When I was 17 years old, a senior in high school, I was asked to fulfill a short English assignment detailing my 3 biggest fears. I still remember them over 10 years ago: Spiders, My youngest brother growing up without the proper guidance, and Losing my father. The spiders thing I think I threw in there just so I would have 3 fears; they really don’t bother me too much. My youngest brother, Adam, did not grow up in the ideal family circumstances, and I say that because him and I have different fathers. He is my half brother but I don’t consider him any less than whole, of course. Adam is now 18, a legal adult, even though I still see him as a baby and I shouldn’t have to worry about him as much anymore. I still consider his wellbeing one of my worries, as he is a younger person growing up in an economy and society that is not what we had imagined for our youth. As far as the fear of losing my father, I think most people thought that strange coming from a 17 year old female high school student who was a cheerleader, in show choir, had a steady boyfriend and was exceptionally happy. Truth is, I think I always knew my Dad was going to die young.
My father grew up in a very large family of 9 girls and boys that started in North Carolina and moved to a more permanent small home in Richmond, Virginia to become “The Smith’s down on Courthouse Rd.” This was a very small, country part of town at the time and each family knew of one another on this street back then. Now, it is extremely over-populated and quite the busy freeway. My father, Haywood Smith, Jr., was the oldest male of nine and I guarantee you that each and every sibling that he had looked up to my father just as I did my entire life. My father was a leader by nature; a stern, level-headed man who commanded respect without saying a word. I don’t think I can remember a day in which my Dad actually raised his voice at me or anyone else. Under his hard exterior, though, my father was the literal definition of a family man. Even with such a large family, I managed to get to know each aunt, uncle and most cousins very well on that side of the family. My Dad hauled my brother and I to each family gathering, holiday and celebration there was. My parents divorced when I was 4 years old so my Dad’s visitation was brief and he used his time wisely. We had breakfast with the entire family every Sunday and we ate in shifts because the kitchen table that sat about 7 just wasn’t big enough to feed all those mouths at once. I loved it. Being so young around that many adults is trouble waiting to happen! I was a ham growing up and loved smiling (still do) and taking pictures (That’s debatable now). On those weekends while I was with my Dad and his family, I felt the love of what is family. Looking back as an adult, I miss it so much and have witnessed and understand all that tears families apart, whether it be apparent at the time or not. I think family is what kept my father going through life.
My Dad didn’t seem to have many leisure activities or pleasures when I was young. I know he drank ridiculous amounts when I was a toddler, but he gave that up when my parents split so I never saw him drink a drop while growing up. After he quit drinking, the only thing I saw him drink was Coca-Cola, and he drank A LOT of it. My Dad was an HVAC serviceman, which is a fancy term nowadays for Heating and Air. Therefore, he drove around in a work van all day fixing stranger’s air condition and heating units making new friends along the way, and in this work van he always had a cooler stocked with ice cold Coca-Cola cans. I rarely saw my Dad drink anything but these sodas, occasionally orange juice with breakfast, but rarely even water.
Then there were the women. My Dad was a ladies’ man if I ever saw one. He was married 5 times (gasp!) and I am sure he loved each and every one of them at some point in time. When I tell people that my Dad had been married so many times, most are quick to judge and see it as a sign of how I must have been raised. But on the contrary, I just think my Dad wanted to love too much. I sincerely think he believed and knew in his heart that each new marriage would work. Maybe he was just looking for something that he never found, I’m not really sure. But, I see a lot of myself in him in these aspects. I am, at times, quick to love just for the sake of it. But I, of course, would never be quick to marry… that scares the bejeezus out of me. Women were definitely a weakness of my father, unfortunately, but I think like myself with men, he just enjoyed the companionship and thought of knowing someone was always there. Trust me, there could be worse things to want.
And for the worst vice and pleasure my Dad enjoyed… smoking cigarettes. My father smoked more than most people I have ever met. He literally got pleasure from smoking them; you could just tell. Whenever my young, grade school friends put on an impression of my Dad, they always put a hand up to their mouth to exemplify his nasty habit while talking in a country accent calling me “Sis”. (My Dad rarely called me ‘April’.) Cigarettes were a part of who he was, unfortunately, but when I was young I didn’t mind. I remember always running up to hug him and loving the way he smelled. Of course, he smelled like stale cigarettes, but I didn’t know any better, nor cared. My Dad smoked at least a pack a day, if not two, his entire life and tried to quit only a few times. I remember a family vacation that we took in Nags Head where he tried to quit… he smoked Black and Milds (disgusting!) to curb the addiction for a while and eventually went back to cigarettes after him and his girlfriend at the time (wife #5) got into a huge argument. Oh well. It was a valiant effort. When I was 18, I told my Dad that I was smoking and asked if I could smoke in front of him. He said “I guess you’re going to do what you’re going to do, but I wish I had never started.” Famous last words of a life-long smoker, for sure.
