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A year ago at this time my father played, what I believe to be one of the funniest April Fool’s Day jokes ever, on my mother while at the University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville.

Three weeks before on March 13, 2009 my father was diagnosed with a rare and extremely aggressive type of cancer, Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML). Approximately one month and three weeks later, complications from this cancer, a bacterial superbug to be more precise, claimed his life on May 21, 2009, while at Duke University in Durham, the hospital he had been transferred to after leaving UVa.

He was 59.

I received a phone call that morning at 1:30 AM while in Charlottesville. Arising from bed, feet hitting the floor, I slammed my upper leg into the footboard by accident, dropping me to my knees in pain, forming a bruise that wouldn’t completely go away until over a month later, a constant reminder of what had transpired that morning.

My fiancee at the time–now wife–Allison and I had just put this bed up, having taken down our previous bed. This bed was a queen and roomier so that she and I and our dog, Motzie, could sleep comfortably altogether at night piled on the bed. I wasn’t yet used to its bulkiness, its shape in the night.

When the phone rang, I knew what it meant. Because of the time of morning, I knew it wasn’t a phone call I wanted to answer. I did nevertheless. My sister’s voice came across the phone, sad and serious, the voice of an older sister, my only sister, telling me our father was dying and for me to come as quickly to Durham as I could get my shoes on.

I packed my clothes quickly and for a brief second, pulled out a pair of khaki pants and a dress shirt and tossed them on top of my travel bag. I knew this weekend I would be going to my father’s funeral.

But instead of packing them, I placed my pants and shirt back on their rack, my loafers back in the closet, and refused to pack them. I couldn’t give up hope though I knew at this point I should. I wasn’t going to pack clothes for my dad’s funeral.

I tossed on a pair of basketball shoes, an oversized black t-shirt, and jogging pants. My wife was ready as was my dog. My wife and I have no family in Charlottesville and had to make a pit stop in our hometown which was on the way, two hours south of Charlottesville, two hours north of Durham, in Charlotte County, Virginia.

It was a long drive from Charlottesville to Durham, the longest drive I have ever taken though having traveled physically longer distances before and since.

I arrived at Duke and my dad’s sister, my aunt Gloria, met me just outside the lobby at the front door.

“It’s bad,” she said. “You need to prepare yourself.”

I knew it was bad but I didn’t know what she knew. My mom had called me a number of times while on my way to ask how far along we were.

“His blood pressure is going down,” my mom said to me, crying. “The doctors don’t know how much longer he can hold on.”

And though I knew it was bad and though I thought I had prepared myself as best mentally as I could, I couldn’t prepare myself for what I was about to see.

My stomach was extremely upset and I told my aunt that I had to go to the bathroom first, there was no way I could hold it any longer. I did so.

Then Allison and I walked toward my dad’s room in ICU, which if I am correct, was on the 9th floor. I can’t remember anymore.

My mom and sister were inside, as was my uncle Rodney, my dad’s brother, his wife Kim, and Gloria.

The machines were beeping steadily and there was a musty smell, the smell of chemotherapy that I now identified with my father’s odor.

My mom looked at me and broke down crying as did my sister.

“Talk to him,” my mom said. “He can hear you.”

His bright blue eyes were yellowed and rolled back in his head. His mouth was wide open and there was a tube going down his throat if I remember correctly. His arms were scabbed and peeling. His chest was slamming violently up and down, up and down, from the ventilator which was pumping oxygen into his chest.

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10

If you count those numbers as fast as you can over and over again, that’s how fast my dad’s chest was moving up and down. I couldn’t get that image out of my head for over six months and am still haunted by it from time to time.

My dad wasn’t on life support. They weren’t keeping him alive on life support just so that I could see him before he died. I heard someone say that once. I wanted to punch their teeth into the back of their throat it made me so mad.

My dad was still living on his own. Yes, with help. But on his own.

“I love you Daddy,” I said to him. “I want you to know that we will be okay.”

For the past three weeks leading up to this day, I had drafted a letter to my father.

I want you to know that you are a great father. I don’t know if I ever told you that. But you are. I want you to know that you and Mama raised two responsible, hard working kids who love you. I know you got on me when I was younger. I’m just as hard headed as you I guess. And I did some real dumb shit at times. But I want to thank you for being the stern father you always were. It made me who I am today. And just to let you know, I plan to be exactly like you when I have a kid one day and I hope he’s a boy, Daddy. I hope he’s a boy because I’m going to name him after you. I’m going to name him Wayne.

