May 13, 2012. Mothers Day. Dad received his final sacraments with his Mom, Ryan, Lesley and I as well as his brothers David, Bryan, Todd, and their wives Daloris and Betsy by his side. When it was complete, I whispered in his ear. “Dad, it’s ok to let go. You’ve fought this thing long enough. I’m proud of you and I promise that I’ll take care of Mom”. He whispered “ok”. He would die 7 days later on May 21, 2012.
Late in April 2009, Dad was down at the Cape house in Onset MA, prepping the boat for the coming season. Early in the evening he felt like his heart was racing. He called my mother and said that he was driving himself to the hospital. She feared that he was having a heart attack and called me in a panic. I advised her to call the hospital he was heading to and to let them know to be on the lookout for him in the next 10 minutes. If he did not show… to call the police. He arrived successful and nearly collapsed in the parking lot. Several hours later, after a MRI, Cat Scans, and everything else the small facility at Parkland Medical Center could provide, it seemed as though he had suffered atrial fibrillation (speeding up of the heart rate— to approx 160bpm) There was a catch. The ER doctor on duty noticed a microscopic area in his chest scan. She advised that he have it checked out.
Thursday June 9, 2009: Lesley and I were in the midst of our first real vacation together. It was shaping up to be the worst week of my life. A day before the vacation started, I had snapped my collarbone in half during a lacrosse game in Woburn. I had to watch my Dad, Uncle and Cousin play in the charity tournament I had helped set up… and I could only putt. We had gone to the Cape house, where it began to rain steadily for days on end. On the one clear night… we sat out back drinking beer, and my truck was broken into. (they stole my gps/ipod and lesley’s back up pocket book) The next day we left for a short stay on Marthas Vineyard. On the ferry crossing my phone rang. It was mom. “Sweetheart, Dad has Cancer”.
I can’t remember specific dates after that. The whirlwind of the next few years has become a blur in my mind. I remember only a few tears. I remember telling myself that Dad was the strongest man I knew, and that like the helicopter crash, poison ivy attack, bouts of pneumonia that he’s always told me damn near killed him… that he would beat this as well. The first doctors he met told him he had 9 months to live. He went into a depression like I had never known. He went for a 2nd opinion at Mass General. He met Dr. Alice Shaw. She gave us hope.
The study she was conducting was proving effective. She told him about his chances taking Chemo; she told him about what being involved in the study would mean. That it was research based, and that if it was successfull, it might add years to his life. His reasoning was sound. If I cant beat this… maybe someone will learn something from it and save another.
The study began: A regiment of pills. It had immediate success, shrinking the tumors almost overnight. It gave us all a great surge of energy. We might win.
The brain lesions began: The study drug was not breaking the blood-brain barrier, and lesions were beginning to press on areas of the brain. He was loosing his ability to operate a motor vehicle safely. He understood this and turned over his keys to mom. (The boat was still ok though in his mind). Then the brain radiation began. The hair fell out. As a family we began to see the effects. There was no hiding it from the rest of the world. The radiation made his moods change, he lost weight. Things began to get tough. He was loosing energy. He wasn’t himself.
It got into the bone: Dad’s always had bad knees due to football, skiing, and all of the other athletics he participated in throughout his youth. He loved playing hard… and my brother and I don’t deny that we know where our passion for our sports came from. It was in his hip now, and causing enough pain to make the king of the anti-drug, cave to the need for high test painkillers. Later, he and mom decided that a hip replacement was needed to provide him the quality of life he wanted. It didn’t go the way we expected. The anti clot/blood thinners he was on for his atrial fib caused the surgery to have a slower than expected healing process. Rather then a 8 week recovery, he was in the hospital with heavy pain for months. It was an excruciating recovery period.
Relay for Life 2011: My wife Lesley had joined the American Cancer Society as a community executive in charge of 4 relay events in and around Boston MA. She taught me about relay, and why it might help me cope with my dad’s struggle. I began to look at Relay like my own way of being able to help my dad fight the disease. Not just take it laying down… fighting back by raising money, funding research like the studies that dad was participating in… and maybe, just maybe… saving a life. That night in June, fresh out of the hospital. He stepped on the track with his walker to participate in the first “survivor lap”. He stepped off under his own power. It took 45 minutes. He walked across the finish line, a full quarter mile, under his own power. I met him with a hug. I told him I was proud of him. He told me he was proud of me. I’ll never forget that moment.
November 2011: Dad was back in the hospital again, and I cant even remember why at this point. I remember he was at Northwood in Lowell, a assisted living facility, rehabbing after some issue. We walked into the room as a family to tell him that my moms brother, “Uncle Roger” had died suddenly at MGH after fighting an issue related to the Lupus disease he’d had for a long time. My mothers brother was her right hand man. My dad loved him dearly. He began to cry, saying… the poor kid, it should have been me. I believe that he honestly meant that… knowing that the Cancer was creeping up on him. That it just wasn’t fair all around.
December 2011: I was Uncle Roger’s son’s house with Lesley and all of the cousins for our pre-christmas kids gift swap. Ryan and Lily had gone home early to check on dad. He was still mobile at the time.. using his walker to motor around the house. He had stopped negotiating stairs but was seemingly ok with the one 6inch rise from the living room to the kitchen. Until that day when he had the first of a few small seizures. He fell backwards, hitting his head off the couch and knocking himself unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital, for fear of brain bleeding due to the anti bloodclot meds I’ve already mentioned.
This is where my blog begins; where the documentation of the final year will give you an inside view of what it’s like for a caretaker trying to keep family up to date, keep the pressure off mom to keep everyone informed. This is blog is as much for our family and friends, as it is for myself. So that I don’t forget this experience.
My Dad held his fathers hand in the last months and days of his fight with skin cancer… As my brother and I have held his in this battle.
If some day my son or daughter has to hold mine. I want him/her to understand that it’s not something we do do alone. Dad taught us that we never fight our battles alone. We fight any conflict, turmoil or disease together as a family. I want him or her to understand what it means to stick together, and what happens throughout the process. I want them to know that it’s ok to cry, as this blog is soaked with tears. I want them to know what courage truely means.
If I’m the only one to ever read these words… so be it. If they reach out and touch just one line besides my own, I’m thankful.
This is the story of “The Fighting Haddock”.