Love, Loss, and Lord of the Rings: My Thoughts on Losing my Dad to Cancer

Douglas ThayerPerspective

I have failed at roughly ever major endeavor I have ever attempted. Not to say that I haven’t eventually found some success, but most of my life’s grand undertakings have struggled off the runway or just gone down in flames all together. Now, I realize that a lot of this is just a matter of perspective and that no matter how bad I think I have it, there is always someone out there who has had it worse. It’s why I was told growing up that life wasn’t fair, there are starving kids in Africa, some kids don’t get anything for Christmas, and to count my many blessings. In fact, at the core of my religious beliefs is a being who has suffered more than all mankind combined. How can you compete with that?

Keeping one’s suffering in perspective is important if self-centeredness and a sense of entitlement are to be kept at bay. While I think I’ve done a decent job of licking my wounds, picking myself back up, soldiering on, and not dwelling on my setbacks, I do think there comes a time when we need to stop and take account of our hardships. As with all things in life, it is a balance, but I think we miss something if with every loss in life we respond with “well, it’s not as bad as that one quadriplegic guy with chronic kidney stones, so it looks like I’ve got nothing to complain about.” Not all losses should be dismissed. There are some that deserve to be validated and, on days like this, remembered. Now I don’t know what the ratio is, and I don’t want to be seen as opening the door for people to rend their clothing if their WiFi is slow, but I do want to talk about two particular losses I’ve experienced in the last few years, for no other reason other than writing helps me formalize my thoughts and formalizing my thoughts helps me to move on.

Our Fourth

Anyone who has been to my house has seen that I have an objectively awesome collection of Lord of the Rings and Hobbit paraphernalia. I have everything from an armory of weapon replicas to rocks that I personally gathered from the film locations of Mordor and Mt. Doom. Looking at my home office might lead you to believe that I am a lifelong Middle Earth geek and Tolkien aficionado, but I really only began collecting things in earnest after we went to New Zealand in November 2015 and April 2016. I do consider The Lord of the Rings to be highly influential in my decision to write novels, but even that was more the movies than the books. So why this sudden fanatical interest in all things Middle Earth? I actually didn’t realize the answer to that question myself until I took the time to work through one of my life’s great losses.

Mike Thayer Office You see, the trips to New Zealand were never even supposed to happen. We were never supposed to be able to travel in November 2015 due to the eventual arrival of our fourth child. The decision wether to have another kid always centered around whether we could make it through another first trimester. Do an exhaustive search of my last 12 years of pictures and you will not find any of my wife lovingly holding her pregnant belly. You’re more likely, in fact, to find one of me shoveling vomit off the lawn with a snow shovel.

Gestating babies is not a glamorous process in the Thayer household. My rough guess is that my wife probably throws up just shy of 1,000 times in those first four months, and that’s not hyperbole. Things do seem to relatively improve around week sixteen, however.

We thought about it, prayed about it, worked it out, and decided that we were going to have one last kid. Few things had felt more right. Jill got pregnant, 12 week ultrasound looked normal, and the vomiting even seemed to be a bit less frequent (my wife may recall things differently). We were zeroing in on the coveted sixteenth week when things went wrong. I was downstairs washing the dishes with headphones in. I must have had the music on loud because I didn’t hear the screams for help. By the time I wandered upstairs, the bathroom looked like a scene from a horror movie. We told the kids we needed to check on the baby and rushed Jill to the small-town Australian hospital.

The next twelve hours were a mess of confusion, panic, helplessness, isolation, and fear. Wheeling my wife through the various delivery and recovery rooms was a hollow mockery of what we had planned to do later that year. We had gone through much of the same motions and yet come away with nothing. In fact, it was less than nothing. That is the only way I could ever describe it: less than nothing.

I remember leaving the hospital that next morning to go get something to eat. I came back, parked the car, and lost it. I knew right then that we hadn’t just lost our “first attempt” at our fourth child, but that we had lost our fourth child and there weren’t going to be any more. Knowing this and that I couldn’t expect anyone to understand or appreciate this fact, only deepened my grief and isolation. “Don’t worry, you’ll get your baby,” people would say, as if we had just failed an attempt at baking a cake and just needed to rinse off the pots and pans and try again.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had cried before that day, let alone wept. It could have been a decade, maybe more. Something broke inside me at that moment and hasn’t ever really gotten fixed. I still don’t know what it was exactly, some dam that holds certain emotions in check perhaps, but I seem to have to fight off tears more regularly since then.

The months rolled by. With the pregnancy, we hadn’t planned on any more vacations during our final year in Australia, but the situation had changed so we decided to book a trip to the South Island of New Zealand. The trip was beyond idyllic. Life-changing even. Right when we got home we booked a trip back to the North Island and had a similar experience. Part of it was just the majesty of New Zealand, but I know another part was because our family needed to rally around something at that moment. However odd it seems to say it, that something was Lord of the Rings, cemented with two trips to Middle Earth itself.

There’s a conversation in my novel, Passage to Avalon, where two people are talking about losing their parents that I think sums it up for me:

“Wanting the pieces to go back and fit like they used to only makes it hurt worse; I’ve accepted that. Thinking about him at all hurts, but the best memories are worth the hurt. It’s a strange thing.”

        “Some part of us stays broken forever, I suppose.”

        “Maybe. But you can repurpose the broken bits…”

We won’t get the baby back, and my intention wasn’t to replace it with a vacation to New Zealand, but it’s ok to look at the broken bits of your life and see what else you can make with the pieces. It doesn’t cheapen the part that was broken. I feel like it’s a way of ensuring it didn’t break in vain.

