November 2009

While there is time

By Katharhynn Heidelberg

For the world, Sept. 14 is the day actor Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer. For me, it’s the day after I learned my 71-year-old father had been diagnosed with the same deadly disease. He’d complained of stomach pain for a few months. By the time the diagnosis came down, he was Stage IV. The 6- foot-1 man who often joked about living to 120 is now fighting hard to see Christmas.

Pancreatic cancer is aggressive. In most cases, chemo can only temporarily arrest its spread. By the time of diagnosis, it is too late for many patients. Organ failure is the end result of this little-understood, devastating disease.

In the quiet spaces between learning this information and receiving sympathy from kind people, there’s the grim reality I can’t wrap my head around. What I do know is, I cannot control it. There is no reason “why.” There is only what is.

Dad knows what is. His words, at least, demonstrate acceptance — he even told one of my cousins he was “jiggy with" his diagnosis.

I am not jiggy with it. I can’t comprehend life without him.

But that is because Dad is not dead. While there is time, I am determined to use it well. I am also trying to remember he is still Dad; that he did not turn overnight into a zoo exhibit to be stared at, followed everywhere, and treated as a person who no longer owns his humanity just because we are afraid.

While there is time, I call him nightly. While there is time, I visit. While there is time, I record the stories he told throughout his life. Two of those stories, now, stand out.

In the 1950s, Dad nearly dies when the car he's riding in slams into a tree at a high rate of speed. The doctors tell my grandparents and my uncle to prepare for the worst. It doesn't happen. He pulls through, though, he says, the crutches got in the way when he attempted to “settle” with the driver the way young hotheads tended to settle differences back then.

Flashback to the 50s again. Dad’s giving a ride to a buddy and the buddy’s girl. He makes a wrong turn, onto a dead end lane. A car comes up behind them, and he tries to tell the driver to turn around because there is nowhere to go. But something is “off” with the other driver, who’s clearly interested in the girl. Dad never has the chance to hit the man with the length of chain he has on the floorboard. There’s a gun in his face. He and his friend are ordered out of the car and told to run on ahead, without looking back.

Dad has no choice but to leave, but he refuses to run, and gets mouthy with the gunman. Ohio murderer Alfred “Buck” Wilson lets them live, apparently, because he feels like it. The girl is not so lucky. Her body is found later; she was shot to death. An Ohio trooper later shoots Wilson from a tree, killing him.

Dad doesn't remember every detail of that night. Contemporary news accounts refer to “two boys” being forced away from the girl and told to “get money.” He does not recall that, but he does remember being run off from the first place he and his friend went for help. He remembers the next place, as well — it was the second time in one night that he had a gun shoved in his face. The woman who answered the door was none too trusting of strangers, and kept her gun trained on him while he called authorities. These stories stand out for one reason: They are perspective. While cancer is cheating Dad out of the balance of his life, from another view, he was given extra decades. The stories are proof of an uncomfortable truth: Sometimes you get lucky, but in the end, luck runs out. Or, as Dad, who only rarely sugarcoats things, says: We’ve all been dying since the day we were born.

Thomas Heidelberg is a retired sign painter. Maybe you've heard of him; maybe not. But I have: He is my dad and always will be. I can’t save him. I can’t let him go. There is one thing, though, that I can do. While there is time, I can say: “I love you.”

Katharhynn Heidelberg writes from Montrose, Colo.