When Your Birthday Is More Than You Becoming One Year Older

When Your Birthday Is More Than You Becoming One Year Older
Photo by Nikhita Singhal / Unsplash

A day that I will always be able to share with my father.

About 16 years ago, my father, Marc, was facing a small-cell lung cancer diagnosis that had metastasized to his liver, bones, throat, and brain. Doctors told him that most patients in his condition usually survive about 8 weeks. But my father wasn’t most patients.

Instead of accepting his fate, he made it his mission to do whatever it took to stay alive for as long as possible.

I remember when I was a kid, I was asking him some theoretical questions. Some of them were like what he would do if he was paralyzed from the neck down or had some debilitating disease where he was essentially trapped motionless in his body. He replied to me, “as long as I can watch you grow up, I would want to be here under any circumstance that I would face.”

A different kind of moment came, but he didn’t flinch. The first thing he told me upon his diagnosis was, “Drew, remember how I was complaining about some back pain? Well, they found a tumor, it is cancerous. I am going to do whatever it takes to fight this, and I plan to still be your coach this season.”

My dad wasn’t an ordinary dad to my friends and classmates. He was my high school running backs coach, and many people at my high school knew him more than being just my dad.

His first rounds of chemotherapy started in May 2008. The doctors were going to give him everything they had. He began treatments that would begin with three days the first week, then three weeks off. This would continue for six months.

The doctors warned him that the treatments may bring him to his knees.

Talk Of Death Is Not Allowed

The chemotherapy did to him as what chemotherapy does to most people. He lost his hair, appetite and about 30% of his body weight.

After the initial parts of the treatments, his body began to stabilize. He seemed to be responding well to the therapy. It looked like he was going to extend his lease on life.

“I don’t want to talk about dying. This is about living and you guys reaching your goals.” My father told me. “I want you to keep going about your life as you normally would. There’s nothing you can do right now, and it’s outside your control.”

When we are faced with a stressful situation, the one thing we want is control. Control is not always obtainable. The best thing we can do is focus on what’s ahead of us. When we focus on the things we cannot control, that is when life can truly start to unravel.

Every moment of our life is precious and we often waste it. We take every day for granted until those days become a number that we can wrap our head around. We procrastinate, living as if the clock is never going to run out. The truth is, all our clocks are running out. Some have longer leases than others, but on a long enough timeline, everyone lease runs out.

Photo by the author. My brother, John (left), dad (middle), me (right)

The Season I Didn’t Want To End

Gearing up for the hot summer weather, my father wore a sun hat, long sleeved fishing shirt and pants to keep the sun off his body during the 90-degree summer in Illinois. The outfit he had looked similar to a beekeepers outfit.

I had buzzed my head for my father before our first double, but when I came to practice, most of the team had already buzzed their heads to support my dad.

Our team was good this season. We had 20 starting seniors and had made it to the quarterfinals the prior year. Our expectation this year was to win state. We had the best running back in the state on our team, and I was the lead blocker for him at fullback. I wore number 33, the same number as my father.

Towards the end of the season, my dad had to take a break from his chemotherapy due to getting radiation treatments. His bones were starting to weaken, so he had an osteoporosis medication stacked on as well.

The doctor told my dad that he needs to have his affairs in order. My dad replied that he is planning to take my brother and me on a fishing trip this summer.

We finished the regular season 9-0 and won the semi-finals game on a 25 degree frozen field.

Photo after winning the semi final game to go to state

The State Game

The Illinois Football State Championships were played at University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. My dad’s alma mater. He grew up in the town of Danville that is nearby, so it was a bit of a homecoming for him.

I wanted us to win the state game for our school and our town, but it would have meant even more to me to win it for him.

At halftime, we were up 7-6 but, the game was far from over. The school we were playing, East St. Louis, was one of the fastest teams in the state. They could score points faster than anyone.

Eventually, we found ourselves down 33-14 with about 6 minutes left in the game.

The belief I had in my father, had transferred into me believing in our team. I believed we could make a comeback. It wasn’t realistic. Our team’s strength the entire season was our running game and ball control. We weren’t a team that was built to come from behind.

At that moment, I learned that looking at the positives in life isn’t about having delusional optimism. Looking at the positives in life is when you become an alchemist and turn the worst of situations into something you learn and grow from to make yourself a better person in the future.

