18 years ago, my father passed away after a long bout with cancer. He was 49 years old.
When people talk about finding the cure for cancer, many think about pink ribbons or 5K runs. I dream about what it would be like if my dad was still alive. Holding his grandchildren. Telling stories. Sharing life.
The Burroughs family had resided in Spencer County, Indiana since the early 1800s, settling the county along with relatives of Abraham Lincoln’s family. My dad grew up in a hard-working Indiana family helping his father who owned a small-town gas station and repaired cars. By the time I was born, my dad was a construction worker whose daily return home frequently brought with it the aroma of concrete dust.
As a teenager, my parents called us together for a family meeting and revealed my dad had been diagnosed with cancer. My brother, Travis, sister, Tiffany, and I did not exactly know what that meant, but we knew it wasn’t good. As we would soon discover, cancer meant daily trips for radiation nearly three hours away and our dad quickly losing much of his hair.
One time when I was 15 years old Dad didn’t have anyone to drive him to radiation so I was recruited to do it. I only had my learner’s permit and had never driven in Indianapolis, but figured it was the least I could do to help the cause. The road trip to the cancer center was pleasant enough. But after we arrived, I watched as my dad was hooked up to a bunch of wires and tubes to begin the radiation treatment process. I distinctly recall closing my eyes just so I wouldn’t have to watch it all.
The trip back, Dad was physically weak and napped most of the three-hour return. There were a few inches of snow on the ground, forcing me to drive with a hyper-awareness of the road ahead. Yet as opportunity allowed, I would glance over at this guy who raised me, praying he would make it to see me graduate from high school, or at least until I had my driver’s license.
My prayer was answered on this one. Dad was given a cancer-free clearance a few months after following his treatments. That fall, he returned to finish college since he would no longer be able to sustain the physical labor of construction. To pay the bills, he also worked nights at our local jail where he processed inmates and did his homework. My mom ended up working more, too, leaving my sister, brother, and I to fend for ourselves more than ever, but at least we had Dad. Somehow, that made everything else work out.
Three years later, I walked to receive my diploma at Perry Central High School in the middle of nowhere, Indiana. While there was much fanfare, all that mattered to me that day was that my dad was alive and there, experiencing the moment with me. It was a proud moment.
Little did I know what sacrifice my Dad had made to attend. He had been sick recently, but I didn’t think that much of it. Shortly after my graduation, a return trip to his doctor confirmed my father’s cancer had returned. This time, that meant chemotherapy.
For anyone who has had a loved one endure chemo treatment, I do not need to explain the pain involved in watching someone you care about fade before you. Many recover, but for all, the process is one of the most difficult in life. There were many nights during that time I wondered whether my dad would be alive the next day when I woke up. I prayed and prayed and then prayed again. It wasn’t anything complex. Most of my words were simply, “God, save my dad’s life!”
God heard my prayer. Once again my dad became a walking miracle. Three years later, he graduated from college, just one year before me, becoming the first college graduate in our immediate family. This time, it was me attending his ceremony, beaming as the proud son and cheering for my father as he walked across the stage to accept his diploma.
Life took some crazy turns the next couple of years, including a divorce in our family, my brother and sister graduating from high school and leaving home, me getting married, and later a move to Dallas to attend grad school. My dad had a heart attack the October after I left Indiana, causing me to return to his bedside once again, wondering if this was my last time to see him in this life.
The ICU bed where he laid included more wires hooked to my dad than I knew a person could have in their body. He was weak, but opened his eyes and smiled when I arrived. He was trying to be strong, but could barely move to squeeze my hand, much less sit up to give me a hug. We both cried for a long time before catching up and talking about his ordeal.
As I left that evening, I said my “I love you’s” and mentally prepared myself for the worst. Yet he bounced back enough after a few weeks to return home in his weakened state. After radiation, chemo, and years of specialized medications, his heart had taken a beating few can endure. Now on oxygen and a long list of prescription drugs, each day was now a gift to celebrate. In the months to follow, I returned to our old house every chance I could to visit—Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break, and again in May following the end of the school year. On May 19, 2000, I spent what would be my final day with Dad. We shared lunch, took a walk through the yard, passed beside the old creekside, and talked about old times.
