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Me Dad 1975Two weeks ago, my dad lost his 6 month battle with Stage IV Colon Cancer. No matter how prepared you “think” you are, the loss of a parent is heartbreaking. Growing up my dad was this vibrant, physically fit man who was invincible in my eyes. Yet as I watched him slowly wither away, he became unrecognizable. Frail, irritated (well he was always irritated), stubborn (that’s in the blood line), basically not the person I once knew him to be. His illness came like a thief in the night and was too aggressive even for someone in good health to face.

The past six months has been a whirlwind and now that my dad’s gone, it still doesn’t seem real. It’s like watching a snapshot of my life and hoping it was all just a bad dream I would eventually wake up from. Through it all, my mom and brother were loyal care givers till the very end. They were selfless in sacrificing their own needs to ensure Dad was comfortable with minimal pain… taking him to every doctor’s appointment/chemo treatment, giving him total control of the remote (imagine round the clock episodes on TV land), administering meds, changing sheets, and keeping up with his overall personal hygiene… The list of duties was endless and with my father’s demanding personality, I know it was no easy task.

I wasn’t able to be there or help as much as I would have liked due to my own health issues, running a household, taking care of kids, working to keep my business afloat and in between wondering if my mom & brother resented me for not doing more. Then winter brought a revolving door of sinus infections to my house. The few times my family was well enough to do something fun, I felt guilty for enjoying myself while my dad was lying in a bed fighting for his life.

Dad CatMy dear friend, Sherry Nicols reached out to me when she heard the news of my dad’s illness. She lost her dad to cancer and could empathize with what I was going through. We had lots of talks about dying, our feelings around it and how we all learn to cope with losing a loved one in our own way. We shared stories about our dads and realized quickly what similar creatures they were. You couldn’t judge a book by its cover with these two. Sherry commented on a picture she saw of my dad and said “He just looks SO sweet”. All along, I was thinking the same thing about her dad. The truth was these men were tough nuts to crack and rarely showed their softer side. Either way, we loved & accepted them for who they were, flaws and all. I still chuckle to myself thinking what identical personalities they had for two people who never met. I can bet they’re sharing a beer in heaven as we speak lol

I struggled with wanting to save my dad… was he eating right, following doctor’s orders, cooperating at home? Probably not and there wasn’t much any of us could do about it. Tom Warden lived by his own set of rules. And if you didn’t like it… well, he’d give you the finger. Clearly, I’m no Florence Nightingale but in my twisted mind I thought “oh, he’ll listen to me!” Frankly, he wasn’t in the best of health before the diagnosis. Nevertheless, I was certain I could oversee all the steps he needed to take. I mean wasn’t it my responsibility as his daughter to formulate a healthy plan of action? To my surprise that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Sherry’s beautiful brilliance stopped me in my tracks early on and told me this was NOT my burden to carry. Then gently reminded me this was my dad’s journey, NOT mine and the best way I could honor him was to let him live out the rest of his days the way HE wanted.

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Wow, her advice opened my eyes in a profound way! Instantly I released myself from the desire to control a situation that wasn’t mine to navigate in the first place. I found peace knowing my mom & brother were more than capable of handling my dad’s needs. They knew him best and would lovingly accommodate his wishes.

As my dad’s treatment continued over the next several months, it was obvious the Chemo wasn’t working. Oddly, the man was never sick to which I jokingly told him “you must be immune to poison.” A blessing in a way but another clear sign that treatment might not be the solution. The fact was my dad was terminal and his options had run out. Last October, I remember the surgeon at Baptist Hospital telling us he was “cancer ridden” and that his liver was replaced with tumor. Shocking information to hear since his initial surgery/recovery at Memorial Hospital never addressed any further issues afterwards (I’ll never take anyone I love there again). As my mother wept in disbelief, I asked the surgeon if Chemo was an option to which he replied “you can do it but it won’t touch it.” Dr. Smith’s words still ring true in my head because he was the only one who gave it to us straight. I have the utmost respect for him especially knowing the compassion it takes to give a family such gut-wrenching news.

