Back in November, I wrote a post about my father. This is a follow up.
My Dad is dying.
There is no sugarcoating it. No “nice” way to say something so horrible. You try to avoid the d-word, to pretend that’s not what is happening, but it is.
He—and we, the family—found out about his diagnosis in November. It came as a shock to most of us. Dad, however, had been expecting it for a while.
Twenty years ago, Dad had thyroid cancer. They removed, treated it, and declared him cancer free. Once a year, he would go back for a checkup to ensure it had not come back. A few years back, he started to lose his voice. Only in the winter at first, but it got worse and worse until he could only whisper. Doctors found nodules on his vocal chords and removed them. He’s had a number of those surgeries since that one: do checkup, find nodules, remove them. It almost became routine.
Until the last one.
One evening in early November, I stood in the gym at my daughter’s school. My wife and I were there for our first parent/teacher conference for Kennedy, our five-year old. It was our turn to go in and speak with the teacher when my cell phone rang. I looked at the number, waved my wife into the room, and then answered the call. You see, Dad had another surgery that day, but this one was different. This one was at the Mayo Clinic with the intention of helping fix his vocal chords, to give a man his voice back.
My stepmother was on the other end, upset and crying. She explained that when the doctors had started cutting, they found things that should not be there. What they had thought was scar tissue in pre-op was actually the surface of a deep-reaching cancer. Think of a dandelion. They had seen the flower and now were discovering the root.
I remember standing in that gym feeling small, powerless, and utterly useless as I struggled with what to say to my stepmom. How do you comfort someone who is thousands of miles away?
The answer? You don’t. Nothing you can say will soften the pain.
Nevertheless, I tried. “Hey, we’ll figure this out.” “Let’s see what the other doctors say tomorrow.” Eventually, after a few rounds of clumsy platitudes, I told her to pass my love to dad, hung up, and then stared at a basketball hoop while trying not to cry.
A day had started so hopeful had ended with a dozen kicks to the gut.
I was still standing there when my wife emerged from my daughter’s room, a smile on her face and ready to share an amusing story about something Kennedy had done in school. I had a different story to tell her.
The prognosis was bad. Very bad. Recommended treatment was to remove the larynx and do radiation and chemo. And even if he did all that, they could only give him a 50% chance of survival. Dad visited a survivors’ group, saw the quality of life those people “enjoyed,” and then chose not to seek treatment himself. That was not how he wanted to spend his last days.
I supported his decision, as did my stepmom. Would we prefer to have him fight, just to have him around a little longer? Of course, but that is selfishness speaking. His life, his choice.
He made plans to come visit us in mid-December, to spend some time with the grandkids, but the flu-bug hit my household and he was forced to cancel. So, Dad and my stepmom instead planned to come for Christmas, to fly into Columbus on Christmas Eve and stay for a couple of weeks. One last, bittersweet holiday where my kids got to spend time with their Grandpa.
The week before, I got a call from my stepmom. Dad was not doing good. The breathing was getting worse as the tumor was growing, closing his airway. Could I fly to Phoenix the next day?
After a hellish day of travel full of delays, I made it out there. I did what I could to help ease Dad’s mind and anxiety: I went to meetings with his lawyers, took him to church for last rites, reviewed their finances incase my stepmom needed help with things later on. In order to counteract the morbid surrealism of it all, we also did normal things: we went to the hardware store to buy salt for the water softener, headed to Fry’s for groceries, watched football or a movie.
It turned out that he was better off than we had thought. Anxiety was severely exacerbating things, making it hard for him to breathe. So, we all got on a plane Christmas Eve and made it home to Columbus.
Christmas was good. And it was hard. Watching Kennedy smile as she climbed over her grandpa was as awesome as it was heart-wrenching. She still has no idea what is happening. Neither does my son, Nikalys. What the hell do you say to a 5 and 8 year old about this?
New Years came and went. We got hospice setup for Dad at my house—oxygen, anti-anxiety medication, steroids to help with the inflammation. In the weeks that followed, my stepmom cleaned and organized our entire house (it’s how she copes) while my wife and I went about our lives and jobs as best we could.
Dad’s been staying with us for almost six weeks. His breathing is labored now. Stairs leave him sucking air. But he’s hanging on. We’ve had the opportunity to make what I hope are lasting memories for my kids. Dad, me, and Nikalys went to a movie just the three of us; three generations of Kaelins. Last Sunday, he took Kennedy to mass with him and came back smiling. I sit with him as much as I can, watching movies, basketball, TV shows on Netflix. We just wrapped up BBC’s Sherlock Holmes last night.
We’re not sure how much time he really has. When we brought him to Columbus, we had all thought weeks. Turns out, it might be months. That being the case, last week, Dad made another tough decision.
He does not want to spend the last few months of his life sitting in an empty house five days a week while my wife and I are working and the kids are in school. Columbus winters are too gray, too cold, and too lonely for that. He’s going to fly back to Arizona and enjoy the nice weather.
I, again, support him. His life, his choice.
He leaves Saturday.
Throughout my life, Dad has been the rock of the family, the unwavering force upon which everyone can count. He’s been there for me, my stepbrother and stepsister, my stepmom, my wife and kids, his friends…again, pretty much everyone. The man is incapable of putting himself before anyone. He’s the one with cancer and he’s mostly concerned with how it’s affecting all of us.
My Dad is the least selfish, most-giving, best person I know.
And when he’s gone, my world and the world of everyone he has known will be diminished.