MY BEST AND WORST DAY

Celebrating my dad’s life and death

By Christin Monaco

I was at my dad’s going-away party. And it wasn’t just any going-away party. My dad was going to die.

 

The whole day seems like a blur, yet I can remember it as if it were yesterday. It was October 1, 2000, and I was at a party. But it wasn’t just any party. It was my dad’s going-away party. And it wasn’t just any going-away party. He wasn’t going on a business trip or moving to another state. My dad was going to die.

Statistics from the American Cancer Society state that about 563,700 Americans are expected to die of cancer this year, or about 1,500 people a day. That’s a lot of people. These are just numbers to me, though. Who can explain why it was my dad who got it, who died from it? My dad, the man who ran over five miles every day? My dad, who was always there to take care of my family and me? My dad, one of my best friends? What were we going to do without him? What was I going to do without him?

* * *

It was a cool morning in January 2000.  Although I was cold, I was thankful for not having to scrape snow off my windshield like I would have back home in Chicago. I was on my way to Scottsdale Community College.  Another day of classes, another day of not knowing why I was taking them. I stopped at Starbucks for a caffeine fix and was getting back in the car when my cell phone rang. I looked at the caller ID and saw it was my stepsister Deana, calling from Chicago.


Courtesy of Christin Monaco
Christin and her father enjoy precious time together before his death from bone cancer.

It’s kind of strange for her to be calling at this time, I thought to myself. She knew what time I had classes and usually called only in the afternoon. Something must be wrong.

“Hey, Dean,” I said when I picked up the phone, trying to sound as if I wasn’t worried.

She asked what I was doing and told me that if I was driving, I should probably pull over because there was something she had to tell me.  I felt my face flush and my stomach clench before I even heard the news.

“Your dad has cancer,” she said. 

* * *

I remember being asked on college applications two questions I hated: “What was the best day you ever had?” and “What was the worst day you ever had?” I never knew how to answer. Well, October 1, 2001, eventually became both to me. 

* * *

After Deana told me the news, I didn’t know what to say. I sat there in my car, dumbfounded.

“What do mean, he has cancer?” I asked. How could this be possible?

Deana told me that my dad had been having pain in his hip, which he thought was the result of slipping off a truck at his job for the Chicago Water Company. He had gone in for some tests when they found the cancer.

The details were all a blur to me—something about a spot on a bone, some tests. I don’t even remember it all. All I could keep thinking was, how could this happen?

* * *

Dozens of my dad’s friends and family came to the party. People we hadn’t seen in years and family members I didn’t even know came to support my family. Tickets were $30. There was a money collection and an auction of donated items. Even those who didn’t have much money gave what they could. All the profits went to my family to help us through this tough time. I knew how much my dad meant to me; I guess I never realized how much he meant to so many other people as well. 


Courtesy of Christin Monaco
Christin and her father help her brother celebrate his birthday.

I tried to keep myself busy at the party so I wouldn’t cry anymore. I made sure everyone had food and drinks. I played with the kids. A couple of times, I had to go outside because I felt the tears coming again. We were all trying to stay positive so my dad didn’t get upset. I took as many pictures as I could and wheeled my dad’s wheelchair around so he could visit with everyone. I knew this would be the last time he saw many of them. I headed back to Phoenix the next day.

* * *

The months went by, with my dad going to his doctor’s appointments and treatments. I went to visit three times, just to help out. I would have done anything for him. The pain in his hip was so bad that he couldn’t walk without the help of a walker, and even then he was still excruciatingly slow. It usually took me 10 or 15 minutes to get him down the two flights of stairs and out to the car, where I would have to scrape ice off the windshield and practically lift him into his Ford Explorer. 

I cherished those times, though. Those car rides were often the only moments we had alone, and we spent the time laughing and catching up. Even though I knew he was in pain, he never let it show. He and I had become extremely close after a rough relationship when I was younger. His Italian temper and truck driver language made me laugh. I could talk to my dad about anything. 


