There is nothing worse than watching someone you love suffer.
My father was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer that spread to his liver and lymph nodes in October. This was the most devastating diagnosis I ever heard for someone I love.
Anyone who knows me personally, knows that my father fought a courageous battle for his life for about twelve years.
He worked hard for his family as a carpenter and business owner. He would come home from work late and exhausted, but always had a game face on for his kids. My sister would sit on his lap after work and help him eat his dinner. I’d hang around him until it was time to watch Star Trek or some classic movies on TV. Bedtime would roll around and he’d give us kisses before bed and tell us stories about his father as a shoemaker or make promises to take us to the park on the weekend– promises he ALWAYS kept! At 5:00 AM his alarm would go off and he’d wake up, make his coffee with lots of sugar and milk and prepare for another day of work.
It didn’t matter if it was 8:00 PM after a long day at work or 5:00 AM, my dad always showed his family love and kindness. I still remember waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom as a child and seeing that my dad was awake. As an adult now I understand he probably couldn’t sleep because of stress, but as a child I will always remember that he greeted me with a loving smile and asked me why I’m not in bed. Obviously I got excited when I saw he was watching some old western movie on TV and that gave me a good argument for why I couldn’t go back to bed. Forever I will remember what came next. My dad made us the most awesome midnight snack of my entire life– a piece of bread covered with some sour cream and sugar. It might sound like a strange recipe, but combined with this memory with my dad it was AWESOME!
My dad will forever be my hero.
He suddenly fell ill about twelve years ago. After going to the doctor, he was told to go to the emergency room right away. The doctor said he could see something in his lungs on the x-ray and told my mother it could be lung cancer. We all had busy lives. I was in the middle of college finals. We worked and had responsibilities. But none of that mattered when we got that call from our mom that our father might have lung cancer. We entered that hospital as a family. My dad was always there for his family, and this was a moment when he needed us there for him.
Luckily it turned out that the doctor was wrong. My dad did not have lung cancer. He did, however have fluid in his lungs due to congestive heart failure. His lungs were also tired from all the cigarettes my dad smoked. It was soon discovered that a large portion of my dad’s heart was dead and what remained was in danger of following. He had open heart surgery and had a bypass put in.
After surgery, the surgeon came and told us the surgery went well but that we’d need to wake our dad up. We were told that he cannot sit up or roll over and definitively not stand up. He also said we’d need to be loud when trying to wake him up. What came next is one of my worst memories.
My dad was in an ICU room, with lots of machines, and he didn’t look like himself. He looked like he was sleeping, but he didn’t have the same peaceful face I remembered seeing on his face normally when he’d sleep. He looked like he was uncomfortable. I remember standing at his side, holding his hand, and screaming, “Daddy, it’s Joanna! Please wake up!” It felt like I was doing this for hours, but really it was minutes and then my sister would swap with me to do the same while I waited in the waiting room. We were only allowed in the room two at a time. When I had to go back in for my turn the second time, I was more prepared this time. I had a few minutes to grasp what was happening and that my dad needed us more than ever. He needed to know that we need him to wake up. We need our Daddy.
Finally my dad woke up that day. Hooray, we won the first battle– of MANY.
Many days later he told us that he had a spiritual experience. On the day of his surgery, his soul left his body and he saw other patients in the surgical area. He saw that some patients didn’t make it. Which was true! There was no way he could have known that! To get to the cafeteria of the hospital, you had to pass the room where they held bodies of loved ones who passed away. For some reason, every time we went down for coffee or water, we saw another patient make their way in there. It sucked seeing that while my dad was in surgery and worrying if he’ll meet the same fate. Now I know I was meant to see that so that I’d believe my dad’s experience when he told me.
Remember when I mentioned that my dad was unconscious but didn’t look at peace? I think it’s because he had a moment when he could have died and his soul would be at peace, but he knew we still needed him. We weren’t ready for him to die.
I mean, can you ever be ready for someone you love to die?
My dad went on to have many more battles with his health. He got a reaction to statin cholesterol medication. The nerves in his legs were irreparably damaged and for the remaining twelve years of his life, he would be in pain every minute with neuropathy.
Doctors insisted that a vascular surgery would help with the pain. Due to smoking and genetics, his veins were pretty blocked, so we all agreed to the surgery. We had hope it would help with his pain. It didn’t.
