Yesterday marked the 10th anniversary of the day pancreatic cancer took my dad. It’s a marker I’ve thought about since the very beginning: where would we be at ten years? What would he have missed in that much time? What would we have missed? My dad is …
David and I were talking about Luca, our 14-year-old husky, this morning. Luca’s age has finally caught up with our pup. The dog that used to make us laugh as he galloped around my parents’ huge yard now has legs that give out underneath him. His coat used to be a gorgeous gray-and-white that would make people stop in the street to comment, but now is faded to brown in spots, and is matted and falling out. He still follows the kids around as they play, corralling them, barking furiously if one of them steps out of (his) line–the fierce protector and playmate, always, always watching over us. We’re afraid it’s almost time. This week, I’m not doing so well with that.
It’s been seven years since Dad died. Seven years ago this week, we were holding vigil at the hospital, with David running back home a few times a day to let Luca out while the rest of us–Mom, my brother, two-month-old Saoirse and I–huddled in the waiting room, or gathered around Dad’s ICU bed, or listened to the nurses tell us again and again, “it’s time,” only to have our hearts seize up, waiting, and discover it wasn’t quite time yet. Seven years, and the children are finally starting to understand enough to talk about their grandad, have conversations, ask questions. I look at my kids–look at our family–and often think about my own dad, the child put into foster care, the kid that never got adopted out of the system. I see my children, with their warm home and organic applesauce and My Little Pony stuffed animals, and want them to know their roots. When the girls want to talk about smoking–it’s a hot topic these days–I talk about how easy it is to become addicted, how my dad finally quit when the doctor told him he had to quit, because once you start, it’s so hard to stop, and it’s really, really important that someone in your life tells you it’s not a good idea to start in the first place. When they ask why I stopped eating meat for a couple of decades, I tell them it’s because Granddad grew up working on the farms of his foster “families,” and I heard some stories that really made me want to stick to plants. When I draw pictures for Saoirse’s lunchbox, make pancakes with cherries in them, turn on a nature program about animals on the TV for them, it’s because Dad used to do it. When I dream about places I’d like to take the kids, I remember the wonder of hearing about the travels Dad had after he signed up with the Air Force. As kids Paul and I didn’t know the background behind those stories: we just heard about motorcycling through a desert, ordering sushi from a laminated picture card in a Japanese town, jumping from a high tower in the middle of the ocean. It sounded so wild. I didn’t know the loneliness behind those adventures. Not at first.
Here’s the thing about my dad: so much of his past was rooted in hurt. How I wish I was more careful of that when I interacted with him, but in the moment, you’re too busy reacting and aggravating than you are protecting that other person, as we all should, and I didn’t. I wasn’t protecting my dad’s heart, because my dad, with his need to make things just so, and his fierce rules, and his giant, impromptu bear hugs, was all about protection himself. As a teenager, I wasn’t so much of a fan of this trait. As an adult–an adult who understands the stories behind the stories she tells her children–I get it. I finally get it, Dad.
Luca was a shelter dog when we adopted him. His original name was Chaos. I’d wanted to take home a sad little red-haired mutt named Lady, but David took one look at this Chaos–he alway wanted a husky, because apparently David really likes to vacuum dog hair–and knew he was our dog. “Chaos,” who didn’t pay one bit of attention to us when they let him out of the cage to roam a little. Chaos, who trotted off along that shelter fence, strong and independent. His name was CHAOS, for Pete’s sake. Who adopts a dog named Chaos? We later figured was supposed to be a part of some breeding operation, and was given up because he wouldn’t cooperate. Chaos.
The dog that became Luca was one who wouldn’t sleep unless he was beside our bed. The one who jumped up on hind legs to give us hugs when we asked. The dog that allowed me to avoid being mugged at gunpoint one evening because he was at my heels. He, from the shady past, the one who was abandoned, is our protector yet, even in his last days. So much time has passed with him by our side.
Seven years. And so much time has passed without him.
David and I ran a 5K called PurpleStride this weekend, along with some very game family members who volunteered to push our children around–all 71 pounds of them, mind you–in a stroller on the coinciding walk. The whole purpose was to raise funds and awareness for research to find a cure for pancreatic cancer.
