Fast forward to one of the summer nights my dad spent in the hospital. I, my mom, and some of my dad’s brothers were crowded around my dad’s bed. My phone rang. The sensei had mentioned checking in with me while I was away from the club again since my dad’s condition was worsening. I vaulted over one of my uncles at the corner of the bed so I could get out of the room to answer the call in relative privacy.
“Hi, it’s Jeff.”
He’s Jeff off the mat and sensei on the mat. I felt a little tickle of happiness and comfort that he had called to check on me as he said he would. I could talk to him about anything going on and he wouldn’t get awkward about it. He always had interesting or insightful commentary. Above all, perhaps, I knew he was genuine and straightforward. I never doubted that he believed what he said and always had good intentions.
Every year the head instructor for the jujutsu system hosts a seminar called a taikai. In 2009 it was in September. I caught a ride with the second in command, Nate, who turned out to be one of Jeff’s best friends, and another student. I almost didn’t go because my dad was obviously getting worse. As long as his condition wasn’t critical, I figured a weekend of distracting myself would be healthy.
Somewhere in Indiana I got a call that the doctors found one of the three types of brain cancer in clumps along his spine and floating in his spinal fluid. Chemo and radiation had worked to keep the large growth in his brain from coming back, but now cancer had invaded his entire central nervous system.
As soon as I got off the phone, I allowed myself a few tears and relayed the information to the rest of the car. I wasn’t really shocked that my dad’s tests came back with bad news, but I mourned the incremental loss of hope for more time with him. I knew from the beginning that he had a very low chance of surviving the year.
Jeff had gone a couple of days early to prepare for a belt test. Only I and one other student in Nate’s car planned to stay overnight in the dojo to save money. Jeff and Nate each offered to host one of us in their hotel rooms for free so we could have the comfort of a bed. I ended up with Jeff. The other student was a very talkative and inquisitive sort of person–not what Jeff needed leading up to his test.
Jujutsu was again exactly what I needed that weekend. It kept my mind occupied and spent my energy throwing and being thrown instead of worrying over things I couldn’t change. Jeff was a perfect gentleman and listened to me talk about whatever I needed to. I gave him the time and space to focus on his test preparation.
Shortly after the taikai I returned to Wisconsin to help with my dad. The cancer in his spine was blocking the flow of cerebrospinal fluid between his head and spine. The pressure in his head gave him a constant headache. My mom and I talked to the doctor about options to treat it. The only way to relieve pressure at that point was to drill a hole in his head and insert a drain that would stay after surgery. He’d have to be strapped to the table for surgery. We asked my dad if he wanted that and he said yes, that’s find. The doctor’s team did a trial and he fought to keep them from tying him down. He didn’t understand what they were doing and obviously hadn’t understood what we had asked him. When the doctor explained that to us, she asked my mom what we wanted to do and my mom asked me. She knew the answer, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it. I told the doctor it was time to take my dad home. The doctor and I caught my mom as she fell off her chair. The doctor kindly outlined to us the process for preparing my parents’ house to receive my dad and what his care would entail. Hospital bed, oral and topical medication administered using gloves so we wouldn’t absorb any of it, and around-the-clock care. A nurse would teach us how to do it and then it would be up to me and my mom.
My mom and I took turns tracking his meds. Other family members came and went. Some relatives drove in from Iowa to see my dad while he could still recognize them. Early in the morning on September 27, my dad stared into space and didn’t respond to us anymore. After his eyes closed, his breathing became more labored and infrequent. Only I, my mom, and one of my uncles were there. My uncle ran into the laundry room to call family to come back. My dad obviously didn’t have much time left. Only a couple minutes after my uncle walked out, my dad took his last breath with me and my mom by his side at 4:23 a.m. His body relaxed.
“Dan!” My mom tried to shake him back to life although she knew it was useless. “4:23 a.m.!” That was the time she said her final goodbye to her husband, the one she planned to grow old with. I had lost my father at 25 years old and my life changed forever. She had lost most of her life. She and my dad had been inseparable since she was 17 and he was 20. They were each others best friend and they had few friends outside of our family. My day to day didn’t change since I had moved out of their house years before. Her day to day would be a constant reminder of the future she’d never have. Her loss was far greater than mine.
We planned the memorial service for October 1. A car full of my friends and classmates drove up from Illinois, people I’d never met from my dad’s jobs over the last few years came to remember him, and I saw family I hadn’t seen in years. Everyone came to remember my dad, the anchor of his family and someone everyone respected. Even then I didn’t realize how much we had lost.
I promise this sad interlude plays into the story, though it may not seem like it yet.