2323232327Ffp734 2nu327 542WSNRCG3876669732nu0mrjAt my dad’s last appointment, the Oncologist determined there was nothing more they could do. The cancer had spread to the lungs and other possible areas. Chemo was cancelled and Hospice was eventually called in. On February 23rd my brother called me and said the Hospice Nurse gave Dad a week to live. The inevitable was here and we had to find a way to cope with it. Looking at old photos & sharing our fond memories helped pass the time. Regardless, sitting around waiting for Dad to die royally sucked! Living this reality 24/7 had to be taking an emotional toll on my mom & brother as well. It’s about a 30 minute drive to my parent’s house from mine. My phone was in arms reach at all times in anticipation of that dreaded call. Staying busy was easier said than done since losing Dad consumed my thoughts. Saturday came and my brother said “Dad’s asking to go home” which is typically a sign of transition so I raced out there to be by his side. Holding Dad’s hand and looking into his scared eyes filled me with intense sadness. Putting on a brave face for him tore me apart inside. The only thing I knew in my heart to say over & over was “I Love You, Dad”. I hope he felt how much we cared and had comfort knowing we were there. It’s a precious memory that will stay with me forever.

After my Sunday visit, I told Dad I was leaving but would be back to see him the next day. Everyone else had walked outside so it was just the two of us. I don’t know what it was but there seemed to be despair in his eyes. I told him to rest and expressed how much I loved him. I was hesitant about leaving, seriously questioning whether I should go or not. I told him I’d be back, he mumbled I love you and I walked out the door. In that moment, I had an innate feeling that would be the last time I saw him.

Somehow on Monday morning I missed my brother’s 9 a.m. text stating Dad was hanging in there but that the death rattle had set in. When I finally noticed he contacted me, I immediately sent him a reply around 10 a.m. He told me the nurse would be by at some point and he would keep me posted. I told him I’d be by later that afternoon or to contact me if I needed to come out beforehand. Suddenly, his next response said “I think it’s time…” I dropped everything and before I could grab the keys and walk out the door my phone rang… My Dad’s journey had ended and all I could think is… I missed it…

When I got to my parent’s house, seeing my dad’s lifeless body crushed me to the core. I was kicking myself for not being there sooner. In the midst of poignant loss, I was incredibly grateful my mom & brother were with him when he took his last breath. In hindsight I’m not sure I could have mentally handled witnessing those final moments. I truly believe everything happens in divine timing, even so a small part of me wanted to turn back the clock.

Hospice quickly swooped in and set the ball in motion for dad’s physical departure. All the arrangements we had made were falling into place. Once Hardage-Giddens arrived and took him away, my mom looked at the empty bed and said “now what?” She had been dad’s loyal companion for 27 years for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health... And now that death had parted them, I couldn’t imagine the emptiness she was feeling. A new chapter was beginning for all of us. More importantly in the coming days we would reflect, grieve and try to make sense of it all.

Dad Fish 406x800Dad was cremated and never wanted a big fuss over him instead, we had a small gathering of family & friends. It was the perfect way to celebrate his life with people who matter most to us. Everyone enjoyed telling stories and reminiscing over an assortment of photos we laid out. I think Dad would have approved of our efforts. There was an outpouring of love and support that day from those who came by to pay their respects. It was an opportunity to remember the unique man he was and the contributions he made to this world. My dad lived life on his terms with no apologies. He would always say “in life you’ve gotta take the good with the bad”. In this experience, that resonates with me on so many levels. Such wisdom although I would expect nothing less from him. I haven’t thought about that in years… Thanks, Dad!

Today I’m definitely feeling a step behind the eight ball as I work through this emotional hurdle… fine one minute and a wreck the next. Yet, part of me has an unspeakable sense of strength like I’ve never known (maybe that’s Dad’s gift to me from the other side) even though I feel like I'm simply going through the motions. Dad wouldn’t want me moping about so as I settle into my new normal, I must also practice patience from within. You never really get over the loss of someone special. Fortunately, the beauty of time teaches us valuable lessons along the way as we heal. I’m taking each day as it comes and unplugging on days I know I need it. Solitude, reflection, prayer and self-care are at the top of my list right now. Moving forward, my greatest peace comes from knowing my dad is pain-free and his soul is at rest. I’m slowly finding grace in this glorious unfolding and I have no doubt there’s one badass guardian angel watching over me!

Grief is like the ocean; it comes in waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim." ~Vicki Harrison

Michelle~

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