Paul's Heart

Life As A Dad, And A Survivor

Whether A Promonition, Or A Preview, I Want It

A friend of mine posted this morning, that today is one of her favorite times of the year, GRADUATION DAY! She herself has experienced this many times, as a student, as a parent, and as a leader in her community. My friend gets an extra boost on this day, because of her leadership position, actually gets to participate in the annual graduation ceremony. How cool is that? I would be remiss, if I did not mention, that her reputation locally, is that she often gets referred to as an “official school mom” of the district (for privacy, I am not mentioning the name of the district). But if there is anyone who claims to have more pride in her high school alma mater than my friend, I call bullshit.

Today is Graduation Day in that particular school district. It also happens to be the school district where my daughters attend high school. While I am happy for everyone who got through one of the most difficult school years ever imaginable, dealing with Covid19, and the fact that a graduation ceremony can be had, my true excitement is a year away. And even then, it will be two years in a row that I will get to experience a high school graduation as a parent.

I am a very sentimental person. And Graduation Day is one of those days that hits me in various directions of emotion. In 1983, I became the first one in my family, on my father’s side, to graduate from high school. But there was another issue that I had struggled with during that time, that took a bigger precedent.

My relationship with my father when I was a child, could be described as strained, at best. My parents had divorced when I was three years old. Though I occasionally saw my father, in my later youth, I would consider us estranged. As far as I was concerned, that was his choice.

But as I said, I was graduating from high school, the first one to do so on his side of the family. I knew my friends would have both of their parents at the ceremony, and while my father and I did not speak often, I honestly felt this moment could have been a turning point for us in our relationship. A demand was made by me, not a request, not a favor, not an invitation, but a demand. “Here is a ticket for graduation. Show up, or I never want to see you again.”

I had grown tired of all the disappointments from my father. I was not demanding anything unreasonable. Show some pride. Your son was graduating. An hour of your time was all that was being asked. You had done nothing but disappoint me for most of my entire childhood. This day was the biggest day of my life so far. Be there, or else.

He did not show up. He never called to congratulate me. My father lived less than ten minutes away. Not even a card.

Almost forty years later, I have many friends who have either children, or even grandchildren graduating this Spring. Several of them, are from my world of cancer survivorship, and some, who I know through the world of divorce. My news feed is filled with prom and graduation photos, a wonderful reminder of what is ahead for me next year, and the year after. Yes, I was late to the party, but now the party is just getting started.

I admire and even envy the many families that have endured all the years together, remaining whole as they celebrate this day. This is not to say that everything went smoothly, but one thing that they do not have to be concerned about, are distractions from a struggling marriage, relationship, or divorce.

The pictures are there. Friends who are divorced, but all are together, with their graduate, celebrating their big day. Each parent putting aside their differences, for the sake of their child, because graduation day is not about the parents, or their problems. The photos that I see, will last forever for their children, a happy memory they will always cherish.

My last personal experience with Graduation Day was not a memorable one for me. As a divorced parent of a teenager graduating next year, I need to make sure that this is where the similarity ends with my graduation. Up to this point, I have used my experience as an adult child of divorce, to make sure to be sensitive to the needs of my daughters. Unlike my father, who to be fair, we did make amends in adulthood, my point is to not repeat what my father did in my childhood, with the experiences of my daughters. And so far, I have done all I can to not only remain involved in their lives, but active as well. I have assisted them both with their educations, and have spent as much time with them as I could. Ironically, in spite of Covid19, I actually got to spend more time with them as a result.

But their big day will come next year, and the year after. And hopefully, I have done all the right things, not followed my father’s footsteps of my childhood, although I will likely be one emotional hot mess. It will be our turn, to show up for our daughters, just like my friends, and make the day about our daughters, because it is.

As I mentioned however, there is another group of proud parents that I celebrate this time with, those in my world of Hodgkin’s survivorship. When I first became aware of my health issues tied to my treatment past for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, it was clearly laid out for me. I will never forget what my doctor said to me, “We cannot stop the progression of what is happening. We cannot reverse what has happened. But what we can do, is do what we can to slow the progress down, to buy time. My plan is for you to be able to see your daughters graduate, get married, and one day be called ‘grandpa.'” They were barely school age at the time, so these words seemed quite aspirational for me to achieve, in no hurry for my children to become parents of course.

Many of my fellow survivors are getting to experience this annual tradition. For most, their health has held up long enough for them to do so. For several, they have now gotten to see even grandchildren graduate. I am not getting that far ahead. I am focused on reaching one milestone at a time, because I know all too well, that moment could be taken away from me with the uncertainty of my health issues. One particular friend comes to mind, who sadly did not get to see her first grandchild graduate from high school, having passed away late last year.

