Friday, June 10, 2011

The Healing Power of Ice Cream

As with many sons in my generation, my father and I were not as close as we could have been, but when I made my decision to follow his lead by joining the Air Force he was excited and happy. I became an aviator and now lead a squadron on the beautiful island of Guam.

During the first part of my tour in January 2006, I received a life-changing call from my father. We discussed his illness, diagnosed as kidney cancer, and how he would combat the six-month prognosis he'd been given for survival.

Initially, I believed he could overcome this hurdle, while also knowing that my optimism might not be enough to ensure success. I told him I loved him and gave him the only advice I could come up with.

"Dad, it may not seem like it, but you have been given a gift. You now know when your time is coming to an end so you have the chance to fix the things that need to be taken care of."

A few months later, I returned to Kentucky for a visit. My father's kidney had been removed and he was doing chemotherapy three times a week. After the horror stories I had heard from other cancer patients, it wasn't anything like what I had expected. I was amazed at how easily he took to the entire procedure. He made friends with other patients and the nurses attending him. I was shocked to see him eating cookies and napping. He even asked me to go out and eat with him afterwards. I returned to my base, more convinced than ever that my father would beat this disease.

That Christmas was the first in many years where both my sister and I were home to visit our parents together. Even though my dad had lost a great amount of weight he looked good and had already outlived his original prognosis of six months. I looked forward to seeing him in the spring when I returned to the States for training.

As fate would have it, I was able to spend my forty-fourth birthday with my father before returning to Guam. During that time we talked and visited with his doctor. I was disheartened to hear the illness was back and spreading quickly. His time was short, no matter what procedures were tried and he needed to make a decision on what course of action to take.

Those four days were tough. While looking at property for me to purchase as I near the end of my military career, we stopped at the local Dairy Queen to have lunch. As a child, I had seen my father always eat his ice cream in a bowl. But on that day, he ate an ice cream bar for lunch and then decided that it was so good he needed another, and then a third one for the road.

Early the following morning, as I was packing my car to begin my trek home halfway around the world, my dad told me he was discontinuing his treatment. I was extremely hurt. I couldn't bring myself to talk much and shortly thereafter I left for the Louisville airport.

A half mile down the road I remembered my mother's saying about unspoken words and I realized there would be no more ice cream lunches. I went right back to the house and stepped up on the porch where my dad was sitting in the dark, reflecting on his life, I suppose. I told him I loved him and I would miss him. I let him know I was never disappointed in him. I believed in him because he was my dad!

Three weeks later, I received a call from his doctor, a former military officer who always kept me updated. My father was in the hospital and I needed to hurry. The Air Force was great to me and got me home quickly, joining my mother and sister at my dad's bedside. Eleven hours later, he died.

In that brief time, I realized many things.

His initial decision to forego further treatment, which I did not agree with at the time, had been correct. He'd been in severe pain. His nurses told me that he had fought to stay alive just to see me one last time. Even though he could no longer speak when I arrived, he did recognize me with a hand squeeze and uttered a simple "hey buddy." That was my gift.

During the funeral, many people told me about my dad coming to visit them. He had taken my advice and actually visited all his friends and made amends or regenerated old friendships. He made things right, not only with his earthly relationships, but also with God.

Ice cream now takes on a new meaning for me. When things are tough at work and I only have time for a snack, sometimes I just grab an ice cream bar. It brings me peace and keeps me grounded, while helping me remember a man who endured a lot of pain just to say goodbye to his son. I miss you, Dad!

By Joe Hayslett, Jr.

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Cancer Book

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