My dad Bill loved his John Wayne movies and westerns. As children, “The Duke” was a staple in our household, along with a choice selection of dad-approved programming.
He was a big Top Gun fan, and like most American homes in the ’80s, we owned it on VHS. Some of his other favorites included Blazing Saddles, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Full Metal Jacket. As a Marine, he connected with military dramas and other movies we were too young for.
The kid in him cherished Looney Tunes. He always listened to the local oldies radio station. Nowadays, I make my own oldies playlists on Spotify. You could say my dad shaped a lot of my early influences.
He watched Jeopardy nightly, a show that bored me to tears, followed by World News Tonight with Peter Jennings (equally boring). Dads know everything, as the thinking goes, and he was no exception. He should have been on Jeopardy.
Miami Dolphins were his favorite team, at least for a while. Football, baseball, car racing, or golf were always on the television, much to my chagrin. We were alike in some ways and different in many others.
He was a talented engineer and all around Mister-Fix-It. Bob Vila’s This Old House was another favorite show of his in the heyday of DIY public broadcasting. He helped me with my math homework, explaining the same formulas I failed to grasp again and again.
Sometimes the equations made sense, other times I wanted to slam my head against the wall. High school algebra, college algebra, and arithmetic in general were not my strong suits.
“Don’t worry, son,” he’d tell me. “I struggled with calculus in college.”
“Calculus? Are you kidding me?” I couldn’t even fathom the concept.
A Sudden Change
It was an uneventful workday when I got a call from my brother. Strange because I didn’t normally receive calls from siblings on a Monday afternoon. He told me something was wrong with Dad.
My dad had messaged us both on Facebook in complete gibberish. It looked like the symptoms of a stroke. Emergency room was all I could decipher.
I had wished him a Happy Birthday on the phone the week prior. He’d just turned seventy. They were due back home in Palm Bay, FL the next month. None of it made any sense.
He had collapsed in the front yard of his Canadian summer home in Midland, Ontario, my stepmother Marie’s hometown. She rushed outside to his aid, unable to pull him up. A neighbor helped them into the house.
My dad was taken to the emergency room, where multiple tests revealed a cancerous brain tumor in his right frontal lobe. My brother and two sisters awaited every update. We hoped it was benign, something that could be removed without issue.
We spoke with him on a video call during his first night in the hospital. He was noticeably different, groggy and semi-coherent. “They’ve just got to get this gerbil out of my head,” he repeatedly said with a drooping smile.
The doctors diagnosed his tumor as Glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer. He couldn’t return home, nor could they treat him. Instead, he was referred to a team of specialists in Buffalo, NY.
I remained optimistic. He was going to one of the best cancer centers in the United States. They would know what to do. Everything would be fixed, and things would go back to normal. They had to.
Unable to pay the exorbitant costs for ambulance transport across the border, Marie and her brother-in-law Daryl made the exhausting journey from Ontario to Buffalo with my dad in tow.
The debilitating effects of the tumor left him unable to walk or move much. He needed help from the car and into his wheelchair during stops along the way.
They were also running against the clock. Chemo treatment or removal of the tumor was our only hope, and things needed to happen fast. It was the beginning of a turbulent end to the year, and during the months that followed, Marie never left his side.
My wife and I met Marie, Daryl, and my dad at the Buffalo General Medical Center upon their arrival. I helped get him into the wheelchair and inside the hospital, where staff were expecting him.
His voice was faint. He wore a ball cap, jacket, and blanket over his lap. He vaguely recognized me. I was nervous around him, unsure of what to say.
The surgeons were confident they could remove the tumor with minimal side effects. Modern medical technology appeared to be our saving grace. I could only stay for the weekend, and in that time, my dad gradually seemed normal, despite the excruciating headaches.
They administered steroids for head swelling and pressure, which stabilized his condition. My dad assured us everything was fine. He even used his laptop or cell phone, sitting upright in bed like normal.
The head surgeon visited and explained the procedure in detail. They would cut open his skull and remove as much as possible without damaging vital parts of the brain around it.
We agreed to the surgery, perhaps in haste. In less than a week, he would be in the operating room. I can’t imagine the apprehension he must have felt, though he only exhibited calmness and resolve.
I completed basic training at Fort Knox, KY in 2002. Twenty years later, I was back for pre-mobilization training with my Army Reserve unit. We were to deploy to Kuwait for nine months, running sustainment operations.
In mid-October, Marie messaged our family chat group. The surgery was a success. They had removed 98% of the tumor. My dad was in recovery and could be home in weeks. Feelings of dread lifted upon the news. There was a real chance, I thought, he could beat this.
The next step was to transfer him to a physical therapy facility near his home in Palm Bay. He would need to gain back the use of his motor skills and maybe even walk again. I monitored everything from Knox as Marie, Daryl, and my dad completed their trip home.
When I returned to FL, my wife and I visited my dad from the hospital room of his new digs in Palm Bay. He spoke faintly and slowly but still recognized us. “Where’s my beautiful daughter-in-law?” he asked with a smile.
He had a large scar on the right side of his head, but most of his hair was intact. He still couldn’t move much and needed round-the-clock care. An old work friend of his visited, and they talked for a good hour. His memory seemed as sharp as ever.
Quality of Life
The months blurred into a dizzying haze. By November, I was at Camp Shelby, MI for a professional military education course. Meanwhile, news from home was getting worse. My dad was not making progress with his physical therapy.
The medical staff informed Marie that his regiment wasn’t working. The latest MRI results were in. His oncologist found another two lesions on his brain, and he wasn’t strong enough for anymore treatments.
The next steps were to set him up for hospice service at home and deliver quality-of-life care. Confused and in denial, I called my mom and asked what hospice meant in his case. Was it really that bad? Her concerned tone confirmed as much.
They modified a guest bedroom to accommodate my dad. He slept a lot and rarely felt like getting out of bed. Hospice workers came by a few times each week. Marie and her sister Teresa, a registered nurse, took care of him day and night.
A large family gathering followed at the Palm Bay house for Thanksgiving. Siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles who hadn’t seen each other in ages all came together. From his wheelchair at the table, my dad delivered a heartfelt toast in appreciation for us being there.
I stayed at their house the week before my next assignment at Fort Cavazos, TX for pre-mobilization processing. Upon leaving, I stood by his bed with his swollen hand in mine and promised to write from Kuwait.
“I wish I didn’t have to go,” I told him. That much was obvious.
It was the first time throughout the entire ordeal I cried.
It was also the last time I saw him.
Before he passed on December 23, 2022, my dad was surrounded by family at his bedside in one of the rooms he had spent so much of his retirement fixing up. Every person there was an extension of him.
His life was cut short, but he had undoubtedly left behind a legacy and touched many lives in the process. He had been blessed with the good fortune of family, friends, and so much more.
He led an accomplished life as a husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and mentor to all. We’ll never forget his wisdom, humor, affection, and the stability he provided our lives.
He was a father for the ages, a man I didn’t always understand but knew I could count on at any time. In the end, these were the things that mattered.
Godspeed, Dad, and Semper Fi.