Like Wildfire, It Spread.

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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.

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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.

Pop Collage

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.

Father's Day Dad Hubby

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.

photo by KC Photography

photo by KC Photography

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.

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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.

New Normal… Again

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It’s been over 2 months since I’ve written anything.  It’s beyond hard because I just don’t know what to say anymore.

My dad passed away October 9, 2014 after a short but hard fought battle with small cell lung cancer.  I didn’t write here about his diagnosis other than mentioning it once simply because he read my blog and I didn’t want him to come here and read about how depressed I was knowing I was losing him.  So I just quit writing altogether to avoid that.  He was diagnosed in May and passed away in October- it’s unbelievable and I feel like my heart has been stomped… again.  Since 2012 I have lost so many people I loved- 6 to be exact- and it feels like it’s never going to end.  I begged God to take my Daddy and end his suffering because sometimes you truly do have to love someone enough to let them go.  Knowing that I will see him again one day is the only thing that keeps me going at this point- that and my children.  They are heartbroken as well.  Pop was their world.

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Photo by Kayla Cobb at KC Photography

Brynlee underwent cleft palate repair surgery October 14, 2014.  Yes, it was a crazy few weeks.  She is so strong and did amazingly well.  We spent the night at Children’s of Alabama and she was released the next morning.  Her recovery has been astounding.  She weighs 19lbs 10oz and is almost 30 inches long.  She completely skipped 9 month clothing and went from 6 months to 12 months.  She wears mostly 18 month pants and leggings because she’s so tall and has thunder thighs.  :)  She goes back for her cleft repair follow-up and another modified barium swallow study November 6th.  She just started crawling!  She can also sit up and is still just a delight to be around.

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We started our homeschool year and it was going fantastic, but with Dad’s sickness and Brynlee’s surgery, we have taken October off.  We will begin again in November and probably not take as long as I had planned off in December to make up for lost time.  One of the reasons I wanted to homeschool this year was because I know things were going to be tough on the kids when Dad passed away so I feel like we definitely made the right decision keeping Bryson home.  Bryson is reading, spelling, sounding out words, counting to 100, and doing some basic math.  I’m so proud of him!

fall fair 2014 collage

These pictures are from the fair- 2 weeks to the day before my Daddy died.  He didn’t feel like going, but he had not missed a fair since Bryson was born and he knew it would be his last so he went anyways.  I’m so thankful for those last few memories we made together- picnics at the playground, the fair, playing h-o-r-s-e in the driveway, and simply spending time together.

I don’t want to quit writing so hopefully I can return to my favorite form of therapy now that we are learning to live with our “new normal” again.  What is normal anyway?  For us, normal is ever changing.  One year ago, normal did not include cancer, trachs, feeding tubes, surgeries, pumping, syringes, etc.  We just keep going- that’s all I know.

On Depression, Choices, & the Daily Struggle

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I wrote this yesterday and shared it on my Facebook page. It’s long (2,000 words) so I did not expect people to actually take the time to read it all. But, they did. They commented and shared. I think we all just want to know that we are not alone. I’m reposting here on my blog so I can easily find this in the future.

I was twelve years old. I was pretty and popular. I was a cheerleader, a basketball player, a world-championship-winning shortstop. I was a straight A student who participated in “gifted” classes. I was surrounded by friends. I had wonderful, loving parents who gave me the world. By all accounts, I had absolutely nothing to be depressed about. I would hear that over and over in the following years “What does she have to be depressed about!?”

I had no idea what depression was at twelve. All I knew is that it was becoming harder and harder to be happy. I still played the sports, went out with friends, and slapped on my happy face but alone in my bedroom, I was sad. I didn’t know why.

It worsened as I turned thirteen and became a teenager.

I don’t know if all the signs were ignored or weren’t caught. It doesn’t matter. I know that I became an expert at putting on that happy face.

Paper was the one place I could not apply that happy face. When I began to write, my hands would take over, my brain happy to let go, to be real with someone, something- even if it was just a sheet of notebook paper.

Paper was eventually how I slipped. On Fridays, we always had some kind of writing assignment in PE. It was an innocent question we were asked to write about- what kind of car did we want to drive when we turned 16? Oh, what a fun question for any girl who couldn’t wait to turn 16 and drive! Except that one girl, 13 at the time, who didn’t want to turn 16 and drive a car because all she wanted to do was die. She could lie to your face, but the truth always prevailed on paper. And it did that day and she thought nothing of it.

Until a week later, Valentine’s Day 2003, I found myself in the office of that PE coach with a psychologist. She was asking about my answer to that question. I would meet with her for the rest of the school year. I went to my family doctor and was prescribed a very low dose of antidepressants. They can fix me, I thought. This is fixable.

But things only became worse. My attitude was chalked up to being a spoiled rotten little brat but there was more going on. I would often pray myself to sleep, asking God to please just let me die. Dear Lord, please just take me so I don’t have to do it on my own and hurt the people who love me even more. Please don’t let me wake up in the morning. Please, please, take this hurt and this pain. Let someone else, someone who is happy and not fucked up have this life they want and take me because I don’t want it.

I couldn’t sleep most nights. I would take OTC sleeping meds in order to sleep and they didn’t work half the time. I would still be up when my parents woke up for work in the morning. I missed a lot of school which became kind of a joke in the school. If they only knew the battles I faced, it probably wouldn’t have been quite so funny.

