‘I’m fine ex­cept for the can­cer!’

My fa­ther’s black hu­mour and de­ter­mi­na­tion saw him live to walk his daugh­ter down the aisle and be there for the birth of his grand­child

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health / Cancer - Gabrielle Cum­mins Gabrielle Cum­mins is chief ex­ec­u­tive of re­gional ra­dio sta­tion Beat 102-103. The So­las Can­cer Sup­port Cen­tre’s 10th an­nual Run and Walk For Life takes place in Water­ford city on Oc­to­ber 14th.

‘I’m fine ex­cept for the can­cer!” was a phrase of­ten ut­tered by my fa­ther. This was a ref­er­ence to the fact he had never smoked or drank in his life so, de­spite the ter­mi­nal ill­ness, he iron­i­cally took pride in the fact he was oth­er­wise well.

I think his abil­ity to find hu­mour dur­ing the dark­est of mo­ments, his de­ter­mi­na­tion to doggedly fight back, and his can­did ap­proach to talk­ing about the dis­ease helped him to de­mys­tify can­cer.

When he was about to un­dergo an op­er­a­tion to treat his throat can­cer 13 years ago, I ten­ta­tively asked the sur­geon if he thought the op­er­a­tion would pro­long my fa­ther’s life long enough for him to walk me down the aisle 13 months later. The doc­tor, un­der­stand­ably, couldn’t com­mit.

I didn’t want to take the chance of not hav­ing my fa­ther by my side as I took those all-im­por­tant steps to a new and ex­cit­ing chap­ter in my life and so, over the next few days, An­drew and I dis­cussed our op­tions. We de­cided to bring our wed­ding plans for­ward, which meant we had just 13 weeks to plan our big day.

We chose to get mar­ried on Fri­day, Jan­uary 13th, 2006. Su­per­sti­tious be­liefs, it seems, re­main strong among some peo­ple in Ire­land be­cause by choos­ing that un­pop­u­lar date, the same church, ho­tel, band and pho­tog­ra­pher were all still avail­able to us de­spite the much ear­lier book­ing.

I dreaded telling my fa­ther that I’d brought the wed­ding for­ward. True to form, he quipped: “So you think I won’t be around in a year’s time, eh?”

I re­buked his black hu­mour by say­ing I was con­fi­dent he would still be with us, but high­lighted there were no cer­tain­ties in life. The re­al­ity was his im­pend­ing op­er­a­tion had made us, as a cou­ple, as­sess what was im­por­tant to us.

“We had al­ready been to­gether for five years, knew we wanted to get mar­ried so we felt it made sense not to wait any longer. While I re­layed this rea­son­able re­sponse with con­fi­dence to my fa­ther, in­side I was scared. I didn’t want to think about him not be­ing around.

Com­plex char­ac­ter

A well-known busi­ness­man in our home town, Thurles, my fa­ther was a larg­erthan-life, com­plex char­ac­ter. He and my mother had built up a thriv­ing busi­ness to­gether and reared 11 chil­dren be­fore I came along.

While they clearly loved each other and my fa­ther was quite demon­stra­tive to­wards my mam, he couldn’t show love for his chil­dren either ver­bally or through phys­i­cal af­fec­tion. He came from a house where “tough love” was the dom­i­nant way to in­ter­act with chil­dren and, un­for­tu­nately, he adopted this ap­proach with most of his own chil­dren.

There are 20 years be­tween my old­est sib­ling and me, so by the time I was born, my fa­ther had mel­lowed sig­nif­i­cantly. Thank­fully for me, our fa­ther-daugh­ter re­la­tion­ship ben­e­fited hugely as a re­sult. My mother used to say to me: “God help you when­ever you fall off that pedestal that he has you on!”

When I first heard my fa­ther might be se­ri­ously ill, I didn’t be­lieve it. My sis­ter called me out of the blue one evening and I could hear the ner­vous­ness in her voice. She said tests my fa­ther was due to take the next day were for some­thing more sin­is­ter than any of us had ini­tially ex­pected. I couldn’t process it.

He had al­ways been a ter­ri­ble pa­tient – even for the most mi­nor of ail­ments, he used to take to the bed and my mother, who had the pa­tience of a saint, used to nurse him de­vot­edly even though her own health was prob­a­bly in a poorer state than his at the time. He al­ways seemed in­vin­ci­ble; he al­ways bounced back.

I don’t think the sever­ity of the sit­u­a­tion hit me un­til the day I was sit­ting on the hospi­tal bed with my fa­ther and the doc­tor broke those three words to him: “You have can­cer.” The man, not known for pub­lic dis­plays of af­fec­tion, cried into my arms and I cried with him.