The final and biggest pleasure I believe my Dad enjoyed in life was being a father. I believe my brother and I were the highlight of his life. I could be wrong, but I would like to think that my Dad truly looked forward to picking up my brother and me every Wednesday and every other weekend from my mother’s house. He was the best father I could have ever asked for and I wouldn’t have traded him in for a richer, smarter, different version. My brother and I loved him dearly and respected him completely. My Dad went above and beyond to take care of us, even though he still paid child support as ordered by the court and only had certain visitation days as most children in divorced families have. He did all the things that a good parent should, like attend every basketball, football game, cheering competition, chorus concert and spelling bee. I felt sorry for my friends who didn’t have parents that cared as much as my Dad did. I knew I was lucky. One of my favorite memories, and I always tell this story, is while enrolled in a Christian daycare, my Dad would show up almost every morning before we were to load up to go to school via daycare van with cinnamon raisin biscuits from Hardees for me and my brother. At this daycare, no other parents did this. Most of those children then I’m assuming still lived in 2-parent households, so it would be strange for their parents to show up when they had just seen them before they left the house for the day. But my Dad obviously didn’t get to see us enough, so he took time out of his already early morning to stop by Hardees each day to bring us a special breakfast just so we could sit and chat with him before heading off to school. (In addition, he even came to a lot of school lunches too.) It was surprising that the Christian daycare teachers allowed this since it clearly segregated my brother and I from the rest of the kids. I’m pretty sure we created some haters back in that day. Cinnamon raisin biscuits will do that for ya.
My father was the first person who told me that it doesn’t matter what other people think about you. I was in middle school at the time he declared this and didn’t understand or believe a word of what he said, but now I do. In fact, I still struggle sometimes with that notion because I am sensitive to the thoughts and opinions of those I care for. My Dad was a very smart man. I believe he could have done so much more with his life if he had a better education or more people to push him to be successful. Don’t get me wrong, I was never ashamed of my father. I just wish he could have had more of the opportunities that I have already had in my 28 years of life. My family hasn’t really pushed me to be more successful or take risks with a career and I somewhat resent them for that. I think my Dad would have done that if he were more educated on business and success because I know he would want the happiest and secure life for myself. Either way, I know he is proud of how far I have come and the woman I am today.
At about the age of 20 I went through very difficult personal issues while in college and decided to quit school and move back to Richmond. My Dad told me I was crazy and said that if I came back, I would be on my own and would have to support myself from there on out. I happily agreed. A year went by of me working full time, accomplishing nothing but paying bills, and so I decided to go back to school to finish my degree in Sports Medicine at Radford University in the fall of 2005. My Dad was very proud of me for biting the bullet and making that decision to finish my education on my own accord. A couple weeks into my new senior year of college (more mature and determined than ever), I received a phone call from my Dad. He was diagnosed with Lung Cancer. I burst into tears in the stairwell of my seedy apartment building off campus and proclaimed “I knew it. I always knew you would get cancer.” I am not sure how he took that line, but I was angry. Angry at him for the choices he made and angry at the world. I probably failed to mention that while on this phone call, I was puffing a couple into my lungs just to get through the conversation. Sad thing is, I’m sure he was too. He never really quit until he couldn’t remember to smoke anymore.
The following year was tough for me and my family. We all dealt with it differently and talked about the details very little. We all acted as if it wasn’t happening and things would just get better. I think this is typical for families losing someone to Cancer. Who wants to talk about dying anyway? During that school year, I (as agreed) had to pay for all my bills while still attending classes at RU; and working in Radford was not an option because I wouldn’t make enough money to stay afloat and adding a job to my schoolwork in a city 3 ½ hours away from my Dad would only prevent me from seeing him whenever I wanted to. So, I kept my bar cocktail-waitressing gig in Richmond and drove back every weekend to make really great money and see my Dad. I drove 7 hours round trip each weekend to do what felt like the right thing to do. I grew up a lot in that year; I cried a lot on those long drives too. I’m not sure if I could make that drive today if I wanted to; there would be too many surreal memories that I wouldn’t want to dig up from my subconscious.