Years later my dad got kidney stones. He happened to go to the hospital on a day it was snowing horribly in Chicago. We didn’t know it was kidney stones for hours and doctors scared us with warnings that he could have prostate cancer. As always, all of his girls were there with my dad during this difficult time and we got through it together.
They say that it’s not about winning the battle, but rather winning the war. My dad and his army of a family fought a lot of battles.
In late 2016, he got out of the shower and stubbed his toe. In early 2017 we learned he really broke it and it wasn’t healing. His toe had early signs of gangrene. For weeks he was in horrible pain and no pain medications were helping him. He would quietly cry in the middle of the night to himself because he didn’t want his family to know he was suffering. When I took him to see a podiatrist in early 2017, the doctor was kind but honest. He said my dad had gangrene and due to his health condition, he would need to have his leg amputated. His nerve damage, blocked arteries and diabetes meant that the gangrene would continue up his leg until it’d poison his blood with infection and he’d die a miserable death.
Again, he had his girls with him at the hospital. We checked him into the emergency room and sat with him until he got a room in the hospital. He had to undergo many tests before getting cleared for two sets of anesthesia and two surgeries. We learned that his heart was still in grave danger, but it was slightly healthier and more alive than years ago. This gave us some hope, but we were still terrified if we should agree to the surgeries. Doctors made it clear, that he could die from the surgery. At the same time, that was more humane than dying from gangrene infection. We didn’t want him to suffer.
A day before his first surgery, a woman came in to my dad’s room while my mom and I were sitting with him. She asked if she can pray for my dad. He and us agreed. She said the Our Father and left. My mom and I looked at each other in silent fear. Was this a sign that my dad was going to leave us and go to Our Father? We both thought it but neither of us said it at the moment. And then, for a moment, there was a sudden light illuminating from the ceiling. It brightened the whole room. We all suddenly felt love and peace and hope. My mom and I looked at each other with tear filled eyes. We both understood that we had to trust God with my dad’s life.
My dad had two successful surgeries. He had a vascular surgery to increase blood flow to his legs to help with healing after his amputation surgery. Within a week, he had his leg removed from just below the knee.
Ziggy staying positive in the hospital in early 2017.
After so many fights for his life, no one would blame my dad if he said he was tired and had enough. But we weren’t ready to let him go, and he knew it. Deep down he knew.
He spent a month in a rehabilitation hospital. He got a prosthetic leg and went to physical therapy for several months to learn how to use it. The sessions were getting harder for him. They weren’t getting harder because of his leg though. Something else was off. He’d get tired and burnt out faster than ever before.
In June of 2017, my dad walked his first set of stairs after his amputation. He walked over 50 feet without a break. He was determined to show his daughters that he could do it. We were so incredibly proud of him. My husband and I took my dad for his last farmer’s market experience after one of his therapy sessions. He loved it. We got fresh produce and ridiculously delicious bread. We shared treats. It was so much fun.
That summer, I noticed my dad was waking up in the middle of the night. He would occasionally ask my mom what organs were in certain parts of his abdomen. He was watching less television and staying in bed a lot more. He looked uncomfortable. I thought he might be depressed after having his leg amputated, and so I encouraged him to get out of bed and sit at the table with me on many occasions.
Because he was on blood thinners, my dad had to check his INR often. It was usually within range. On the morning of October 2, 2017, it was dangerously thin. He called his doctor and she encouraged him to go to the emergency room. Later that day, we found out he might have pancreatic cancer. That week he had a couple tests done to confirm.
He was too risky for surgery and it was too advanced for chemo. They told us hospice care was our only option. We went home with lots of paperwork and pamphlets on hospice care. At 5:00 AM I got a call from the hospital. They thought my dad had a stroke and were rushing him for testing. I woke up the girls and informed family overseas. My grandma was a cancer warrior for over a decade and her final cause of death was a stroke. So it’s understandable that we were scared.
It was October 8, 2017.
We rushed to the hospital. Dad was unconscious. Just the night before we were talking and laughing. He seemed OK. His numbers were off today. When he was awake, and trying to talk, it was like he was speaking Latin. We couldn’t make out what he was trying to say. Then he’d fall asleep again. His breathing was strange. His lungs sounded like they were underwater. Multiple doctors came into the room and told us he wasn’t going to make it and that we need to prepare for his passing.