But I never did give my dad that letter. I kept writing it and rewriting it and tearing it up. If I gave my dad that letter, I thought to myself, I would be giving up hope that he would be okay, that he would outlast this cancer just like he outlasted the Stage IV Colon Cancer he had been diagnosed with ten years earlier.

I didn’t want to give up hope.

I didn’t want to abandon that human emotional response to his diagnosis even though I had a gut feeling from the moment I heard his diagnosis that this was a whole different ballgame, that it would take his life unlike the last time.

As I held my dad’s hand, I reached for his forearm and stroked it, those strong forearms that once lifted me above his head on his shoulders when I was a kid. I rubbed my thumb against his hand and then the machines started beeping, his vital signs began plummeting.

The nurses came in. The machines grew louder and louder and the beeps coming faster and faster. His chest up and up, up and down.

He didn’t want to be resuscitated.

And then he died.



You may be wondering, what was the funniest April Fool’s joke my dad played on my mom. In keeping with my mom’s wishes, I won’t say.

I called her a few days ago and asked if she would write in detail that April 1st morning last year.

But she wrote me back and asked I not tell the story.

“Mama,” I said. “It’s the funniest joke ever. I want to post it on The Nervous Breakdown first thing April 1st morning so everyone can see how funny he was. 50,000 unique readers from around the world visit this site and read what us zany writers say each month.”

“It might embarrass your father,” she responded. And I understood that because I know what the joke was.

So if you’re wondering what it was, I can’t tell you. All I can say is I alluded to it once in a response to a post by Brad Listi not long ago. And I’ll leave it at that.

As I played numerous jokes on my co-workers today, I thought of this day last year and I laughed thinking of what my dad had done.

After posting a sign on the elevators leading to my company’s office building that said, “Out of Order – Please use stairs” and then posting another sign on the doors to the stairs that read, “Stairwell Closed – Please use elevator,” I hightailed it out of work and am writing this now. I hope I have a job tomorrow.

I could have been more descriptive, yes. But that wasn’t the point of this memoir entry. It was from the heart and it’s in memory of the funniest man I’ve ever met, my own dad.

Here’s to my dad’s favorite holiday and mine.

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Jeffrey Pillow JEFFREY PILLOW is a contributing writer for The Nervous Breakdown and Hoops Addict. He lives in Charlottesville with his wife, daughter, and dog -- three separate entities. A certified basketball junkie, he also loves cheddar cheese and poorly crafted science fiction thriller films involving cold-blooded animals and bad acting. SEE Shark Attack 3: Megalodon. His work has appeared on Yahoo! Sports, USA Today, and 16 Blocks magazine et al. Visit him online at www.jeffreypillow.com.

27 Responses to “Quick, Gwen!”

  1. [...] April 1, 2010 by Jeffrey Pillow New story of mine on The Nervous Breakdown – Quick Gwen!: Here’s to my dad’s favorite holiday, April Fool’s @ http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/jpillow/2010/04/quick-gwen-heres-to-my-dads-favorite-holiday-apri… [...]

  2. Simon Smithson says:

    I remember you referencing the joke – from the sounds of it, it was a good one.

    A great piece, Jeffrey, and a touching one. Here’s to a man who sounds like he was strong in many ways, and loved to laugh. It’s a great epitaph to leave behind.

    Here’s to the day.

    • Thanks Simon. Considering my dad was undergoing 24/7 chemotherapy at the time of his prank, it always makes me smile to know that in a time such as what he went through he could always find a reason to smile. Of course, my mom didn’t think it was quite so funny at the time. She laughs about it now. It was a classic.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    I’m raising a glass to your Dad, Jeffrey. He sounded like a gem. I’m so sorry for your loss but I’m so glad you got to keep the laughter…

    • Raises tallboy of Guinness to meet you; or, as my dad referred to Guinness, some Slavokian-Russian brew. He wouldn’t listen when I’d tell him it was born in Dublin. He was a Bud Light man.

  4. Irene Zion says:

    Oh Jeffrey,
    What a good son you are.
    I believe he is hearing you read what you wrote and laughing.
    There are mysteries, Jeffrey, that is true.

