Dad's memory won the war on cancer | Guest editorial

I have one tattoo. It’s on the inside of my left forearm. Nothing fancy, just a simple, black, fouled anchor, the insignia of a United States Navy Chief Petty Officer.

What this tattoo lacks in intricacy and splendor, it makes up in significance. Wrapped around the anchor is a one-word banner – DAD.

Below the tattoo the years 1950-2011 denote the 61 years my father, John Charles Skager, spent on this planet.

This past Sunday marked a year since May 13, 2011, the day esophageal cancer took Dad’s life.

From the time doctors diagnosed him in the fall of 2009 to the moment on that sunny, Friday morning when he drew his last breath, I watched him wither away from a robust, healthy man to a frail, pale shadow of his former self.

Cancer may have won the battle against my father’s physical body. It put him in his grave much sooner than he deserved. But I believe Dad won his war with cancer.

As devastating as the cancer was to his body, it couldn’t dent the spirit and will of the man who remains my greatest hero. If anything, during the many rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, as doctors fought to halt the rampant spread of cancer through his body, his spirit and will seemed to grow and take on new dimensions.

My father, who served 25 years in the U.S. Navy before retiring as an E7 Chief Petty Officer, kept working long after chemo and radiation started. Five days a week he commuted to South Seattle, where he worked his second career, for the U.S. Postal Service.

I asked him why he did it. Because, he said, he still could.

I didn’t realize it then, but Dad already had a plan. One of cancer’s cruelest realities, especially for types like esophageal with high mortality rates, is how the afflicted must prepare for the worst-case scenario while still trying to maintain a will to fight and live. Not just breathe, but truly live. And you do that by wresting what you can from each day left.

My dad did that with grace, humor and dignity. For him it wasn’t about quantity, it was about quality. And by investing time in his relationships, he made the most of his final days. He rekindled friendships with many of his high school friends in North Dakota, spending hours with them on the phone. He received visitors by the score, relatives, old friends and coworkers who travelled to that bright, cheery yellow house in Federal Way to spend time with Dad.

He spent countless hours with my wife, my sister and my three children, just being “Papa.” He reveled in the company of my uncle, Sheldon, and aunt, Shereen, and our closest family friend, Amy, who put aside her life in Virginia to spend months helping ease Dad’s journey.

And, most important, he spent all his time in the company of my mother, Shirley, his high school sweetheart and wife of 41 years. And when the time came for him to die, he left nothing unsaid.

Many people depart this life with regrets, things they wish they had said or done. I got no sense of regret from my Dad as he began his last journey. Of course, no one wants to die, but if there can be peace in dying, Dad found it.

The last time I saw my Dad alive was about five days before he actually died. I came by the house and visited while we watched “In Harm’s Way” an old, black-and-white World War II Navy epic by Otto Preminger starring John Wayne. It was one of our favorite films, and we must have watched it a hundred times together. And, as he had done a hundred times before, he noted that the radio antennae on the ships did not actually exist in the 1940s but were actually of 1960s vintage.

After it was over, I said goodbye, kissed him and left. Originally, I planned to come over the next day and visit again but was told that Dad wanted me to stay away. At first I didn’t understand. But then I realized this was part of his plan. As he had his entire life, he was protecting me and choosing to die on his terms. He had said his goodbyes to me.

When his final moment came, he was alone with Amy and my mom. My mom was out of the room for a couple minutes, when Dad opened his eyes for the last time and looked at Amy. She mouthed “she’s gone,” referring to my mother, and Dad drew his last breath, choosing to play the protector until the end, dying with a sense of dignity, just as he had lived.

Cancer took Dad’s life, but it couldn’t touch the love he had for his family and friends. It couldn’t take the devotion he had to his wife.

And it couldn’t take his dignity.

About a week after his death I went to my wife’s tattoo artist, Dez, and asked her to put the anchor on my arm. For years Dad had talked about getting one, just like Popeye’s. He never got the chance, so I got one for him. I got it to remind me that cancer may have taken Dad’s life but it could never beat him.

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