296 Days

October 20, 2008

Four year ago, I was a high school freshman, simply a member of the crowd, excited about academia and activities. At that time my goals were to graduate from high school, attend a good college, and enjoy a career and a family. Typical, comfortable and predictable.
When I first heard my dad was sick it didn’t really register. Dads are strong. Dads will always be there. Dads take care of kids. That was my world. My dad was first diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome which meant that he would receive blood transfusions and be a little tired. That fit into my world. There was a possibility that the syndrome would transition into Leukemia, but after having genetic work done, the absence of a particular gene indicated that it wouldn’t. Just thirty days, and one blood test later, my dad had full blown Leukemia.
My dad checked into Virginia Mason Hospital on May 23, 2005. He was to receive continuous chemo treatments for seven days, and then stay in the hospital for another twenty-one days as he dealt with the side effects from the drugs.
My dad was in the hospital for my last few weeks of school. Every single day I took the number ten bus from school to the hospital. I studied sitting in the window sill balancing my books and binders on my lap. Daily, I watched as my dad progressed through his treatments and side effects. The nurses posted a large graph on the wall where we watched his daily blood counts decline, almost to the point where it seemed he had none. I never knew what to expect when I entered his room. Some days he would be tired, other days we would talk. One day his hair was gone. At first, I thought it was ridiculous that he would remain in the hospital for twenty-one days after completing chemo, but we watched the side effects attack with hideous consequences. My dad dealt with necrotizing fasciitis, two emergency surgeries, three trips to the Intensive Care Unit, two hyperbaric treatments and serious infections. Cancer is not just a disease, it’s a plague.
At first, I didn’t want my friends to know. I didn’t want to be the one to tell them. I didn’t want to have constant attention and sympathy from people who didn’t know what I was dealing with or what I was going through. I didn’t want my friends to ask me how I was feeling, or if I needed anything. Most of all, I didn’t want people to tell me they were sorry, because I didn’t know how to respond. I still don’t. Then, a close friend of mine made phone calls to my friends telling them my situation. I was so relieved. People finally knew about my dad, and I was surrounded by silent support and unconditional love that never ceased.
Leukemia claimed by dad’s life. But this is what I really want you to know about him. That at age 60 (he waited a long time to have me), he could still water ski on a single. He could out snow ski all of us in both speed and grace, and he sculled in a rowing shell. When we rode bikes together, he always pedaled up hills without stopping. When I was out of breath hiking up Tiger Mountain, he was a hundred steps ahead. My dad taught me to play tennis, helped me with math, and was always there. Before he had me, he served in Vietnam, summitted Mount Rainier, sailed to Tahiti, and restored a classic car. My dad loved to golf.
My dad passed about on December 16, 2005, the first day of my Christmas break. We had very little warning. My mom told him I was on my way home and although he wasn’t able to acknowledge that, I think he waited for me. He passed away about fifteen minutes after I got home.
Living through my father’s battle with Leukemia taught me that life is too short and too precious for the typical or predictable. No matter how dedicated or organized we make ourselves, our typical, comfortable and predictable worlds can change in an instant.
I now look at my future through a vastly different lens, one that is in a sense broader, and at the same time more focused. Unlike most of my peers, I have been exposed to a much larger world that includes medicine, law, and the incredible compassion of professionals, friends and even strangers. I have learned how to support others, and how to accept the support of others in return.
I am now learning the importance of living an intentional life. I don’t believe that I will ever get over the loss of my dad, but I am learning to live with it. After my dad’s funeral, I received a letter from my high school English teacher that read, “Remember that your dad received what all fathers dream of: the love of kind and caring children. That is a love that he will always have.” And that is what I hold on to.
Morgan Smuck