Powerful Lessons of Life and Love
By Brad McEwen
Mack was clearly agitated.
The ever-loyal boxer hadn’t left David’s bedside for hours, silently holding vigil at the foot of the bed.
But now he was clearly upset, pacing between the den and the bedroom, circling Mari’s feet, urging her to take notice.
And she did.
Some 15 years later, the next several minutes are a blurry haze, but following a panicked phone call from mom and a mad dash across the house, we were all gathered in the spare room of the mother-in-law cottage, Mack curled at mom’s feet, not sure what to do.
Our hands tightly interlocked, our intense focus on Father Reed as he led me, Tay, and mom in prayer, we summoned our strength—somewhat diminished at that point—and sent our unyielding love with David as he left his broken shell of a body and was called home.
And when his last breath came, a faint smile on his lips as he entered the kingdom, all of the grief, the sadness, the fear that gripped our family—the weight of watching a cherished loved one slowly fade away for the better part of 3 and half years—was lifted, carried off with the spirit of my father.
The relief that washed over my family as the curtain closed on those difficult few months was palpable, each of us recalling the feeling when discussing it the next day.
God’s hand had been there and had lifted away the hurt.
But to a certain extent, for me at least, the hurt wasn’t the only thing that floated away that night.
As we shifted our focus to the tough tasks of coordinating memorial services and preparations for out-of-town family that would inevitably descend on Albany to pay their respects, it also meant a shift in thinking, and a packing away of all the difficult thoughts and memories that defined the 3 years prior.
There was work to be done and thoughts about illness and dying had to be pushed aside—where they remained until very recently.
Now that’s not to say that the following days, weeks and months were devoid of thoughts of my dad. Far from it.
David McEwen was nothing if not well-loved and those that felt compelled to share their feelings with mom and I were a steady stream in our lives for months.
Dear friends, first cousins, great aunts and uncles, former co-workers, golfing buddies, literally dozens, came to pay their respects, comfort the living and share some wonderful memories of a man who had a lived a full and vibrant life, despite it being cut so short at 59.
So, it’s that outpouring of love and the celebration of a life well-lived that always seems to fill my mind whenever my thoughts drift back to that time. To be clear, I think about my dad often.
It’s easy to picture him giving me a knowing nod when the lightbulb of some important shared nugget of info he had bestowed had clearly lit up in head, or see his head cocked back with laughter, chuckling about some dopey thing my buddies and I had gotten into.
I can hear him in the deepest recesses, gently urging me forward during those tough times when I’m not sure how to proceed. And I can still hear him singing along with “Little Egypt,” proud to put down his “one thin dime, one tenth of a dollar,” to enjoy a good night on the town.
But until recently I hadn’t thought about his illness and death in quite some time.
You see time is funny.
It has a way of buffing smooth the rough edges of our memories, dulling the sting of painful remembrances and shielding us from the explosion of fear and anger that come in the immediate aftermath of loss.
Over time the tears turn to sniffles and then gently disappear, the fitful nights turn to restful slumber, and the images of pain and hurt fade away and are replaced by those of smiles, hugs and laughter.
Typically, when my thoughts turn to dad that’s what I see—his smiling and loving face, untouched by the ravages of the cancer that took him from us.
It seems that over time, my mind just kept the door to that hall of memories closed, protecting me from having to relive one of the toughest times of my life. And for most of the past 15 years I’ve been thankful for that.
I really don’t want to remember my mom wrapping gauze and compression bandages around his swollen legs.
My mind is no longer plagued by the image of my once vibrant and strong dad, diminished to a feeble old man who needed my help to shave his face.
I honestly don’t think about colostomy bags, or the white cotton Mickey Mouse gloves he had to wear for days after treatment because the cold of the very air around him was like icy hot fire on his hands.
Memories of him lying unconscious in yet another 7th floor cancer room at Phoebe, tubes taped to arms and sticking out of his nose and chest as his body fights off another of the random infections that seem to plague cancer patients as much as the actual disease that’s destroying them on the inside, are rare.
I don’t see Todd sitting quietly on my back stoop, waiting to comfort me as EMTs roll the stretcher across my backyard for the final time.
Those things are just too painful to think about and I want to remember my dad as the vibrant, larger than life character he’ll forever remain in my mind’s eye.
And that’s pretty much how it’s gone for the last decade plus—all my dad memories are the good ones and the painful ones have been shuttered away.
But recently I realized that while it’s good to keep my focus on the Dave McEwen whose shoulders I’d grip so tightly as he gave me sea turtle rides around in the Gulf, or to picture the silly jokester whispering “three buckets of dirt” in my ear as I release the around the world jump shot that’s going to finish him off and lead to my victory (I always seemed to miss by the way), blocking away memories of the “bad times” also obscured some of the powerful things that occurred during those tough years that really are worth remembering.
Sure I don’t often think of my dad wasting away and beat down by another round of chemo, but by blocking those memories it keeps me from remembering his good days when he’d proudly drive himself up to the bank branch I was working at and come strutting into the lobby in his sweats and t-shirt, his black cane at the ready and his freshly shaved head gleaming almost as bright as the smile on his face as he came to spread good cheer to the Dawson Road team.
By not allowing myself to see the bruises and scars on his arms from the tubes and needles that had been plunged there, I also miss out on memories of the loving red coats who would eagerly meet us in front of the tower and whisk dad off to his next treatment. I miss out on the memories of dad doing as much to brighten his nurse’s day as they’d be doing to lift his spirits.
When I wall off that painful stuff, push back the thought of that rattling noise coming from his chest during those last few days, I also block out thoughts of Mike Roberts, or Dr. Chirag Jani marveling at dad’s inner fortitude and his ability to minimize himself and bring joy and comfort to others.
