Goodbye Daddy, I Love You
I‘ve learned that as some people work through losing someone by talking about them, others through physical tears and some bottle them up forever, my approach is to share them in writing.
I originally wrote over 5,600 words in the essay about my father, and still every time I step away another story would come out that I had to write down. My wife Heather pointed out that is way too much for a blog post, and it would lose most of its meaning due to the length. What I want to publicly share is my story of my father after he was diagnosed with brain cancer. This life altering event brought us closer and enabled us to grow in our relationship in ways I worry we might not have been able to otherwise. If you can take anything away from this I would encourage you to value the time that you have with close family and friends, and tell them how important they are to you. I’ve said it many times before, but my favorite bible verse is: This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. –Psalm 118:24
Saturday at 7:25AM my alarm went off. It was a little weird because I don’t remember setting my alarm, and rarely do I have an alarm set for Saturday morning. About twenty minutes later I woke up to a call from my mom. I knew exactly what she was going to tell me before I even answered the phone. My mom has become quite the emailer, so she rarely calls my cell phone and never before 8AM.
“Hey Kyle. *sniff* Your dad passed away about half an hour ago.”
“He isn’t in pain anymore and has gone to a better place.”
“Yeah… I know. He’s finally got peace and rest.”
“Can you come *sniff*over?”
“*sniff* Yeah… I’ll be over shortly.”
“No need to rush, you have time for a shower *sniff* and breakfast if you want.”
“Ok, I’ll do that real quickly and see you soon… Mama, I love you.”
“I love you too Kyle… See you soon.”
I can’t help but feel that the alarm going off was Daddy telling me goodbye.
As most of you know already Daddy had been fighting brain cancer for a little under four years now. It’s a pretty amazing story actually how we discovered that he had brain cancer.
Discovering the Illness
Daddy was preaching at the United Methodist Church in McCormick, SC at the time. The story that I’ve been told and the best I can remember was that he was doing a funeral one day and he collapsed in front of the congregation. While he was standing in front of everyone doing the eulogy his vision got blurry, he got dizzy, then things went dark and he said, “No, this can’t happen right now.” Then he collapsed in front of everyone. The whole place went quiet.
About thirty seconds later he got back up and finished the funeral before being taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Daddy had just had a seizure, but he didn’t let that stop him from finishing what he was in the middle of doing. His stubbornness and selflessness, common traits in a James, required him to complete the funeral before the gravity of this earthshaking discovery that was about to change all of our lives could be faced. He had been a Methodist minister for thirty-two years and had done hundreds of funerals before this one, but this would be the last time he would stand up and preach in front of a congregation.
When I first heard that he had collapsed we didn’t know what had happened. After lots of testing we found out it was brain cancer. We also began to learn that Daddy had a rare form that you can’t simply cut to remove. Being in the brain presents its own set of challenges, but his cancer was more of a spider web that weaves its way through the brain. There is no central mass to operate on. They told us that optimistically he had two and a half years to live.
The Second Stage Is Anger
My initial reaction was not one of selflessness. At the time I was more upset that I didn’t feel like I really deeply knew Daddy and I was about to lose him. Although we might have both known it, we never said “I love you” to each other. I was upset because my whole life I had always had to share my father with the church. He was always taking care of everyone else’s problems in the community. He was their therapist, their leader and their role model. I was upset that I had always been forced to share him with everyone and that everyone else came first.
This led me down a path to learn more about my father. I wanted to learn more about his childhood. I wanted to learn more about things that he had done. I wanted to understand more about what and how he had become the man he was. I wanted to know what I could learn from his life and experiences.
Deep down inside I knew that my view wasn’t completely true or fair because he had sacrificed a lot for us. Before I was born he was an assistant minister in one of the largest churches in New Orleans. His career in the ministry was that of a bright rising star, and he gave all that up to take small churches so that he could raise my brother and me. Because of who he was, but also because of the role he played in the community, my father was a very private person. The more I began exploring and asking questions the more I came to understand how private he was.
