After a long hiatus I am back to start a new chapter in the writing of my travel blog, Nomadic Narrator. On June 24th my father passed away after a long valiant battle with cancer. He brought new meaning to the words ‘fight for life.’ I have never in my 51-years witnessed a stronger will to live than what my father showed, especially in his final days. It is this passion for life and living that feeds a new inspiration in me to be more aware of my surroundings, take more pictures, ask more questions, journal my thoughts and ideas, and fully enjoy the journey that is life.
In February of this year (2015), my father was told his cancer was in remission. Words we had all been hoping to hear since he was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in April of 2011. After countless rounds of chemo and radiation, the cancer (cells that flowed through his bloodstream and on occasion metastasized to bones and arteries and grew into tumors), was finally whipped into submission. For two glorious months my Dad was cancer-free.
Then, in April, he began to have leg and lower back pain. A new scan showed the cancer had returned – with a vengeance. There were 11 new tumors: a large one in his liver, several in his lungs and the rest in his bones. The doctors felt he could not weather any more rounds of chemo or radiation and recommended he try a newly approved treatment that boosts the bodies immune system to kill off the cancer cells. At the very least, the idea that his doctors were willing to try something, anything, gave my Dad encouragement to push for more days to continue his life journey. As he said, “I’m not going to come 98% of the way, and then throw in the towel.”
This time around, we knew his days were numbered, and my three brothers and I dedicated the next weeks to spending more concentrated time with Dad. Two of my brothers and I live in AZ, while my other brother lives in MN where my Dad resided. It was a logistical challenge to create time together with Dad. Luckily, we all have flexibility in our schedules and on the weekend of May 30th, my three brothers and I gathered in Minnesota to experience a weekend that brings happy tears to my eyes just thinking about it.
We loaded Dad up into my youngest brother’s car, which meant dealing with a wheel chair and enough oxygen tanks to get us through the day. With my brother driving, Dad playing co-pilot/navigator/story-teller, and my two brothers and I wedged into the back seat, we headed ‘up the avenue.’ Our first stop was in Farmington (MN), where my Dad was born and raised. Thus began the day of Dad regaling us with stories of his youth, some we’d heard, a lot we hadn’t.
Our first stop was at the cemetery to pay our respects to his Mom, Dad, and grandparents. Then we wound our way through town: past the creamery where his mom once worked; along the Vermillion River where he swam, fished, read books and kissed many girls; by the railroad station where his step-father started his days as a caboose engineer; to the spot where his mother and step-father lived and where we all shared in years and years of Sunday dinners of fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy; this house backed up to the old Ford Motor shop where my Dad’s Dad (who died when my Dad was 14-years-old) worked as a mechanic; past the diner where his Mom worked a second job. Dad’s memories of setting pins at the bowling alley, working beside his Dad at the mechanic’s shop, shooting pool at the billiards hall, working the printing press for the local newspaper were all part of helping to create the man we grew to love and spend time with.
After a trip down memory lane of his youth in Farmington, it was off to Northfield, 15 minutes further to the south to relive memories of his next phase of life – marriage and the birth and upbringing of his four children. We routed the car past the multiple (6+) different homes he/we lived in over a 20 year span, from the first place in ‘hungry hollow’ near the river to the house on the hill on Wallstreet Road; past the golf course we spent our weekends playing golf together as a family of 6; to the high school he taught at and we all attended; the location where his one and only restaurant venture began; the office where he built a successful business career with NML; the Cannon River where we fished.
We ended the day by picking up broasted chicken at the locally infamous Quarterback Club, a favorite hang-out over the last 40+ years, and headed up the hill on the west side of town where St. Olaf College sits. Dad graduated from St. Olaf and was a proud Ole’ for life – so it was fitting we found a picnic bench on campus and enjoyed a summertime meal and recounted the amazing journey we had just embarked on. The tiredness in his body may have been real, but smile on his face was priceless.
The only way to eclipse a weekend like this one, was to have a weekend where all of the family – kids, spouses, and grandkids gathered together. And how fitting it was that Father’s Day was right around the corner. Dad had some setbacks in the weeks leading up to Father’s Day weekend, and we were worried he may not make it until then, but he dug deep – “mind over matter” – and was so mentally strong and physically tough over Father’s Day weekend it was beyond inspiring to all of us.
We began the weekend with all of the kids and grandkids (18 of us) taking in a Twins game, while Dad rested up for the weekends events. With Dad tiring so easily and being on oxygen 24/7 we decided to take advantage of the usage of the party room at his apartment complex for a place to gather. That way if he became tired, it was a mere matter of wheeling him upstairs for a nap. But he apparently was determined to not miss out on a minute of family time and he never even dosed off during the two 10-hour sessions of family bonding that took place over Father’s Day weekend.
Saturday began a lunch buffet with al lot of Dad’s favorite foods; followed by watching the men’s U.S. Open golf tourney while working on puzzles and playing board and dice games; great-grandpa reading a book to his one and only great-granddaughter; next came a collective toast from all the grandkids to their grandpa – where grandpa signed the lids of all the grandkids mason jars that were used to make the toast; topped off with a slide show presentation of Dad’s 81-years of living life to the fullest.
Sunday was spent in similar fashion, 22 of us gathered back in the party room to pick up where we left off. Grandpa propped up in his chair, oxygen tank by his side, watching golf while being waited on hand and foot – being served his favorite foods and keeping his glass of Bushmills topped off.
Many years ago, my Dad wrote a monthly newsletter to his grandchildren telling the tales of the adventures he had on the north shore of Minnesota, specifically Tait Lake, with his ever faithful companion, a 100-lb. yellow lab he named Darby O’Doul. My Dad’s dream was to see these stories in print. Several years ago I took creative license and churned these adventures into a children’s novel, Darby the Wonder Dog: Tails from Tait Lake. After several years of failed attempts at getting this published, I knew my days were numbered in getting my Dad’s stories into print. Thanks to the help of today’s technology and creativity of some very talented people, I was able to self-publish this book as soon as we understood my Dad’s days were numbered and have it in his hands in time for Father’s Day weekend.
On Sunday, his final Father’s Day, my Dad personally signed a copy of the book for each one of us and had our picture taken with him and his book. A moment I know we will all cherish, because of his life long love of reading and writing and the special relationship he had with his human-like dog, Darby. Then we all settled in to watch a very exciting finish to the men’s U.S. Open golf championship – a premium way for a golf-crazed family to spend their final hours with the patriarch of all that was good and true of the family he nurtured and loved unconditionally all of his years. We could not have asked for or consciously created a more poignant weekend of activities to celebrate his life and give us closure to his passing.
The next morning, Monday, found Dad exhausted and a little out of it. By noon, he was getting very sleepy so we propped him up on the couch for a nap that he would not wake from. Appropriately, at approximately 5:30 am, on Wednesday, June 24th, Dad/grandpa/great-grandpa took his final breath. For 81-years he had been trying to get everyone up at the crack of dawn to enjoy what he felt was the best time of day – his only taker in 81-years was his ever faithful companion Darby. But on this day we all arose as the sun rose and shed a tear for the man who touched so many lives in so many ways.
Dad’s legacy isn’t what he achieved career-wise or financially – his legacy is what he achieved at the family level. An unconditional bond so deep and so strong, the driving goal of our whole family surrounds the ideal of making sure our paths cross often. We love being together and can’t imagine a better way to spend time than with as many members of our ever-expanding family, whenever we can.
Cheers Dad! We love and miss you!
Travel is not something we do only when we are on vacation or holiday. Everyday we ‘travel’ through life. It is up to us whether we make these daily trips challenging or fulfilling.