My father, God rest his soul, died last year on my birthday. He was terminally ill with cancer, which spread from his lungs to the rest of his body. When I was twelve, he told me he would die from cigarettes... and that’s just what he did. Sixty years of smoking two packs a day had come down to this… It was a lot different than losing, Kristi, after all, our family kept abreast of his health, and we got the chance to say goodbye countless times. Our entire family came together and rallied around him. Old wounds seemed to have healed. Looking back, oddly enough, the year my father battled cancer created some of the sweetest memories.
What death taught me about living:
1) Life will surprise you. Growing up, my father lived about 15 minutes from me, yet years would go by with little connection, especially when I was a teenager. He was distant and I felt incomplete in some way because of it. As the years passed, I would see him from time to time and it was loving, Once he was diagnosed with cancer, our relationship drastically changed. We saw each other weekly or more, and we laughed and cut up on the regular. Although we knew he would probably die from cancer, how we handled it came out of nowhere. The ugliness of cancer somehow made our relationship to what I remember today, beautiful.
2) Passion will carry you. My father was a saxophonist for over sixty years. He was driving to paid gigs at age thirteen, and received a full ride scholarship to University of Arkansas for band. In the sixties, his group had a hit on Top 20. After decades of stepping away from his sax, he lived the last thirty years in harmony with his music. Dad’s passion for playing carried him all the way until the end. It was obvious playing gave him a joy like nothing else. Dad’s last performance was at the American Legion on Cross Lake in Shreveport, Louisiana, a few weeks before his death, surrounded by family and friends.
3) Be true to yourself. Towards the end, my dad could no longer hide the pain and had no interest in dying in a hospital. He laughed and said, “only if they have a smoking room”. Eventually, we were able get him the help he needed to fulfill his wishes to crossover at home. Hospice was wonderful and allowed him to be as comfortable as possible in his own living room, right in front of his big screen TV, just like he wanted.
4) We are all born to die. Dad said he felt his body shutting down and that there was someone tapping on his shoulder. We told him he could go when he was ready, and even still, the natural desire to live was there. Even though it was sad to know he had taken his last fishing trip and played his last set in the band, it was such a relief to know that he was no longer in pain and the fight was over.
5) Saying goodbye can be beautiful. The last time I saw my father we spent seven hours together. It was one of those times you know you are living in the moment... being given the precious gift of saying your last goodbye. We prayed, laughed, held hands and told each other how much we loved each other. He told me how proud he was of me and I told him how thankful I was for him. It’s was like a living snapshot… I reassured him I would stay close with his wife who had taken care of him so wonderfully. I also told him we wanted him to be at peace and that he could go when he was ready (even though I knew in his heart he did not want to go). We hugged and kissed each other on the cheek before we departed.
6) Love conquers all. My dad loved his wife, Jewell. He joked around a lot about when they met 'she pursued him’. They were married seventeen years and were about as close as two people could be. She catered to him so much, other women said she made them look bad! Jewell knew what glass he liked to drink his bourbon in and how he liked his ice and she knew how he like his baked potato. Jewell took Dad to all of the doctor’s appointments and dealt with his grief, daily. She was there for him because she loved him, it’s that simple. They are a testimony that love conquers all and goes on forever.
7) Laughter is a necessity. My dad always had a funny streak and I was graced with his humor. We ended up being laughing partners throughout his illness and had the most fun. We would take tear dropping photos and videos with Helium Booth that would instantly change the mood and my memories. No, we hadn’t forgotten about that life-sucking cancer, but the laughter made us treasure the moments I will always carry with me.
8) Look back and be thankful. Reflecting on the times our family shared surrounding Dad were some of the most precious moments of my life. People who had been absent or distant joined the rest of our family. Even with all the dysfunction, we still found a way to be there for Dad. We lived fully.
9) Take the pictures. It was no secret, my dad wasn’t a picture kinda guy. He usually had a smart comment when a camera was pulled out and would shut down the photo session when he'd had enough. Dad was funny like that and we laughed at him for it. When he got sick, I bought a camera and began capturing just about everything... his last birthday, his performances, his last Christmas, and lots of family photos of us celebrating him. These photos and videos are treasured and were included in his service, memorial videos and website - www.patopry.com. I'm so glad we took the pictures!
10) Life is full of magic. Today, on Dad's birthday, his long-time friend and fellow musician, Tony Tims, lost his battle with cancer. Tony had been struggling through the illness with his wife, Pat, by his side every step of the way. For Tony to crossover on my dad's birthday seems like coincidence, but feels more like magic. Tonight, I believe Dad and his friend, Tony, are together.
Lastly, I’d like to make a special shout out to my dad in Heaven. Happy Birthday to you! We had so much fun together, didn't we?! I appreciate all the priceless moments we created. Thanks for tolerating me, my pictures and all the family gatherings. You have my word, I will honor your life by doing my best to enjoy my own. I'm still close with Jewell like I told you I would be. Thank you for all of the life lessons. You will always be in my heart and in the eyes of my children. I love you, Dad!
Amy O'Pry Massey
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