My dad had a huge personality. He was passionate and vibrant, talked with his hands, and laughed with his whole body. He could hardly sit still. He was that guy who walked into a room and everyone knew he was there. He was kind and caring, but often also uncensored. He’d talk to anyone and everyone, and leave them either smiling … or stunned.
As a child, he filled our home with laughter during the good times and the bad. He’d talk in goofy voices at the dinner table and on car rides. He even left bizarre and hilarious messages on my work voicemail when I got my first editing job. I wish I could listen to them now.
He was a loyal and dedicated husband to my mother. He was an incredibly loving father to my brother, my sister, and me. His love for sports rubbed off on all of us, and helped connect us in a deep way. We could talk sports for hours on end — scores, strategy, coaches, refs, and everything in between. This inevitably led to conversations about school, music, politics, religion, money, and boyfriends. We challenged each other with our different viewpoints. These conversations often ended in someone yelling. He knew how to push my buttons, and I quickly learned how to push his.
My dad didn’t have a college degree. He was a salesman (selling accounting peg board systems, which are now obsolete) who provided a middle class lifestyle to my family entirely on commission. This still amazes me today.
His job allowed him the luxury of a flexible schedule, which meant he could be around after school and make it to all our activities. Our car rides to softball and basketball games are now precious memories: just my dad and me, deep in conversation or singing along to his music. I’m pretty sure my sister and I were the only teenage girls in the 90s who knew every Rolling Stones song on their greatest hits tape. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”still gets to me every time I hear it.
The best thing both he and my mom taught me is to appreciate life and be grateful for the people in it. Their sense of gratitude — for living, and for love — was engrained in us early on. My dad would occasionally talk about being drafted into the Vietnam War when he was in his early 20s, and had to leave his girlfriend (my mom) behind. He never thought he’d make it home alive. He felt lucky to be stationed in Japan working as a medical technician, even though his job entailed taking medical histories for wounded soldiers and identifying those who had been killed in battle.
I didn’t understand how much this had impacted him until the last few weeks of his life.
My parents went on to get married shortly after my dad finished serving his time in the army. About 10 years into their marriage, they were reminded again of how precious their time together was when my mom was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer at age 35. With three kids under the age of nine, this shook them to the core. After a double mastectomy and receiving treatment, my mom went on to live for another 26 years.
Years later, when my mom was 61, her cancer metastasized, and she passed away. This broke my dad’s heart. He’d assumed he’d die before her from type 2 diabetes, which he’d developed in his mid-forties.
Over the 23 years following his diabetes diagnosis, my dad managed the condition with medication and insulin, but he pretty much avoided changing his diet. He also developed high blood pressure, which is often a result of uncontrolled diabetes. Diabetes slowly took a toll on his body, resulting in diabetic neuropathy (which causes nerve damage) and diabetic retinopathy (which causes vision loss). 10 years into the disease, his kidneys began to fail.
A year after losing my mom, he underwent a quadruple bypass, and survived three more years. During that time, he spent four hours per day receiving dialysis, a treatment that is necessary in order to survive when your kidneys no longer function.
The last few years of my dad’s life were hard to witness. Most heartbreaking was watching some of his pizzazz and energy fizzle away. I went from trying to keep up with him speed walking through parking lots to pushing him in a wheelchair for any outing that required more than a few steps.
For a long time, I wondered if all that we know today about the ramifications of diabetes was known when he was diagnosed in the 80s, would he have taken better care of himself? Would he have lived longer? Probably not. My siblings and I tried hard to get my dad to change his eating habits and to exercise more, to no avail. In hindsight, it was a lost cause. He had lived his whole life — and many years with diabetes — without making changes, so why would he have suddenly started?
The last few weeks of his life made this truth about him loud and clear to me. The diabetic neuropathy in his feet had caused so much damage that his left foot required amputation. I remember that he looked at me and said, “No way, Cath. Don’t let them do it. A 12-percent chance of recovery is a bunch of B.S.”
But if we refused the surgery, he would have been in much more pain for the remaining days of his life. We couldn’t allow that. Yet I’m still haunted by the fact that he lost his foot only to survive for a few more weeks.
Before he underwent surgery, he turned to me and said, “If I don’t make it out of here, don’t sweat it kid. You know, it’s part of life. Life goes on.”
I wanted to scream, “That’s a bunch of B.S.”
After the amputation, my dad spent a week in the hospital recovering, but he never improved enough to be sent home. He was moved to a palliative care facility. His days there were rough. He ended up developing a bad wound on his back that became infected with MRSA. And despite his worsening condition, he continued to receive dialysis for several days.
During this time, he often brought up the “poor boys that lost their limbs and lives in ‘nam.” He’d also talk about how lucky he was to have met my mom and how he “couldn’t wait to see her again.” Occasionally, the best of him would glimmer through, and he’d have me laughing on the floor like all was well.
A few days before my dad passed away, his doctors advised that stopping dialysis was the “humane thing to do.” Even though doing so would mean the end of his life, we agreed. So did my dad. Knowing he was nearing death, my siblings and I tried hard to say the right things and make sure the medical staff did all they could to keep him comfortable.
“Can we shift him in the bed again? Can you bring him more water? Can we give him more pain medication?” we’d ask. I remember a nurse’s assistant stopping me in the hallway outside my dad’s room to say, “I can tell you love him very much.”
“Yes. He’s my dad.”
But his response has stayed with me since. “I know he’s your dad. But I can tell he’s a very special person to you.” I started bawling.
I really didn’t know how I would go on without my dad. In some ways, his dying brought back the pain of losing my mom, and forced me to face the realization that they were both gone, that neither of them had made it beyond their 60s. Neither of them would be able to guide me through parenthood. Neither of them ever really knew my children.
But my dad, true to his nature, delivered some perspective.
A few days before he died, I was constantly asking him if he needed anything and if he was OK. He interrupted me, and said, “Listen. You, your sister, and your brother will be OK, right?”
He repeated the question a few times with a look of desperation on his face. In that moment, I realized that being uncomfortable and facing death weren’t his concerns. What was most terrifying to him was leaving behind his children — even though we were adults — without any parents to watch over them.
Suddenly, I understood that what he needed most wasn’t for me to make sure he was comfortable, but for me to reassure him that we would live on as usual after he was gone. That we wouldn’t allow his death to keep us from living our lives to the fullest. That, despite life’s challenges, whether war or disease or loss, we would follow his and our mom’s lead and continue to care for our children the best we knew how. That we’d be grateful for life and love. That we’d find humor in all situations, even the darkest ones. That we’d fight through all of life’s B.S. together.
That’s when I decided to drop the “Are you OK?” talk, and summoned the courage to say, “Yes, Dad. We’ll all be fine.”
As a peaceful look took over his face, I continued, “You taught us how to be. It’s OK to let go now.”
Cathy Cassata is a freelance writer who writes about health, mental health, and human behavior for a variety of publications and websites. She’s a regular contributor to Healthline, Everyday Health, and The Fix. View her portfolio of stories and follow her on Twitter at @Cassatastyle.