That summer after my original diagnosis, I finally gave in. God wouldn’t take me but I couldn’t take the pain any longer. I was 14. I took a shower, I started with my bottle of Zoloft and then one by one, I wiped out the medicine cabinet. Once again, my words stepped in to save me. I had written a goodbye in an online journal that very few people knew about but the right person read it at the right time. My goodbye ended up saving my life. Over 300 pills later, I found myself in the ER fighting a tube going down my throat to pump my stomach. I was pissed. So very mad.

Well meaning friends and family came by so I threw on my happy face while in the ICU. One person while I’m sure she was well intentioned did more harm that good. She came in my ICU room and put her finger to my chest then pressed and asked if I didn’t know God. After she left, I attempted to remove my own IVs. Yes lady, I knew God. In fact, I had begged him to take my life and He wouldn’t. Quiet whispers (not quiet enough, I heard them) spun through our community. By the time I was transferred to the psychiatric ward at a larger hospital in Birmingham, I was supposedly pregnant and had apparently been molested. Because this girl, she had nothing to be depressed about. So let’s make up some quick rumors- let’s give her a story to go with her depression.

While in the psychiatric ward, they tried many medications. When you are severely clinically depressed, you are like a guinea pig. They don’t know what will work and when you are only 14, that really complicates things. I was still pissed that I was alive and even madder that my parents left me in that place. I refused to see them one day and also refused to see a local pastor. Finally, the doctors landed on the right medication and I went home. We had worked on coping skills and I was only allowed to leave the hospital with an agreement to go to therapy in Huntsville three days a week. I quickly graduated that program- I slapped on that happy face and I was in a class with the kind of teenagers you think of when you hear “depressed” so I looked like I was doing awesome. My hair was fixed; I had on make up, and a big smile, the cuts on my wrist hidden under bracelets. I rocked that program. I was definitely doing better but I was still far from your typical 14 year old.

I quit every sport and I lost the majority of my friends. They were all typical 14 year olds and here I was, the same age but completely different. Who could blame them? No one was sure how to act around me.

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of my medication was anorexia. Yes, no joke. While I became able to cope with my depression, I became anorexic. On the rare days that I would eat, I would end up vomiting. I lost 40 pounds and the doctors threatened to take my medication if I lost more. Thankfully, I did not.

Justin and I became friends about 6 months after my suicide attempt. He didn’t know me then so he held no judgments. Though he was originally from here, he had moved for several years and had just moved back so he missed me at my worst. He didn’t see me as “that girl” and that was freeing for me. I was still very much struggling, but he never tried to fix me. He looked past the scars and fresh wounds on my wrist and my crazy moments. He took me fishing and he had no expectations of me and he taught me how to have fun. That summer holds some of my fondest memories and those memories are because of him. I have absolutely no doubt that God sent him to step into my life and change the course of it forever.

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I ended up playing one more season of softball and another season of volleyball, but the spark was no longer there for me. The things I loved were now chores and after a season of each, I knew I was done for good. I could no longer relate to my peers.

It has now been twelve years since my original diagnosis and suicide attempt. I never attempted suicide again and I never will. I learned not only to cope with my depression but also to recognize when things were becoming dangerous. My senior year of high school, I was near suicidal again and made the decision to quit school (a controversial decision) and take care of myself. Everyone had an opinion on that decision and many of my classmates flat out made fun of me for quitting so close to graduation, but it was the right thing for me and I knew it.

I won’t lie- I am still not the most mentally stable person you’ll ever meet. I struggle daily. I have not sliced my wrists since December 2007 and I am proud of that. I have good days and bad days. The past 2 years have been very difficult for me and they have no doubt taken a toll, but I am able to cope. On the worst days, I am able to see through the darkness and know that there is light somewhere. I may not always know where or how to find it, but I know it’s there. God blessed me with an angel of a husband who stands by me even on the bad days. I know that I am not an easy person to love, but he does and he does it well.

I began writing this after reading an article that stated Robin Williams did not die of a disease, but from a choice. I don’t know his story, but what I do know is that my story began when I was only 12 years old and I didn’t know what depression was. How could I choose something that I didn’t know existed? It was not a choice.

For those of you who believe that this is simply a spiritual problem, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that you have never been clinically depressed. I believe that God has given me this story for a reason. He put me on this path and I pray my way through the day every day. I have prayed for God to take this depression from my life, but if I had never walked this path, how would I reach out to help others? If I had not faced the darkness, I would not be able to reach into the night to remind someone else that morning does indeed come.

Depression is a disease. Clinical depression is different than being depressed for a few days. Depression is not a choice. It is no more a choice than cancer. Sometimes with cancer, patients choose to let go and refuse treatment because they feel the fight is not worth it. It is the same with suicide- when I swallowed 300 pills at 14 years old, I thought my quality of life was not worth the battle. I had fought and fought, I had taken medication and talked through it, but my quality of life was not improving. I thought I could remove myself as a burden to those who loved me. I thought I was doing the world a favor.

With a clear mind now, I know those were all lies. Depression says “you are worthless” and “life isn’t worth living” and those things are not true. Morning does come. There is light, but you have to hang on. And hang on. And hang on. And fight. And fight. And fight. If you feel as if you have no one to fight with you, I will fight with you. Do not let this society make you feel as if you are beyond repair. You are not beyond repair. You may come out with a few scars, some scratches and dings, but if you are living and breathing, I promise it is not too late. Seek help. Your first steps may not work, but keep going. Keep seeking, keep fighting, and keep trying. On the other side, beyond the darkness, there is a light and a life worth living. Yes, even for YOU.