I will never forget one weekend when I stopped by my Dad’s house to eat dinner before my work shift on Friday as usual, and was complaining to him about my on again, off again asshole of a boyfriend who continued to treat me like you-know-what. Just he and I were sitting outside on his screened in porch enjoying the weather and a muted TV program when he asked me what was wrong. I then proceeded to tell him the lame story of whatever it was that my so-called boyfriend had done to me this time. (My Dad did NOT like this guy by the way and knew deep down I would never end up with him. Thank God he was right.) My Dad then cut me off and said “How do you think it feels to be me? How do you think it feels to be dying?” As God as my witness, I am pretty sure I have never felt as small in the world as I did in that moment. It was real and it was going to happen. My Dad, my world, was dying.
A few more mind-numbing months later of just moving through the motions of driving and working and missing school and talking about chemo and radiation like it’s just a thing; it was time for my graduation. My entire family and a few friends drove down to Radford, VA to witness me walk across a stage to signify my accomplishments, even though I still had an internship and one Physics class lacking. This was unfortunately a terrible day for me because of the drama that inevitably ensues when you get too much family together, but I specifically remember my Dad being more irritable than ever. My Dad was very intimidating and he was no exception that day. The weather was beautiful and the valley is breathtaking in VA in those months. It should have been a great day under the circumstances but something was off. My Dad, frail, gray and tired from treatments, was distant and legitimately unhappy. I think he smiled once when my Mom told an outrageously funny and embarrassing story of them two while at the dinner table at Red Lobster after graduation, but I believe that was it. Little did I know that that would be the last day I was with my Dad and interacted with him as I knew him my entire life. I think his body knew it was time to let go, and he decided to finally succumb to the disease.
2 days later I stopped by the hospital to see my Dad who was visiting for an MRI because of some complications. I had had an MRI on my knee before and asked him if he had one done before on himself. He looked so weak, tiny and aged on the hospital bed while being wheeled around but responded like he was still as wise in the world as he always had been, “Yes, but it’s been a while!” While trying to remember when my Dad had any previous reason to have an MRI, my stepmom leaned over and whispered in my ear, “He had one just yesterday.” Bam. My world stopped. I couldn’t believe my Dad couldn’t remember something so major that had just happened the day before! It’s frightening to watch someone you look up to and see as all-knowing lose part of their memory overnight. I knew the latter part of this road was going to be tough. I filled my time with an internship with the Special Olympics of VA in their state office and still worked cocktailing at the same bar to pay my bills. I worked 70 hours a week to keep busy and finish school. I didn’t have much time to reflect or cry. My Dad never liked me crying and was a pretty hard individual himself so I was raised to set an example and be strong when others needed you. (This way of raising a girl is not what I would recommend, by the way. I still have issues on letting go and letting people in because of this mentality that my Dad instilled in me. Strong woman, I am; but dealing with my issues, I have not.)
Time still went on and my Dad’s health deteriorated slowly enough before our eyes. My brother picked up habits that I tried to fight with him on and I tried to steer him in the right direction like my father would have done if he had been healthy or ‘with it’. The Cancer spread to my Dad’s brain quickly, almost exponentially, and he began to slip away from us as the person who we had known our entire lives. Although there was an upside, and most family members who have lost loved ones from Cancer have experienced this… My Dad, who had previously been angry and irritable because he knew for a fact was dying, suddenly became silly and child-like. He reminded me of the Special Olympics athletes I had worked with who have intellectual disabilities and saw so much joy in the tiniest things in the world. My Dad proclaimed that you could get more drunk off drinking beer and eating M&M’s at the same time. Who knew? (He started drinking again when the Cancer got really bad. You would have too.) He also talked about famous people as if they were his friends and talked so differently that he sounded like a completely different person. His posture changed. He used to sit, like myself, very rounded and hunched over, but when the Cancer spread to his brain, he sat up straight as a board all day. It is amazing how little we know about the human brain and how it affects the littlest things that we do.
In those times, my Dad had a slew of visitors every single day; coworkers, family, neighbors, people who he hadn’t seen in years. He was truly loved by many because of his generosity and genuine care for people in general. The many who he gave to throughout his entire life came back to give back and show their appreciation for him. His boss came over to feed the dogs regularly, without even being asked. A neighbor came over to cut the yard without ever saying a word or coming inside; it just got done. People brought food, told stories and listened to my Dad talk his nonsense. I wouldn’t have wanted him to go any other way.
