Saturday, June 28, 2014
The Blessing of Time
Our family has been unified in the choice of faith, yet that journey is an individual one as is the process of grieving. This blog has reflected my steps, my discoveries. I am grateful my daughter Megan has allowed me to include this piece she wrote in anticipation of the year anniversary of Harold’s death. She wrote hoping to discover for herself and then to convey to others the feeling she now has about her father’s passing.
The Blessing of Time
Looking back at all the pictures, I see it: the brown spot on Dad’s forehead.
For years it was there, front and center, a foreshadow we all didn’t perceive. We couldn’t have known then that this was a sign of what was to come. The metamorphosis at the cellular level from healthy tissues into treacherous cancer went unnoticed right under our noses, or more precisely, right above Dad’s.
Doctors say that the sunburns you get in youth are what become melanoma in middle age. This fatal gestation lasts a lifetime, or at least as much as you will get. Which sunburn was it that ended up being the tipping point? Was it from hours of football practice in junior high to quarterback the team to the district finals, and then to fumble the ball on the one yard-line? Was it from working out in the fields near El Paso tricking la migra into thinking he and his brother were ‘wetbacks’? Was it from the river rafting trips he took as a teen? Was it from two years spent outside tracting as a missionary first in Chicago and then Sao Paulo?
We will never know what tipped time from counting up to counting down.
There is nowhere to place the blame, and likewise, nothing that could have changed it. Slowly that brown spot on his forehead turned red. Eventually a dermatologist diagnosed malignant melanoma skin cancer. Surgery removed the skin all the way down to the skull, in essence giving him a forehead lift, and removed a lymph node to which that area drained. His prognosis was very optimistic: one surgery and done, no chemo, no radiation. However, this bout with the cancer beast was really just the opening round. A cell or two still lurked undetected somewhere in the margins of the clean area excised from his skin.
The Harold Jones family blossomed over the next few years through marriage, births, moves, and college degrees. In cruel similarity, inside of Dad the cancer reproduced and reemerged. Melanoma intruded into new organs, eating up new tissue, and commandeering more blood supply. First it took roost in his brain, then the liver, the thigh, the back, and the lungs. We couldn’t see this transformation, and for the most part, Dad couldn’t feel it. From his perspective, he thought he was just getting a bit older. The normalcy of daily life ticked by. Dad still woke up at 5:00 am to teach early morning seminary, or when school was out, to play racquetball with his buddies. He worked in the office during the day and built his woodworking workshop on weekends.
That is until the seizures started in his brain.
A seizure is much like throwing a ping pong ball into a room covered with mouse traps. One short misfire creates a cacophony of other misfires and causes chaos in the brain’s circuitry. Though seizures can cause physical convulsions, Dad’s rarely did. His misfires started in the language portion of his brain, with stupors of thought, or gibberish coming out in place of words. They were so minor, so small at first, that not even Dad could tell what they were. However, these disturbances grew in scale until Dad realized it was more than just ageing. Something was wrong. A MRI revealed the terrifying shadows that transformed Dad from a healthy man to a one trying to beat the clock. He had 14 tumors in his brain, two were fatal if not immediately removed.
Returning to the office that March day, Dad pulled the company principals aside.
“I need to meet with you in the conference room.”
“We’re on our way to a meeting,” came the reply.
“I have 14 tumors in my brain.”
A long exhale.
Eight weeks to live. Five days until open brain surgery. A few hours to make plans. Children were flown in. A will was drafted up. Painful phone calls were made. Time had become so very precious, counted out in teardrops, hugs, and heavy sighs loaded with fears.
Faced with the impossible, our family chose to have faith in God. Faith that Dad would be healed. Faith that he would live. Faith in advancements of science and medicine. And buried somewhere deep inside, in the dark hidden places of our souls, a hope of faith that we would be OK even if he didn’t make it.
That first brain surgery was very successful, and we breathed. A severe September seizure sent shock waves through the family, but again Dad recovered. Each MRI showed improvement, but still new brain tumors growing. Chemotherapy helped too, and the tumors in Dad’s liver and lungs apparently disappeared. But those in the brain keep creeping in. Seven intrusive tumor surgeries. Dozens more zapped by Gamma knife.
We lived on, sometimes with baited breath, sometimes breathing freely.
Blessed with fifteen borrowed months, we had time enough to celebrate all the holidays and occasions knowing that it was something to be treasured. There was time enough for Dad to be with family, to travel, to meet future in-laws, to build a new optometry office, to welcome a newborn granddaughter. Time to be the beloved Grandpa Jones.
Then it came time to say goodbye. “At least you knew it was coming.” “You had time to be prepared,” offered well meaning friends. But it wasn’t true. We held fast to the hope for a miracle until even after his last breath. That dark place inside each of us, the fear that he would not beat it emerged. Confronting that demon was more difficult than watching him pass away.
It isn’t until now, in his absence, that I can perceive that ominous shadow.
The spot on Dad’s forehead marked him for about a decade. Those skin cells slowly mutated to become a nemesis within. The brown slowly, ever so slowly, cell by cell, transformed to cruel chartreuse. Just like you cannot see the shade when looking directly at the sun, Dad’s small faults and foibles were so easily overlooked. Those blemishes were insignificant compared to the joy of living and love he radiated to all those around him.
It took many months after Dad died to understand that we had already been blessed with so much time. Since his initial diagnosis, we forged our own paths and began forming our families. We were blessed to have worked, sweat, and laughed by his side. We were blessed to have Dad to guide us into adulthood and parenthood. We were blessed to create joyous memories of the many lessons Dad taught us.
Blessed with years to soak up his light.
The ultimate blessing is to feel his light shine on us still.
~Megan Kay Andersen, June 27, 2014