Cancer & Caregiving

Little Black Dress Stirs Memories of Father’s Cancer Struggle

Written By:
Aug 25, 2015
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Written By: Melanie Ball,
August 25, 2015

I was 13 years old when Dad was diagnosed with mesothelioma.

I didn’t realize what his diagnosis meant until I began to see his health deteriorate. To a 13-year-old, mesothelioma is just a long word that means sick.

The sicker he became, the more our family dynamics changed. My older brother was married, and he was working on building a family of his own. My older sister had a job and was working on getting her own apartment.

My mom was barely in her 40s, and she was working on making her husband well. She took on the role of caregiver as his health worsened.

Then there was me.

I was in 9th grade, and I was working on getting a boyfriend. But I took on the crucial role of homemaker.

Meanwhile, I was still a teenager. I had my friends and boys to keep me busy. It was my first year of high school, and it had many implications. It was the year that could potentially define my career, but most importantly, it marked the first year in which I had a real formal dance to attend. I had dreamed of that day all summer long.

Adjusting to High School While Coping with Troubles at Home

That dance occupied my every thought for the entire summer of 1994. I had envisioned the dance would be the best night of my life. My crush, a British transfer student who was handsome and had an accent to boot had asked me to the dance. My life was complete.

But I didn’t realize — or chose to ignore — the turmoil bubbling under the surface of my home life. My father was battling an illness, and I could not fathom the strength and courage he mustered in his fight.

I just saw dishes that needed to be washed, and a dress I needed to buy. My mother promised to take me to buy the dress, but as the days passed, my father’s health deteriorated further, and she couldn’t leave him.

It’s not like I didn’t understand. I could see it every time I looked at him.

But I adjusted. I learned to get myself to school without bothering anyone, waking up at the first crack of the blaring alarm because if I didn’t, I knew my father would stagger down the hall to my room and wake me up. I knew all the things I had worried about all summer just didn’t matter anymore.

My father caught wind of my high school troubles. He had overheard me telling my date over the phone that I wouldn’t be able to attend the dance. It upset my dad. He later said he wanted me to go. In fact, he insisted that I go and told my mother to take me to buy a fabulous dress.

Dealing with the Bad News

He was more worried about me and my high school dance than anything else. My mom arranged for my uncle to stay with my dad while we went shopping.

I found the perfect little black dress at the first store. It was beautiful. My mother smiled and said, “This is it!” She bought the dress, and we headed home.

That night, my father told me he didn’t think he would be alive much longer. My heart ached, but I made no expression. I never showed him how much his illness hurt me. I didn’t want to add my emotions to the list of his worries.

He also told me that night he didn’t think he would ever see snow again. But when I awoke the next morning on October 29, 1993, there were four inches of snow already on the ground, and it was still coming down.

It was unusual to have a significant snowfall in October, even by Cincinnati standards. My dad smiled at me and said, “Look, it is snowing!” I didn’t recognize at the time how happy it made him.

‘You Sure Are Grown Up’

That night was the dance: Homecoming 1993.

I had to get ready. I was lost in hair and make-up for hours. I emerged from my room a princess. I strolled up the hallway, and Dad stood to greet me. I hadn’t seen him stand in days. Our eyes met, and his filled with tears.

I asked, “What’s wrong?” He replied, “Nothing, I’ve never seen you this way. You look amazing. You sure are grown up.”

His smile made all the fuss worth it. We waited together for my date to arrive. My date came in and shook my dad’s hand. As we drove off, I looked back to see the porch light blurred by the steady falling snow.

Four days later my father took his last breath.

These memories serve as reminders that when someone in your family gets sick, we should take care of them. Our roles change as the need arises. Someone else may have to take over house duties and making meals, so another can serve as a nurse.

That is what families do. They love each other, and they care for each other, especially when someone falls ill.

But sometimes a caregiver needs to take time out. We are all human, and I have come to the realization the person you are providing care for is aware of the sacrifices you make.

My father wanted me to go to my first formal dance as much as I did. He was fighting his own battles, but he still wanted to see his little princess ride off with her prince, in her amazing little black dress.

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