Courtesy of Christin Monaco
Christin, her brother, and her father stand in front of the trusty family chariot.

His treatments continued through the summer. The doctors said he was on his way to recovery. Tests showed improvement; the cancer seemed to be diminishing.

Then one day not long before my 24th birthday in September, I got another phone call, this time from my stepmom. She told me the doctors had done some more tests. They thought my dad was improving, but in fact the cancer had spread to his bones.

My dad had only six months to a year to live.

* * *

It was Friday the 13th. I was getting ready for work when my phone rang. My dad’s number showed up, which excited me. Little did I know I was about to get the news I had dreaded but didn’t expect so soon.

“Chris, it’s Ma,” I heard my stepmom say. I knew it was serious when she didn’t call me Christabelle, or Sweetie, or even the fact that she had to tell me who was calling.

I immediately asked what was wrong, fearing the worst.

“You and your brother need to get out here now,” she said, her voice quivering. “Hospice says your dad won’t make it more than a few more days.”

Facts about bone cancer

In 2005 there will be about 2,570 new cases of cancer of the bones and joints in the United States. About 1,210 people will die from these cancers.

Although the exact cause of most bone cancer is not known, certain risk factors are linked to this disease. Some, such as smoking and diet, can be controlled. Others, such as a person’s age or race, can’t be changed.

Risk factors that can be controlled have little or no bearing on bone cancer. Rather, the risk factors are often linked to having had other diseases, treatments for other diseases, or age. For example, people who have been treated with radiation for an earlier cancer have a higher risk of getting bone cancer later.

A tiny number of bone cancer cases are linked to an inherited risk. Heredity seems to be an important risk factor in some childhood bone cancers.

Most people with bone cancer do not have any known risk factors. The cause of their cancer remains unknown. At this time, there are no known changes a person can make to prevent bone cancer.

Source: American Cancer Society

A few days? What happened to the six months to a year we were given?      

My brother and I made arrangements to leave early the next morning. I packed as much as I could, not knowing how long I would stay, not knowing what to expect when I got there. 

The plane ride was the longest three hours of my life. 

When my brother and I got there, we found out that my dad had been moved into his bedroom, where he wouldn’t be disturbed as he was before when he was in the living room. He couldn’t get up. We were warned that he was constantly taking morphine to ease his pain, so he might not know what he was talking about, might not even recognize us. I went into his room, where he was sleeping. He woke up, and although his eyes were glazed over, I could tell he was happy to see me.

* * *

My dad died 10 days later. He spent most of that time in a morphine haze. I knew the drugs made him comfortable, though, and there were even times when we were able to laugh because he would tell funny stories that made no sense. I made sure that every time I saw him, I told him I loved him, and he would say the same to me. 

And so I sit here today, writing about my dad, but wishing I didn’t have to. I’m only 27. Why did I have to lose him? What am I going to do when I graduate in May, and he won’t be there to see me receive my diploma? Who is going to walk me down the aisle when I get married? Who are my kids going to call “Grandpa”?

I don’t think it’s fair that my dad is gone. But who says life should be fair? Maybe I was chosen to go through this because whoever it is that decides these things knew I could handle it, knew I could become a better person for it. My dad’s going-away party was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever experienced, probably even harder than his funeral.  But I did it. And I realized that day more than ever how much my dad meant to me and to others. And the best thing about that day? More than once, someone told me I reminded him or her of my dad. And that made me prouder than anything. It made me want to keep being who I am, because he is a part of me.

How you can help fight cancer

You can get involved with this year’s Relay for Life race in Tempe on May 6, 2005. For more information about the race, as well as other important opportunities, visit the American Cancer Society Web site.

Sure, I regret that I didn’t get to spend more time with my dad before he died; at times I think I could have, but maybe I was too scared to deal with it. But I try to tell myself I can’t think that way. I got to spend some of the most important moments of my dad’s life with him, and I have to remember those times. I will always remember the good times, and even the bad, and my dad will continue to live through my memories and through me. 

 

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