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In memoriam

I haven’t been entirely honest about my radical slowdown in posting over the past few months. To be sure, work has been wholly consuming and exhausting, but that’s not all. Last month, my father passed away.

Dad, Marblehead 1977

Several months ago, on the return from DPaul’s and my trip to Chicago for our anniversary, I received a phone call from my father. He had just been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer with metastatic disease on the liver. It was the sort of diagnosis that most people would immediately accept as an instant death sentence. My father is not most people.

In the ensuing months, he pursued a wide array of aggressive and sometimes esoteric treatments, from hyperdoses of vitamin C injected directly into a port, to twice-daily coffee enemas (organic of course) and a litany of naturopathic remedies; to ultra-high potency and highly targeted chemotherapy at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America; to experimental (i.e., not approved in the U.S.) dendritic cell therapy in Germany.

And there was progress! After the third dendritic cell treatment, scans showed that the tumors in his pancreas and liver had shrunk, and his tumor markers were down dramatically. Through it all, despite sometimes unrelenting pain and nausea, he remained upbeat and optimistic, and we began to think that he just might make it. After all, we reasoned, if anyone could beat terminal cancer out of sheer will, it would have been him.

Unfortunately, they then found that the disease had moved on to bone, and so the battle began anew. This time he underwent Cyberknife radiation treatments and bone-hardening infusions to slow the encroachment of the disease. These treatments took a terrible toll, weakening his system.

DPaul and I finally found a moment in dad’s frenetic schedule to visit him in Colorado, a rare weekend between trips to various treatments, and so we booked a ticket. We assumed it would be the first of a few final visits over the course of upcoming weeks or months.

The night before we flew out, his wife Sylvia called me. She warned that jaundice had set in, and he was not looking too well. When we arrived in Denver the next day, they met us at the airport. He was yellowed and gaunt. In the car on the way home, he received a call from the oncologist, and was fairly tight-lipped for the rest of the drive home.

The next morning, we all sat at the kitchen table together. Dad said that the scans showed further progression of the tumors. The treatments he had undergone were doing more harm than good at this point, and he was too weak and unstable to return to Germany for another round of dendritic cell therapy. It was no longer about fighting to win; it was about managing the process until the end. He looked up at me, eyes yellow as egg yolks and said, "cancer sucks." Then he cracked his crooked smile, teeth flashing white against the jaundiced skin.

From that point on, things went fast. The next day he had deteriorated so much they called in Hospice. My siblings flew out, and DPaul and I extended our stay a couple days to be with them. A cavalcade of people from near and far arrived at the house, and phones rang non-stop. My aunts, his sisters, booked to come out that Friday.

Each day was worse than the one before. The pain increased, causing him to rely more heavily on the Dilaudid; but every dose triggered violent vomiting, exacerbating the pain. By the time his sisters arrived, he had been ready to let go for days, but held out for them. They arrived the evening of April 11.

A few minutes before 6 am on April 12, Sylvia awoke and noticed he was breathing very shallowly. She looked into his eyes and said, "I love you!" He moved his tongue to respond, took his last breaths, and was gone. He had turned 60 just three weeks previously.

My relationship with my father was not typical. My parents divorced
when I was still an infant, and he was largely absent from my life
throughout childhood. Our relationship was all but nonexistent until my adult life. After DPaul and I had our commitment ceremony, we began to grow closer, but we were more like friends, a couple of guys who happened to get along because of shared interests and not shared genes.

Our relationship was further complicated by other familial matters. Dad remarried when I was my teens and again when I was
25, having one child with each subsequent wife. (My siblings and I have
always been a generation and a country apart, as I’ve lived in
California since 1990.) He married Sylvia less than two years ago. (Insert Four Weddings and a Funeral reference here.) He left me quite a patchwork quilt of ex-stepmothers and half-siblings.

When dad was diagnosed, I spoke with a good friend of mine who had recently lost his father, and with whom his relationship was also less than fairytale. He understood implicitly the miasma of emotion I was swimming in. Since my father wasn’t my father-figure, I didn’t have the feelings I thought I should, and then I felt guilty for not feeling those feelings. On the other hand, I would occasionally be blindsided by overwhelming sorrow at unexpected times. It was a roller coaster.

