Sunday, July 24, 2011

My Father, The Spaghetti Yeti

Seven years ago today, I sat next to my dad and held his hand as he died.

Talk about a pisser, huh? That's one hell of a way to start a blog.

It's hard to believe it's been seven years. Part of me feels like it's been longer, and at the same time, I feel like it hasn't been that long. Seven years can be a hell of a long time. So much has happened in the past seven years. Not seeing or talking to someone for that amount of time can be hell. Seeing how I'm now 27, that's a quarter of my life without having my dad. A quarter of my life not being able to hear his lame jokes, not seeing him play air drums to the Moody Blues, hear his louder than life snoring, and see that damn smile of his that never left his face.

How is it even possible that my dad has been gone for seven years? As years go by, wounds heal, and it becomes easier to deal with the loss. Even though this is true, one thing doesn't change: this fucking sucks.

My dad was diagnosed with chronic malignant leukemia in 1995, when I was in sixth grade. It was his birthday and he cooked himself a big ass steak. An hour or so later, he had some pain in his abdomen. We all contributed it to dinner, something must not have agreed with him. After a couple more hours passed by, the pain was still there and even growing. So, off to the hospital we went. Believe it or not, this was not my dad's first trip to the hospital on his birthday. My dad had snake bitten luck his whole life, always had some sort of health complication. His track record for his birthday wasn't the best, either. It seemed that something always had to happen, so he somewhat dreaded his birthday. Anyway, as it turned out, a gull bladder stone was the cause of the pain, to which they had to remove his gull bladder. Hey, that's not so bad, right? Well, a simple operation turned our lives into something we never expected.

Due to post-operation procedures, my dad spent the night at the hospital. The following day, my mom picked me up from school, and offered to take me to the Exclusive Co. and buy me a CD. Fucking score, I was so pumped! As I looked for the right album to purchase, my mom started telling me about dad. I recall my mom seeming a little odd, but considering what she was about to tell her 11 year old son, she held it together really well. In the store, she told me dad was still in the hospital, the operation went well, but there was something else. I remember her speaking to me in a super serious manor, almost in the sense where I didn't quite understand her. To be honest, I was on the quest for music, so I was having a hard time focusing. After I picked out a CD, we went to the car and she continued to talk to me, now being very forward. Dad was sick, in fact, dad has a life threatening disease. Blood work from my dad's operation came back showing the leukemia in his system. My mom started speaking to me in a way that I could understand, and explained to me that CML is an incurable form of leukemia. Having a lot to take in, and being overcome by emotions, I had an idea of what my mom was saying, but I asked her one simple question: Is dad going to die from this? That's when I saw the first tear fall from my mom's eye, and her voice broke when she responded, "Yes".

What was expected to be a rough three months turned out to be an impressive almost nine years of life for my dad. At the time of diagnosis, my dad went on daily injections of interferon. Thankfully, the interferon worked better than expected, and much to everyone's surprise, the leukemia (while incurable) was under control. For having an extremely serious and powerful form of leukemia for almost nine years, you wouldn't know it by looking at my dad. He looked healthy, had all his hair, and behaved exactly the same. The way he behaved amazes me when I think back on that time. It was rough at first, there was no guarantee he would respond to the interferon, and his life expectancy was three months, yet, his spirit was never broken. Maybe that's not true, I'm sure it was, but he would never show it to anyone. I don't know how he did it. I spent so many days after school crying hysterically in my bedroom over the situation, and he still carried on the same way. I never knew how strong my dad was until after he died.

The last four months of my dad's life were hard. While the leukemia remained under control for years, the time we all dreaded (and knew would come) arrived. I just got home from spending a week in San Diego when the call came. My dad just had is quarterly check-up a week before at the UW hospital in Madison and Dr. Longo called with the reports. My dad answered the phone in his normal, high pitched greeting, said hi to the doctor, and then he didn't say a word for the next twenty minutes. I was in the other room with my mom, and both of us knew what the call was about. My dad would always joke around with Dr. Longo, the phone calls typically were short and light-hearted. Not this one, not this time. My dad thanked the doctor, said his goodbye and hung up the phone. Looking like he was completely numb and dumbfounded, he came in the room with mom and I, sat down in the chair, and blankly stared ahead. After a few moments of silence, he spoke up. "This sucks… I'm dying."

I felt my stomach in my throat.

The leukemia rapidly became out of control. In the past few years, there was hardly a trace in his bloodstream. Now, there was hardly a hint of healthy blood cells. Drastic measures were taken to counteract the invasive blood cells. The daily dosage of interferon now became three times a day, which completely drained my dad. I remember him coming home for lunch everyday, not to eat, but to sleep. When the weekends came around, he couldn't do a damn thing. Yet, Monday morning he was right back at work. This lasted for about two months, and the drastic measures had to become even more severe. He was presented with two options: Continue living at home on the three-a-day dosage of interferon knowing he would die shortly or undergo the strongest and hardest chemo, and delay death as long as possible, with the very unlikely chance they could get rid of the leukemia.

On May 19, 2004, my dad was admitted to the UW hospital, where he would undergo constant chemotherapy, which no one knew if it would even do anything.

Mom and I would visit dad in the hospital at least two times a week. We weren't able to do too much during visits, as dad was physically, mentally, and emotionally drained due to the chemo. I would walk him down the hall, where sometimes walking 100 feet was too much for him to handle. We spent a lot of time watching movies in his room, that way he could sleep when needed, which was almost hourly. Most of the time, we were traveling to Middle Earth, Hogwarts, or to a galaxy far, far away. In fact, I remember how excited my dad was when Return of the King came out on video. That Tuesday, we had to come visit and bring the double VHS release.

