By Melissa Stephenson
The thick silence filled the car as my sister, Amanda, and I drove to pick up our brother and his wife from the airport. Everyone’s New Year’s Day plans had been drastically changed, and my brother managed to reroute his flight to be with us during one of our family’s hardest nights.
Getting out of the car, we first saw my sister-in-law, Kathryn, who ran to us and enveloped us each in a huge hug. Jamie, my brother, hugged us and gave a sullen smile through his red-rimmed eyes. No one could have anticipated the news we had just received.
As we drove to the hospital, we recapped the afternoon’s events for them. We explained that Dad had been acting strange since the night before, but we didn’t think much of it until the next morning. As the day progressed, we noticed his flushed face and crimson cheeks as his temperature began to rise. He started throwing up (which he attributed to eating a hot pepper) and complaining about hot air blowing on his face and head. His speech began slurring and his behavior shifted from the strong-minded man we know to a docile, childlike persona that we didn’t recognize. Fear of the unknown began to creep in as we all pushed away the “what if” statements that swirled silently inside our minds.
My sister’s husband and mine helped him into the car so that my mom could get him to the local ER. It was there that they first saw the brain tumor. Because we were spending the holidays at my parents’ vacation home west of Houston, Dad was immediately transferred to a larger hospital in an area that was unfamiliar to us.
After bringing Jamie and Kathryn up to speed, we all solemnly walked into the hospital where my dad had been taken. We didn’t know what we’d expect and were anxious to see Mom and Dad and be together as a family. As I entered his room and caught his attention, he gently said, “Hey, babe. I’m sorry that you have to see me like this. A daughter isn’t supposed to see her dad this way. I’m sorry I scared you.”
Dads aren’t supposed to be in hospital beds. They are the picture of strength for their children. Seeing Dad hooked up to machines and IVs with an uncertain future was a difficult sight to behold. Jamie and Amanda took their turns greeting and hugging Dad as the realization of our new reality began to sink in. My mom explained that he needed to have his tumor removed and we had to decide right then when and where to do it. We knew we needed him in the best hands possible as quickly as possible. We decided Houston – our home and one of the best places in the world for medical care – was where Dad needed to be, but that was many miles away. At the time, a long drive felt daunting and undoable. But our hands were tied. So we did all we could do: we prayed and put our hope in God.
HEADED BACK TO HOUSTON
By the next morning, the neurosurgery team at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center had agreed to take on Dad’s case. After reviewing Dad’s charts and medical records, Dr. Nitin Tandon told us he believed the tumor needed to be removed quickly. Recognizing the urgency of his situation, Life Flight was sent to get him.
On the morning of Jan. 3, my sister and I gathered our families (four adults and seven kids between us) and started the drive back to Houston. My mom, Jamie and Kathryn had driven back the night before as Dad was being flown, so they were all together at the hospital awaiting our arrival.
Shortly after getting on the road, we received a phone call that Dr. Tandon had an unexpected opening in his schedule and could start the surgery earlier than expected, within the hour. Everything was happening so fast, which was a good thing, but it meant we wouldn’t get to see him beforehand. We immediately pulled our two large SUVs off to the side of the road and did what all millennials do in times of crisis—we FaceTimed. But we didn’t just FaceTime and tell him that we loved him, my husband, who is also a pastor, led us in the most powerful prayer that we have ever prayed as a family. Through sobs and broken voices, we ended the prayer with a round of “I love yous” and continued our drive to Houston as Dad started his pre-op. We would be there when he woke up—we promised.
When Dr. Tandon came to the waiting room earlier than we expected, my mom, a former ICU nurse, immediately panicked. Surgeries end early because there is no hope. She knew in her gut that they opened Dad’s skull, decided it was a lost battle, and closed him back up.
But that wasn’t the news we got. Instead Dr. Tandon told us that he was able to remove all that he could see of the tumor. He also said that, while we would need to wait until the biopsy results came back to confirm, he was confident that Dad’s cancer was primary central nervous system (CNS) lymphoma. If there was a type of brain cancer to have, this was the best case scenario.
We rejoiced, cried and waited anxiously to see Dad in his recovery room. A head-spinning three days of fear, anxiety, and constant prayer had ended with hope. We were hopeful.
The next day, we met Dr. Jay-Jiguang Zhu, Dad’s new neuro-oncologist. He patiently and kindly explained Dad’s cancer to my mom, dad and me and that he was going to aggressively go after it.
As my dad expressed concerns about how chemo treatment would affect his ability to work, Dr. Zhu instructed my dad that he had a new, more difficult job ahead of him – tackling any stray cancer cells left in his brain. “Jim, this is your job for the next 14 months. We are going to seek out the enemy, and we are going to destroy him,” Dr. Zhu said. “Your first hospital stay and treatment will begin next week. We are not going to waste any time.”
Dad’s first round of chemo was a hard, sleepless five days as his body began to adjust to his new normal and the effort it took to fight the cancer. But he was strong, and my mom was strong, and from the beginning Dr. Zhu instilled the confidence in both of them that, together, they could fight this.
Throughout the rest of the year, Dad continued his monthly week-long treatments, his clinic appointments and his MRIs. He received personal phone calls from Dr. Zhu, follow-ups from Dr. Tandon, and incredible care from all the nurses at Memorial Hermann. One of the most difficult times in our lives was made a bit easier because of these compassionate people and their attentiveness to Dad’s needs.
NEW YEAR’S: TAKE TWO
As the end of 2017 drew near, my brother, sister and I decided that we needed to close out the year better than we had started it. Our families gathered once again for New Year’s, just as we had the year before. We were fully aware that our year could have ended differently – it could have been the year we said goodbye to our dad – but it wasn’t, and we wanted to celebrate that. Little did we know, Dad had something special planned for the occasion.
After dinner, all 16 of us gathered in my parents’ living room. Dad stood in the center. Through tears, he choked out words that he and my mom had kept a secret from us since Dec. 21 – news that Dr. Zhu had shared with him at his most recent chemo treatment.
“I have a new diagnosis: I am in complete response and no longer need treatments.”
Silence. What did he say? What does that mean? Then the sobs and the hugs rippled around the room as the reality of the news sunk in. He is a survivor. Our dad is a cancer survivor!
“Take that cancer!” yelled my 12-year-old nephew, Luke, causing the room to erupt in laughter and celebration.
My mom passed out tiny bronze bells to each of us in the room. The bells were engraved with the year “2017.” My dad held a similar, but larger version. Together with tears of joy, we rang those bells, just as Dad had done at the Cancer Center at Memorial Hermann two weeks prior, with my mom and several members of his care team by his side to celebrate the news he had waited so long to hear. A chorus of bells filled the room as we said goodbye to 2017, goodbye to cancer, and hello to a new year full of promise.
As I reflect on this Father’s Day, I have so much to be thankful for. I’m thankful to God who had His healing hand over this whole ordeal and continued to provide the right people at the right time. I’m thankful for my dad’s health and that brain cancer is a thing of the past. I’m thankful for the team at Memorial Hermann who helped save his life and took such excellent care of him. I’m thankful for hunting, fishing, running, and traveling – all the things my dad loves to do and is now able to enjoy once again. I’m thankful for the 45 years of marriage my parents just celebrated this spring and for the loving support my dad receives every day from my mother, who is a pillar of strength. I’m thankful for the time that my three children – and my five nieces and nephews – get to spend with their loving, adoring grandfather. But most of all, and quite simply, I’m thankful for him.
To my dad, and all the amazing dads out there, happy Father’s Day! Today, and every day, we are so thankful for you.