It’s 4:30AM and I woke up with this on my heart, swirling through my mind. This is just a little glimpse of what it was like to watch Daddy fight small cell lung cancer.
It was a Saturday. Mom and I were going shopping. I had mentioned to Justin that maybe since the baby was almost 10 months old, it was time for me to buy some new jeans and finally give up my maternity jeans. As he always does, he suggested I call my mom to join me and take off to town. He loves clothes shopping… for himself. For me or with me? Not so much. So that’s what I did and that was the plan. I talked to Dad on the phone then he passed the phone to Mom. She and I got ready then Justin, Brynlee, and I went to their house so he and Brynlee could stay with Dad while Mom & I went shopping.
As we went to leave I kissed Dad and told him “Bye” as I always do. He looked at Mom and I and said “Don’t you think Whitney might want to go with y’all?” For a split second, I thought he was joking. He had this stare and he was very obviously frustrated as I told him yes, I was going and he repeated himself “Well, she might want to go with y’all!” in a heated tone. In that moment, my world stopped spinning…. except it didn’t because that would be the easy choice and this life doesn’t offer easy options lately. Instead I reassured him I was going shopping and walked out with Mom leaving him with Justin and Brynlee. As soon as the garage door closed behind us, I looked at her and plainly said “It’s in his brain.”
The cancer had spread to his brain. It was a Saturday and I was going shopping with my mom. My dad knew this, but in an instant, he forgot who I was. The next two weeks would be the worst two weeks of my life thus far.
The next morning, Sunday, we had decided to stay home from church. This is usually my idea, but this morning, Justin said he wanted to watch the kids play in the yard. God works in mysterious ways sometimes. If staying home from church is ever on the table, it’s always because I put it there- not Justin. It wasn’t long until I received a phone call- my dad was at my uncle’s small church in his pajamas. #1 Daddy rarely went to church and when he did, it was usually with me to our church. #2 Daddy always cared how he looked and going to church in his pajamas? Nope. Not going to happen.
We would learn that week that his brain was covered with innumerable lesions. The brain cancer was responsible for many actions of my Dad’s that were not at all normal. That said, I firmly believe and know in my heart that he saw through the cancer and knew he wanted to spend some time drawing unto the Lord. He allowed the church to pray over him. That would be my dad’s last Sunday outside of in-patient hospice care. It would be his next-to-last Sunday on this earth.
After he got out of church, he called and apologized to me for some things he had said the night before. Apparently my mom had filled him in, because I don’t think he remembered. I accepted his apology through tears on the other end of the line. I had kept it together and had not cried in front of him or on the phone with him until that moment. There was no need to apologize as I knew it was the cancer talking when we got back from shopping and he complained about my “14 kids” and how he thought “I should get a job and let Justin stay home with the kids.” I left his house that Saturday night broken and hurting, bawling my eyes out, because my daddy would never say those things to me. He simply didn’t believe them. He was my biggest supporter. He wanted me to have as many grandbabies for him as I possibly could and he loved that I was a stay-at-home-mom. I know that he bragged about my little family to anyone willing to listen. Brain cancer said otherwise.
The family was called in and he spent that Sunday surrounded by people who loved him. All he wanted was to sit with Brynlee in his big recliner so that’s what he did. Things would go downhill that week as we watched the cancer terrorize my dad’s brain. I spent Sunday and Monday night with Daddy. Justin spent Tuesday night with him. Wednesday, Daddy took a nap and woke up a different person. Things were done and said that I don’t know if I will ever be able to write about. Maybe I’ll write about it one day, but I’m not sure if I will ever share. Small cell lung cancer is a horrific disease and it can and will attack the entire body, but for my Daddy, watching this brilliant man lose his mind was the hardest part.
Two weeks later on a Saturday, I stood in Skirum Cemetery as I watched a crimson Alabama vault be lowered into the ground. Inside was my dad’s body. Even in death, he was a beautiful man. Even after an excruciating 4.5 month fight with cancer that overtook his entire body, he was gorgeous. He had asked us to close his casket. He didn’t want people to talk about how the cancer had aged him in such a short period of time or how badly he looked and so that was our plan. He was always a bit vain when it came to his looks- Roger wanted to look good. There was never any question- we would see him as family and then close the casket. Except when we saw him, he looked better than he had alive in his last days. Everyone in the room began to second guess that decision as whispers swirled about how good he looked- at peace finally- and so that is why we knew we had to leave him open. I’m not exactly sure what he would think about that decision, but I like to tell myself that if had been there to see himself all decked out in Crimson with that sliver facial hair shining and beautiful skin (it was like baby skin because he had been badly burned in 2000- an painful facelift, if you will), he probably would have said something like, “Damn, I look good. You better leave me open!”
As I stood in that cemetery, I was mad. Not even so much that I have to spend the rest of my life without my dad and my best friend, but because of what the cancer did to him before God finally took him home. My dad was the smartest, hardworking man I had ever known. He told me once that when he died, he wanted people to say “He worked until the day he died.” So I will say that because it is true. He worked until the day the cancer completely took over his brain and it was no longer safe for him to work. Even then, everyone was worried about how he would take the news that he could no longer work. I sat across from him in the living room that Sunday night and said, “Daddy, I think it’s time for you to stop working.” and in the saddest tone he replied “Yes, me too. It’s dangerous, isn’t it?” We never said the words, but in that moment, I knew that he knew and he knew that I knew that the cancer had made it’s way to his brain. I was so worried that I would have to take his keys and I’m thankful it never came to that.
I miss him with every ounce of my being and I am still so very angry about how those last 2 weeks went but I know that Daddy is resting. After he drew his last breath, I kissed him and told him to rest, that his rest was well deserved. In the days before he passed, I talked to him about heaven and tears rolled down his face. Most people thought I should shut up and not upset him, but I know that he needed to hear from me in that way. I told him that I would be tough because I was his and I don’t think you can be Roger Mars’ daughter without being at least a little bit tough. I asked him to save me a spot and I know that he will, that he is. I can’t wait to join him one day.