Hope your New Year is off to a FRESH start. For me 2012 ended with the most heartbreaking week of my life and then 2013 came flying in. To say it’s been a tumultuous few weeks is an understatement. But I’m now ready to welcome in 2013 with a big ol’ hug. After all, it’s true what they say: there’s good that can come from all the crazy life experiences thrown our way, even the tearful ones.
Here’s how my 2012 ended (and why I’ve been MIA as of late):
For the Christmas holiday, my dad and brother were going to meet my husband and I in Geneva. We had rented a chalet in Chamonix, and I was looking forward to spending the winter holiday skiing and playing in the snow with my favorite boys. But a week before the scheduled flights, my dad called to share the news you always pray you’ll never hear from a loved one. His biopsy had confirmed it was cancer. I was shocked but hopeful. I pictured my animated dad fighting this horrible disease and bouncing back without losing an ounce of his quirky humor. I saw the best case scenario as surgery, the worst case as chemo, both with a promise of recovery.
My 66-year-old dad had just spent the fall hiking, visiting his granddaughter in Colorado, fixing his boat, and teaching physics, engineering and calculus. Our phone calls throughout November were ordinary (the best kind, the kind we forget to cherish). I talked about my plans to make a career change (Dad encouraging me). I reminded him of what to bring to Chamonix (Dad writing down a detailed list). And he lectured me about the fiscal cliff (me zoning out). It all changed with what seemed like just a bout of indigestion. After a round of antibiotics didn’t improve his condition, Dad went in for a CT scan and biopsy.
The dreaded results came back.
Dad told me to stay put, enjoy the ski holiday and come visit in the New Year. But I didn’t listen. I couldn’t. The pull to be there with him during this emotional time got me on the next plane to the US. When I arrived at his home in Virginia, he was in worse shape than he had lead us to believe. But although he had lost a lot of weight and was very weak, he was still my humorous, witty, hardworking dad.
We sat together in front of his fireplace and caught up. I helped him clean his house, we cooked wholesome meals and we talked about our dreams, our future: me following a new, exciting career path and him finally retiring and moving to Bend, Oregon, to be closer to his children and future grandchildren. I sat with Dad as he poured all his energy into grading his students’ final exams. He was determined to get the grades entered into the system before heading to the hospital. He told me his true calling was teaching and he wished he hadn’t wasted so many years in management.
I tried my best to raise his spirits as his appointment at the Massey Cancer Institute approached. For the first time in my life, I was able to sit still beside Dad for hours on end without my usual distractions. We laughed and cried, and I shared with him everything I hoped to achieve in the coming years. In the evenings, after he was in bed, I sat alone in tears. I was coming to the realization that this was going to be a very scary road…But still I stayed hopeful.
We spent five days together at his cozy house on the lake, but each day his condition deteriorated. We still had another two days to wait until his appointment with a team of oncologists. On the morning of my fifth day there, Dad could barely get out of bed. I finally convinced him that we needed to drive to the hospital. I helped him pack a bag and sat outside the bathroom door as he showered and shaved. Dad made a joke about wanting “to go in looking good.”
Once we were omitted into the ER and given a private room to wait in, Dad told me he had a good feeling. He thought the doctors would remove his gall bladder that night and we would be on our way. He said, “I have good intuition.” I squeezed his hand as he lay on the ER issued cot, and told him I had inherited his intuition, and was feeling the same. But I was scared. I was scared that the next day we might hear the worst news possible from the doc, “You only have 6 months left…you better get going on your bucket list.”
Then Dr. Wendy entered our room. By the look on her face I knew. At that moment I realized there wasn’t a long road of recovery ahead of us, but a treacherous road with a cliff at the end. The situation was worse than the worse case that I had imagined. I was angry, I was sad, and I was sick to my stomach. My sister, brother and husband all immediately booked their flights to Richmond.
The next four days at the hospital all blur together into one very long day. My dad’s condition deteriorated at an unbelievable rate. The cancer was showing us its might, flexing its muscles and weakening my father by the hour. Stealing him from me. Stealing him from himself. I didn’t understand how this could happen. I was angry with the doctors and the constant chaos of nurses nearly drove me mad. Thankfully my brother arrived the next morning, and after another dreadful 24 hours slipped by, my sister and husband arrived.
My sister’s flight landed late and she came straight to the hospital to visit with Dad. Then we all returned to the hotel to try to get a few hours of rest. In the middle of the night, my brother, unable to sleep, slipped out and returned to Dad’s bedside. The next morning at 7 a.m. we received an alarming call from my brother: he thought Dad was in his final hours. We ran out the door in a complete state of panic. I nearly forgot how to breathe. We didn’t want Dad to leave this world without us by his side, and Andy hadn’t yet had his chance to say goodbye.
I knew how happy my dad would be to see my husband, whom he now considered a son, but I was afraid Andy had arrived too late. Andy dropped us off out front and rushed to park the car. In my state of panic, fear and pain, I felt an unexpected jolt of joy when Andy entered the hospital room. Our nearly unconscious Dad, who was struggling just to breathe, sat up and with every ounce of strength said, “Andy, man, so good to see you!” and gave Andy a big man-hug. It was a precious moment that I will never forget.
Despite the alarming call that morning, my dad fought on for the next 24 hours and we never left his side. We sat on the bed together, my sister played his favorite songs and we flipped through old photos. We shared memories, promises and dreams. We promised Dad that his spirit would always live on in us. We promised him that we would always take good care of each other. We promised to never forget everything he had taught us. And we promised him, each other, and ourselves that we would always, always, follow our dreams.
Dad passed away peacefully on the morning of December 23rd surrounded by love. I am forever grateful that I had the chance to hold his hand right up until the very end. It was by far the most painful experience of my life, but also the most impactful and treasured one.
Bittersweet fresh beginning:
I have decided to follow my passion and embark on an entirely new career. At the end of this month, I’m leaving the corporate world and heading back to school to study health-supportive culinary arts at the Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC. In November I applied by writing an entrance essay on the connection between our frightening processed foods diets and cancer and received my acceptance letter one week prior to learning of Dad’s diagnosis. After my dad’s passing, we exchanged emails with his doctor who wrote, “I doubt this was something genetic, and more likely due to an environmental or dietary exposure we do not understand.”
I’m not one to believe in destiny, but I do believe everything in life happens for a reason. Now that I’ve come face-to-face with cancer’s might, there’s a fire inside me to fight our destructive food system and change the way people eat. My Dad’s last gift was the courage to go forward with this career path with all my heart and not look back.
Last month I had my security blanket yanked out from underneath me. But I think I’ve managed to jump and land squarely on two feet. I find comfort in knowing that in my next chapter, I will be dedicating my time and energy to inspiring people to live healthier, happier lives.
Dad always encouraged us to work hard and chase our dreams and so now I’ll leave you with his favorite proverb:
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up.
It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed.
Every morning a lion wakes up.
It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death.
It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle.
When the sun comes up you better be running.