Unprompted, my dad also shared he was ready for heaven. I downplayed his talk at the time, not willing to consider the void his departure would leave. But he would have nothing of it. He openly confessed many of his failures and regrets throughout his lifetime, but also noted he had made peace with Jesus along the way. Regardless of his past, he said, he knew his eternity was secure.
As I left that afternoon, I hugged my dad and told him I loved him, a habit I had kept since the time I could talk as a young child. He said the same and we both choked up a bit. Looking back, I think he knew how close his time was even though I did not.
Four days later, a 6am call to my home announced the fateful words—your dad has died. His heart had simply stopped beating the night before, his life passing from this world to the next in his sleep. An hour later, I was jumping into a car to drive the 12 hours from Dallas to Indiana to begin the necessary steps for his funeral. As the oldest son, I had to not only be there but also fulfill my duties to provide some form of stability in the chaos that would ensue.
I was 24. My mind was not ready to accept a life without a dad, a grandfather for my future children, or a world void of his humor and hospitality. The drive was my chance to reflect, to weep, and to thank God that I had a dad in the first place.
The funeral remains a blur to me to this day. I recall holding my mom, reading Psalm 23, and standing in front of my dad’s gravestone. After everyone had left, I stood staring at the stone with my father’s name on it. Below his name were his birth and death dates, July 16, 1950—May 23, 2000. My eyes remained fixed on that dash, that single sliver carved between the dates of my father’s earthly existence.
That dash represented every moment of my dad’s life. Every meal, every late night talk, every grade of elementary school, the day I drove him to his radiation treatment, and the afternoon we had walked together just days before. His dash was his existence, his contribution, and his legacy. He had lived his dash.
The bad thing about talking of a lost loved one is you never know when to stop. Or even how to stop. Once the door is opened to the memories of the past, the smiles, the tears, and the emotions of someone you cared for deeply, flood through faster the mind can control.
Looking back 18 years later, I realize I told my dad “I love you” many times. I have few regrets about how I ended my time with him. But if I had it to do again, I would have added one more thing—I would have said thank you.
Thank you for changing diapers and waking up in the middle of the night to feed me when I was a baby. Thank you for working hard and long hours at a job you didn’t necessary enjoy to provide for my needs. Thank you for teaching me to throw a baseball and swing a bat. Thank you for taking me fishing. Thank you for helping me learn to read. Thank you for loving my mom. Thank you for taking me camping that time when I was five. Thank you for dragging me to church when I wanted to stay home and watch television. Thank you for leaving a legacy I can thank you for. Thank you.
As much as this story is helpful to me, I don’t share it for my own fulfillment. It’s easier to suppress the sadness and emotion associated with the loss of someone I love as much as my dad. I share my story because you probably have someone you have lost, too. Maybe you’re afraid to talk about it or even think about it because it’s too painful. You’re afraid to go there because it hurts too much. Let me encourage you, the pain is a necessary part of remembering the joy of the one you have lost. Yes, your loved family member or friend may have left behind some pain in the process, but also likely left some good memories—memories to be remembered, embraced, and shared.
Remember how much the person you loved loved you. Remember how it felt to be held, hugged, or encouraged by your mom, dad, spouse, brother, sister, grandparent, friend, or other loved one. Remember their smile, that one time you shared that you’ll never forget. The road trip. The ice cream after the game. The song that comes to mind when you think of them.
Whatever you do, don’t forget. Life is meant to be lived, in all its emotions, not forgotten. Continue to share the stories with your friends and children and grandchildren. Let the story continue with you.
I grew up as one of three kids. Now I have three kids myself. I rarely tell them stories of “Grandpa,” because it’s too emotional for me. But once in a while, I’ll bring up the time my dad got me my first bike or the first time I beat him in basketball. Even in these seemingly mundane details, my children come alive as they capture a small glimpse of the grandpa they’ll never meet in this life. My goal is to tell his story through my words and my actions. It’s the least I can do.