Because he had lost a good portion of one of his lungs as a child, my husband, Michael, took very good care of his health. He kept up with doctors' appointments for two important reasons. Although he felt healthy, he also felt he may be vulnerable to respiratory illness, due to his history of childhood bronchiolitis, and he wanted to keep on top of things, health wise. The other reason was that he loved his family, both his birth family and the family we had, and he took great pride in working hard to ensure we had everything we needed, and that we would be able to provide for the education of our four children.
In late January 1998, I sensed that Michael seemed a bit more tired, more often, after his long workdays. In the first few days of February, when he came home from work mid-day twice, not feeling well, we both thought he was probably a bit run down. But by February 6th, admitted to the hospital with a fever of 105, we knew we had to find the reason for his being so ill. The morning after his admission, we received the news that his cat scan showed problems that would require immediate surgery. When his surgeon came out of the O.R., I was gently and compassionately given the devastating news that my husband had advanced colon cancer, and that it had already metastasized to a point well beyond treatment. It nearly broke my heart to have to explain to our four children, only 10,13,14 and 16, that their Dad was trying to get better, and his doctors were trying with all they knew to help him, but that he had a serious disease and we had to pray for him. I felt it was only fair to give them some warning of the seriousness of the situation. After two surgeries, Michael died twelve days later, on February 18th, of a post-operative systemic infection. Our family and friends flocked to us and shared their love and support, we had a beautiful funeral Mass in tribute to him, and suddenly it was Sunday evening - of a new, although very different, week. One of my children asked if they had to go to school the next day. I had not even gotten that far in my thoughts. Michael had died during the February school vacation. They decided to go to school, since they didn't know what else to do, and I went back to work, for the same reason. As a family, we began some sort of new normalcy, but never, ever (to this day) stopped talking about, or remembering, or crying for, or laughing about our memories, of our husband and father. Things were turning around, just a tiny bit...
March passed and the promise of Spring brought Spring sports and end of year activities for all the kids, including proms. The two oldest girls had five or six proms to attend, at their own and friends' schools, and they would be attending some of them together, both of them. I told them we would have to plan, regarding all those prom dresses, and it was a happy time! On the night of the last prom, one of my daughters said she didn't like the way her dress felt, as her tummy felt bloated. I wasn't worried - not a bit. I only saw a lovely girl in a beautiful dress! But in my heart I just wanted her father to be there to see her, too. The following Monday, she had a prescheduled physical exam, to renew her lifeguarding and swim instructor certifications. I was going to leave work early to go to the doctor's with her, as either my husband or myself always did with our children. She said, "Mum! It's my routine physical! I drive! I'm 16! I can go alone!" When I came in from work that evening, she told me that the doctor would be calling, because she wanted to talk to me. I spoke to the doctor, composed myself as best I could, and made dinner like a robot... The very next morning I took my daughter for an ultrasound. The test showed a huge mass in her abdomen. She underwent surgery several days later, and the surgeon came out of the O.R. and told me the tumor had to be sent out for testing, as it was not a common tumor, and he did not know the status, whether benign or malignant. After slides being sent to 3 or 4 institutions, the result came back in about a week that it was an extremely rare, although malignant, ovarian tumor.
My daughter was treated at The Gillette Center for Women's Cancers at Mass General Hospital. How difficult to sit there on the first visit, under a sign that said Center for Women's Cancers, with my beautiful young daughter, and not knowing how this would go. It had been only about 3 months since my husband died. The oncologist assured us that the surgery had been impeccable, with no sign of cells elsewhere, but that chemo would ensure that we took every available step. The type of cancer was said to be extremely rare, with a 95%+ success rate. That was very good news, for sure, and yet I questioned him on the fact that it was so rare. My feeling was, if there were many, many cases, with only 2% recurrence, that would make sense. But with so very few cases, how did they really know. He asked us to trust him, and we did. He spoke directly to my daughter as an adult, which I respected. The summer prior to her senior year of high school, she was infused with chemo five days per week, lost her hair, and had her last infusion on Labor Day. The school department had scheduled tutors until she felt better. But that Tuesday, the night before the first day of school, she informed me that she was going to school the next day. I told her to please begin the tutoring, at least until she was less tired. She looked at me and said she had missed enough memories, she was not going to miss any more, and she was up and out early the next morning to begin her last year of high school. She never missed a beat, and hasn't ever since.
I was in awe of her strength and determination, and I learned how to let my little girl go, because she was now a young woman, not my baby any more... We saw her oncologist once a year, then every two years, and now fifteen years later, his patient is a healthy, happy, productive young woman! After having received a business degree, and working for a large corporation for five years, she changed gears, attended Nursing School, received her Masters in Nursing, and has been employed as an Oncology nurse at The Brigham and Women's Hospital for the last several years. After not discussing her illness very much, she started to share her experience more, and said that she wanted a career where she could give back, and help patients and families the way she and her family had been helped.
Things were turning around, in very important ways! Our first three children are daughters, and our son is the youngest. He was ten when his Dad died. When he was twenty, he came to me and said how his Dad had been gone just as long as he had been here... I think like that. I call it "the math I do!" But it was quite bittersweet to have this young man, my son, come to me and say that on his own. He was a hardworking, typical twenty year old...interested in his job, his college courses, and his car, his many good friends, his family, and the current moment! It was amazing to realize that he was more communicative with his feelings, than his Dad had been. Both he, as well as his Dad, had extremely warm and friendly personalities, very generous of spirit and willing to help anyone with anything, but neither seemed to say more than what actually needed saying! I liked to see that my son was able to share his thoughts, a bit more easily. In 2012, when Michael would be turning 65, I shared that "math" with my family. That would have been a special birthday and birthday party; Michael had been only fifty when he died.
Just around that time, I received an email from The Jimmy Fund that introduced their new Mini Golf Fundraising effort for cancer research. I forwarded the email to my son, and something immediately clicked with him. In his father's memory, he organized a Mini Golf Tournament in April of 2012, and, along with his friend who is a very young cancer survivor, an 18 hole Tournament in June of 2013. His second Mini Golf event will be on September 7th, 2013 - in memory of his Dad. He was recognized last Fall for his organizational skills in setting up his first event in less than the usual anticipated lead time, as well as exceeding his fundraising goal for that event by approximately 50%. Things are turning around big-time!
My husband's and my children are wonderful young men and women who bring me great joy and happiness! They all have happy lives, many good friends, productive careers (a nurse, a teacher, a pharmacy technician and a business man/entrepreneur (and I think fundraiser!). We all are grateful for our blessings, and acknowledge, but do not dwell on, our losses. Life holds no real promises for anyone, and no one should take anything for granted. But the pain of life's sorrowful experiences can eventually be replaced with positive, meaningful experiences, as time goes on. Losing a loving person, and fighting a disease, never leaves your mind or heart. But you can step forward, one step at a time, and - over time - things can turn around for you.
One of my daughters will marry a very special young man in November, whose father unfortunately also died of cancer only three years ago. Her brother will walk her down the aisle, in memory of their Dad. Things are turning around! We continue to remember, honor, and share the life of Michael Patterson with others, and remember him with happiness, for that is what he would want. The Love Story of His Family Lives On, and we all have every faith that the dedicated work of the researchers at The Jimmy Fund will Turn The Story of Cancer Survival Around, too! And that is why we golf.......