Ten years ago today, my life changed forever. It was the worst day, and in some respects, it was the best day. Because without that day, I wouldn’t be who I am now.
But I would still change it. I would go back if it meant things could be different.
I graduated high school in June 1998 and started college that August. My stepfather, Gary, had been suffering from pneumonia for months by the time fall came around. What we didn’t know was that it wasn’t pneumonia.
My parents sat me down towards the end of my very first semester of college (I was still living at home) and devastated my world one evening. Cancer. Stage 4b lung cancer and Gary had it.
I say “had it” because he’s not with us anymore.
Stage 4b is the worst stage of cancer anyone can get. The months of pneumonia had been a huge joke, because if they had only tested for cancer, if they had only looked more closely, they might have caught it in time.
Or maybe not. It was stage 4b after all. That means advanced. That means he’d had it for a long time, and we never even knew he was sick.
Gary was not a smoker. He was never a smoker. The injustice that he had lung cancer was – and still is – a rip in the gut. It’s something I think about every time I see a cigarette dangling from someone’s lips, or smell it from someone else’s car when I’m parked at a stoplight. That means I think about it and him every single day.
I don’t obsess. It’s a natural reaction now.
Doctors surmise that Gary got lung cancer from one – or both – of two things: second hand cigarette smoke or exposure to asbestos while he was in the NAVY. I don’t really care how he got it now. It only matters to me now that he’s gone.
I don’t wish on anyone the experience of just graduating high school, trying to discover one’s self, and emotionally and physically dealing with cancer. Living with someone who has terminal cancer is almost unspeakable. Talk of hospice, wills and tripping over oxygen machine tubing is standard. A 21-year-old should never have to learn how to inject medicine into a PICC line – but I did.
The doctors all gave Gary 6 months to live in the fall of 1998. He was a determined man and went through lung surgery, multiple chemos, radiations and a clinical trial we had to cut through a lot of red tape to get him accepted into.
He lived until February 10th, 2003. He died 13 days after my birthday and 1 day after my stepsister’s birthday. It was rainy and cold out and I will never forget the rain racing down the storm door window as I pressed my cheek to it, watching the drops match my tears, while I waited for help to come. There was no help for us; he was gone.
I’m not telling you this for sympathy. I want you know and understand how precious and temporary life is. People can be ripped away from you and before you know it, you blink and it’s ten years later but it feels like yesterday. I still sometimes forget he is gone, and get the itch to call him and tell him about something that has happened to me.
Hug someone you love tonight and tell them you love them, because time and circumstance stop for no one.
R.I.P. Gary Warren Lougher June 23, 1954 – February 10, 2003