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When I was 16, my father was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. They removed it, treated it, and life went on.

When you’re 16, your worldview of most things is incomplete, including your grasp of mortality. The thing I remember most about that time? We ate less salt. Dad’s post-op treatment included taking radioactive iodine that the remnants of his thyroid would collect, effectively killing itself off. As table salt has iodine, it makes treatment less effective. Therefore, less salt at the Kaelin dinner table.  

It’s been 19 years since then. I’ve had my dad around for my high school and college graduations, my wedding, the birth of my two kids. You know, life.

About four years back, he started losing his voice. It cracked at first, degraded to a rasp, and eventually got to where he could only whisper. Doctors found nodules on his vocal cord and removed them. They were cancerous, but not malignant. For the past four years, they have kept an eye on him and have done five more surgeries.

Last week, he had a very large mass removed. Worried, the doctors ordered a scan of his head, neck, and chest. Yesterday, we learned he now has a very aggressive form of cancer. Recommended treatment is the removal of the larynx along with extensive radiation and chemotherapy. If that works—if—he’d have an artificial trachea, no sense of smell, and be mute.

The prognosis if they do nothing is not good. Yet that is what my father is doing.

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He had already made his mind up that if it was going to be this bad, he would not seek treatment. The last four years have been very hard on him physically, emotionally, and psychologically. He effectively has not been able to hold a conversation with anyone unless it's in a perfectly silent room. He feels isolated and alone.

About a year ago, my dad and stepmom moved to Phoenix, hoping to enjoy the sunny, hot weather in their retirement. My family—wife and two kids, aged eight and five—was looking forward to years of visiting them out there, swimming in their pool and baking in the Arizona sun.

Instead, my wife and I are trying to convince them to come back to cold and gray Ohio to stay with us for a while. The holidays are coming and I’d like to have my dad spend some time with his grandkids. Especially Christmas morning. I want pictures.

My dad is a good man. A proud, honorable man. He’s had challenges, but pushed through them with more grace than most could manage.

When he was two, he contracted polio in his leg, just before the vaccine came to be. He had countless surgeries as a child to keep his legs the same length, yet has had a rather pronounced limp his whole life. The physical stress of that has caused lower back issues, slipped disks, etc. Yet he refused to let that stop him. He was my little league coach, heading up an absolutely horrible team. We won six games in four years. Yet the parents loved him as he made sure every kid got to play and a chance to do what they wanted.

My mother and father separated when I was about eight and I lived with him after the divorce. I know he did everything he could to make our life happy and normal, yet I remember him being sad a lot. Still, he pushed through, a strong and proud soul.

A few years after the divorce he met someone and remarried. It went from being me and dad (I’m an only child) to me, dad, my stepmother, and two step-siblings, both of whom were younger than me. It was good. We did vacations, Reds games, weekends at my grandparents in Indiana. My step-siblings ceased to be ‘step’ anything. They are my brother and sister.

He was a teacher for twenty-five plus years. Geography and American History for seventh and eighth grade. He loved teaching and was damn good at it, firm yet fair. His students loved him. I know so because I attended the school at which he taught. At the time, it seemed an awful situation. A twelve or thirteen year old going to school every day and seeing your father there? Yikes. Now, however, I love having that as a part of my past. I got to see him four or five times extra per day than most kids. And if I forgot lunch money, no problem.

He’s been incredibly supportive of me in all I do, giving advice when I ask for it and offering it when I don’t but should. He has helped guide me in my personal life as a husband, father, homeowner. He has supported me in my career as a ‘software guy,’ using me as his own personal tech support whenever something goes wrong with his PC. He has been my biggest cheerleader in my quest to change paths and become a writer.

He and I have our differences, our arguments.

He’s a Republican. I’m not.
He’s religious. I’m not.
He likes bacon on his pizza. I find that a horrid thought.

But he’s my dad. And I love him.

I don’t really know why I’m writing this. I don’t think I have a point. I sat down and this post just fell out of me. Writing helps.

Why is it here? Hell, I don’t know. I guess because I wanted to share my dad with the world.

I suppose this is the definition of catharsis…

These next couple of months will be difficult for my family and me. I know that. This is just the first step of a crummy journey, but one in which I am going to consciously pay as much attention to the good and happy while trying to not dwell on the sad.

That’s it. I’m done now.

One last thing: my dad’s name is Tom.

--R.T.

Originally posted to R.T. Kaelin on Wed Nov 14, 2012 at 08:04 AM PST.

Also republished by Monday Night Cancer Club and Community Spotlight.

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