This time of year is a big deal for students, and it should be. It is also a great moment for parents and grandparents, and it should be. As that time approaches, I know that I have done all I can to make this day one of the most memorable for my daughters. Now I just need to wait for 2022.

31 National Cancer Survivor Days And Counting

Today marks the 31st time that I get to recognize National Cancer Survivors Day. 31 YEARS!!!

My first memory of the word “cancer” came in elementary school more than fifteen years early than my diagnosis, with a fundraiser at elementary school (annually), called “Send A Mouse To College”, sponsored by the American Cancer Society to help find a cure for cancer. Of course, as a five-year old, I had no idea what cancer was.

But by the time I had entered high school, I learned what cancer at least meant, death. Though I had members of my family pass away from cancer during my youth, I was unaware why. But during health education class, I learned about Terry Fox, an athlete from Canada, who had lost his leg due to cancer, and would eventually lose his life in 1981 to that cancer. He was a known cancer advocate raising awareness for cancer research by attempting a cross-country from, east to west, across Canada. His legacy now, since 1981, the annual Terry Fox Run, attracting runners from all over the world raising hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research.

Unfortunately, it was also his story, that would be the first of many, to remind me, people die of cancer. I had never heard of anyone living after it.

My first personal cancer survivor was my grandmother (pictured on the right). She actually faced cancer twice, but it was her first battle with breast cancer in 1986, that gave me the inspiration when I faced Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1988, finishing my treatments March 3, 1990, 31 years ago. She would eventually pass away from ovarian cancer twelve years later.

Since then, I have met hundreds if not thousands of other cancer survivors, in person, or on line, each having their own inspirational story to share.

For most of us, National Cancer Survivors Day is a bittersweet day because we want to recognize and celebrate that cancer can be beaten. Life does go on after cancer. That hopefully one day, everyone who faces a diagnosis will hear the words “you are in remission.”

But NCSD is more than just a date and survivors. It is a time that we also recognize that not all survivors have been able to move on or as some would wish “to just get over it.” Emotionally many face challenges ranging from PTSD to discrimination. Physically, many of us have developed issues related to the treatments used to cure us, progressive in nature, and sometimes, no answer for them.

And then many of us struggle with this day, because we have lost someone close to us, to this awful disease, or many losses, and are not here to celebrate with us.

But we cannot lose sight of this. Today is National Cancer Survivors Day. Cancer can be beat. We are so close to finding the cures necessary.

To all my fellow survivors, today is your day! Another year!

And as I often share an expression, “as I go down the road of remission, I will keep looking in my rear view mirror to make sure that you are still following me. And if you have not made that turn onto that road yet, hurry up! It’s a great ride!”

What Is A Moral Compass?

I was asked by someone following “Paul’s Heart,” to go into more detail about this “moral compass.” What exactly is it? Simply put?

Chances are in your lifetime, you have seen this image (though not this specific one), depicting an individual, facing a dilemma, and struggling to make a decision. In television and other media, when in that position, two “voices” appear, one at a time, to give their input on why a certain decision should be made. Decisions can have minor or major implications, especially if not made “morally.”

Even though this is an often used example of morality, the idea of doing the right thing, is not necessarily a religious tenet, though clearly it is mentioned quite a bit in bibles. You can have no religion, and still have quality morals. Why? Because morals are nothing more than knowing the difference between right and wrong.

But while cartoons and television programs are normally fiction, we do not have have specters or spirits routinely appearing on our shoulders to have a debate with us, in making a decision we face. We do however, have people in our lives, that we look up to, who often support us in our daily lives, whether intentionally or not, make us stop and go “hmmm,” to think about something we are about to do.

I mentioned in my previous post, my first “moral compass,” was my grandmother, pictured on the right. As a child, of course she did all she could to steer me in the correct directions when it came to right or wrong. And there would be guilt, if I chose the “wrong” direction because I would eventually have to face her. I lived with her. And those times, that I made those wrong decisions, they could not be hidden, because there was physical proof, usually in the form of cuts and bruises.

By the end of my childhood, I definitely knew the difference between right or wrong. I also had a strong foundation of looking out for others, and usually before and at the expense of my own needs (which by the way is not necessarily a good thing – think airplane oxygen mask and who is supposed to put theirs on first and why). When it came to making decisions in my youth, I had a great foundation.

Of course, as an adult, the decisions, and consequences become much greater. Thoughts can no longer be decided as they would at the level of a sitcom or cartoon. Real life, grown up life, requires responsible and moral thought processes.

