On Tuesday, May 27th, 2014, I had the pleasure of facilitating one of my Ping-Pong team-building workshops for an organization in Calgary. I had been looking forward to this particular engagement for weeks and it was a great day of work and play.
That evening I received a voice-mail from my mother. In a sombre tone she gave me the bad news about my father. A few months ago, he had been diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma. Malignant mesothelioma is a type of cancer which occurs in the pleura, the lung’s lining. I called her back, and it quickly became clear that the time had come to return home. He was not doing very well. I was planning to get back to Ontario for the middle of June, but the nurse told her that if his children wanted to see him alive, they should visit as soon as possible.
It was time to come home. So I did.
I arrived home to London, Ontario less than 48 hours later from Alberta. On the busy Wednesday before my departure I managed to pack things up in my apartment for a sub-letter (thanks to the help of my great friends Sam and Amanda), free up my meetings and commitments, book the flight and get back home. It was an emotional and stressful time. That was the first day I had burst into tears in public more than once since I was a young child! As I did my banking and bought a ticket for my flight, I was comforted by people who allowed themselves to be humane, to help me get through the tasks that were necessary to get home.
I had been warned from my mother that it would be difficult to see my dear old dad the way he was now. It had been 5 days since he was able to eat or drink anything. His appetite was completely gone and if he could eat anything it made him nauseous. He had lost 30 pounds since I’d seen him 2 months earlier and 60 pounds from 6 months earlier.
Since the illness had become very aggressive Dad had been very weak, barely able to walk, sleeping most of the time and not very conversant. This is the antithesis of the Dad we know. Until two years ago at 76, he was still climbing on roofs to fix them, mowing the lawn, fixing cars and always talking up a storm with anyone who would participate and telling jokes or teasing. Although born in Portugal, Dad grew up largely in Brazil and adopted many of the then more liberal attitudes and values of Brazilian culture. Dad is the kind of person that no matter what life throws at him, he could rally people and see the positive and humor in the situation. As I write this, I am complimented to feel the statement holds true here, “Like father, like son”.
Things happened very quickly. The next day, two of my three sisters arrived. The following day, my twin sister from Calgary. On the weekend, it was like we had a revolving door for cousins and friends who came through. As the Portuguese side of the family is quite large, many people came to see him. It was a beautiful outpouring of love, prayers and caring from people who’s lives he’s been an important part of. It was both exhausting and touching. Everybody including myself thought that he had just hours to live.
The day after my arrival, our wonderful nurse Dina attached some butterfly plugs that allow family members to administer medication to a patient who is being cared for at home. Normally this type of thing would make me squeamish. Yet it was no problem for me to learn how to do it for my father. The hope was that with these new stronger medications he’d regain his appetite and be able to hold down some food and liquids.
We tried all kinds of things to see what he could drink and keep down and amusingly it turned out that the best thing was Guinness! The next thing we knew guests were bringing gifts of Guinness in those tall, dark cans day and night. Several times when he’d ask, “Oh Boy, do you think I could have a sip of that black beer?”, I’d pour a 100ml portion for him to drink. We were thrilled to see that he could finally drink something!
Eventually the portions got slightly larger and he even tried to eat a little soup. And then it happened. On Thursday, June 5th I was awoken by my mother at 6:30am to these great words, “Could you wake up Honey. Your father is feeling particularly frisky this morning and wants an Egg McMuffin.” Of course I could. I could hear him talking up a storm from the bedroom which was a first since I’d arrived and the first time in more than a month. He sounded like himself! Lively, articulate, excited. He was talking non-stop all about food and the good old days working in construction. He was happy.
So a few minutes later I was on my way to McDonald’s to grab the same meal that I used to get before snowboarding in Alberta.
