The Relay for Life is happening in May and even though I tend to keep my private life somewhat private most of the time, I have been urged to share a family story. It seems the family story is becoming more important since I am now at that golden age – not old, just golden.
This family story is about my father, whose name I bear. In his 43rd year, he found a lump on his neck while shaving. Because I am in my 43rd year, it causes a bit of reflection. The lump ended up being a lymph node that required further testing. It was found to be malignant and for the first time I saw real fear on his face. After all, he was a state trooper, 6 foot 2 inches, a tall man and, from early childhood, nothing appeared to scare my dad. I’m not sure how I would react to the news that I had cancer.
In his case, as is typical of his generation, he smoked. I remember riding in the patrol car with him a few times and the interior billowed with blue smoke. In a funny way, the thought of smoke billowing from a rolled-down window reminded me of a Cheech and Chong movie. But it was a police car and my dad sat in the driver’s seat of the car.
After the news, I remember he and my stepmother, Pat, took a trip to the ocean or someplace on the coast. He convinced himself, while gone, that he was going to take a positive approach and battle this disease that had found its way into his body. I thought to myself, maybe he can beat it, maybe this man who packed a gun to work and took the tough-guy approach to problems could beat this thing.
That attitude started the fight. Next came chemotherapy, a process that no family should have to watch a loved one go through. He lost his hair, something important to us McKiernans, but you know, he looked pretty damn good bald. He started to lose weight and his appetite was on the decline, but he continued his fight with determination.
He and Pat eventually moved to Walla Walla, where he took over as sergeant of a patrol detachment. One visit in particular was memorable because he probably spent an hour vertical with us visiting. The rest of the time was spent in bed; he was unable to keep anything in his stomach due to the chemotherapy and radiation treatments. But he was still a fighter.
In 1986, while Karen and I were planning our wedding, he seemed to change his approach. I’m not sure if it was the realization that cancer was beating him or wanting some quality of life prior to the inevitable at that point. He commented that he wanted to stop chemotherapy and radiation so that he would have his hair back for wedding photos. That may have been his way of saying, “Enough is enough; I want to enjoy the rest of my life.”
Our wedding took place on a very hot day in May 1986 and Dad looked good, dressed up in his suit, lavender tie and wisps of hair. He didn’t quite have enough for his famous comb-over, but he had hair. Looking back at wedding photos it was clear he had a great time. Little did we know then that the end was near.
His 48th birthday came in July that same summer and it was everything he could do to go out. Again, that attitude of, “I need to enjoy life,” came out. It was the last time we really got to enjoy ourselves together anywhere. In August of that year he became bed-ridden with my stepmother taking care of him. My brother and I had a “talk” with him in late August. We talked about the future; he gave us some advice and echoed his regrets at not being able to see our children. He was somewhat cloudy in his thinking, at that point heavily sedated on morphine.
Shortly afterwards, with the burden of care too great, he moved to the hospital for his final days. I visited daily, doing nothing more than holding his hand and talking. I made the trip each day from Everett, where I was working at the time. Then, on the 28th of September, my stepmother called to say there was no need to visit that day; he had passed away. Cancer had finally beaten my dad.
Cancer touches us all in some fashion. Many families go through the same process of hoping for the best only to see the worst of the disease. It will affect each and every one of you in some way. Take a stand against the killer of our loved ones; support the Relay for Life to be held May 20-21 at Mount Si High School in Snoqualmie.