Taking The First Step Towards Healing
The day after Daddy collapsed during the funeral I drove to Greenwood to visit him and my mom in the hospital. After we heard the diagnosis of brain cancer and life expectancy things really hit me hard. It was at this moment that I knew that I was going to be thrust into the role as man of the family in short order. We still had time, but I knew that I had to be ready.
I balled my eyes out in my mother’s arms at the hospital for a good twenty minutes. On the drive home I vowed that there wouldn’t be another conversation that I had with my father where I didn’t tell him that I loved him. At first it was a little awkward, but we quickly got over that “manliness.” I’ve learned that being able to tell close friends and family that you do love them opened up my whole world to deeper relationships. A guy not saying that they love someone isn’t being macho, it’s them being closed off and lonely.
Daddy and Grand Doane (his father) had never gotten to the point of being able to share those words with each other. It wasn’t something normal for him to do. Looking back it was obvious that he did love me, but I had to be the one to step up and begin that growth in our relationship. I look back now and wonder if we would have ever been able to make that step without the illiness? It’s amazing how such a small word has the power to change everything the way that love does.
I had also already been working part time with HubSpot in Boston and was planning on flying up to interview in a few weeks. I didn’t know if I’d be able to move 1,000 miles away for a job when I was about to lose my father. It was the right decision for my career, but it also had to be something that would be okay with my family. My selfless father of course wanted me to go. It took a good six months or more and lots of support from Skip before I was able to make that career decision.
I also just found out today that the reason that Todd and Jen had Bentley was so Daddy could experience a grandchild before his death. I never really thought about the fact that he was conceived not that long after Daddy’s diagnosis. Another selfless James act.
The Last Six Months
Don’t ever think for a minute that things don’t happen for a reason. The reasons that my then fiancée Heather and I moved back to South Carolina are numerous, and I’ve already outlined them before, but spending Daddy’s remaining days with him was definitely high on that priority list. I found myself having lots of phone calls with Daddy those last few months in Boston. I was slowly working myself through the major decision to quit my job and go full time with building my own company at nuCloud. Not once did he ever lead me in a direction. He just listened and offered support. In fact I don’t ever remember a time that he complained about his death sentence.
As Heather and I prepared for Thanksgiving and a trip back south for the holiday we made up our minds that we were going to make the move at the beginning of the year. I vividly remember telling her, “The first six months are going to be really hard, but if we can make it through that we’ll be good to go.” How could I have ever guessed how true that timeline would turn out to be?
From January through April I lived with my parents and Heather with hers. It is especially tough being thirty-one years old and living with your parents, but I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything. Daddy was using the gym in their community clubhouse on a regular basis. On that first day I moved in I asked him to be my personal trainer. His job was to get me in shape for my wedding.
I knew that one of the biggest struggles of being terminally ill is feeling like you are useful. I also secretly and selfishly wanted to keep him motivated and fighting to make it to wedding day. He never really pushed me in the gym, I could tell he was working extra hard to try and keep up as much as he could. He was always up and ready every morning unless we agreed the night before that we were taking a day off. By making him my workout partner we would both have that accountability to go and a full hour together three or four times a week. The talks we had were extra special. There was no fear about asking him for advice on how to be a man, how to handle a business question or religious inquiries. We both knew these were fleeting days.
After the wedding we only had a single workout session before he went downhill and could no longer go.
Daddy made the decision that he was going to quit the radiation and chemo treatments after the wedding. He was mentally and physically holding out to see his other son get married. He had stubbornly fought off death for years beyond what they thought were medically possible to be there on the special day. He took his last radiation treatment and oral chemo the week before the wedding.
That Thursday before the special day, Todd and I took Daddy to get our tuxedos. My mom also asked that all three of us get new outfits for the rehearsal dinner. Daddy was a penny pincher, and knowing that he was dying he had refused to buy any new clothes for the past few years. After all, what was the point if he had clothes that worked just fine? The trip became all that much more memorable when we got a call from Mama on the way home. Mama had been called by the credit card company to check a possible fraud charge on the credit card. Someone had spent $700 on her credit in Belk, and they wanted to make sure it wasn’t a fraudulent charge. HA!