My Father

My most recent loss has hit me hardest of all. On Oct 17, 2017, I lost my father to liver cancer. He had worked full-time until he was 84, not seeming to age a day the entire thirty plus years I’d known him. I remember him coming back from a fishing trip scraped up because he had cut himself ducking under a barbed-wire fence before losing his footing and tumbling down a hill. He was around 80 at the time. In my eyes, the man was all but guaranteed to live well into his hundreds.

In late 2015, however, he was diagnosed terminal lymphoma. We rushed home from Australia to see him at the end of the year, thinking it may be the last time we did. It was a perfect Christmas. He was still ostensibly healthy. We laughed, told stories, everything was as it should be, as it had been.

In early 2016, they decided to treat the cancer to prolong his life. Over the next five months, the incurable cancer inexplicably disappeared. It was the kind of miracle you only read about in stories, fitting for a man who crafted some of the greatest fiction in all of Mormon literature. The whole ordeal (whether it was the treatment or the cancer, I don’t know) seemed to take its toll, however. It was as if those five months had aged him ten years. He slept most of the day, but would wake to show bouts of his old self. Just as things were stabilizing, my mom sent an email in June 2017 saying that they had found another form of cancer, completely independent from the lymphoma. There would be no treating this one, no miracle come back. And there wasn’t.

On Oct 11th, my mom let us know that Dad had started to take a turn for the worse and that the nurse and doctor thought he could go at any moment. I did a video chat that night and cried when I hung up. I had never seen my dad like that. I didn’t know what to do. My family was supposed to leave to Disneyworld in two days and my father had made a habit of defying all medical expectations. After texting my other brother who was out-of-state, I made the decision fly home as soon as I could. I missed the last flight out of Billings and left work in a frenzy to drive the two hours to Bozeman to catch a plane for a whirlwind 24 hrs visit to Utah.

Every single minute of those 24 hrs was devastating, and beautiful, and poignant. He held on long enough to have a moment with each of his children and many of his friends. He told jokes and gave wry smiles to the bitter end. He was himself to the core. One thing for which I will forever be grateful is that on that day I was able to spend a couple of hours alone with my dad. Most of the time he was unresponsive and most of the time I didn’t try to bother him, but he was there and I was there and for a moment I could pretend he was just taking another Sunday nap, that he would wake up to build another tower of blocks on an upside-down Chutes and Ladder game board (one needed a firm base to reach impressive heights) or put on his blue apron and start working on the roast and potatoes. I wonder if I paused during the last times those things happened and savored the moment. I doubt it. It’s hard to tell when life will finally move you forward and bar the way back to those familiar and cherished places.

Five minutes before I had to leave to catch my plane, I went into the room where my dad was sleeping to say my final goodbye. He asked if I had enough time to get to the airport and to send my love to Jill. I don’t know that I could have said anything at that moment that would have or could have summed up my emotions or risen to the moment.

“Thanks for everything, Dad. Thank you for being a great dad.”

“Thank you, Son. You’re welcome.”

“Get some sleep now, Dad.”

“Okay…I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow, Dad.”

“Make sure to lock the front door.”

“I will, Dad. I love you.”

I left the house and got into my rental car with tears in my eyes. It wasn’t for another thirty seconds, as I drove by Day’s Market and saw the illuminated Shasta soda vending machine, that I completely lost it. I’m not sure if I have ever cried that hard in my entire life. Twenty-five years ago my dad had given me a quarter for a soda and I came back to the car with two. To me the malfunction in the vending machine was the boon of a lifetime, but my dad’s unflinching honesty simply couldn’t abide the unpaid item. I remember him taking me into the store so we could pay the cashier another quarter. It wasn’t the most impactful thing my father had ever done, but as I drove past the store, it was the first memory of my father that came to me after having said my last goodbye.

Several days later, in between the Simpsons and Men in Black rides at Universal Studios, I got the message that my dad had passed away. People lose loved ones every single day in ways that are far more tragic than how I lost my father. This realization helps me to understand and appreciate the blessing of how he passed, but I don’t let it cheapen my grief and lessen how much it broke me.

One of my life’s most meaningful goals was to stand alongside my dad as a respected author. Writing, although not something I did physically next to him, was always something I felt I did with him. When I learned of his cancers, I worked myself to the ragged edge to hone my craft and finish my book. In the end, I failed. I worked tirelessly for nearly a decade and I missed it by five months. People tell me he knows what I’ve written and what I’ve accomplished, but informing my father’s angel and standing next to his memory was never my goal. I meant to see the look on his face as he held my book in his hands. I meant to have a picture in my office of the Thayer authors standing side-by-side. And, as with most of my life’s major endeavors, I failed. Does it haunt me? Every single day. But I’ve learned something about the human condition over the years. Life isn’t about getting what you had planned served on a silver platter. It’s about scrounging together enough broken pieces to even make a platter.

My life’s losses and failures have taught me many things, but above all else they’ve taught me that there are very few promises I know I can actually keep. I haven’t really been able to guarantee any measure of athletic, scholastic, professional, or publishing success. I can’t promise that the cancers that took my father won’t eventually take me, or that every major undertaking won’t come crashing down. I can only promise that I’ll try to make it work. I can promise that I’ll love. I can promise that I’ll look to appreciate those that have come before me. I can promise that I’ll always be there with a handful of broken dreams and lifetime supply of superglue.

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