I had just finished up with my last patient for the afternoon, walked them to the front check-out desk, and returned to my exam room to finish charting. It was a typical Monday and I had reached the home stretch of my residency at the veteran's hospital. Only a few more months to go.
I remember sitting back in the rolling stool, turning to face the computer and feeling my phone vibrate in my pocket. Reaching in, I pulled it out to see that my mother was calling me around 3:15 pm. This was quite odd.
Just yesterday, my wife and I ate lunch at the seafood restaurant in my hometown with my parents. Waiting to be seated, my father had commented on some new bruises he found on his legs. A contractor by trade, bruises were just part of the job. Couple that with being on a blood thinner for heart problems, this was not anything remarkable. But the bruises just appeared out of nowhere. He told us while we ate our tilapia and hush puppies that he would see his doctor in the morning.
I answered my phone and heard my mother's voice ask me if I were busy. Replying no, I sat there with silence on the other end of the phone and a tearful voice make out the words, "Your father has cancer."
I am quite blessed in my life to have not to had to go through many struggles. Well educated and the son of a loving mom and dad, adversity and I hadn't really stared each other in the eyes before but today we shook hands.
My mom went on to explain to me that my dad was seen by his primary care physician for blood work, told to get lunch, and then come back for results. Leukemia.
I would later learn that on his lunch break he would visit my mom's office and cry to her, admitting this isn't good. Something inside him told him this was not going to end well. I'll never fully know how he knew, but my mom would tell us he just had this feeling.
He was being rushed to the large hospital in the area, just down the street from my off-site veteran's clinic and my mother asked if I could meet her at the ER entrance. Off the phone, I stumbled into the waiting room of my clinic and sat staring at the floor. Literally unable to walk, I was comforted by the technician, a dear friend of mine, Annette. She asked me what was wrong and I told her my dad had cancer. She helped me up and out to the parking lot.
I got in my car and immediately tried calling my wife, a fellow eye doctor finishing her residency at the veteran's hospital in the next town over. Not answering her phone, I assumed she was with a patient so I called repeatedly again and again hoping she would get the message and answer. She didn't. So I called her residency supervisor and demanded to speak to her ASAP. I was told to calm down because I am scaring her and she handed the phone to my wife who reacted just as I expected. Disbelief. She immediately left and drove to meet me, my mother, brother, sister, and soon-to-arrive father at the emergency room.
The drive was unremarkable. Nothing like you would expect in the movies where every light was red or I got into an accident. Just an unremarkable drive on what once was an unremarkable Monday. An unremarkable Monday that will live in our minds forever.
I pulled into the ER parking lot and got out to meet my brother. Standing outside, I saw one of my residency supervisors walking in. After a meaningless wave hello, my brother and I took turns sharing our disbelief. I know I've used that word often but disbelief perfectly sums up how I felt.
An ambulance pulled in and out of the back came my father. There's something about seeing your father coming out of the back of an ambulance that sticks with you. We were next to him when he told us that no matter what happens, don't change our life's plans. My wife and I had accepted jobs a few hours away and he told me personally to not change that. The ER was busy but no busier than normal while my brother and I told him the typical things you tell people when they get bad news:
"Looks like they caught it early."
"Medicine is doing all kinds of miracles now-a-days."
"You don't know the exact diagnosis so lets not worry."
Meaningless words in a meaningless conversation. Cancer had already began its hostile takeover and he was just a casualty of war. Fuck cancer. I was raised not to cuss but I don't know any other word to adequately describe my feelings towards cancer. So when I say, I mean it with every cell of my body. Fuck cancer.
Student after student, resident after resident came in to take a history. No, he doesn't smoke or drink. Yes, he's lost weight recently but he was on a diet. And the one that made my legs get weak and knees buckle: Yes, my hip does hurt.
The blood work came back with leukemia but exactly which type was still a mystery. Family had all flocked in to visit him and the preliminary diagnosis was AML - acute myelocytic leukemia. A bone marrow biopsy was performed the next day and chemo was started.
We used the remaining sick time on our residencies to visit him daily staying in the hospital from morning until evening. Driving home one night my wife asked me how I was able to be so calm about this. I told her I had a peace inside me that had come from God. But again, never did I once think I would actually lose him. Disbelief.
That Friday was the Resident Lecture Day so we attended, lectured, and while there I received a text message from my mother that said the last genetic test came in. ALL was out, APL was in. Acute promyelocitic leukemia.
I'll always remember that on the way from the Lecture Day to the hospital I stopped at a used bookstore and purchased a book to read while there. Meaningless memory but one that will stay with me.
We headed to the hospital where my entire family met me. My mother sitting in the chair in the corner, my father in the bed. I was immediately inundated with the new statistics of APL vs AML. The oncologist told my family earlier that APL has a much higher rate of remission, that with chemotherapy 90% of patients go into remission but 10% die. I'm not a gambling man but on something as important as life and death (literally), I'd take those odds every time. We celebrated. It appeared that God had answered prayers and I would continue to have a father.
