My Six Month Hell
October 10, 2015
Sunday mornings in October meant getting up early to work at the Hilti Ballfields. Dad served as the head groundskeeper there, making sure that the fields were in order for the little league games. He hired my siblings and I to walk the fields an hour before dawn to pick up the trash. We did this same routine every Sunday for almost nine weeks. I made four hundred and fifty dollars that season by picking up trash. It was an easy way for a senior in high school to make some cash on their day off. My sister and I celebrated it being the last Sunday of the season. We made plans to stop at Quik Trip to get breakfast for everyone; we knew our family would not be attending church after getting up so early. Everything seemed fine, until Mom explained that we needed to talk as a family when we got home. The way she phrased the question did not feel right. My sister agreed – Mom’s tone made it sound like something had happened. As requested, I followed them back home. We took a seat in the living room together and waited patiently for whatever our parents wanted to say.
The conversation started simply enough. Dad explained that he had been sick for the past few months and only seemed to be getting worse. This did not come as a surprise. We all noticed that Dad seemed to be sick, but I never thought much of it. He still went to work and suffered in silence. He continued, explaining that the doctor diagnosed anemia in the beginning, as his iron levels were exceedingly low. That also made sense. He had not been eating much when he was home. It was what he revealed next that surprised us. Anemia in men under fifty was uncommon and often a sign of something more serious. His doctor ran several scans and found a tumor in his colon. He compared it to the size of a tennis ball.
I consider myself a strong girl. It took a lot to make me cry when I was seventeen. Hearing that my father had cancer brought me to tears. Cancer was almost like the word ‘fuck’. Cancer meant hair loss and surgeries and hospital stays. Cancer meant fear and anger. There are not many people in my life that battled cancer and lived. To me, cancer was a death sentence. If I had my way, I would have spent the rest of the day crying. Dad made us promise that we would shed no more tears. He was going to be fine.
November 22, 2015
It was easy to forget that Dad had cancer some days. Most times, cancer was a word that stayed out of my vocabulary. When I described my father and his antics, it was his sense of humor that I mentioned or the way he carried himself or the strength he radiated. Dad did his best to keep the worst of his battles from my siblings and me. I wanted to believe that everything was okay with him, and I let myself believe the lie. At least, I did until Mom called the Chick-fil-A I worked at the day before Thanksgiving. She told the shift manager that Dad had severe pain almost all day and she took him to the hospital. The doctors wanted him to stay over the break to make sure everything was alright. She needed someone to go home and watch my siblings. As I was the only one within an hour’s drive, I left and went home to be with them.
Dad’s parents came down to get my brother for the weekend so Hannah would be the only one I had to worry about during the break. We arranged for her to stay at the hospital when I was at work. Every morning, we would go up to the hospital and sit with Dad. For Thanksgiving that year, we ate a cold meal from Cracker Barrel. They lost our food for almost an hour. Instead of remaking it, the servers there gave us the food that they could not find. We laughed about it over cold mashed potatoes. Looking back, I wonder what they would have done if they knew that we were celebrating in the hospital.
My college acceptance letters came that week from Rogers State University, Oral Roberts University, and Oklahoma Wesleyan University. I waited until Thanksgiving to show them to my parents. It was supposed to be a surprise, but the bad meal from Cracker Barrel stole my thunder. That did not make my parents any less proud as I showed them acceptance letters from every university that I applied to. Mom was proud, as every parent should be, but Dad’s reaction is what I remember. They left us alone in the room for an hour or so during his hospital stay. We talked about where I wanted to go. Honestly, I had no idea. College seemed like an expense I could not handle. He promised that we would find a way for me to go wherever I wanted, no matter the cost of tuition. Cancer was attacking his body, and his only concern in that moment was my college plans.
April 4, 2016
That morning, I woke up early enough to say goodbye to Dad before he went to the hospital for the big surgery. He gave me a bone-crushing hug and kissed my head and told me he loved me. We knew that six months of hell would be over after this visit. They planned to remove his rectum and his bladder, which would leave him with two ostomy bags for the rest of his life. The doctors had done several scans and planned the surgery. Everything was ready. Dad was going to be cancer-free. That is what we all expected after he left that morning.
