As of June 7, 2018, three months have gone by since my father, Michael Willard, succumbed to metastatic prostate cancer. He was 54 years old, working hard as a Global Account Director at CrossKnowledge, with plans to work for another 20 years. In celebration of Father’s Day, and the first Father’s Day my mom and I will have without him, I would like to share with you a bit about my dad, his battle with cancer, and how life has changed since.
Even as I write this, I am still angry. It’s tough being angry because there is no one to blame. Cancer is not a person. It was no one’s fault, which makes working through the anger difficult. As my mom puts it, it was “the perfect storm”. This tragedy didn’t only affect me, however. It devastated my mother, Bernadette, who shared a loving marriage of 26 years with my father. My dad’s mother, JoAnn lost a son. His siblings, Keith and Kim, lost their big brother. His nieces and nephews lost an uncle. The ripple effect goes on.
Since before I can remember, I saw my dad as one of the greatest people on earth. He was resolute, resourceful, intelligent, and compassionate. He had a wonderful sense of humor, loved to laugh – sometimes at my expense, and was laid-back. Like me, he was an introvert, but you’d never know. Most everyone who met or knew him, liked him; he was welcoming and open, always willing to help anyone, friend or stranger.
He also always knew what to do. Always. It didn’t matter what the situation was; he had a level-headed and well-thought-out solution, and was ready to fight the battle. He provided me with the foundation of my practical business knowledge, helped me foster my communication skills, strive to be a smarter, kinder, better person, and, most importantly, taught me to be proud of myself while remaining humble, not losing sight of my goals.
In May of 2017, when I graduated from Emerson College, my dad, my mom and I celebrated as we looked forward to a bright future. In July, though, everything changed. Out of the American Cancer Society’s 1,688,780 estimated diagnoses in 2017, my father was one of them. The news was shocking, but the light at the end of the tunnel shone bright. My dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which, according to the National Cancer Institute, is the most common cancer in men in the United States. Given that he was only 54, however, it was a race against the clock to begin treatment.
After a series of tests and a minor surgery, my dad began nine weeks of radiation. Throughout those nine weeks, he became increasingly exhausted, experienced almost a total loss of appetite, and increasing pain. During all of this, he maintained a positive attitude. His positivity and will to survive gave us the strength we needed during and after the fight. Knowing our family had top oncologists on our side, who had my father’s best interests at heart, was very reassuring. Even now, I am absolutely sure they did all they could.
At the start of January, my dad was admitted to the emergency room. This hospital visit would be one of many between January and March.
In late January, we were told my dad’s cancer had spread to his liver, despite radiation forcing the prostate cancer into remission in the localized area. It was spreading at an alarming rate, and would ultimately cause liver failure. His condition worsened in the following weeks. He deteriorated slowly, becoming bedridden, in constant and agonizing pain, and, through it all, told us to keep our spirits up. I was never bothered by having to help take care of him, nor was my mother. It hurt him, though, which was heartbreaking. A fully independent, healthy, happy man fell victim to an uncommon metastasis of prostate cancer. At his request, we brought him home, set up a hospital bed in my parents’ bedroom, and care for him there. He came home on the evening of Tuesday March 6. I hugged him good night and told him I loved him. It’s important to note we are not a family of “things left unsaid”. We say, “I love you” very often, multiple times per day.
The morning he passed is still vivid in my mind – sometimes I wish it wasn’t. No matter how prepared you think you are for the death of a loved one, you’re never really prepared. At 23 years old, I watched my father, my idol, an amazing person whom I so want to become, take his final breaths. I made the call to the hospice nurse when he stopped breathing. I sat on the edge of the bed beside him and watched EMT’s pronounce him dead. I sat there next to him until the funeral home came to take him away. They advised the family not watch, so I didn’t.
As you can probably tell from this piece, I haven’t completely come to terms with my dad’s passing. My mom and I are working through our feelings, but things will never be the same. I will leave you with some mental health and wellness advice. Take care to foster connections with people you are close to, with people you like. Try your best to live in the moment with them and not take them for granted. Be kind, but know your limits. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries or be assertive; it will make you a stronger person. Indulge your ambitions, and make your dreams reality. I will always remember the important life skills and life lessons my dad taught me. I will carry them with me forever, become the best version of myself I can, and make him proud.