Sunday, August 08, 2004
(written 8/3/04 – 8/8/04)
I had to come back to work today. I have not been looking forward to it, which is unusual for me since I started my career in the internet technical support field in the winter of 2000. 90% of the time I look forward to going to work. Don’t get me wrong: I have my share of bad days and rude folks to deal with, but in the end I enjoy helping people which is basically what I do. But I have not been looking forward to today at all.
My father passed away a week ago yesterday, on Monday, July 26th, 2004. The five days before that day, and the days that have passed since, have been some of the most difficult times of my life. I find myself occasionally in a sense of disbelief that any of it ever occurred. I wake up and expect to come to the realization that it was all just a horrible nightmare. It isn’t. I know it isn’t. It is all quite surreal to me, however, and I think it’s mainly because just a month ago we were hanging out, over the fourth of July weekend, and while I could tell he was sick I had no idea that he was dying right in front of me.
I took a trip to West Virginia to visit my parents over the weekend of the Fourth of July. Dad has been diagnosed with double pneumonia and was clearly not feeling at his best. He spent most of the time that I was there lying in bed, which just is not my father. He otherwise seemed in good spirits, and we talked and laughed in our usual routine. We had a birthday party for my nephew, James Russell Terry (who is king of the universe, by the way), and Dad was in attendance and seemed fine to me. We talked, we laughed, we goofed off. All was well in my eyes. I returned to my home in Atlanta, Georgia on July 5th feeling that Dad was going to be A-OK.
After all, since his heart attack in 1993 he had came down with pneumonia once a year and beaten it. Speaking of his heart attack, he beat that too. Death tried and tried to take him on that night, and after 71 defibrillations he pulled out of it. After 15 or so shocks one is supposed to be the victim of massive brain and/or kidney damage, but not my Dad. He beat that too. After his heart attack, he beat smoking. He beat everything bad away from him his whole life. Alcoholism tried to take him in his youth, and he smacked that down as well. It’s not that I felt that Dad was Superman or anything, but I came home just knowing in my heart that he was going to be fine. I told my Mom that. I told my brother. Don’t worry, he will be fine.
The day after I returned to Georgia, however, I received a call from my family who informed me that Dad’s doctors had found “growths” in both of his lungs and in his esophagus. Blood tests had shown that his liver enzymes were up. All of these were indicators to his doctors that he may have cancer. His main physician’s words were that “it didn’t look good.” Biopsies were scheduled. Through all of this, however, I remained confident that he was going to beat it no matter what it was. He had beaten everything already, pulled of the miracles of miracles with surviving his heart attack, plus he had so many people praying for him. All would be well.
I believed my convictions were confirmed when a few days later my mother informed me that Dad’s biopsies came back negative. The masses were being called just collections of “gunk” – mucus, particles of this and that, and in the case of his esophagus, food. I told all of my friends here in Atlanta that our cancer scare was deemed just that – a scare. Everything was going to be fine.
Dad had, by this time, developed a case of jaundice. The docs told us that there must be a blockage of some sort in his liver. With that, and the pneumonia bearing down on him, my Dad’s condition began to get worse. The doctors didn’t want to operate on his liver, though, due to the oxygen level in his blood being low. As his condition worsened day by day, however, my Mom determined that we shouldn’t wait any longer. If they cleared out the blockage in his liver, she reasoned, he would get better. So she made them operate on him.
While operating on his liver, however, the doctors found what they believed to be cancer eating it away. They weren’t saying so at the time, but went on to run further tests on what they were calling “fatty tissue”. My aunt, who once was the head nurse at the hospital, took my brother aside and told him that he needed to call me. I needed to be there with him and Mom when they were told what it was. On Tuesday evening, July 20th, my brother called me and told me what our aunt said. At that time we didn’t know it was cancer. But were once again being told it didn’t look promising. My wife and I left immediately.
I still believed, however, that all would be well. I was worried, don’t get me wrong, but I had a perhaps naïve conviction that my Dad would come out of this liver problem as well. After all, he beat everything else. I didn’t prepare myself for the worst. I wasn’t ready to see him lying in the hospital bed, then, when I arrived in Princeton.
