Tearful Ending. Fresh Beginning.

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.

25 Responses to “Tearful Ending. Fresh Beginning.”

  1. Erin Hinson Banker says:

    Elyse,
    As I sit here reading your story (and crying) I am so happy for you that you were able to spend those last few weeks with your dad. I can’t imagine the pain and emptiness you have felt and I want to extend my deepest sympathies to you and your family. I know you are such a strong person and will come out on top. I want to congratulate you on leaving the corporate world to pursue your dreams in NYC. Your Dad will be and is so proud of you. Yes, a very tearful ending but beautifully stated, A Fresh Beginning. I hope to hear more about your time in NYC and please know that I, again, am so sorry for your loss.
    Best,
    Erin Hinson Banker

    • freshabits says:

      Hi Erin – Thanks for your encouraging words! Congratulations to you on your beautiful baby. I’ll definitely be sharing my learnings from the culinary nutrition program here on the blog. Look out for some good recipes to come!

  2. Jenni Staudacher says:

    So sorry to hear of your father’s passing, it is devastating to lose a parent. While I miss my mother everyday, I know I would not be half the person I am today without the growth that sprang from her death.
    Keep him close, savor the memories and do the funny things that you did together – he will always be there.
    Take care and sorry to not connect before you leave. I am sure we will connect sometime in the future.

    • freshabits says:

      Jenni – Thanks for your support. True words. Little things remind me of Dad and I feel he is still here. Hope to see you in Portland.

  3. Whitney says:

    Elyse, I am so sorry for your loss. I can’t even begin to understand what you’re feeling. I’m so glad you got to spend those last few days with your dad and I’m sure he’ll be watching down on you as you pursue your dreams. I can’t wait to hear about your next chapter.

    • freshabits says:

      Thanks Whitney for your support. We’ll have to get together to exchange our yummy, healthy recipes when I’m back in Portland!

  4. Dita says:

    Elyse,

    I am so sorry for your loss. Something you’ll never get prepared for. I can’t even imagine what you had to go through and how strong you had to stay for him till the last minute.
    I wish you all the best in your next adventure and wish you and Andy smooth transition.

    • freshabits says:

      Hi Dita – Need the luck on my next adventure! Haven’t set foot in a classroom in 9 years :) All the best to you and I’m sure we’ll cross paths in Portland soon!

  5. Brittany says:

    Very proud of you my love, and can’t wait to have you here in new york for a few months of fresh habits :) Loved the post, love you, and am already looking forward to seeing what happens in the future…

  6. Monica says:

    thank you for sharing elyse. you have a gift. i have tears in my eyes. you were so fortunate to cherish the final moments of his life togehter. your beautiful soul is in large part thanks to your dad! good luck in NYC!!
    xox

  7. Chelsea says:

    Dear Elyse,

    Your touching account of the events before your fathers passing had me in tears. I am very sorry. Please know your experienced has inspired me to think more critically about food and to bring awareness about the foods we consume on a daily basis. I have recently become a vegetarian(very limited dairy, eggs) and no longer eat processed food. It is hard but I know what I am doing serves a purpose, an example in hopes that we can live a healthier future.
    I wish you all the best,
    Chelsea

    • freshabits says:

      Hi Chelsea – I’m glad I can keep you going on your whole foods plant based diet…sounds boring but when you learn to prepare fresh ingredients correctly the outcome is amazing and you’ll never go back to putting processed crap in your body.
      More recipes to come!
      Elyse

  8. KP says:

    Hi Elyse, I received your email about leaving EA today and found myself on your amazing site, checking it all out. Your story has brought me to tears and I wish you and your family nothing but the best in 2013. So many amazing things to look forward to. It was great to connect with you when you visited EAC. I will definitely be a frequent visitor to your blog.
    It’s beautiful.
    Best of luck and I admire you for following your true passion.
    take care
    KP

    • freshabits says:

      Hi KP – Thanks for your sweet comments. I’m glad you like the blog and will keep checking in from time to time. Best of luck to you in all the great work you’re doing at EA!

  9. Erin says:

    Beautifully written Elyse – thank you so much for sharing your story! You truly are an inspiration and I’m thinking of you and your family during this tough time. Good luck on your next adventure!

  10. Kyna Williams says:

    Dearest Elyse,

    I can’t imagine how hard it was to share these feelings with all of us, but I am forever grateful that you did. Thank you for showing us what it means to be strong, to cherish every minute and to always chase your dreams.

    You are an inspiration to all of us, and your dad, your family and of course YOU will continue to be in our prayers.

    We can’t wait to have you back Stateside chasing your dreams (and sharing new recipes and healthy habits)!

    XOXO
    kyna

    • freshabits says:

      Hi Beautiful Friend – Thanks for your love and support! NYC first stop but I cannot wait to be back in Ptown! XOXO

  11. Elyse – You are a true inspiration! And you just keep on making your dad proud by living each day following your dreams!
    Sending so much love your way,
    Michelle

  12. Erin Robinson says:

    Elyse,
    I found your twitter account through The Natural Gourmet Institute, Which led me to your blog. I was with tears & joy after reading your blog. Your father would be so proud of you. What a inspiration you are! I myself, have been wanting to follow my dreams of changing America’s eating habits. I have been contemplating enrolling at The Natural Gourmet Institute. Your blog gave me that little push. Please keep us posted with your new journey! Wishing you all the best!

    • freshabits says:

      Hi Erin – Thanks for your sweet note. I’m on day 2 at the Natural Gourmet and so far it’s everything I hoped for and more. Learning so much already! Will be an intense 4 months but worth it. Hope to meet you when you join!
      Elyse

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