We weren’t ready. We all looked at each other with terror in our eyes. We didn’t want him to suffer, but even after all these years, we weren’t ready to live a life without our dad. We didn’t get to tell him enough. We didn’t get to give him the classic good-bye speech when you thank the person for everything they’ve done for you and tell them you love them. We constantly told him that, but for some reason it felt wrong letting him go without that speech. But none of us were ready to start it. None of us were ready to say Good Bye.
I remembered that my dad got a medical patch, Scopolamine, behind his ear that prior night just as I was leaving the hospital. I told my sister and she rushed to asked the nurse what it was called and quickly looked it up. There are rare cases when patients get reactions that are stroke-like. Sometimes it can lead to death. We told the nurse to contact the doctors because we’d like it removed. One doctor came in and insisted that it was not the patch. He recommended we keep it on and just accept that he had a small stoke and is dying. A second doctor came in who insisted we sign a DNR. My mom asked him if he believed in miracles and he responded “not in this case.” He did however, agree to take the patch off. I think he did it because he wanted us to just accept our father’s death without blaming ourselves or doctors for the patch. He thought my dad would die that day either way, and it didn’t matter.
It was my brother’s birthday. He lives overseas. For some reason, I asked my dad to record a birthday greeting for him a couple days in advance. It felt strange when I asked him, but something in my gut just told me to do it. When I watched the greeting several days after the 8th, I realized I missed something my dad had said while I was recording. He told my brother to not stress, because it was his birthday and he had no control over what happened on his birthday. That there are some things that just happen. Did my dad have a feeling he might die on my brother’s birthday days before?
When they removed the patch, they also gave him an injection to clean all the drugs out of his system. We sat in his room and waited.
When the doctor walked into the room the next time that day, he looked like he was going to faint. My dad was awake and talking, smiling and joking. It was as if nothing happened.
He escaped death again. But it didn’t mean he was cancer free.
He came home on the 12th of October. We decided to do hospice care at home. It’s a decision we will never regret.
My brother made it to Chicago and got to spend time with our dad. Family came over and my dad sat at the table with us. I made breakfast for the family and my dad’s appetite returned for a moment and he cleared his plate. There were a couple occasions when he even requested certain things to eat– like apple pancakes or milk and honey.
My family and I spent nearly two grand on various supplements that were reported to help with the various symptoms my dad had. While our focus was making his symptoms minimal, we did give him some supplements that others claimed to cure cancer. As his appetite was improving and his complaints of pain were nearly non-existent, I was getting hopeful. Maybe the supplements and vitamins would save my dad!
My sister and I stayed up late and watched movies with my dad and talked about his past. I got to eat pizza with my dad and watch more movies. I remember watching Tarzan with my dad in the hospital on the evening of the 8th. I wondered if it was going to be the last movie I’d ever watch with my dad. I was upset, because I didn’t feel like it was a good enough movie to be the last movie memory I had with my dad.
On December 2, 2017, my husband and I watched Wonder Woman with my dad. He loved the movie. We loved the movie. It is a movie about a strong woman who is determined and fierce and accomplishes what she sets her mind to. This is exactly what my dad always wanted for his girls. As we were growing up, he constantly told us we are powerful and special. He said we can accomplish great things– especially if we stick together.
On December 3, my dad had a stroke.
On December 5, my dad’s last words to me were “pray for me“.
On December 6, we all took turns saying goodbye to our loving father. He was still breathing, but we just knew. He was suffering so much and it was time for him to rest. We thanked him for everything and told him we love him. We promised to always stick together. But most importantly, we told him it’s OK to let go. We told him he fought a long and hard battle to be a great father by his daughters’ side, but it was time to let go. We’ll be OK. We’ll have each other.
Around 1:20 PM, my mom prayed out loud to Jesus. She asked him to come take the man we love and bring him to God.
At 1:30 PM on December 6, 2017 a wonderful man passed away and he had his loving daughters and wife by his side. We were all holding him as he took his last breaths. We all got to say goodbye. We were all ready for him to rest in peace.
Saying goodbye is hard, but sometimes letting go makes things easier.
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