July 16, 2013
My father was a hero. But not for the reasons one might think.
Yes, he served in the Air Force and was an air traffic controller along the border between North and South Korea during the Korean War. Heroic, right?
And yes, he went through the diagnosis of cancer not once, but twice, in his eighty-two years and suffered through chemo and radiation, the nausea and weight loss. He woke up every morning with a good attitude and thankfulness for life. He went to work, never missing a day, even when the sickness was almost unbearable. Heroic.
But it’s not these things that my dad will be best remembered for. At least not by me. He was my hero because he was my dad. The best anyone could ask for. He was the one who taught me how to ride my bike and to play the piano. The one who disciplined with a fair but firm hand. The one who taught me how to drive a stick shift and the one who never missed a band concert or an award’s ceremony. He’s the one who read my very first manuscript before I ever sent it off to an agent or a publisher. He was my biggest and most supportive fan.
I started writing my first book my freshman year of college, the same year my dad was diagnosed with bladder and prostate cancer. While I was away at college, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, he was fighting for his on a daily basis and I didn’t really know how serious things were until some time after he’d had surgery to remove his bladder completely.
Even with the severity of the disease and the explanations as to what was happening to his body, I don’t think it ever really sunk in. He was my dad. Larger than life in some ways. Always strong. Never complaining. So I went about my life, finishing college with a degree I’d never use, getting married and having children, all with the thought in my head of, It’s just cancer. He’s too strong for that. Heroes don’t get cancer.
The loss of his bladder and the inconvenience of an ostomy bag didn’t slow him down. He kept going to work. Finished his chemo. Kept living his life and paying the bills. And then he was cancer free.
My twenties went by in a rush. Marriage and four kids. Writing constantly as I tried to get published, and then once I did get published, trying to make a living. I’ve always been very close to my parents, and my husband and I decided when we built our new house we should build an attached quarters so my parents could come live with us. Just in case one of them ever got sick and needed help. They still weren’t old in my mind but I told myself one day they’d need the extra help and it was best to go ahead and get things settled. But the future was a long way off and I didn’t plan to worry about those things in the meantime.
Thirteen years passed since my dad was diagnosed with cancer. No relapses and no other issues during his checkups. Life went on and he was still the same man he’d always been. Still larger than life. Never old. I still saw him the same way I had when I was little. To me his hair wasn’t gray and there weren’t wrinkles on his face. I didn’t see that his skin hung loose on his bones or his clothes no longer fit quite right.
But then one day about a year ago I happened to look up from my computer screen, still in the writer’s daze I’m in whenever I’m lost in a story and the sight of him came into clear focus. Who was the old man standing in my kitchen? When had that happened? He was eighty-one years old and it hit me like a bolt of lightning that he wasn’t going to be around forever. He wasn’t really larger than life.
My dad was a stubborn man. I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I take after him quite a bit. My mom and I watched him continue to lose weight and struggle to find an appetite. He didn’t want to go to the doctor. He was tired of doctors and the medications he had to take. He continued to get up every morning and putter around in the garden, tending his vegetables and the fruit trees he found pleasure in.
I decided for Christmas to send my parents on a trip together. They never took trips or got away just the two of them. Money had always been tight for them, and I wanted to give them something they wouldn’t do for themselves. They packed their bags and took off, just the two of them. But when they returned my mom looked at me with worried eyes and said my dad hadn’t felt well enough to do anything but stay in the hotel room and rest. It was time for us to force him to go to the doctor, despite his protests.
Stage 3 lung cancer was the diagnosis. It had happened quickly. Within only a few months. He still went twice a year to his oncologist because of his previous bout with cancer but he’d received a clean bill of health at his last appointment. Surgery wasn’t an option. His age and the location of the tumors made it impossible to operate.
So in January of this year we started the chemo and radiation merry-go-round one more time. He needed nine weeks of radiation, five days a week, and chemo to go along with it. The thought of all of that treatment at his age made me sick to my stomach but he got up every day and went to his appointments.
And then one day about halfway into the treatment he came home and said he didn’t want to go back. He was tired. It was the first time I’d ever heard him sound defeated and I shut myself in my bathroom and cried. A part of me understood it. I even thought there was a part of me that might feel the same way if I was his age and in his shoes. But surprisingly enough, he got up the next morning and continued going to his treatments. And he went every day of the nine weeks they’d prescribed. Only it wasn’t enough.
Nine weeks came and went, but the cancer still wasn’t gone, and he’d had the maximum amount of treatment they could give him. It was April by this time, and all we could do was wait and pray for a miracle. I watched as he continued to lose weight and I listened as his breathing became more erratic and he couldn’t walk through the house without the use of his oxygen tank.
And then early one morning my mom knocked on our bedroom door and said she’d called the ambulance. Dad was having a more difficult time than normal breathing. I got up and threw on clothes and followed the ambulance to the hospital. Even then it didn’t sink in. Not really. He was still coherent and talking with us. Making jokes. I really thought they’d treat him and he’d come home.
My mom and I rotated shifts up at the hospital so he wasn’t alone. I’d come and stay in the daytime and she’d stay with him through the night. I took my computer with me and worked on the book I had due in a matter of weeks, and while he wasn’t sleeping I’d close it up and talk about whatever it was he wanted to talk about.
About two days into his stay at the hospital things got drastically worse. He stopped talking and his struggle for air was more pronounced. They couldn’t give him enough oxygen to make him more comfortable. It was then we got the news that he had only a matter of days left to live. He wouldn’t be coming back home.
I’m not sure any of us really accepted that news. But looking at him in that hospital bed it was hard to deny the truth—the way his chest lifted several inches off the bed every time he tried to inhale because he couldn’t draw a breath, or when he stopped squeezing my hand or smiling whenever anyone talked to him.
Two more days passed and all we could do was watch him die. It got to the point where I stopped praying for a miracle and I started praying for it to end so he wouldn’t have to suffer anymore.
On April 30, 2013 my hero passed away after being diagnosed with lung cancer four months earlier. I wasn’t ready to deal with the reality or talk about it. I wasn’t ready to grieve. All I knew was I needed to stay busy. I’m lucky enough to have a career where I can influence people with my words. I can make a difference—just a ripple in the pond that might start with my fans but become something much larger over time.
So to stay busy I started researching cancer charities, trying to find a way I could contribute in my dad’s name. I wanted a charity where I knew what and where the money was going toward, not just in some CEOs pocket like so many charities out there today. I found that in the Prevent Cancer Foundation and I put a campaign together so a dollar of every pre-order purchase of my latest release, KILL SHOT, would be donated to the Prevent Cancer Foundation. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by the response from my readers. Their show of support helped me get through a very difficult time, and I know my dad would be extremely proud.
Weeks have gone by since his passing, but it doesn’t really get any easier. At least it hasn’t yet. My work and touring schedule has continued, and the kids have been home for the summer, but there’s still that niggling at the back of my mind reminding me that something is missing. That there are pieces of the puzzle gone from the whole.
His name was William Sharp, and he was my hero.
Editor’s Note: Guest Blogger Liliana Hart is the New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author of more than twenty novels. She lives in Texas with her husband and four children, and she loves to be contacted by readers. She can be reached at www.lilianahart.com.