Only six percent of all people who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are alive five years later. My father was not in this minority. And the thing with pancreatic cancer is how little it’s discussed, how little money is funnelled to research. Pancreatic cancer is seen as the lost cause. I don’t like lost causes. They annoy me.
So we ran.
And ran we did. Holy Moses, that was the pits. We didn’t find out till we got there that the course was cross-country. I thought it was a mistake when I saw the start/finish line marked in the grass. At the base of a hill. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I told David. “They’re joking, right? This was supposed to be a fun run!” Fun run: if that’s not an oxymoron, I don’t know what is.
But we were one of the first ones on the starting line. In the 80-something degree heat, under direct sunlight. Two items to note here: I run at 6:30 in the morning or 6:30 at night for a reason. I’m like a vampire when it comes to exercise–I either want to be in semi-darkness, or in an artificially lit gym, where there’s no hot sun beating down, and where the air is preferably climate-controlled. Also, I’m a road-runner. Asphalt and I are friends for a reason: I am a lazy exerciser. I want to get it done, do it well, in as little an amount of time as it can take. Having to sweat from being hot on top of actually working out? Well, that’s just inconvenient.
It was the longest 3.1 miles I’ve ever done in my entire life. I thought I was going to die (Okay, not the best choice of words to use when discussing an anti-cancer race, but it was pretty awful, and I really thought I was done for). The terrain was so unpredictable–at one point I ran straight into mud, and seriously said out loud, to no one, “Ohhhh, my new shoes!“–I couldn’t get into a mind set or a groove. David was jogging with me, and apparently I was running an 8-minute mile to keep pace with him (this mama has never run an 8-minute mile. I run so slowly sometimes I think I actually jog in place) and just pooped out, slowing down at an incline around the 2-mile marker (I really wanted to crawl, but there’s this pride thing I have…). So David asked if I’d mind if he ran ahead. Sure, I said, and watched him take off. But I fibbed. I didn’t want him to run ahead. I wanted him with me. I was going to need somebody to help carry out the stretcher when I finally collapsed on the side of the course.
But we did it, David a little more quickly than I. I cut across the last loop (see aforementioned note about keeling over my muddy shoes and dying from heat stroke) because I didn’t think I’d make the last stretch (all uphill, through a small forest, over a giant ravine, into the Sahara…you get the idea), then got so mad at myself I waited to cheer him across the finish line and went back to the 2-mile mark and finished the course. The bonus to this is that I got to tell David that even though he ran faster, I went for distance. No?
But we did it. And thanked my family for overextending their bicep muscles by pushing that gigantic stroller up those hills, of course. I shouldn’t complain, really. I got to run through woods and mud and down hills and climb “mountains.” I basically got to behave like I did as a kid for a half hour, just with older muscles and better arch support. I watched two older men crossing the finish line–obvious marathoners–and the one man told the other that it was the hardest course he’d ever done. “It was like climbing Mount Everest!” the other said. “Well, not exactly. But close….”
Lots of purple yesterday. The runners and walkers created a sea of it. Survivors got up to introduce themselves during the opening ceremonies. That was a little rough. I do wonder what my dad would have thought about all this nonsense. He might have told us to go watch some football instead, unless he knew the Redskins had a bye. Obviously, we couldn’t help my dad yesterday. We raised a little money, though, and David’s company, bless their corporate hearts, matched the amount, which made me feel pretty good. My dad didn’t find out till the very end of his life how bad the odds are for this disease–it’s not something people really volunteer while sitting around getting their chemo. But if we can just add a small drop to the puddle that is research, and hope–if we can help one other person feel that there’s a chance, that he’ll see his grandkids grow, then, well, I’ll run that awful course any old day.
Cancer is so hideous a creature, it boggles my mind that so many people get it. It’s not right. It’s not fair. And it doesn’t discriminate. Know it. Fight it. End it. A 5k was nothing, even if it was uphill both ways. Our family members that fell victim to this thing would just shake their heads at us. Struggling to finish, complaining about the course, well, that’s the privilege for those of us who are alive.