For the first time, my dad now started to look ill. This was hard, because he looked great for so many years, and now it was the exact opposite. I told myself I would stay strong in front of my dad, I didn't want to show any emotions and make him worry about me. It wasn't easy, though, that's for damn sure. Hell, I didn't even like to show emotions in front of my mom, who is one of the strongest human beings I know, but I knew she would struggle if she saw me having a hard time.

My dad was able to come home two times throughout his final months, one of which was cut short, as we had to take him to the ER, and then immediately back to Madison. I was able to spend my 20th birthday with my dad home. I never really care about birthday presents, but I have to say, that was easily the best present I ever received. I took my dad to see Spider-Man 2 in the theater, per his request. My dad had to wear a mask anytime he was in public, as the chemo destroyed all his blood cells, so he was incredibly susceptible to any kind of sickness. I remember being filled with such anger at the movie theater, as people kept staring at us. I am not a violent person by any means, but I just wanted to fight every person that would not stop staring. These people didn't phase my dad, he didn't give a shit about any of them and their disrespectful stares. All he cared about was getting to see Peter Parker on the big screen. Even though the mask covered the bottom half of his face, I could see my dad smiling ear to ear when the movie started. To this day, I have yet to re-watch Spider-Man 2 in its entirety, as it's too hard for me to do so.

On July 22, we got the call from the hospital. We were told it was time to come to Madison, as my dad was not expected to live much longer. Mom and I packed our bags, and by the time we got to Madison, dad was admitted to ICU. By not having much of an immune system left, the tiniest cold was lethal. While the leukemia led to his death, it was actually a staph infection that took his life. When we arrived to the ICU, he was in a lot of pain. Yet, he was still cracking jokes and, for the most part, acting like himself. With not much of a choice, he went into a drug-induced coma, never to come out of it. As the nurse put on the oxygen mask, I saw my dad cry for the not only the first time related to his illness, but for the first time in my life. I heard his muffled voice say three words, the three words that ended up being his last words: "This fucking sucks."

The next two days became a blur of no sleeping, tears, dread, and even laughs. Saturday morning, mom had a talk with the doctors, where they told her it was extremely unlikely he would ever come out of the coma. Even if he did, the chance he would be able to speak was unlikely, and damn near impossible that he could function on his own. Knowing what had to be done, at 3:30pm the "plug was pulled." A doctor (for the life of me I cannot remember his name) addressed us, and told us what to expect, and that typically, they will pass very shortly. Well, leave it up to my dad to fuck with us. See, dad could never do anything quickly. The smallest of projects around the house, for example, would take him hours and hours, and sometimes even days. He held on for five hours. Five fucking hours. Five of the longest hours in my life. At this point, we knew what was going to happen. We agreed on it, we made the choice. As odd as this sounds, we just wanted him to pass. It was inevitable, it was time… but no, we had to wait. And wait. And wait. Thankfully (and perhaps in some weird way), mom and I were able to joke about it, bringing some much needed laughter to the situation.

At 8:33pm on Saturday, July 24, 2004, Richard John Pata died with his wife on his left side, and his youngest son on his right. The moments before someone dies is truly… I don't even know how to finish that. The doctor told us what would happen, and for my own reasons, I will not share what took place. Part of me wishes I could erase those thirty seconds or so leading up to my dad's death, as I never want to experience anything like that again. That was easily the most agonizing moment of my life. For weeks, I would close my eyes and relive it all again, which led to a duration of little-to-no sleep. I was too afraid to close my eyes and have to be in that moment again. Thankfully, I was able to focus on the good, not the bad, and overcome it all. Those memories have not left my head, though. Somewhere in my mind, they sit, a moment away from torturing me again.

My dad was a pretty odd character. There are a lot of people in my life that never had the chance to meet my father, which bums me out. I wish people that are close to me now could see what my dad was like, as I know they would enjoy his company. He was the kind of person who would tell a joke to a crowd and be the only person laughing at the punchline. He would cook spaghetti every single night of the week, or at least every time Sam Warnke ate over. He would steal some of my ska records and I'd walk in on him trying to skank. He would be oblivious to people talking to him as he was deaf in one ear, yet sit there with the biggest shit-eating grin, leading you to believe he was purposely not responding to you. However, more importantly, he was the kind of person that just wanted to make others laugh, never took life too seriously, and had an incredibly tough, challenging, and trying 53 years of life, yet nothing could take his smile away.

I am grateful for the 20 years I spent with my dad. Do I wish I had more? Of course. However, that's not possible. What is possible, though, is remembering and celebrating the life of a man who would tease me as a teenager, over and over, saying, "You're going to be just like me when you get older." I hated that, it was something I feared. Well, in my "adult" years, I have begun to notice that the jerk was right, I am kind of like him. And you know what, I am okay with that.

I love you, dad. I know that's something we never really said to each other much when we had the chance, and that's something I kick myself for. So, I say it to you now, and everyday - I love you. Thanks for all you've given me, and I know it took some time, but thank you for embracing the person I am. I wouldn't be this person without you and everything we've been through.

Lastly, thank you for teaching me the oh-so-important life lesson of what blue balls are when you drove me to school one morning during my sophomore year of high school.

This one's for you, dad.

A father and his chubby son.

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