And early on in my adulthood, my grandmother was still there for me as that support. Like many kids, I could get mad at my mother, quite mad in fact. I will never forget how quickly she would snap back, “YOU ONLY HAVE ONE MOTHER AND YOU MUST RESPECT HER!” Yes, she shouted that at me, one of the only times that she ever did raiser her voice. I had heard legend of just how tough she really was in her youth, standing at an unintimidating height of four foot eleven inches, and it was her moments like mentioned above, that not only made me listen, but never test her.

Career choices were also something that she played a role in. My grandmother would not only offer suggestions, but also support how to get from “point A to point B.” There was never-ending encouragement also. Even when it came to changing jobs, regardless of better opportunities, she always helped me to see everything before the decision was made.

And there would be difficult times as well that I faced, and my grandmother was there for me. One of those, was when I made the decision to file for divorce from my first wife. I remember talking to my grandmother about the possibility of it, and she was not pleased with me. She was a traditional woman. And it was not easy for her to have accepted that her own daughter, and youngest son, also experienced divorces themselves. My grandmother had married late, but still my grandparents were married over thirty years until my grandfather passed away.

I do not know how my grandmother dealt with my mother’s and uncle’s divorces as she did not talk about it. But I do know that she had opinions on my situation. My prior experiences with my “moral compass” had led me to believe that I would be put through the “ringers” (an expression for being “squeezed”) before any decision was made.

My first marriage was not a bad one as a whole. We did not fight. Actually, we got a long pretty well, including at the most difficult times in our lives, my battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and her near death head-on car collision. But we did have one issue that ended up leading to a major problem, our communication was horrible. We did not talk, hardly at all about things that mattered to each of us. Sure, we talked about things that needed to get done, or where to go, but nothing about stuff that was really that important to us.

One day, that came to a head, in a bad way. One of the things I had always looked forward to, was becoming a parent. And this was one thing my wife knew. Years later, during a rare exchange of tense emotions, things got said, and looking back, I can honestly say that I am not sure whether they were actually true, meant to hurt, or just a total misunderstanding. But it led to me filing for divorce, immediately. I would offer no second chances. One comment that would change our lives forever, left her lips. “Don’t you think if I wanted to have kids, we would have had them by now.” I was mortified.

To this day, I still do not know if she actually meant it, nor do I think about it (other than writing it currently). But when I went to my grandmother, to tell her of my decision, I could see the hurt on her face. I am sure that my grandmother had gone through all kinds of challenges with my grandfather and there certainly were things that upset her about her children’s divorces. This situation seemed to have a different impact on her. Under normal circumstances, I should have expected a righteous “until death do us part” speech as the wedding vows imply. Instead, I got compassion.

My grandmother knew what I had gone through in my battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, to get through all the toxic treatments. But I had survived it, and that meant that I could still reach my dreams, especially of parenthood. I spoke of nothing else. She knew how important this was to me.

In the end, we did try to resolve this dilemma, but I was faced with the concerns over time, how much time do I have left to pursue being a parent? I was in my mid-thirties and if I were to work on my marriage, and in the end, age out, unable to have kids, it would have been all for naught. It was not good enough for her to simply say, “I didn’t mean what I said.” That only left me trying to figure out which was going to be the truth, and which was not.

My “moral compass” had only one thing to offer, “you need to do what you must.” Feeling I had no other choice, I filed for divorce, in hopes that I might still have an opportunity at parenthood.

When my grandmother had passed, it may sound cliche, but I was definitely lost without that “moral compass.” I often found myself making impulsive decisions like a bull in China shop.

Sometimes the decisions were correct. Sometimes the decisions were wrong. I had no rhyme or reason behind what helped me to make my decisions. Whatever happened happened. This chaotic way of life was not how I was raised, nor was it really productive. But just as someone wandering a dessert or forest without any direction, because they have no compass to see which way to go, that is how my life was going. Without a “compass,” I was lost.

And then, enter not one, but two new “moral compasses,” my daughters.

From the days that they were placed in my arms, every decision that I have ever made, was made with the consideration of how it would impact my daughters. Every decision. I have not ever wanted to disappoint them with a bad decision (not to say that I have not), but I know that my daughters look up to me, as every parent should hope.

And as if coming around 360 degrees full circle, I realized a long time ago, that I will be their moral compass as well. Being older, I take all the opportunities I can to teach how “big” the little fibs can lead to something disastrous, the importance of prioritizing, and how things matter in the big scheme of things. It is important that they understand that they sound more intelligent not using foul language in general conversations, and one of the foundations of earning respect is demonstrating responsibility and accountability. But just as I did with my grandmother, it only happens when you know that compass helps you to get where you are going.

Post Navigation