I knew the jaundice would have his skin tinged yellow. But when I looked at him…I was devastated. He was struggling for every breath. He tried his best to talk to us, condition made it difficult for him to speak. It was like I could see the cancer in him right there. Leah, my wife, could too. She broke down almost immediately as we entered his room in ICU. That was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. The worst was soon, far too soon, to come.
Later on that morning my Dad’s primary doctor, Dr. Hopper, sat us down and confirmed our worst fears. Dad has cancer. It was a small cell cancer that started out in his lungs, as the result of cigarette smoking, and had spread to his liver. He was already in liver failure. Dr. Hopper gave him days, not weeks, to live. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How could any of this be true?! Just three weeks ago we were laughing, joking, and goofing off like always. How could he have been dying from cancer right there in front of me without any of us knowing? Even now, after the fact, it all seems like insanity to me.
The five days that followed are like a blur. We all took turns staying by Dad’s side so when he would wake up he would see a familiar face. In all honesty, it was really difficult for me to be in there. I could barely stand it at times because he struggled for every breath, and he tried so hard to talk to me but I often couldn’t understand him. There were times when I just didn’t want to go back in there. I didn’t want to have to listen to him moan in pain, or fight to breathe. I didn’t want to have to look up at the oxygen monitor in constant trepidation that it would fall out of the 80’s, signaling the beginning of the end. I felt weak. I felt selfish. I felt like none of it could possibly be real. I remember my mother turning to me once while we were sitting in the waiting room, saying, “Brian, when are we going to wake up out of this nightmare?!” I had no answer for her. I wanted to know the answer to that myself.
It was Sunday night, or Monday morning depending on your point of view. It was sometime after 4 A.M. Being the night owl I am (one of the many traits I inherited from Dad), I had just settled down for the night to get some sleep. But then the phone rang. My brother, Lee Jay, was calling from the hospital. He was staying the night to keep an eye on him.
“You better get up here,” he said. I immediately got dressed again and took the couple mile drive back to the hospital.
I walked into ICU and saw my brother staring at the monitor with Dad’s vital signs on it. I followed his gaze to the oxygen level, and saw that it had dipped into the low 60’s.
“Oh God, Lee Jay, we have to call Mom and get her up here,” I said. We both knew it wouldn’t be too much longer.
It was almost like he was waiting to hear my voice. As soon as I walked in and started talking, his heart rate and oxygen level started to plummet. I picked up the phone and called Mom’s house. Lee Jay’s wife, Vickie, answered. I told her everyone needed to get to the hospital now.
As soon as I put the phone down and walked back over to Dad’s bed, he took one more breath and that was it. His vitals bottomed out. The nurse came over to listen with her stethoscope. She shook her head no. He was gone. Lee Jay and I both looked up at the clock in his room at the same time. It was 4:50 AM. We looked at each other, but there were no words to say. We held each other and cried.
I learned so much from my Dad. I learned the value of goodness and doing what is right. I learned about giving respect, and being a person that others can respect. I learned how to laugh and how to make others laugh. I learned about the strength of family. I learned the love of reading. I learned to love movies. I learned to love football, although I loved a different team that he. I learned what I’m doing right now from him. It is amazing how alike we are. I mean, yes, I’m his son, but I know so many people who are nothing like their parents. I am my Dad in many, many ways. I believe that I am. I am told that I am. I am lucky if I am, I know that.
Dad was a real trooper of a father. He was always ready to play games with my brother and I, and indeed any of our friends and other youngsters in the family. He’d play football, wiffle ball, video games, board games, just about anything with us. He taught us to play hard, play fair, have fun at all times, and to win and lose with respect and integrity. In truth, my Dad did all things with integrity and fairness that it was impossible to not respect him, even as a little child. He didn’t require us to call him ‘sir’. He spoke to us like equals, and made sure we realized when my brother and I would be punished for something WHY what we did was wrong. He never talked down to either of us. I’m sure that he is the greatest man that I will ever know.