It just so happened that this was one of the final things that he was able to eat when he was losing his appetite. While inside I mentioned to the lovely lady in her 40s behind the counter how this was exciting for me as it was to be the first food that my father would eat in two weeks! I did not give her any further details yet tears came to her eyes. She replied, “I think I know what you are dealing with. I’ve just gone through it and my heart goes out to you and your father”. “What a sweetheart”, I thought as I felt a little guilty for upsetting her. It seems true that there is not a family who has not been touched by Cancer.
Back home that morning was one of the best I can remember in quite some time. Sitting at our old dining room table, father and son together, I saw my father eat! He ate 3/4 of a Sausage and Egg McMuffin and also had a couple bites of a hash-brown and a full “double-double” coffee. He even sent my twin back to get him the apple pie that I forgot! We were thrilled.
With a few tweaks to his medication, his diet has continued to come back and we have enjoyed listening to some of his high-energy conversation that we were so used to. We have tracked almost everything he’s eaten or drank since then and he has regained some strength. The doctor had told us that the steroid he was taking would give him this boost. Be it artificial or not, I’ll take it! I really feel that the combination of family love, the new meds and his increased desire to live, brought my father back to life.
I’m not sharing this story to gain your pity. Rather it’s a story of love and celebration. Despite how my father’s illness affected our entire family and continues to be very emotional and challenging for all of us, I have found some very positive moments during this time. My hope is that this story offers other people experiencing something similar to celebrate what moments they can with their loved ones in such challenging situations.
Since arriving home and getting past the initial crisis stage I have enjoyed some of the pleasures in life that I have at times overlooked.
Some Unexpected Gifts from being here now:
– having the entire family together for an extended time for the first time in over a decade
– the laughs we have shared playing cards or with my twin’s dogs
– the flowers, the endless Portuguese cakes and prayers and unique healing methods that have arrived
– having time to practice juggling 5 balls – a challenge that has been facing me for 15 years
– having started to play the piano using a fascinating technique that is becoming part of my work
– for the first time in my life, actually noticing just how beautiful flowers are
And, of-course, I’ve had some great conversations with my father, my sisters and my mother since I have been home. To some extent with all of the traveling that I have done over the years, there are sides of me that they had never heard about or known of. Now, as we band together to celebrate the life of my father, it seems fitting to share a little more of myself with the people who brought me into this world and have contributed so much to who I have become today.
(I just opened a bottle of Guinness with a letter opener)
So now here we are. Antonio, Jaoquim Esteves has gained 15 pounds and we are spending the days together In London and eating like kings. Last week he had me cook him an octopus and his brother brought over a cooked organic rabbit. Both were delicious although I’ll leave the octopus to a professional next time. We even got out of the house to visit his favorite Portguese restaurant called, “Nova Lisboa” in south London. As one of the first 20 Portuguese people in this city and the first President of The Portuguese Club of London, my father has been frequenting this establishment for over 30 years. He, like his son, loves people and a good celebration. So this Saturday, he has arranged for about a dozen of us to share a roast pig!
I’ve always sought the right life / work balance but not always been able to achieve it. Until now during this unique time, I have forced myself to resist chasing after work. I know that these precious moments are numbered and can’t lose sight of that. While I do need to continue to build my business, that can wait a month or two, or 6 or 12. On the scale of my life it’s really insignificant. My business will be around as long as I like. But my father will not.
A good friend, Trent from Calgary correctly told me during a phone call last week, “Tony, there’s no greater call for you to answer than what you are doing now”. Thank you Trent. You’re right. I think I’ll stay put for the summer. My family needs me in Ontario and I’m honored to be here.
Looking forward, I have got some serious exercising and much more writing to do, and many books to read. Bring on this ultra-unique summer in my old hometown of London, Ontario. I am grateful for every minute here, even the tough ones. I have certainly felt misplaced since arriving, but it’s becoming clear that in fact I’m exactly in place.
An update. My dear old Dad passed away on July 15, 2017 peacefully at home. He is still thought of and loved daily.
Because of this article, I was contacted by a mesothelioma cancer survivor and asked if I could share this link. If you or a loved one would like some legal resources on mesothelioma, in the USA, please visit HERE.