Once he had got­ten over the ini­tial shock, he and my mother agreed he would un­dergo what­ever treat­ment was nec­es­sary. The sub­se­quent months were dif­fi­cult. We rented an apart­ment in Dublin for my mother near St Vin­cent’s Hospi­tal so we could all come and go as we pleased while he un­der­went his treat­ment and she could visit him daily, with ease.

The op­er­a­tion was a re­sound­ing suc­cess. Not only did he walk me down the aisle on Fri­day, Jan­uary 13th, 2006, but for the next five wed­ding an­niver­saries, he used to call me on the day and joke, “You of lit­tle faith, I’m still here, years later, to wish you both a happy an­niver­sary!” It made me smile ev­ery time.

His health de­te­ri­o­rated

Through­out 2010, how­ever, his health de­te­ri­o­rated, and he spent much of that year in and out of hospi­tal. On De­cem­ber 13th of that year, An­drew and I wel­comed our first child at Water­ford Univer­sity Hospi­tal – a baby girl we named Kate.

I didn’t ex­pect my fa­ther to visit me that day as he hadn’t been driv­ing of late due to his ill health, but it tran­spired that noth­ing was go­ing to come be­tween him and meet­ing his 13th grand­child for the first time. One of my most pre­cious mem­o­ries is of him walk­ing into my hospi­tal room, beam­ing with pride.

Firstly, be­cause he was so chuffed that he had safely driven down by him­self to sur­prise me and sec­ondly that he was about to hold this pre­cious new life, brought into the world by his youngest daugh­ter.

Over the next 11 months, I en­joyed bring­ing Kate to spend time with her grand­fa­ther; some­times at our fam­ily home in Thurles but then more fre­quently at hospi­tal. On the day of her first birth­day party, I was once again flab­ber­gasted that my fa­ther had made the jour­ney from Thurles to Water­ford to cel­e­brate her spe­cial day with us. I found my­self watch­ing him a lot that day – his bloated face and tired limbs were a stark re­minder that his time with us was lim­ited.

The fol­low­ing week, he ac­cepted my in­vi­ta­tion to spend Christ­mas at our home in Water­ford but sadly he never made that jour­ney. In­stead, I spent Christ­mas Day by his hospi­tal bed­side in Thurles, chat­ting with him and singing his favourite Christ­mas hymns.

When I said good­bye to him that evening, I leaned down, kissed his fore­head and said I loved him, to which he cheek­ily re­sponded, “I know you do”. Even with death loom­ing, I thought to my­self this stub­born man could still not bring him­self to say “I love you”.

In the early hours of De­cem­ber 28th, 2011, my sib­lings and I sat around my fa­ther’s hospi­tal bed­side, re­lay­ing sto­ries and singing songs un­til we all drifted into a com­fort­able si­lence. Not long af­ter that, he took his last deep breath and then closed his eyes for­ever. Hav­ing suc­cess­fully bat­tled can­cer for more than five years, he was now ready to be at peace.

So­las Can­cer Sup­port Cen­tre

The year my fa­ther died, the So­las Can­cer Sup­port Cen­tre opened its doors in Water­ford city, pro­vid­ing a much-needed ser­vice to the peo­ple of the south­east. For the last seven years, the cen­tre has been do­ing re­mark­able work to de­mys­tify can­cer.

Thou­sands of peo­ple have at­tended the cen­tre, where they can talk things over, re­lax and ex­press emo­tions. The cen­tre pro­motes aware­ness and ed­u­cates peo­ple about can­cer preven­tion, the early di­ag­no­sis of can­cer and re­cov­ery from the dis­ease.

Thir­teen years on from when my fa­ther was first di­ag­nosed with can­cer, I’m tak­ing part in the So­las Can­cer Sup­port Cen­tre’s Run and Walk for life. It’s the 10th year of the cen­tre’s big­gest an­nual fundraiser. This year, they have re­vised the route from a 10-mile run to a 10km run/fam­ily walk, so it will be my first time run­ning the route.

While my fa­ther is no longer phys­i­cally with me, I’ll be run­ning in his me­mory, keep­ing his fight­ing spirit alive, ev­ery step of the way.

I don’t think the sever­ity of the sit­u­a­tion hit me un­til the day I was sit­ting on the hospi­tal bed with my fa­ther and the doc­tor broke those three words to him: ‘You have can­cer’

My man and dad, Martin and Mary Cum­mins, in Thurles with Kate on Fe­bru­ary 14th, 2011.

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