My sister and I were in college when our parents asked us to come home for the weekend. Something didn’t feel right but we convinced ourselves that our parents were being dramatic and just wanted us home for the weekend. The next day, as we stepped off the Badger Bus in Madison, Wisconsin our dad was waiting. He put his arm around us, pulled us in, and as we walked toward our family van he told us that he had cancer. Through tears, we could see our mother in the van window looking back at us. We were devastated. Our first thoughts and questions were of our brothers: Do the boys know? How are they? Where are they? We were a close family before but something happened that April day. We connected in an entirely new way and we developed a strength that sustained us through two years of cancer and the 25 years we have lived without our dad. Every year there are times when his loss seems unbearable. There have been graduations, weddings, the birth of grandchildren and family reunions, but it’s the everyday, unexpected moments when we miss him the most. In those times, we turn to each other. We often say nothing because all we need is to be present with someone who understands.
After two years of treatment our dad passed peacefully in his favorite place in our house: the sunroom that overlooked the backyard and his garden. He loved to watch the birds. We were all in such different places in our lives, so his death affected us in different ways. As the oldest, I felt a lot of guilt in the years following his death. I wasn’t able to be there to help my mom and be present in the boys’ lives. Also, I recognized how lucky I was to have known him the longest and have the most memories. I felt deep sadness for my brothers whose early memories were our dad being sick and undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. One of my most vivid and impactful memories after my dad’s death was of my youngest brother Matt coming to us, and asking what would happen to him if our mom died. Where would he go? Where would he live and who would take care of him? At that moment I recognized the deep connection we all have as siblings, no matter what the age difference. The four of us were all going through this loss together.
As the four of us have aged with families of our own, our sibling bond has grown and our relationships have deepened. We continue to make our siblings a priority for comfort in hard times and to tell stories as a way to preserve our dad’s memory for each other and our children. Three years ago, we celebrated the 20 th anniversary of our dad’s death. We were living in different places around the country at the time, but we connected throughout the day via email with some of our favorite stories and memories of his life. We have learned to manage the tears and heartache over the years by coming together.
I was 13 and Matt was 10 when our dad told us he had terminal cancer. There are two very distinct periods in my life: the time before dad’s cancer and the time after. As young kids, Matt and I enjoyed playing sports, spending time with our friends and going on family adventures, particularly camping and fishing. When my dad told me he was going to die in a few months, in many ways the innocence of youth faded and I grew up pretty quick. Despite the harsh realities of our dad’s illness and our uncertain future, the two years that he was sick became a rallying cry for our family. We were determined to live every moment, and to experience joy, sadness, doubt and hope together. We religiously prepared his Ensure shakes in the hope that it would give him strength through his cancer treatments to engage us in one of his adventures – a picnic in the park after Sunday mass; building a pond in the back yard; fishing at Governor Nelson State Park; a few more runs down the ski hill; and one last road trip to the Ozarks. The ironic beauty of those two years is that in the midst of losing our parent, we grew closer to each other.
I remember our final moments with my dad as though it happened yesterday. My mom, Matt and I sat with him in the sunroom. We locked hands in an unbreakable chain of love, and prayed for calm and peace. I have always felt blessed that we had that time and those experiences, knowing they sustain us to this day. For us, quality of time exceeded quantity of time. I remember the days and years that followed. No one slowed down for us. Life just moved on and we relied on each other to learn and grow. I remember how much I relied on my big sisters – sometimes for support and understanding, and other times for guidance to steer me back on track when I lost my way. Only Becky could get away with calling my college dorm room to wake me early on a Saturday morning and light a fire under me about my upcoming exams that required my attention. Only Christy could relieve my panic at being unprepared for my exams and attempt a last minute revival. And, only Matt could teach his older brother a wise lesson I desperately needed to learn. Shortly after dad died, I had a misplaced sense of responsibility to play the part of “the man of the house” (whatever that meant). As he went to bed one night Matt gently reminded me “I don’t want you to be my dad. I just need you to be my brother.”
I was 12 when my dad died. Today I am 36 years old. I have a beautiful and loving wife, an amusingly adventurous two-year- old son, and a little baby girl who just arrived. My life is blessed. Still, it is surreal to reflect and realize that I have lived 2/3 of my life without my dad. He may not be here to experience my life, but my life experiences him. The ripples of his death are felt in all of the blessings I enjoy today. And, if I let myself, I can still see the world through those twelve- year-old eyes.
My dad got sick when I was ten. Early adolescence. That time in your life when school and friends and puberty are supposed to consume your every thought. Instead, I thought about death. Death was all around me. In a matter of 3 years, our family lost my father, two close family friends and my grandmother. As an adolescent, I didn’t know a lot about life, but I was surprisingly familiar with death. Don’t get me wrong. I was still a kid who played and learned and had fun. But when I went to a sleepover, I always feared what might happen when I was gone. Every note I wrote for a birthday or a holiday felt like my last chance to tell someone I loved them. Words had to be perfect. Goodbye’s had to last.
Shortly after my dad died, my grandma also passed. I remember her wake vividly. Afterwards, my siblings and I were sitting together in a gathering room while my mom was finalizing arrangements for the next day’s funeral. We were in that room… the four of us. It was quiet. I looked at my siblings and they looked tired. They looked gutted. And then, out of nowhere, I just blurted out, ‘What if Mom dies? What happens to me?’ I can only imagine how sad that question must have seemed to my siblings, coming from their little brother. I don’t know what I expected them to say in that moment. Honestly, I can’t believe they could even muster a response. But they all did. My oldest sister Becky, in the midst of medical school, would quit everything and come home. My sister Christy, just finishing college, would put her future on hold, and she would stay with me. My brother, still a teenager himself, would somehow take care of me. In that moment when I feared I could lose everything to death… my parents, my home, my city, my friends… somehow in that moment, my siblings helped me realize that nothing could tear apart my family. We were strong, and tragedy only strengthened us. For me, that was the moment that death stopped winning. That was the moment that I started healing.