My Dad was 68, but he sure didn’t look it. He looked healthier and younger than the vast majority of folks his age. And this fact only amplified the collective shock that came over our family when we found out he had lung cancer. That shock quickly turned into a 12 round boxing match as that diagnosis accelerated more than we could have ever imagined. It was a whirlwind 6 weeks from diagnosis to Dad’s passing. It was like emotional whiplash.
In July of 2021 my family met up with my parents back in Sioux City for a few days to visit with family, which had become a relatively new family tradition that we began to enjoy together starting in 2018. This time we also planned to go down to Branson, Missouri, to stay at Tablerock Lake along with my sister and her family, my Uncle Dave and Aunt Donna who live there in Kimberling City, and my cousin, Nikki, and her family who lived in near-ish Kansas City.
We went fishing and boating, and enjoyed a week together as one big family. There was nothing at all that even hinted at any kind of health issues with Dad. One day, even, Dad opted to walk about a mile to meet us at a local neighborhood pool. The 20 minute walk was hilly, yet he wasn’t short on breath or uncomfortable, and even decided to walk back when we were done swimming.
After a fantastic and memorable family trip, Mom and Dad returned home to Phoenix, and the next day Dad started to have some trouble breathing. A trip to the doctor revealed that he most likely had pneumonia, however there was another concern; docs had also found a mass that needed to be looked at. Hoping it was nothing, my family and I in the meantime were now preparing to go on a trip to Kaua’I to celebrate out 20th Wedding Anniversary for a week, but we made sure to check in every day with Dad’s health and any updates while we were away.
Before we get further into his final 6 weeks, I want to share with you a bit about who Dad was, but not the things you already know about him. Dad was well regarded as being kind, generous, everyone’s biggest fan, genuine, and having upright integrity. Dad was all of these things (and more), but there was another side to him.
He was reserved, and quite private with his feelings. Now, don’t get me wrong, he was incredibly loving, caring, and gentle towards others. He loved talking with people, and was always interested in you, curious about the things you might be sharing with him, and always wanted to talk about you. But if the conversation went on him, or somehow made him the center of the conversation, he had a diversion plan.
If you saw the Bourne Movies, they were about a government secret agent named Jason Bourne played by Matt Damon, sort of like a modern day James Bond, who was highly trained for combat and survival. Bourne would walk into a room and immediately know every escape route.
It almost seemed like Dad always had a plan. If you talk about something personal, he had an escape route. “Hey Dad, how did that make you feel?” Or, “Hey Dad, how’s your faith?” His response would go something like, “Oh hey Jobe, speaking of faith, I was watching this documentary on how paper towels are made and it was the neatest thing. You ever seen that?”
He didn’t always have the smoothest exit route, but he had one! The way he connected dots in his head to make conversation was sometimes just simply phenomenal.
He always struggled with opening himself up, struggled to really let you in. He struggled with vulnerability. He always had a feeling that he was not quite “good enough,” and always felt a little on the outside.
He compared himself to others.
He held on to regrets and things he wished he would have done differently, and often let those things really define him.
I have recounted a story frequently of a time I spent with Dad. I was visiting them in Phoenix around 2013, and Dad and I stayed up late to play a little heads-up poker in his garage. It was around 1am, and we were enjoying the card game, a beer, a cigar, and some good conversation, and then Dad decides to bring up some regrets.
He said, “y’know, Jobe, I admire how you are with your boys, coaching them and all that. I never played catch with you and I really regret that.” He went on about it, how he just didn’t feel like he was the father he should have been. Now, believe me when I say, I never once thought in my head all of my years, “I wish my Dad played catch with me more” or “my Dad wasn’t around for this or that.” I’ve always had a great relationship with my Dad, and I can honestly say that never once did we ever even get in an argument of any sort.
But Dad just never felt like he measured up; he was always trying to atone for his mistakes, or things that he had regretted. He was very much a captive to feeling like he just wasn’t good enough.
So I asked him a question. “Dad, what are we doing right now?” He said, “well what do you mean, Jobe?” I said, ‘what are we doing?” He replied, “well…playing poker.” I said, “yeah, and what time is it?” He said, “about 1am.” I proceeded then to try to paint a picture to my Dad of what we were really doing.
“Dad, it’s 1am, I’m 34, you’re 60, and we’re playing poker together.” I went on to explain to him that from my perspective, the fact that I, at 34 years old, am enjoying staying up late to hang out with my Dad is something to really think about. I was pointing out that I love hanging out with him, so whatever he had in his head of some sort of regret or something he’s holding onto should just be let go. I said to him, “Dad, don’t live in the past, now is what is important.”
But, this was never enough. He would always retort back with doubt. “Well, I know, Jobe, but I just think that if I…” And he would continue, filling the air with whatever he felt could really and actually undo whatever regrets he had.
This theme of regret came up regularly over the past 15 or so years in particular, and it really gripped him. He just never seemed to be able to let go, and never felt like he was quite good enough.
Part 2: Cancer Diagnosis