By Jake Verhaegh
Everything changed the day my father died. A slow death. A painful death that began from cancer five years before his passing on August 2, 2015 at the age of 58. And I was there through all of it. A terrible feeling watching your father die little by little as days pass into months into years without improvement. And the reflection of the pain within my father, Charles Verhaegh – better known as Chuck Verhaegh, was mirrored in me – growing little by little as days pass into months into years. Innocence. I did not know what death was back then. I knew my father though. Chuck was a tall, bald man – bald from leukemia radiation, leukemia radiation from when he was in college which turned into breast cancer in his fifties, breast cancer that ultimately killed him in a slow, prolonged death. Chuck was a humourous human, a creative cook, and the glue to hold the family together in happiness. He always supported me in whatever I did, and supported my family in whatever ways he could. He supported me in ways that soon became impossible when he became too weak to move. Too weak to do anything but lie there, mouth open, eyes staring blankly up to the stars.
He loved me. And I loved him. To lose him was to lose a part of me. And a part of me wished that I could give more to him. I was not angry. I did not blame anyone. I only wished I could have made my life mean just a little bit more to him. To play that one more soccer game on the lawn. To canoe one more time in his company. To feel the freedom in the forest below the canopy of green with his presence rooted beside me. But that thought soon passed from reality to dream as I see him stare – motionless, in bed – just days before his passing.
The what ifs? The if only things were different. But things are not different – and that is a fact I have to live with. The harsh reality that I will never again see his bald head; or hear his humorous personality; or taste the greatness of his cooking. But I am thankful for the time we shared together. For the stories. For the memories.
A slow death, while terrible, made carrying it easier. We knew he was going to die. It is a sickening thought knowing his life was ending soon. A weight upon my shoulder that grew heavier with each day; a weight upon our family as we became close in our crisis. How soon? How much time is left? It is the unknown that is painful, and yet Chuck faced the greatest unknown of them all. I see him still upon the bed, my mother’s fingers in his hand. Him speaking words that hold no meaning to us, but meaning in him. Talking to his mother, my grandma – still alive, but dying inside; his parents still alive here to watch him die. A few days ago he was moving, talking, eating, drugged to stop the pain – but alive. Now he is as good as dead. I can almost feel the presence around me; the presence of the people he is talking to. I can see calmness in his pitiless eyes, I trace bravery on the ribs that show upon his starved body, I sigh in sadness with my family as life sighs out of him. Chuck had a hard life – with leukemia and then breast cancer from the leukemia radiation – but Chuck was strong, he was brave, and the bravest thing of all was for him to let go of us and for us to let go of him.
He held on to us because we held on to him. He held on to the what ifs? To the if only things were different. At the end he was delirious, but at the end he was most sane as he learned to move on. To no longer walk in the forest, but to release the canopy of green so he may be free to walk among the stars. To walk along the trail of time, as I will always be in his heart, and his heart will be in mine. I am not angry. I do not wish my life were different, because this experience makes me – me. It is a part of me, as I a part of it. I am not afraid of death. I am much more afraid of life than I am of death – because I know I will see my father again one day, one day beyond the veil of the living.
A hundred people went to his funeral. We appreciated the life he lived – the life he gave to others. The pain Chuck suffered occurred when he was alive. Death is peaceful, it gave him his release from pain and suffering – and, in turn – it gave the release of pain in me as I knew he was truly free, I knew this was reality, him relieved from his body that restrained him in life. It was a hard experience to live through, but to live through it helped our family bond together: to grow strong together.
Did it hurt? Of course it hurt; life hurts, for how would we grow stronger otherwise? That weight upon my shoulders made me tougher and changed me into the being I am today. It was hard to let go. “I got to go, I got to go,” Chuck kept on saying, getting out of his bed, being forced back in again. Only when mother left the house, only when we weren’t beside him, only when the morning dawned – did it dawn on him the ability leave the world the right way. He loves me. And I love him. And we – family and friends – will love him for forever and beyond, for forever and beyond as he loves us beyond the veil of the living.