On a beautiful, bright and sunny Spring New York City day in April 2018, I received the phone call I knew was coming: “My father did not have long to live.” While none of us are ever prepared to see our loved ones die, this call was not a pure shock because, over the last year, I watched my dad’s health steadily decline.
If we just turn back the clock just a mere 18 months, Dad was doing reasonably well considering his ongoing health problems with kidney disease, diabetes, cholesterol and weight. In April 2017, my darling husband threw me an epic birthday bash in Miami, Florida. Over the 4-day celebration, my father shared in every aspect of the fun including walking out to the beach party to hang in a cabana, enjoying several cocktails and delivering a father-daughter speech that left no dry eye.
A few months later, in June 2017, on Father’s Day, we surprised him and my step-mom in Chicago with dinner, a stay at a fancy hotel and really just our presence. Although we had a great time on that trip, I took note of his slower gait and that he couldn’t walk more than a short city block.
Later that same summer in August, Dad endured another long hospital stay where we thought he had caught pneumonia yet again. Around that time, I was booked on a short trip to Paris with friends and also had my annual Martha’s Vineyard family vacation scheduled. For years, my dad’s health had been declining so the question was always “Do I stay or do I go?”
I always say that, ‘Even the best of decisions have unintended consequences.” Once I made the decision not to return to Chicago in 2003 after my graduation from Georgetown Law School, I had to balance my full and vibrant life in New York with the very real obligation I felt to remain present with my father in Chicago. I imagine that many children who leave to grow and then make a life away from their childhood home feel this angst. Over the past few years, my father was constantly in and out of the hospital or sick for one reason or another. I often dropped everything and jumped on a plane to be by his side. When I didn’t, I felt the guilt that I could not be in two places at once. I’m trying to be honest with you here so let me just say that the conflicting emotions of both the very real obligation and the existential guilt coupled with the constant worry that Daddy was ill had begun to take its toll on me mentally and physically. How could it not?
He spent most of August 2017 in the hospital. Honestly I thought the end was near last Fall this time as it seemed that he just couldn’t get his strength back. My stepmother took September & October off from work to help care for Dad. Thank god for that woman. I truly believe my mother hand picked her from a poppy field of daisies to love my father, take care of him and give me the room I needed to grow and mature.
After he survived the August hospital stay, my inner voice whispered that I might not get another Christmas or Thanksgiving so I vowed to spend both holidays with him, talking, soaking up the stories and grabbing a few extra memories. For Thanksgiving, I visited our childhood lake house in rural Michigan for the first time in years. He drove me around the back roads as I snapped hundreds of pictures while he told stories of his youth like racing to vacation bible school on his bike to spend time with the pretty girls. I say frequently on social media, “To thine own self be true.” My father always appreciated beautiful women. He would curse up a storm when you told him to stop calling the ladies “baby” and “sugar.” On this Thanksgiving trip, I also took tons of video and asked Daddy a million questions. He never complained. Enjoying the conversation, I think a piece of his soul knew that the end was near so he was pleased I wanted to soak up the family history. The trip to Michigan was awesome in every way but, even then, I knew we were cheating time.
Up until Christmas Day 2017, my father was spry, talkative and his ol’ cranky self. He desperately wanted to have a cocktail or Bloody Mary on Christmas Eve with my husband as he hadn’t had a drink since before that August hospital stay. My stepmother and I adamantly refused because the alcohol aggravated his kidneys. Looking back, we probably should have just let him have the damn drink! Who knew he only had 6 months left? I now realize that on Christmas Day, you could begin to see that the cancer was stealing his spark. He complained of being tired, never got out his bathrobe and spent most of the holiday on the sofa.
Just 4 short months later, on April 18, 2018, I received the phone call where my father said to me from his hospital room, “My time is running out. The doctors have found lesions and masses on my pancreas and liver. Jacqueline, I’m to frail and unhealthy for any additional measures.” The doctors and nurses asked him where his family was and my stepmother called me. She didn’t have to say, “it’s time.” I could hear it in her voice.
I finished a few errands, packed a bag, left my New York City house super clean (that was strangely important to me at the time) and made the trip to Chicago O’Hare International airport. As I already told you above, it’s a flight I have made more times than I can count since leaving home for Spelman College at 18 years old.
