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.
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.