Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. Anonymous
“You have lung cancer and six months left to live,” said my father’s doctor. Fortunately, the doctor was 100% wrong. Dad did not have cancer but instead aspiration pneumonia and five more years.
But aspiration pneumonia, while not cancer, had its own set of difficult complications. Unfortunately, Dad had lost his ability to swallow properly because food and liquids were going down the wrong pipe, into his lungs, and causing infection. During his final five years of life, I watched this once invincible, active man, who used to refer to himself as one handsome devil, fight for his life.
So while the disease took away my father’s ability to eat, drink and breathe on his own, it did not take away his ability to teach us how to live and how to love. For the remainder of his life, my dad was deprived of the simple pleasures we often take for granted, he used an oxygen machine, had a tracheotomy, and a feeding tub. His medical charts had “NPO” stamped on them, acronym for “Nil Per Oz,” a Latin phrase that translates to nothing through the mouth: no food and no water.
I don’t think anyone, including my dad, would have believed he could endure these new set of circumstances but somehow he did, rising to the occasion and teaching us the meaning of really hanging in there and surviving.
Nine Lessons From My Dad:
Always have a sense of humor
My dad had an incredible sense of humor and thankfully the illness did not change this. His arms were covered with bruises and scabs from the many needles administered – but rather than feel sorry for himself – he often joked about his predicament, calling himself a “human pin cushion.” Up until the moment he died, he kept his sense of humor. In fact, right before he died, when his nurse asked him to open his mouth for morphine, Dad jokingly said, “I thought you were a nurse, since when did you become my dentist?”
Take care of yourself, first
One day I came to visit Dad in the hospital. I rose early, barely brushed my teeth and drove quickly to the hospital because I wanted to be there when he awoke. He opened his eyes, took one look at me and said, “Go home, you look terrible.” I learned I was no good showing up for someone if I wasn’t taking care of myself.
Soon afterwards, my dad was put in a medically induced coma so his lungs would benefit from something called a RotoProne. I walked into the ICU and there was my father, unconscious and spinning around like a rotisserie chicken. I made sure I was at the hospital when he awoke, but this time, I put on my “Chanel” make up, fixed my hair, and wore something nice. His doctors told us Dad might not be coherent, that his brain might have been damaged and therefore he might not be able to communicate with us. Thankfully when he awoke, not only was he coherent but he said, “gee, you look wonderful, did you do something different with your hair?”
I learned to take care of myself and find ways to take a step back and maintain perspective. I practiced Yoga, took long walks, and kept in touch with family, friends, and colleagues who provided comfort and support. I kept on working because my clients and colleagues helped me be in the world of the living (at a time when I was surrounded by so much dying) and stay centered and grounded.
How to listen
I learned that sometimes the best kind of listening is just being with someone and being quiet. On many occasions I drove from New Jersey to Maryland just “to be” with my dad at the hospital. Not many words were exchanged but we were connected.
I learned to be grateful for the simple pleasures of life. Taking a walk, breathing, eating and drinking. A lick of a coconut popsicle, a sip of water, these were a few of the treats we would sneak for Dad when no one was looking. He often joked and laughed about what he would do for his favorite meal – a bacon cheeseburger, fries and a coke.
I was also grateful for my husband and siblings. My husband, at sacrifice to our own immediate family, always encouraged me to visit my dad. And because of this, I have no regrets. My siblings and I took turns, juggling our schedules, so that we could support each other as well as my mother and father.
The so-called experts are not always right
My mother, who never attended college, understood my dad’s illness better than many of his doctors and nurses. She intercepted unnecessary procedures and even a few surgeries (just before he was being wheeled away) by understanding his situation and being his advocate.
See beyond the physical
One father’s day, I went to the hospital to give my dad a card. He started to cry – I had never seen him cry before – okay maybe once before when our dog died – so I asked him “what’s the matter Dad?” He told me he was embarrassed by his situation and sorry I had to see him that way. I don’t remember what I said but I do know I learned to look at my dad, see him for the man he was, beyond his physical condition and limitations – and not let his illness define or diminish him.
Listen to your own voice
I learned to trust myself and do the right thing. While well intentioned, I ignored comments like, “he’s an old man, you have a young family, you’re busy, he can do without a visit.” The times I spent with my dad were gifts for both of us.
Be true to yourself and your own values
After a new heart valve, open heart surgery, calls to 911, endless emergency room visits and a new cancer growth (that the doctors now wanted to treat with radiation and chemo), Dad said he had had enough, no more hospitals, he was staying home.
Three months later, my dad died peacefully at home in his bedroom and on his own terms. I was fortunate enough to be with him as he took his final breath.
It’s been a little over two years since Dad passed away peacefully and on his own terms. I feel his presence every day. I try to slow down, stay grounded, keep perspective, and not take anything or anyone for granted. I learned that the most meaningful experiences happen when we are brave enough to be vulnerable about who we are and what we need with the people we love and trust, regardless of the circumstances.
This blog entry was dedicated to my Dad, “Jimmy Quartner” and the kick-off of a mindful leadership series – thank you for reading.