The next day was Mother's Day. My wife and I met up with my brother and sister to take a family portrait to present to my mom later that day when we met up with her at the hospital. We had the photographer come out to her house and we all wore matching Florida Gators attire - something I knew my father would appreciate. The picture was taken and we drove the forty minutes to the hospital stopping by a Target first to buy a frame. The picture was a success and was quickly placed in the corner of the room. Smiles abounded as my dad watched college baseball on the television. His room was absolutely filled to the top with family visiting.
Somewhere in the middle of University of Washington playing some other college I forgot, my dad tried to sit up. This immediately got our attention. Again, he tried to sit up but failed. I walked over with my brother to try and help him and asked what he wanted me to do but instead of speaking mumbled words came out. We pressed the nurse button but before she could make an assessment, my brother, a nurse, screamed, "He's having a stroke!"
We were directed to leave as he was imaged with an MRI or CT, I can't quite remember. The neurologist came in and spoke to my mom and older brother, with the rest of us in the waiting room, saying these exact words:
"Your husband has had a severe hemorrhagic stroke and will never be the same."
You see, the life-giving medicine trickling through his veins called chemo has a nasty little side effect. His platelets were completely wiped out leading a bleed on the brain that paralyzed him. He was rushed to the building next door to be placed in the Neuro-ICU unit and would be speaking to a neurosurgeon about our options.
This journey was filled with painful memories I'll never forget. One of these was the elevator ride up where my mother asked my brother, the nurse, and me, the optometrist, if he had any chance of recovering. Shaking our heads no, my sweet mom had told us before we arrived that day my dad made her promise she would never leave him brain dead if something happened. On this elevator ride up, my mother said she wanted to pull the plug and wanted our approval which we gave.
After a ventriculotomy to remove the blood on the brain and having absolutely no recovery, but receiving and unexpected wave of sympathy from the neurosurgeon, we waited.
There's not many words to describe waiting in a dark room with your father dying in front of your eyes, struggling, gasping for breath, and the only thing you can do is hold his hand where his wrist had the suntanned outline of his watch. Unknown beeps and boops surrounded us as we each took turn telling our dad, my father, my mom's husband that we loved him and that he had been the best father we could have asked for.
I will always remember my mom telling my dad he could pass on. Such strength and bravery for which I will always admire.
It apparently can take a while for someone to pass on once the plug had been pulled and I can remember falling asleep on my father periodically throughout the night. What I would give now to hold his hand again and fall asleep on him one last time. I will always be his baby boy needing his hand to hold throughout life.
We took a break to visit the horde of people in the waiting room that had come to see him and as soon as we left the room, the nurse grabbed us and told us he had passed. She said something along the lines that it isn't uncommon for people to wait until family leaves to pass on.
As a family, we walked back, through the dark hallway, past numerous rooms filled with people in the exact same scenario, to say goodbye to my father one last time.
He was diagnosed on a Monday and died on a Sunday.
He was 56 years old.
In the aftermath of him passing, I drove home and fell asleep, utterly exhausted after staying awake all night. Driving to my mom's house afterwards felt different than ever before. Early on a Sunday morning, no cars on the road, I was driving to comfort my mother who, for the first time in nearly 30 years, slept alone in a cold, oversized bed.
The post-mortem period is just a bunch of random memories that I've since pieced together. I remember hundreds of people stopping by with food, silverware, plates, cups, napkins, gift cards, money, and everything else in between. I remember hundreds of people asking my mom how she was doing and if there was anything they could do for us. I remember thinking that if anyone I ever knew passed away I would never tell the family that I was praying for them and that if they needed anything to just ask. Completely meaningless statements to grieving people. As a religious person, I remember finding absolutely no comfort in these statements.
I remember going into my old bedroom's closet and seeing one of my dad's suits hanging up, grabbing it by the sleeve and smelling it just to get a scent of my father. This olfactory sensation immediately caused me to cry using the sleeve as a handkerchief.
I remember everyone eventually leaving and life falling back in order but that my mom venting to my brother and I that she was angry; clearly one of the stages of grief my brother would later tell her.
The viewing was set at the local funeral home and the line of people to get in would stretch miles down the road. The funeral director would later tell us that this was the most attended viewing in the history of the town. For some reason, this made me happy.
Despite the flowers, viewing, burial, hors d'ouerves, gifts, prayers, and memories, my father was still dead and I was left fatherless. And the world kept spinning.
How sad it is for children to not have a father.
How sad it is for a moral, upright, loving father and husband to die while the dregs of society get to continue living.
On a drive home years later, my wife and I would talk about this scenario and I would tell her that people told me that it was all part of God's plan. I would tell her that in no way will I ever understand how this was a good thing. Regardless of who's plan it was. I wasn't being sacrilegious, I was being honest.
The problem with cancer is that once someone you love dies from it, it never leaves you. Always haunting you, just waiting to jump at you around the next corner, cancer is a permanent, unwanted fixture in your life. Every ache, pain, bump, bruise, discomfort, and sprain has to be cancer and you will be its next victim. It never sleeps in your life, it lives to make you scared of anything that could possibly go wrong.
90% of patients go into remission but 10% die. I'm not a gambling man but on something as important as life and death (literally), I'd take those odds every time. I did take those odds this time. I lost. So did Dad. Ten fucking percent.