    • He could laugh from his gut with the best of them. A very shy, quiet man most of the time (If you knew my mom you’d know why. She’s a talker) but when my dad opened his mouth, he’d have you in tears with laughter that’ll leave you with stitches in the side.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Now, Jeffrey,
        You have me thinking of my dad.
        He was a shy, quiet man.
        He could make you laugh too.
        Would that we could have a bit more time with them.

  5. You know what, Jeffrey? Cheers to your dad. I’m sorry for your loss.

    I’m not going to search through previous posts and comments. Enough to know he pulled the funniest prank. If I never know what it was, it will stay ideal, something to live up to, and something, now, I’ll remember. I don’t know or your dad, but I’ll now think of him every year and wish every joke were as funny as his.

    • And cheers to you as well, Will. Thank you for the condolences. My dad and I always had an unsaid competition of who could pull the biggest April’s Day prank but he for sure one upped me on his last.

  6. Jude says:

    Ah Jeffrey – how sad it is to lose your father at 59. My sincere condolences to you.

    I’m so glad to hear you remember your father by his sense of humour. He has left you a great gift. Laughter will help to ease the pain and the sadness.

    I lost my father at the age of 59 – he had been ill for three years with an inoperable brain tumour. It was a heartbreaking time, but what got us through was his humour. He showed how easy it was to laugh in the face of tragedy, and how easy it was to shed tears in such sadness. The way I remember him now, is always with a twinkle in his eye and a huge grin on his face.

    My thoughts will be with you on May 21.

    • Jude, my condolences to you as well for losing your father at the same age. I know how you feel and I know that’s not a good feeling. What helped me most after his passing was talking to friends of mine who had lost their parents. There’s a certain bond with such a life event as losing a parent. That is for sure. And it really is a pain and lingering void that can never be filled again. I wish you the greatest strength and fondest memories when you think of your own father.

      What I find most comforting in writing, particularly this story, is being able to lace the somber with a memory of humor for the greater reflection. When my was diagnosed ten years ago with cancer, Stage IV Colon Cancer, the doctor’s told him then he wouldn’t make it. But he did. His philosophy at the time, as he told a close friend of mine diagnosed with brain cancer at age 24, “Always find a reason to laugh. I suggest Eddie Murphy movies.” My dad loved some Eddie Murphy. The older stuff. 48 Hours,Beverly Hills Cop, and Coming to America. I’ll always remember him saying that.

  7. Erika Rae says:

    This was touching, Jeffrey. Thanks for posting it. My dad died 5 years ago from cancer at the age of 66. Nothing easy about it. Hugs from me to you.

    • I love reading your stories, Erika. “On the Night my Father Died” hit home with me some kind of hard when you posted it on TNB. It was so beautiful and so true in emotion. I shared it with my wife and sister the day I read it. Thank you for taking the time to read my story as well. Daps from Charlottesville.

  8. Greg Olear says:

    Great post, Jeffro. You do honor to your dad’s memory.

    I don’t remember the exact wording of the joke, but I remember it well enough, and it was damned funny.

    • Thank you Greg. I can say without hesitation that had my dad still been alive yesterday he would have pulled a good one on my mom. She’s pretty gullible. Particularly at 4:30 AM while asleep in the window sill of a hospital room.

  9. Devon Barber says:

    I work with Jeff, and believe me, the elevator/stairs thing was only a third of what he got up to yesterday. People laughed so hard they’re still laughing today talking about it. Thanks for the laughs, Jeff. Every workplace should have some levity in it.

    • If you notice I’m a bit paranoid around the office for a month or so, it is as a result of watching my back for payback. I will be checking my cubicle for booby traps on a daily basis until revenge from Debbie is returned.

  10. Touching piece, Jeffro. Yeah, I’m sure not looking for that day when I have to say goodbye to my dad in that way. But like you, when that day does come, I definitely have some wonderful memories that I can attribute to my dad. So I suppose there is comfort in that.