Of course the special day went off like it should, and it was amazing to see Daddy soaking everything in. We were prepared for him to make it to the ceremony and have to go home almost immediately afterwards. He wouldn’t be able to handle lots of people and conversations. He stayed at the reception until the end of the night talking to everyone and having a great time. It was incredibly unexpected but another blessing. The wedding was all the more special to see him enjoying himself and engaging with people like he hadn’t done in years.
Daddy had told Mama before the weekend that he was really looking forward to the wedding because he felt like it was going to be an opportunity for him to attend his own funeral.
While Heather and I were on our honeymoon my mom and dad took their own honeymoon. They visited Virginia and stayed in a hotel that they had stayed in thirty-two years ago during their own honeymoon. It was a very special time for them both but especially Mama.
The Downward Spiral
It was barely two weeks after the wedding and just over a week since they had returned from Virginia when Daddy had the second seizure. Afterwards he never really regained the ability to speak more than a few words. I think it was harder realizing that I would never be able to have another deep conversation with him again than ultimately losing the shell of him that was left.
Thursday June 14th was my mother’s birthday and it was the last time the whole family ate at the dinner table together. Two days later was Father’s day and the last day that he was out of bed. We wheeled him into the living room to meet his new “grand animal” Zack Morris and open his presents.
I spent Monday and Wednesday nights of the final week at the house helping my mother get some sleep by watching Daddy. Monday night I had the surreal experience of typing up Daddy’s obituary. There are so many major highlights that I forget about like the fact he was an army veteran who missed going to Vietnam by the skin of his teeth, he taught GED classes, he taught prisoners how to read, he was on a couple of boards for non-profits and a Rotary member.
On the drive home Tuesday morning I prayed my heart out begging for his suffering to end. It’s so hard seeing someone who you have looked to for strength your whole life unable to get out of bed to use the bathroom, speak a single word that makes sense or do much more than sleep. When I left for the last time Thursday morning I squeezed his hand hard one final time. He woke up for a second. I told him that I loved him and that I was leaving. He whispered “You too.”
Daddy had always said that terminally ill people always try to hold on too long and drag out their deaths. It was the first time that I had left that I intentionally didn’t tell him that I’d see him later.
Nine weeks after the wedding and two weeks after Skip’s death Daddy joined him in Heaven. He had kept his end of the bargain. He had taught his two sons how to be responsible and successful men and each marry a wonderful woman. His work was finished and he was ready to stop fighting.
What Every Child Needs
I think what I re-realized as I pulled his stories and the lifetime of experience together is how amazing of a father I really had. He was such an incredible role model. He was always available for anyone. He was always available for me… I just spent years rebelling and his love was what let me explore life without being an overwhelming presence. Like Skip, Daddy taught me patience. He will always be there for me through the examples he set and experiences we shared. He always loved me, and we were eventually able to end every time together telling each other how we felt.
Through this journey over the past four years I also learned that every child needs two things from their parents. They need unconditional love and because of this love they ultimately strive to make themselves something that their parents will be proud of. You see, doing this isn’t enough, children need to hear it.
Even today all I want is to make my parents proud of the person I’ve grown up to be. I want to live my life to its fullest to show them the man that I can be. One day I hope to be as good of a father as Daddy. It took his sickness for me to fully understand the importance of a few simple words, words that looking back I wish we had shared a lot more. Words that I now know how important they will be for my children to hear one day. I am forever thankful that we took the opportunity to work on these things before it was too late. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel this way, but growing up Daddy and Grand Doane had never been able to break through the verbal barriers.
Daddy was proud of the business that his two sons had started. At the end when his speech started to go he would still ask me, “How many?” He always wanted to know how many customers we were up too. Even over these past tough six months Todd and I have been able to grown nuCloud by almost 50% with the two of us working full time together. I know watching from above he will be proud to watch what we continue to create.
Daddy died Saturday morning wearing the nuCloud t-Shirt that I gave him a few years ago. I realize that Mama was the one who made the decision for him to wear that shirt, but you see it was one of his favorite shirts. He wore that shirt all the time.