Diagnosis and his final time with us
I guess this is how bad news comes about; when you’re not expecting it. Of all places, our bad news found us while my parents were in Des Moines. It was a beautiful day and we just ordered dinner at one of our favorite patio restaurants in Des Moines. As we sat there and enjoyed the time, my Dad left to go to the bathroom. That’s not like him; he’s a camel. My internal clock started ticking. After several minutes had gone by, it was too long. I went to the bathroom to go find him. He was in the stall and said “I just threw up blood”.
Believe it or not, after coming back to the table – we actually had a prolonged conversation about if he should go to the hospital. Prior to leaving to go out to eat, my Dad had mentioned “back pain” and we pressed him for specifics. But as always, he was vague and wasn’t concerned. It did seem odd. Now, combined with the throwing up of the blood – then it was plenty of reasons to go. But yet, he fought us on it and insisted that he was fine.
If we had waited, he would have recovered from his ulcer just fine – which he never ended up having problems with.
After Erin pressed him, he finally acquiesced and he went to the ER.
That night turned into a showdown of who could wait longer for a diagnosis. As it turns out, we all won the waiting game. Until 3am. We waited in the ER through Randy the alcoholic, through the baseball injury, the mountain bike injury, etc. The doctors had a hard time figuring out what his issue was and as an afterthought, ordered a blood draw. Which led to an x-ray, which led to the doctor coming in at 3am with his results (yes, we were all still there). I began talking first (like an idiot) to explain my Dad had a complicated health history and his plumbing was all a mess. The doctor gave me an Obi-wan wave of the hand and said simply: you have a large mass in your liver, it’s likely cancer, and we think it started elsewhere.
Upon diagnosis, my Dad was insistent on getting treatment right away. He had no desire to take that last big trip, to do that last “big thing” (whatever that big thing might be). He wanted longevity. He wanted so much to see his grandchildren, sons, and wife for as long as possible. Thus, his attitude was to ‘bring on the chemo’.
During this time my parents were often at the hospital (yes, during a pandemic) often 3-4 times per week. Every week. This included driving down to Mayo in Rochester.
There’s so much more to share here, but chemotherapy was an absolute impact on him physically. (making it hard to even walk up stairs) He was on and off different regimens and trials from June, 2019 through May of 2020. In May of 2020, he received his revised diagnosis almost exactly one year after his initial diagnosis. The treatment wasn’t working and he had about six months to live.
Death certainly didn’t seem real in the middle of 2020. We would talk like he was getting on a spaceship and leaving us all too soon. We played a lot of cards and spent much more time together than we had since we were kids. He was always positive, continued to express gratitude for the good life he had and had no complaints.
Knowing that death is coming did give us an opportunity to have all the conversations you’d like to have. From religion to fond memories, these are conversations that not everyone gets. I’m grateful.
He’s like a cat in a way, and maybe he was one once – in a past life. He almost purrs when my Mom strokes his face while he involuntarily smiles. He takes help well and absolutely lives up to his mantra from the beginning: “No Whining”. He doesn’t complain. Ever. As he slowly lost his functions, almost a reverse of what a toddler does – he accepted help graciously. Almost welcomes it. My Mom said it first, but it’s a privilege to be here to serve him.
Amazingly, he’s also managed to keep his sense of humor. While he looks and feels horrible; he’s still cracking jokes. Even up until some of his last speaking moments. As we were helping move him one time, he turned to my Mom and said with a smirk: “come here often?”
In his final weeks he’s gone from a cane, to a walker. From a walker, to a wheelchair. Two months ago he didn’t even want to see the walker. Last night (1/4/21) I put it away for good. He doesn’t talk much and is sentimental when he does. He’s so brave. He’s taking this all on and had the full knowledge of what was coming.
Yes, it’s grueling to watch him deteriorate like this. The worst is watching my Mom watch him go through this. But, here we are.
Terminal cancer is brutal.
Just the four of us are here, standing vigil in a way and supporting him where we can. He’s comfortable and I’m confident he’s not suffering. It’s peaceful, it’s sad, and yet there’s beauty in this moment. We’re all grateful to be here.
As we get to his final moments, he’s lost the last of his freedoms. Standing. Eating. Drinking. Talking. Sitting up. Now, movement of any kind.
My Mom, my brother, and I were all with my Dad when he died. It was a sacred space and time and we are all grateful to have had the time. It was a privilege to serve him and my Mom. If you have read this far, please take time to read some of the readings we read to him in his final days and some thoughts about where we go from here.
We are grateful for your love and support. The impact of Gary Reagen lives on in the lessons he taught us and in so many other ways.