There is still a big part of me that can’t believe that he is gone. The next time I see an awesome movie I can’t call him up and talk with him about it. As the 2004-2005 NFL season is getting under way now, I can’t call him and talk with him about any of it. Joe Gibbs, arguably the greatest coach the Redskins have ever had, is back coaching the team this year after a long absence from the league. Every year since Gibbs left the league, my Dad and I would reminisce about how great it would be if he would return. Now he is, and I can’t share that with him. That breaks my heart. I want to hear him sing “Hail to the Redskins” one more time.
The earth has lost a measure of greatness. However, our loss is Heaven’s gain. I know my Dad is hanging out with God now. I know that when I see a great flick, and I feel like I want to share it with him, I can. I may not be able to hear his voice, but he can be there with me. I may not be able to hear him sing “Hail to the Redskins”, but I know he will be as the ‘Skins take the field this season. This football season won’t quite be the same without him, but at the same time it will be. I have a feeling he’ll be watching all the games too.
To everyone who has expressed to me how much they respected my Dad, and how much he meant to them, I just want to say thank you. I know that my family and I are not the only ones who are going to miss him.
To all of Dad’s Telegraph and Times co-workers and “constant readers” who have expressed their condolences and shared their memories with us, thank you all so much. I especially want to thank Bill, Tom, and Barbara for their columns on my Dad.
To all the family members who spent countless hours with us at the hospital, I love each and every one of you. After leaving West Virginia and striking out on my own in the world, I have met many other people and their families and I have to say that I’d be hard pressed to think of any other family that is as close we all are. All of you are amazing individuals.
To my wife, Leah, I want to give special thanks. I love you so much! You carried me through this. It would all have been, would continue to be, immeasurably more difficult without you there, and here, for me. To all of my family on Leah’s side who have sent us cards and expressed their condolences, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
To all of my friends, Lee Jay’s friends, and Mom’s friends who shared their hearts and condolences with us, you will never know how much it meant to us. In a time such as this, you quickly discover who your real friends are. I especially want to thank the Perdue family, who live next door to my Mom, and are taking care of her when the rest of us can’t be there. Also, to her other neighbors whom I don’t know as well as I do the Perdues, I thank you. Everyone should have such neighbors and friends.
To Mom and Lee Jay, I love you both more than anything in the world. He will be with us always. Don’t forget that.
It is important, in devastating times such as the one my family experienced with the passing of my father, for us all to remember, and be reminded of, how fortunate we are. Each and every one of you listed above – you all made me realize that every hour of our time at the hospital and/or in the days that followed. You all continually remind me. Again, I thank you all.
Well, life has to return to normal at some point, doesn’t it? Today has turned into yesterday, tomorrow has become today, all a few times over. Maybe it will never seem normal to me again. I don’t look forward to work. My walks between the apartment and the MARTA station (Atlanta’s version of a subway), then MARTA and work, then work and MARTA, and MARTA and home all seem a bit longer. The colors are less vivid. My sleep is restless. Will it ever seem normal again?
I was walking home from the MARTA station yesterday, and a gentleman who was walking the other way looked my way and said, “Hello.” My mind was a million miles away, thinking of one of a countless ways that I’m going to miss my Dad.
I must have had a scowl on my face when I replied, “Hello.”
The look on my face must have concerned him because he stopped in his tracks and said, “You know, if you smile we’ll both feel better.” He continued walking and we passed one another.
I laughed in spite of myself, turned and replied, “Thanks. I’m just tired.”
“Thank you,” he said as he continued walking.
You know, he’s right. So instead of thinking of how I’m going to miss Dad, I started thinking of all he has done to brighten my day. I began to imagine him walking home with me, humming “Hail to the Redskins”. I grinned the rest of the way home.
I’m sure I’ll have hard days to go through, just as Mom and Lee Jay will. I suppose things will get and easier and easier as time goes by. Our world may even one day seem normal again. Tomorrow, as they say, is another day.
I’m looking forward to it.