Dad and me

I have embarassingly few pictures of my father, even fewer of us
together. Perhaps it’s not surprising considering our history. Since
his passing, I’ve begun collecting what I can, culling images from
family members and most recently from boxes of pictures
from his house
in New Hampshire. I’m piecing together
the story of his life through these images, learning the more about this man I am discovering I never really knew.

Dad in high school
In my youth I struggled to be everything he was not, but in
adulthood, as our relationship warmed, I began to understand that I
could take — in fact had taken — elements of his personality and still remain
my own person. Where I once saw him as flaky, philandering and lewd, instead I perceived a great lust for life, unbridled joie de vivre and the insuppressible spark of idealism. Without trying, I came to share many traits with him, including a penchant for hedonism and an unflaggingly positive outlook on pretty much everything.

And I saw all these
things play out in his fight against his disease. He fought with
determination, passion, and optimism. He fought with every ounce of his
being. And when he decided to stop fighting, I sincerely believe he actively
chose to throw himself under the wheels of the inexorable force of the
disease. He lived, fought and died on his terms.

I’ve long since let go of any hurt or resentment between us. In my last conversations with him, I told him that, though
our relationship perhaps could have been better, I didn’t blame him or me, that
we were just two people going through life the best way we knew how. I told him how proud and impressed I was by his fight, by his unflappable attitude. It pleases me that my final
impressions of my father are filled with pride, joy and love.


The day he passed, DPaul and I were sitting on our back steps, enjoying an unusually warm day and having a moment of quiet reflection. Suddenly, something large and dark flew right past our heads and landed with an audible thump on the wall beside us, in the diagonal patch of sunlight there. It was a grasshopper, and a large one at that. I’ve lived in San Francisco nearly two decades and have never seen a grasshopper here. As it sat there watching us, and we it, DPaul said to me, "That’s your father." He had come to check in on us one last time.

Grasshopper or no, he seems to be forever around me since his passing. I see him everywhere, am reminded of him in everything. I see him in the faces of strangers. It is, strangely, more comforting than upsetting. I know he is in a better place now, and these apparitions are his way of smiling to me from there. How can I not smile back?

This Post Has 39 Comments
  1. Sean, what a really moving post. I know first hand that this is one of the hardest experiences in life, but you have written about it beautifully. My best to you as you continue to heal.

  2. That is a wonderful tribute. My dad died a couple of years ago at the age of 60, basically of complications due to alcoholism. Its very hard to cope with all the emotions and feelings when someone dies that you dont have a perfect relationship and I appreciate what you might be going through. It helped me that at his funeral so many people talked about how he had touched their lives in a positive way, particularly in his early life and it helped me to see him in a good light and put him to rest on a positive note.

  3. Oh, Sean.
    What a beautiful, thoughtful, insightful exploration into your relationship with your father.
    I’m thinking of you with great fondness.

  4. Thanks for all your support during my ordeal with cancer in the family. You were proud of your father and I’m sure he was proud of you too. You are an inspiration and a joy to know.

  5. This is such a beautiful, beautiful post. I am so very sorry for your loss. Being able to process the complicated feelings that come with the loss of someone we didn’t have an “ideal” relationship with (you know, the storybook relationship one is supposed to have with a dad, a friend, etc) is always complicated and your clarity is inspiring. I wish you and your family healing.

  6. Warm wishes to you, Sean.
    I hope I can be as mature and loving as you when my parents go.
    Thanks for sharing your proud, complex tribute.

  7. Oh man. I send you many positive thoughts and healing vibes. I loved your post and it home for me–I’m going through something similar myself these days–thank you for putting yourself out there for all of us.
    I hope you get lots of virtual hugs!!!!

  8. Sean – what a beautiful post for your father. Even though your relationship was complicated, I know he loved you, was so proud of you and we were both so glad to have you and Paul here in those final days. As I told you before, you are more like your Dad than you know – you both share that postivity and passion for life!

  9. What a lovely tribute to your father. Even in the least perfect and most complex of relationships, there are positive things to take away, and you have done that. He has left you with the gifts of strength and courage. I’m sending good energy your way during this sad time.

  10. i’m so very sorry for your loss Sean. lovely tribute to your father. thoughts are with you.

  11. I’ve never met your dad, but I read your beautiful post and I want to cry. For him, for you. This piece is a tribute to your dad. You bet he’s smiling at you.
    Take care, Sean.