Seasons Always End

Denial can be a powerful thing. Especially when it’s reinforced to you. It took me a while to understand that my father was eventually going to die. He was given a few months and had seeming been able to keep surviving. Why would I think that he was going to die?

I was about to go pick up an order of French fries from a restaurant that was near our house. My dad walked out into the kitchen after a nap wearing one of my shirts that was snug on me but looked like a XXXL on him.

I froze. Holding it together, I grabbed the keys to the car and drove out to the restaurant. I turned off the car and sat there for a moment and started to tear up. The reality I had denied for months was finally undeniable. He wasn’t going to make it.

In February 2009, the doctors told him that he could no longer do chemotherapy. If he continued, it was going to kill him before the cancer did. Hospice came in to make him comfortable for his final days. I can’t imagine what he must have been going through at that time. Sitting at home, waiting to die, knowing that the number of days you have is I the double digits.

He never brought that up one. During those last days, he was present and never showed a depressed mood. What he was feeling underneath, I will never know.

My birthday on March 5th was approaching. My mother had brought our town’s priest in to talk to the family. I asked him, “what if my dad dies on my birthday?”

He said to me, “wouldn’t that be a beautiful thing?” I looked back at him, confused. “The same day that your father passes on from this life can be the same day that you were born into this life. It will be a day that you and him will get to share forever.”

I had never thought of it that way before, and it was a perspective that my dad would have wanted me to have.

March 5th approached. He was on death's door, but he was holding on. He was no longer able to speak due to the tumors that had grown on his vocal cords, and he seemed like he was incapacitated. Something tells me that he could hear us.

He knew it was my birthday, and he didn’t want to die then. He needed my permission.

We played his favorite song, What A Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong. Years before his diagnosis, he had told me that he wanted this song to be played at his funeral.

I gathered my family around him, and we told him that it was okay to go. About a minute later, he took his final breath.

Some Things That You Cannot Explain

In the summer of 2009, a family friend decided that he wanted to pay it forward and bought, my brother, John and me a fishing trip to Canada with his family and friends.

I’m not sure if he knew my father wanted to take us on a fishing trip this summer, but if he didn’t, that is one odd coincidence. I didn’t know that a fishing trip was the next thing my dad was looking forward to until my uncle forwarded me an old email when I was doing research on writing the book about his story.

John and I brought some of his ashes to put into the Canadian lake. The sun was low on the horizon, beaming across the glassy water. John turned off the boat and opened the bag of his ashes and dumped them into the lake, sinking like heavy sand to the bottom.

Within a few moments, we started to hear a loon wailing and then another. Dozens of loons started wailing together.

At that moment, I felt like he was there with us. He was somewhere that can’t be explained, but only felt in moments like that one.

15 Years Later

The day I am writing this article is on my birthday, March 5th, 2024. Today is my 33rd birthday. The same number that both my father and I wore.

Every year, on my birthday, I have a life audit. Am I holding up to the values that I learned during this time? As I have been writing the book to expand upon my father's story, and the lessons I experienced go deeper than the moments I experienced them. Unexpected moments can strike you at any time. It happens to people every day. What matters is how you handle them and make sure you mitigate the risk of those things happening to you.

I’m sure when you read this article, one of the thoughts when you read, “lung cancer” was, “was he a smoker?”

The answer is yes. He was a smoker. When I was younger, I had addressed with him my concerns about the smoking on his health. His answer to me would be something like, “I don’t plan to live to be 80 years old, but I think I’ll make it to 70.”

He was 55 years old when he passed away. If there is anyone younger reading this, my father started smoking when he was in college at about 21 years old.

When taking care of yourself, even if you don’t have kids, you need to take care of yourself for the potential unborn child you may have or the potential generation that may need your wisdom later in life.

You cannot barter with death and choose your expiration date. You can make changes to make sure that you are in the best state you can be in given whatever circumstances you have.

It’s not easy. Each day flows by like a grain of sand in a slow-moving hour glass. We think we can put off changes to tomorrow, but tomorrow never becomes today.

If you want to make a change in life, don’t do it only for yourself. Do it for the person you haven’t met. Do it to be ready for all the opportunities that may come to you so you won’t miss it. If you make those changes, you’ll find once-in-a-lifetime opportunities can come by more than once.

If you're interested in purchasing the book that I am writing on this story when it launches. Please sign up with the link below.