My stepmom told me a touching story when my Dad was sleeping one day. She said that his sister who lived in Oklahoma had called to talk to him. This sister had not spoken to my Dad in a very long time and I am sure that he missed her all along. My stepmom said that they talked on the phone for a long while and he spoke of things that didn’t really happen or exist, and of dead family members like they were still alive. My aunt, I presume, went along with the conversation like anyone in their right mind would and just agreed and listened to his tall tales. He was happy and sick and no one wanted to interfere with that. After my Dad spoke with his long-lost sister, they told each other that they loved each other and hung up the phone. My stepmom said he then laid down to go to sleep with a smile… but a tear rolling down his cheek. Even when Cancer has ravaged your brain, your emotions of love, family and life’s true happiness are still intact. I can’t tell that story on any given day without shedding a tear. My aunt never made it to his funeral.
My Dad passed away shortly thereafter in his bed with his wife by his side and me a few feet away. I couldn’t get too close but saw enough to know that it doesn’t always look like it does in the movies when someone passes on from this world. I had been awake for two straight days with him and my stepmom watching breathing patterns and wondering when his time would be. I finally found relief shortly after he passed at 8:30am the morning of July 24, 2006.
A large number of people gathered for his wake and funeral and a lot of me and my brother’s friends were supportive in numbers as well. Out of 5 of his wives, only one did not show to pay their respects. And that, to me, says something about his character, as well as hers. The procession to the cemetery was one of the longest I had ever seen. People who I didn’t remember pulled me aside constantly to tell me how my Dad had made an impact in their lives. He treated each person as if they were special and always went out of his way because of his selflessness.
My Dad was a great man. He was loved by many and is missed by many. A lot of my friends told me that I had handled his death well, when I really don’t think I ‘handled’ it at all. For an entire year, I was forced to be strong for him and my brother because I was the oldest child. At his funeral, I gave a speech to his family and friends that he left behind. In the speech, I explained the English assignment of my 3 biggest fears I had my senior year of high school and I also stated that even though losing my Dad had been a fear, I knew that when it actually happened I was going to be fine. That was 5 years ago exactly. I was 23 then and much more naïve. I realize that it has been a difficult 5 years and I miss him more as I get older. My Dad will never see me marry, have children or become successful. I become angry at times and blame and question God for taking my father too soon. His job wasn’t finished; he wasn’t done raising me and my brother yet. But, I of course know that I can only move on and learn from how great of a person he was. I see a lot of my father in myself. I am a people person and I trust too much and love too quickly. He raised me to be a confident and smart, young woman and that was the last thing I ever said to him. I thanked him for making me a better person while on his death bed. I am not sure if he heard me or could understand, as he looked very confused, but he saw the hurt and helplessness through my tears and I think he understood that he meant the world to me.
I hope I can be half the parent he was to me and my brother and I hope I find someone I can love, maybe not so quickly, that will be a role model to my children as my father was to me.
Haywood Smith, Jr.; 53 yrs
09/20/53 – 07/24/06
I will be starting efforts to raise money for Cancer organizations soon so that maybe we could find a cure someday as we all know how terrible a disease it is and I think this blog will be a great way for me to convey my passion and sensitivity to the subject of Cancer. I smoked for a decade, starting when I was about 16 and finally quit one year ago. I have been running races since then and hope that if you read this, maybe one day you will sponsor me in a race where I can raise money for Cancer research so perhaps children won’t have to lose their parents so early. I would greatly appreciate it.
STOP SMOKING, PLEASE
**UPDATE 09/05/11: I read this post every now and then just so that I can remember my Dad again. Sometimes, I push thoughts of losing my father out of my mind, but I know how harmful that can be in the long run. Coming back to read this helps me to centralize my thoughts on what I went through and how great of a father he was. It is still healthy to grieve every now and then, think of the good times and miss him. I truly wish more people could have met him. There is not one single person that lives in Charlotte that met my Dad. I left Richmond 6 months after his death to start over because I subconsciously knew it would be too difficult for me to rebuild my life without him in a city that was always his.
Also, thank you to those who have shared your own stories of losing parents or grandparents, or of how this post has affected you. No matter what age, it is surely never easy. I am always willing to listen to those who have been affected by Cancer or have lost a family member. If anything good can come out of losing someone so close to you, it is that you have the compassion to help others who are experiencing the same pain. I didn’t have many people telling me how to handle the situation or what was in store for me as I watched my father die from Cancer. Now, I would be completely willing to help anyone in a similar situation who feels lost, helpless or angry. Do not hesitate to reach out if this is you…