  12. Sean:
    This is just so beautifully written. I know how it feels to wrestle with those potential demons and walk away from the fight, as it were, with a sense of peace and closure.
    Your father would be proud that you claim some of his best as your own.

  13. Oh, man. I haven’t checked in here in a while, and just read your post. I’m so, so sorry. I’m sending lots of love your way.

  14. This is my first comment on your blog – my deepest condolences to you and thank you for sharing your story. My dad also died of pancreatic cancer, a few months after his 59th birthday. I have such fond memories of him, even to the last moments we shared at the hospital, and it warms my heart and brings tears to my eyes when I read other folks’ experience in a similar situation. You are in my thoughts.

  15. It’s been a while since I’ve visited here, Sean, and I was so sad to see this post. But what a beautiful and real tribute to your father. I am sure he was very proud of you.

  16. Sean – I came by from a friend’s link about one of the “overheard” posts – but this tribute really moved me. I hope my condolences help you get past what have definitely been sad times.

  17. Sean,
    I just found your blog and immediately became a fan. I am sitting here during a rare 4am bout of insomnia, reading this beautifully moving post about your dad, and I am struck by the similarities to my own mother’s losing battle with lung cancer over a decade ago.
    Only now am I starting to get to know who she was, largely through her surviving siblings. I, too, see her face in strangers.

  18. I found your site while looking for a butternut squash recipe and am having a hard time getting back to work. I will, but first I must tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your entries. My daughter marries in June and is surrounded by wineries in Chelan Washington. She’ll enjoy your wedding pictures for so many reasons. Okay okay…back to work.

  19. Dearest Sean;
    I have been away dealing with my own life changing health “gift?”. This is the first chance I have had to catch up on your Blog.
    I am so profoundly sorry for the loss of your father.
    The fact that you extracted all of the gifts of the relationship and put everything else aside once again demonstrates what an exceptional man and human being you are.
    You are an inspiration for greatness, my friend.
    Much love,

  20. Oh, Sean. I am sorry. Cancer does indeed suck. I lost my own Dad to it, over 20 years ago, when I was honestly too young to realize how awful it really was.
    This is a lovely piece of writing and a tribute to his impact on your life. Thanks for sharing it.

  21. What a beautiful tribute to your Dad. Today in the UK is Fathers Day. When my Dad died just over 10 years ago he spent his last days at a hospice, where the care and the carers was amazing. There were some rabbits in the gardens there, domestic pets that had somehow found their way there but noone knew where from. These rabbits just mooched about and provided some comfort and interest to the patients, in a way that animals often can. My Dad died early morning and as we were leaving these rabbits were there in the garden as it was just beginning to become light. I always like to think of them as being there to help those passing on their journey. Virtual hug Sean x

  22. Losing a parent is terribly hard, no matter how the relationship manifested in life. I’m so very sorry for your loss, Sean. My grandfather died of pancreatic cancer. I remember the toll the everything took on him. It takes a special kind of bravery to deal with this all-consuming disease and your dad certainly tried his very best. Taking the best from his life and keeping that with you, that’s a good thing.
    I hope you continue to find peace.

  23. Sean, I’m so sorry for your loss. We always want to have more to finish our book of life, it was synchronistic that you were there to see him again. You have an amazing attitude. I will read this post again when my birth father passes, as we are almost in the same situation, although I haven’t quite reached your at peace state. On this Father’s Day I hope your husband and family can help fill this void, and I’m sending you hugs and good thoughts.

  24. I found the link to this today on FB and had to stop by. I’ve been trying to write about my father for years and have never been able to. This is so eloquently done in every way. Best to you…

  25. I never read this, so I’m so glad you brought it out again for Father’s Day this year.
    It true what you wrote about seeing a loved one around you after they have passed on. To understand just how much another person’s life is woven into the fabric of your own is a process that I can only imagine will continue until we, too, have left this earth.
    And then, of course, others will spend their lives coming to understand the same thing about us.
    It’s a beautiful, comforting cycle.
    P.S. It’s also nice to be reminded from time to time just how well my friends can write.

  26. Oh, Sean´╗┐, I was finally able to read the post and I am moved… beautiful. Like life, like relationships, painful, joyful, frustrating and surprising. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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