by Erin Dwyer Paglione
It has been one hell of a year, well two years really, but this year was extremely rough. In December 2012 my dad was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. I was 6 months pregnant with his first grandchild and living in Denver after taking a new job and moving my entire family from Los Angeles. My dad and family all live on the east coast so I’ve been “away” for 13+ years.
Initially the diagnosis felt like a punch in the stomach, even though we had known my dad wasn’t in the best of shape since my wedding two years earlier. My dad seemed to have his worst health ailments around my major life events it was our little joke. His lung collapsed the day of my wedding shower and I remember being in tears, shock and also numb that day. I remember hearing “he may not make it more than 5-10 years.” But then you forget that. You feel safe again; you think it was a fluke. You go back to normal. You stop calling as often and you stop making that extra effort because, well, Life.
Fast-forward 3.5 years and reality was facing me. My guilt was facing me. My fear was facing me. No matter how much you prepare or expect or know something may come – your heart and brain cannot comprehend it. Not even after it has happened.
After my dad’s diagnosis we went through a variety of emotions. Feeling like we just wanted him to be out of pain, and for us to be out of the fog that is the non-committal cancer diagnosis and treatment process. There was nothing more frustrating than the continual lack of definitive information. No one knew if the treatment was really working, if the new plans had any potential hope or how long he really had. I hated the doctors and I loved the doctors. I hoped and wished that my dad would meet his first grandchild. Even more, I hoped and wished that he wouldn’t pass when I was unable to travel to him.
We were so lucky. We got all of that. My dad’s first round of treatment was “successful,” however, that word’s meaning in cancer treatment is not the same as the definition in Webster. “Successful” meant the tumor shrank and responded to the radiation. That bought us time and time meant everything to me and my family. Time allowed me to see my Dad light up at the sight of his granddaughter, something that will be with me for the rest of my life. Time gave my dad the ability to stand next to his son as one of his “best men" on my brother’s wedding day. Time allowed me to write my dad a letter to tell him all the ways he’ll be remembered, all the times that we will think of him, see him and feel him with us.
The hardest part for me when we received his prognosis of six months was facing the fact my dad had to face death. I didn’t know how to comfort him or contemplate that. What an impossible and difficult process for someone. To be looked in the eye and know that is imminent. And while hospice could help his pain, I wanted to try and help his soul and his mind. He stayed strong as our dad and never let us see him sad, but I knew he (as a human) had to be wrestling the most difficult moments of his life.
Even though 3.5 years prior we were made “aware” that my dad wasn’t going to be one of those people who lived to 95, your heart, brain and life play tricks on you. You start to think, “well, of course that could happen – no one is going to break my spirit!” But when the call came that we were moving Dad to hospice everything became real. No matter how many times we talked about the fact he was likely going to pass away, I compartmentalized it, tucking it away in order to keep living and not be paralyzed.
Living far away from my dad, I wrestled with what was “right.” Should I just move back to Buffalo for a while? What about my husband, my seven-month-old, my job? What about me being me? Was that even important anymore? Was it okay for me to be happy? Then the guilt for whatever decision I did make – because none of them felt “right” at the time. Nothing felt right and after the fact I analyzed and reviewed all my decisions again.
The truth is there is no correct way to manage the death of a loved one - especially a parent who was always supposed to be the person you looked up to. Everyone’s journey is different, there is no guide, no book, no right or wrong emotion – so forgive yourself and be kind to yourself. I received a lot of great advice and my two favorites were: 1. Allow yourself to feel what you feel when you feel it, no judgment. And 2. No one wakes up and says “I wish I hadn’t spent more time with my dad.” More time visiting will always win out.
I went home a couple weeks after my dad’s prognosis. They said six-to-ten months. Spoiler alert: he barely made it two. I wrestled with when I should go back, how often, etc. I had just accepted a huge amount of new responsibilities at my job, we were launching two large initiatives and everything seemed to be happening at once. I remember my dad even said “why are you rushing to get here, I’m not going anywhere soon?” I had to lie and tell him that I was coming back for my mom’s birthday. I went, we had fun. He held my daughter, Emery, for the last time. Emery loved his cannula and we even got her her very own to play with and she loved his old school radio. We didn’t talk about “it” at the time. We were all still in denial. He was still sleeping on his couch. He had a two-bedroom place but my dad always loved sitting on the couch and watching TV. It was kind of the perfect place for him. It was his happy place.
A week later my mom said hospice felt I needed to go back sooner than Thanksgiving. I booked another trip, and then another. Then the hospital bed came. Dad couldn’t sleep on his beloved couch anymore and he would never hold Emery again. I helped my family move the couch, furniture and get him some other necessary equipment. He played “cups” with Emery. They both clapped their little plastic cups together over and over to make their own music. Dad always had the pink and blue ones and Emi used the green and yellow. Emery laughed and giggled at him from across the coffee table. My dad helped me sing ‘goodnight sweetheart’ while I put her to sleep in my arms so I could stay just a little bit longer. We brought him all his favorite treats, cinnamon rolls and Tim Horton’s coffee. I would bring him the Bran muffin that he began to love over the course of those two months. We’d have breakfast together and laugh at Emery as she was learning to eat solids.
I left Buffalo to head back to Denver on November 11th. Emery's 39th flight/plane. Dad was good, we all felt good that he’d be making it through the holidays. My next trip was scheduled for November 23rd for a full week over Thanksgiving. Every morning I talked to my mom on my way to work asking how it was going. He had his ups and downs, his blood pressure was dropping but no red flags waved by hospice nurses. I spoke to my mom on November 22nd. She was not able to see my dad in the morning but was going to go by later. He had a great breakfast according to my Aunt. Then around 3PM Mountain Time my mom called and I knew. I remember yelling into the phone asking him to hold on, telling him that Emery and I were coming the next day. I remember telling him he has to hear her first words, she was babbling and he needed to hear it before he left us. He yelled ‘I love you’ as best he could and my mom said she’d call me back. I quickly got flights for us that night and ran home to pack. We were eating dinner on our way to the airport when my phone rang. I looked down and saw the caller ID and new. I collapsed outside in the cold winter and sobbed.
How could I not be there? How could I have not made it to see him one last time and say good-bye? It was the longest and worst night in an airport and on the plane. I wanted to wear a sign that said “F-off my father just passed away.” Swollen eyes, crying Emery and nothing to console. Nothing to do but wait… but wait for what? To land and know I’d never see him again? What was really on the other side of that flight?
The most important things. Family, memories, stories, pictures and love. I don’t know what would have been worse. Seeing my dad in his worst state? Being able to be there for him like I really wanted, but seeing him in a way I could never forget? Or being thousands of miles away with no ability to do anything but feel empty.
Three months after my dad passed we lost my grandfather. We were shocked to learn in January that he also had cancer and it was everywhere. After learning how advanced it was we lost him about two weeks later. I don’t know what the world has in store for all the people impacted by losing these men so close together, but I do know that it gave me perspective on all that really matters. Always say “I Love You” to your family. Always take that extra drive or flight to visit them and cherish the moments and memories you are making. Look at the circle of life and you will find peace while you grieve.
Emery has been a saving grace. She reminds us every day of the continual circle that is life and brings joy to so many difficult moments. How depressed can you be on Christmas without your dad when you see the light in the eyes of a child or loved one? Take each step slowly and gently, you will wobble, you will fall and there will be drop offs you don’t expect. Feel what you feel, when you feel it – or it will creep up on you, promise. And know that they never truly leave us because they are a part of us.
“Unable are the loved to die. For love is immortality.” – Emily Dickinson