I took my siblings up to the hospital that afternoon. We were stopped outside by my aunt. She explained Mom was talking to the doctor and that she would tell everyone what was going on together. We took a seat with our family and our friends as Mom came into the room. She told us what the doctors said: they could not tell the difference between the organs and the tumor. In only a month, his cancer spread across his entire pelvic region. He was in kidney failure. The doctors did not know what, if anything, they could do. The silence, only broken by the sounds of sobbing, still haunts my bad dreams.
April 5, 2016
There was no decision to be made, not really, when the doctors asked what we wanted to do for Dad. He always said that he would not live his life attached to a machine. Even then, the dialysis would only prolong the inevitable if we were able to leave the hospital at all. Mom knew that, and she made the call to take him off the ventilator. Then, the waiting game began. The doctors did not know how long Dad’s body would go on without the ventilator, but he held strong. We made sure he was comfortable. Someone brought in a speaker and we played his favorite gospel songs. We shared some of our favorite stories about him.
I sat at Dad’s bedside for as long as I could that night, because I needed to be there when he left this life to step into another. I was torn between praying for a miracle and accepting that he would die. I held his hand when I begged him to stay. I was not ready to live my life without him. I apologized for breaking my promise to him and crying. I promised I would never be a pain again if he stayed. However, it was not fair for me to ask that of him after he fought so hard for six months. I asked him to let go, to move on from this life and the pain that cancer brought him. I promised to take care of Mom and my siblings. I did not want to live without him, but I would be okay if I did. I felt him squeeze my hand, and no one can convince me otherwise.
April 6, 2016
He died. That is all I want to say about that.
April 12, 2016
We gave Dad a fairly simple service, with a simple casket, because that is the kind of person he was. The pastor read the obituary that I wrote for Dad, a summary of a life cut short by cancer. Husband, father, friend, and sports fan are the words that best described him. When the pastor finished speaking, all eyes fell to me as I walked to the pulpit. I did not wear black, because we were celebrating Dad’s life. Instead, I wore a red Kansas City Chiefs shirt as I spoke to people I never met about what this man meant to me. I do not remember how I made it through those moments without crying, but I did.
We buried Dad in his hometown, almost two hours from the church. My boyfriend rode with us, but I do not remember talking much to anyone. The graveside service was not nearly as crowded as the church, but there were still so many people that came to honor Dad. I spoke again at the end of the service. Instead of reading off the crumbled paper like I did at the funeral, my words came from my heart. I reminded everyone that Dad was only forty-two when he lost his fight against cancer. They do not check men for prostate or rectal cancer until they are in their fifties. Colorectal cancer is one of the most aggressive forms of cancer. For those who contract it before they reach that age, it is almost unnoticeable until it is too late. I begged every parent in the audience to get their wellness check. Dad did not go to the doctor when he first felt sick, and our family is broken because of it. It was too late for our family, but not too late for someone else.
April 18, 2016
I did not feel different when I drove myself to school. I was still Jordan – the girl who would not pay attention because she did not need to, the girl that always had a smart-ass remark in class. I did not think that losing Dad would really have an impact on how the rest of the world perceived me. After all, my friends asked for my help while he was in the hospital dying without much concern for my priorities. However, I realized very quickly that morning that I was wrong when I walked into the cafeteria.
My friends knew I would be back on April 18th. I wanted them to be prepared so that my day would be no different than every other Monday. When I said I wanted a normal day, they heard that I needed a welcoming committee at our usual table. I recognize that they had good intentions to make my first day back easier. They had no idea I would feel like the entire world was watching me when I stepped inside. After all, the entire senior class knew that I had lost someone important. Seeing them waiting, prepared for their strongest friend to be an emotional wreck, made me physically sick. I walked out of the cafeteria without saying anything to anyone. I went upstairs to the third floor and threw up in the bathroom.
In every class that day, they treated me like a porcelain doll. Everyone thought that a hug too tight or the wrong question would break me. That did not stop anyone from hugging me or asking how I was doing. They did not realize that treating me like glass only made everything else I dealt with worse. The more delicately they handled me, the easier that breaking felt. What I could not know at the time was I already broke. I broke the night my family of five became a family of four. My world stopped turning when his heart stopped beating. It changed me in ways I would never and still do not recognize.