By denying those memories I don’t like, I’m diminishing his impact, somehow taking away the joy and accomplishment he felt when sharing his hope with others.
In reality, some of the best life advice my father ever gave me came from the prism of him facing his own mortality and the lessons I learned during that time have proved invaluable as I’ve navigated my own adult life.
I can’t properly describe the strength I draw I when I think about how powerful his reaction to his circumstance was in defining what really matters in life for me.
Where I saw his circumstance through a haze of anger and imagined him thinking, “woe is me, it’s not fair,” he had a completely different view.
Where I could only see a life ending far too soon, he saw a life well-lived. He saw 59 years of blessings. He felt humbled that he’d gotten to enjoy such a wonderful journey, when many of the boys he grew up with never saw 25, their lives snuffed out in a rice patty halfway around the world.
When he thought about his impending death, his thoughts didn’t turn to anger toward God or Dave’s personal lot in life. No, his thoughts turned to the childhood friend who was killed in a car wreck not long after high school graduation.
Staring death in the face, Dave saw life.
And it truly was an incredible thing to witness.
By all measures my father should have died a good three years before he did.
When he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer two days before I drove to Albany to ask Tay’s daddy for her hand, it was already stage 4. Tumors had broken through the bowel wall and cancer cells were digging into his liver and lymph nodes. Radiation couldn’t shrink the tumor enough to remove it all. Chemo couldn’t stop the steady progression.
His doctors gave him 6 months.
Almost two years later he was standing tall beside me, as proud as a father could be, as Tay and I said our vows before the altar at St. Paul’s.
Six months after that, we were back at our favorite place, the golf course—where he and I could go to escape the rigors of life, where the cancers and diseases and ills of the world couldn’t sully the beauty of God’s good earth for a few precious hours.
Before the end came my dad went from 225 (or more) to about 95 pounds. When he died he had had a permanent colostomy and a nephrostomy—two waste bags, one for each side of him. His legs swelled to nearly twice their size and would pain him constantly. His hands would be so cold he’d say they felt as though the very fire of hell was surging through his knuckles.
It was hard stuff for anyone to digest.
But through it all he never lost that indomitable will to bring joy and happiness into the world. He never gave up on his personal promise to live each day to its fullest, as if it was the last day he’d ever get—a decision he made while watching his own father succumb to kidney disease at age 49 (just a few days shy of Dave’s 24th birthday).
And when Dr. Jani would ask him to come address the Golden Key club or some other group of elderly or infirmed about the power of the human spirit, he’d jump at the chance—even though the mere act of getting to the venue and walking to the podium took Herculean effort.
I had forgotten a lot of that stuff until recently. Well, not forgotten as much as buried.
But thankfully it all came flooding back earlier this summer as I embarked on mission to help the Phoebe Foundation’s annual Lights of Love initiative.
As a writer, I’m often asked by different organizations to pen things here and there to help the cause. And because I believe it’s incumbent upon us to share the gifts we've been given for the betterment of others, I rarely say no.
So, when my friends at Phoebe asked if I would be willing to interview the cancer survivors who have been chosen as this year’s tree lighters for Phoebe Main, Phoebe Sumter and Phoebe Worth, and do write ups about them for the pledge card mailers, I was more than willing to take that on.
When I agreed to the project though, thoughts of my dad never crossed my mind.
But as soon as I dug into the first interview, with Americus resident and pretty awesome dude Robert Thomas, the first thoughts of my dad’s battle began to float to the fore of my mind.
By the time he told me he thought he’d been asked to be a tree lighter this year because Dr. Jani is always getting him to talk to other cancer patients and share his strength with them, it was hard to think of anything but my dad.
A few days later those thoughts only intensified as I conducted interviews with Worth County Elementary teacher Shala Juster and Phoebe employee Monique Wilson, both of whom talked about the power of faith and the amazing love people share when the chips are down.
As Monique talked about her husband Fred, a cherished Phoebe red coat, I could see the smile on my dad’s face as other like-minded gentlemen rushed to the car door to help him up.
Conducting those interviews was a profound experience and writing a little bit about their personal struggles, triumphs and hope was an exercise in intense personal reflection that I honestly just didn’t expect.
Like I said, I think about my father frequently. A father myself, it’s almost impossible not to.
It’s hard to watch Bear practicing his skateboard moves, or take in one of Milla’s DWS softball games, or hear little Rhodes, a big old smile on his face, babbling a mile a minute about God knows what (although he clearly does), without thinking about my dad.
He would have loved watching his grandchildren navigate the tricky little turns in life, would have cherished the holiday laughter and delighted in the special affection—the hugs and kisses that only family share.
And blessedly every time we’re together I can feel his presence, his big strong arms wrapped around the McEwen family, continuing to protect and guide those he loved.
I’ve long cherished those thoughts and feelings and welcomed them wholeheartedly.
But thankfully I’m now able to honestly and earnestly look back on the hard times without fear of pain, but rather with love and pride, knowing how blessed I was to have those three years where despite his slow deterioration, we were able to share so much.
In his dying, my father gave me his greatest gift, showing me how to live.
In the coming months I hope to honor that gift, by not just embracing the bad with the good, but also through action.
I don’t know exactly what it looks like right now, but as we move closer to the annual holiday season lighting of the Lights of Love trees, I will be partnering with the Phoebe Foundation to use the Beyond the Bank platform to help raise the profile of a truly blessed initiative and, more importantly, share the love, hope and joy these cancer warriors so freely share with others in need.
If there was ever a time to marvel at the power of the human spirit and the good that can come from ordinary folks doing extraordinary things, I believe it's now. There's simply nothing that can't be accomplished and no struggle that can't be overcome with a strong community of love and a willingness to lift each other up.
Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - firstname.lastname@example.org - @BradGMcEwen