As children, my brothers, sisters and I feared becoming orphans. Then, as we grew into responsible adults we had no bigger fear than to leave our children as orphans. Odd though, because we have one of the best family support systems anyone could imagine. However our childhood was plagued with recurring nightmares. Those fears came to fruition one school morning when our Grandmother woke us and told us there was no need to get dressed for school and to come downstairs. Our father needed to speak with everyone. You know it is forty years later and I still tear up when I remember that morning. Our caring neighbors comforted and held each of us as our father had to break the news “mom's been called to heaven”. I guess time will never soften that blow. Grandma and Dad tried to calm our fears and answer our questions; but what do you tell a young child who's mother has succumbed to cancer? How do you reassure a child whose worst fear just came to be? Why should we have to?
Mom went to the dentist for a problem with her tooth and in what seems like a flash was diagnosed with cancer. The doctors told our dad and grandmother that it was inoperable and the radiation treatments she received did little to change her fate. For as little as they knew in the late 1960's about cancer they gave it a good fight. To this day I still believe it was the pigheaded scot bloodline that gave her the strength to carry on for as long as she did. The prognosis was kept from us, and that April morning when our worlds all came apart was a complete shock. We knew mom was sick, but we didn't know it was life threatening. We knew she had been to the hospital a lot and that they kept drawing marks on her face but we didn’t understand. We watched her deteriorate not knowing why. Dad reassured us he would always be around and even told our youngest sister, Gail that he would never die, but that a chariot would come down and he would be raised up when it was his time to go.
Four decades later cancer entered our lives again. Dad had a lump on the base of his tongue and was diagnosed with head and neck cancer. Accepting the challenge, he put himself in the hands of the best cancer care he could find. One can only imagine the nightmares he faced being diagnosed with the same demon that took his wife and left him a single man with five children. He had witnessed the horrors of cancer first hand, but rose to the challenge and began fighting. He endured multiple surgeries and intensive regimens of chemotherapy and radiation. When all avenues were exhausted and hospice was called in, we were all still in denial. How could forty years of research in the country with the best health care in the world deliver the same results? Our oldest brother, Bill was called to accompany dad through the last days, an honor he'll never forget. Dad turned a negative into a positive. Dad always being the teacher donated his body to the University that couldn't cure him in order for them to learn from his experiences. He faced his fate with dignity; there was courage in his lack of fear. There was an overwhelming comfort when he opened his eyes and smiled as he drew his last breath. We were honored to take that walk with him; because when he left this earth he was satisfied. He'd caught his last trout, he'd fixed our last problem, he'd taught us how to live, and he'd taught us how to die. Surely there was a chariot there to lift him up.
Cancer has left us orphans, but we are not victims. We have come to offer you a challenge. We have the resources to defeat this disease if we are dedicated to the cause. Please join in our mission to support the Head and Neck Cancer Alliance in their efforts to support ongoing research in head and neck oncology and the education of both children and adults about the disease process, treatment and prevention of head and neck cancer. Let's make that miracle a reality and defeat cancer. Every day we are closer to a solution so please join us and support the wave to smash cancer.
The Howard Family