awaiting his arrival and the treats they knew would follow. I spent most of my adult life working in veterinary clinics, and have always adored all animals, large and small. In my daughter I see this quality intensified, as she loves animals perhaps even more than I, and is able to connect with them very quickly. A friend in Ireland told me that he thinks she has "the touch", meaning the ability to connect with animals on a level beyond that which most people are able (as evidenced by her ability to touch Irish racehorses than no one else could go near). My father would be so very pleased by that.

My father wasn't a perfect man, of course. He struggled with the family disease of alcoholism when I was in my early teens, but he fought it and won. He had opinions I did not share and still do not agree with. The one thing I always respected, though, was his quick mind and his ability to think things through. I recall that whenever he expressed disappointment with me it was for one reason - because I was "smarter than" whatever I had done to upset him. He expected me to use my brain, to be able to reason and to be able to defend what I thought and did. My mother may have taught me to love, but my father taught me to think.

When my father was diagnosed with lung cancer we were all devastated. The journey of his disease was a long one, and he endured chemotherapy as well as other treatments. When it was discovered that the cancer had metastasized to his brain he went through brain surgery to remove the tumour, and he recovered amazingly well from it. My dad was a fighter, and he never gave up, but as time went on the disease began to win. Lung cancer does not like to lose a battle, and in the end it usually wins.

He went into palliative care at the end of his life. Palliative care is where hope goes to die. It's a difficult experience for everyone, as you all know what you are waiting for, and it's the one time in your life you don't really want the waiting to be over. I imagine it's even harder when you are the one in the bed and are perfectly lucid to the end like my dad was. I spent a week sitting with him in his room, and while he slept most of the time when he was awake he was very much himself. At one point we had almost every family member in his room, laughing and joking and telling stories. It's funny - anywhere else in the hospital they'd kick you out for that. Not there. There they can use all the laughter they can find.

While I was there a spring storm blew in, the kind you find in the prairies that dumps tremendous amounts of snow on the ground and make you feel like winter will last forever. When I came in that morning he looked out the window in his hospital room, looked at me, and said "I wish I could see spring". I knew what he meant, and it broke my heart that he'd never see another spring, or another summer, or another fall. I knew it, and so did he.

I wasn't there when he died. I had to go back to my own city, and thus I learned of his death when my sister called. Although it was inevitable it was still crushing to me that he could be gone. He had been a tremendous support to me throughout my life, and it was inconceivable that he wouldn't be there any more. At the church after his funeral I was speaking to someone when I felt a bit dizzy and reached out my hand for something to steady myself as I feared I might faint. It was only after a few moments that I realized that what I had grabbed was the handrail of my father's coffin. Even then he was there to steady and support me.

We buried him in a local cemetary in a corner close to the trees. During his burial we noticed several jackrabbits hopping around, and I told my daughter how pleased he would be to have animal friends with him. Just recently we buried my husband's grandmother in the same cemetary, and after her service we went to search out my parents' plot. I couldn't quite remember where it was, just the general area, and we began to look. My daughter shouted out that she had found it, and at almost that exact moment a jackrabbit sprang up and hopped away, as she had surprised it when she'd run up to the headstone. There in the snow was a melted spot, just the right size for a rabbit, and you could tell it had been there for awhile. The rabbit had been right beside my father's headstone. Even now the animals he always loved are drawn to him, I guess. How that would make him smile.

My father died five years ago today, and two years ago today we buried my mother beside him. Initially the synchronicity of these dates seemed like some cruel cosmic joke, but as we were leaving the cemetery two years ago my niece, who is as beautiful as she is brilliant, said "Grandma would have wanted to be here today to see grandpa". I was humbled by how profound this statement was. Perhaps if my mother had to join my father then maybe there was no better day than this to do so, even if I thought it was far too soon to lose them both.

While my father was in palliative care my sister brought in a CD player and some music. The music seemed to relax him and he slept better, especially if it was the country music he loved. One of the CDs I played for him over and over again was the soundtrack from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" as it was both gentle and uplifting. One song in particular became forever entwined with my memories of those days, and with memories of my dad. He asked to hear it often while he lay dying, and so I know every word. I am not really a fan of bluegrass but have had this song on my iPod ever since, and when it comes up in the shuffle mode I always find myself taken right back to a time when I sat by his bed as he slept and slowly slipped away from me. I'd like to share the song with you, and, one final time, with him.

This is for you, dad. I love you.

1 comment:

  1. From one fellow Fort McMurray blogger to another, I have really enjoyed scrolling through your blog for the past hour. Your writing is riveting, and the topics you choose are interesting and tasteful. Thanks for this blog and your view and insight into Fort McMurray! Will be reading all of your future posts!

    Newest follower :)
    Silver @ A Silver Snapshot