A few agonizing and gut wrenching days later, the surgeon walked into a small and unattractive hospital waiting room to tell us that my father had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Our hearts collectively broke and shattered into a million little pieces. Within 48 hours, I stood in the corner of his hospital room silently sobbing, unable to catch my breath as the oncologist told my dad he only had 2 week to 2 months to live. Just as the doctors warned, Dad declined quickly but he squeezed a hell-of-a-lot living out of the next 71 days: visits with best friends who flew in from all over the country, an impromptu family barbecue, house-calls with middle school classmates, long and deep conversations with all his close family members and even moving to his beloved lake house in Michigan on “Paradise Lake.”
The last time I saw him in June for Father’s Day, we were lucky enough to take his final boat ride on “the lake” as our family and friends call it. It’s the same small lake I learned to swim around 3 years old and the same lake he first jumped in at 4 years old.
My dad’s best friend Dave halted his yard work and graciously chauffeured us through Paradise Lake’s calm waters and those secret nooks and crannies that hold so many memories for all of us. All of our hearts were full even though we knew our time with Victor Hugo Howell, Sr. was nearly done. In a way, on that boat, as the sun peeked through the weeping willows and the wind whipped my hair back and forth, I could feel God’s caress on each of our souls.
Later that day after the boat ride, despite the fact he could no longer even leave the hospice bed to use the restroom or hardly even sit up for long, Dad was determined to ride in the car to take me to the airport. As I hugged him through the window in the airport’s departure lane, I sobbed because I knew our “cheating days” were over. My guess was that he knew this as well but, nonetheless, his final words as I kissed him one last time were, “Don’t cry baby. I’m not giving up. I’m still fighting.” He passed away a few weeks later on July 3, 2018.
For 21 years following the accident when my 49 year old mother choked to death in 1997, I had the honor and privilege to stand by my father’s side. We supported each other, loved each other and shared the pain of losing my mother. My father was fiery, funny, loving, brash at times, and as the elders would say, “a Chicago South-Side playa” through and through. But my father’s most noble quality was that when he made you a promise, you can, as he would say, “take it the bank.”
I spent the last year of Daddy’s life trying to say “I love you” with both my words and actions. Trying to spend the time with him creating memories and let him know he’s not alone. I have always said that when the day comes for my Dad to go home with his God, I want no regrets. Knowing all of this, the 71 days of saying good-bye from diagnosis to death was gut wrenchingly hard. Cancer is an ugly disease. We watched it slowly steal everything from him. As he fought the tumors ripping through his body, I knew that one of my jobs was to give him the assurance that it’s okay to leave. I needed to make sure he knew that I would be okay. It was my job to let him know that I was so thankful that he took care of me the last 21 years. That even when we fought like old married people, we always had each other’s backs. My father gave me the greatest gift you can ever give a person. He believed in me. In those final 71 days of his life, my goal was to pour that support back into him.
I write this story of the past 18 months not for your sympathy but to say elder care is hard. At only 41 years of age, I have seen two sides of death. I experienced the shock of a parent dying suddenly when my mother passed. And now, at middle-age, I watched my father literally melt away for years before my very eyes. Neither is easier. One rips the bandaid off taking skin with it that never fully heals and one is like having your heart painfully eaten bit by bit. I tell you my story in hopes that it might help someone else out there struggling. There is this cloak of silence around death, dying, mortality, anxiety, mental health, grief, loss, hospice, estate planning and so on. I’m ripping the cape off the elephant in the room so that maybe it might inspire just one more person to keep going. Keep hoping. Keep living. Keep searching for the light through the darkness.
My last post here on JackieUnfiltered.com was back in April right before my dad was diagnosed. That was 5 months ago. It’s been so long that, a few times, I considering letting the whole damn blog go. After everything that’s happened, what will I write? How do I properly emerge from the shadows and back into this happy space I created with Sikia about “Fashion, Food, & Fitness?” Where do I even begin? The Jackie in the images below is profoundly different from the Jackie I knew on April 23. She is flawed but wiser because, once again, she allowed herself the privilege to feel the pain of being broken open. With this unimaginable pain, she also had the chance to re-learn that she is kind, blessed to be loved by many and courageous enough to begin again.
So today, as I prepare to attend a New York Fashion Week Party at our famed Bergdorf Goodman, I have decided that instead of worrying about where and what to write, I will just start because I know that my best storytelling is yet to come. How can I tell? Because even after all the dark days where I thought I would lose everything that make me Jackie, I find myself once again in the light….still standing.