    And on a completely random note, since you’re out in the Virginia area, are you familiar with a guy named Jesco White? He was mainly known as The Dancing Outlaw, and was from West Virginia. There was a documentary that was made about him some years ago. Definitely an odd bird of sorts. If you’re not familiar with him, here’s a link that tells a little more about him:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesco_White

    • I appreciate it Rich. The truth is you can never be prepared for that day. You just have to accept it in grief and also in laughter because remembering the funny ass moments is what really kept my threads from unraveling and they definitely tried to unravel on many days. There’s so much after the fact you wish you would have asked and no matter what you did ask, there’s always more you wanted to know. About every day I wake, I find myself with a question only my dad could have answered. I’m lucky to have had someone such as himself and it sounds like you’re in the same boat. Best I can say is to enjoy every minute you have with him and ask to do things that may even seem childlike. Shit, I would have given anything to go canoeing down the Staunton River with my dad one more time.

      re Jesco: I haven’t heard of him but damn he sounds like an interesting fellow. I’m actually the communications analyst in my company for two states, Virginia and West Virginia, so I’ll have to ask one of my co-workers to the west if they are familiar with the name. One of our offices is in Charleston where it says he and his wife lived prior to her death.

  11. Richard Cox says:

    Wow, man. This is a great post and a great tribute to your father. Seeing your formerly strong father in such a state has to be one of the toughest things a son can go through.

    You’ve done him proud here, as I’m sure you did many times over the years.

    • It was hard to see my dad in that state at his last breath. Even more horrifying were the sounds of those machines beeping. That really stays with you. That and his chest moving so fast up and down and his eyes. I suffered bouts of depression following his death. Severe depression. I’ve always been an up and down person emotionally but I could always handle it. It just got to the point about a month and a half ago where the lows were just too extreme and too often and it was honestly wrecking my life and my relationships so I seeked professional help. It was the best move I’ve ever made. I can now think and talk about my dad without sinking into this state of darkness that had really wrapped its arms around me after his death.

      I had seen my grandfather die a few years before but he had lived a long life and had grandkids and even great grandkids. There’s something different about someone being taken young, such as my dad at 59, and my best friend at 27, both from cancer. Both suffered immense pain physically. You really view their lifes and deaths differently in that prism. At least I did and still do. So much life left in them.

      Thank you Richard for reading and replying. I appreciate your kind words. I know it’s hard to find the words to say in response to a story of this nature. Even though I know what it’s like to lose a parent, I still have a hard time finding the words for friends of mine who have since gone through the same grief.

  12. Note to readers: If you choose to ever pull the elevators/stairs April Fool’s prank, I highly recommend clueing in the head of the Maintenance Dept. beforehand. Otherwise, he will make a Service Call…. as I found out this morning when I stepped off the elevator at work.

    Gulp

  13. Becky says:

    Jeff, I believe I recall the comment you’re alluding to. It WAS a good one.

    I’ve stood next to the bed of a dying person as well. It wasn’t my father, but your description was all too real.

    My husband recently went through this with his father. It was staggering. About 2.5 weeks between diagnosis and his father’s death. He was there to watch most of the decline. I can’t imagine having so little time to prepare. Like you, like him.

    Death is brutish in so many ways. Not just the death, which can be reprieve, but the dying. The process. I tend to get pretty angry with it and are not deal with it very well, so I’ll keep the comment short and just say that I think you did a bang-up job with a difficult subject. (I am forced to say “bang up job” to avoid my feelings getting the best of me, but you know what I mean.)

  14. Marni Grossman says:

    There are never good things to say about death. All words are inadequate.

    I’m so so sorry about your father, Jeffrey. It’s an unimaginable loss.

    This feels like a fitting tribute though.

  15. D.R. Haney says:

    I regret that I don’t recall your comment on one of Brad’s pieces, but I do remember you mentioning your father in a comment on one of QB’s pieces and our exchange afterward.

    The letter to your father is heartbreaking, as the entire piece, up until the bit about the swapped signs at the end. I’m afraid the April Fool pranks played on me were of a much more serious nature, and they weren’t even intended as pranks. But enough of that. I’m just going to imagine that I was one of the people trapped in your building, going from stairs to elevator and back again, so that I can feel I had an April’s Fool Day proper. Thanks.

  16. Oh Jeffrey, you made me cry. So sweet that wrote and rewrote that letter. And your dad sounds like an amazing person.

    You know my mother has the strangest sense of humor. She knows that I worry about her dying or becoming gravely ill, so she exploits this fear by phoning me up every now and talking in this muted, boggy voice very slowly. “Jeeessica,” she’ll groan, “I hab a stroke.” She’ll say it over and over, flubbing up the pronunciation as if she just can’t move her lips. Even though I should know it’s a joke by now, there are always about thirty seconds where I feel like I’m going to vomit and my knees start buckle, as I’m thinking, “This is it. The beginning of the end.”

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