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On June 27, 2007, my dad, Richard Kern was diagnosed with a glioblastoma. I remember the date because it was the day before I left for overnight camp that year, and two days before the release of the first iPhone. Those were the things that were on my mind when I was 16 years old. With a quick Wikipedia search, we soon learned that statistically, my dad had one year to live. Meanwhile, my mom was trying to block us from any internet research because "those are just statistics! We can fight this!"
In spite of the diagnosis, I left for camp, assuming my mom was right and maybe when I got back, things would be back on track. The next time I saw my dad on visiting day, he looked like a different person. His head was bald from radiation therapy and he couldn't speak more than a word at a time due to the swelling in his brain. Alas, we had some family over for lunch, including my Aunt Marlene (his sister) and her family. I remember we called my cousin Eric - who was also away at camp - and heard him complain about how he was having the worst time. We all started laughing at his seemingly first world problem, and I remember watching my dad laugh for the first time that day.
It was little moments like that that kept me going throughout that year. But those moments were few and far between. It felt like we were always one step forward, 10 steps back. My dad seemed to lose some type of functionality each month: speaking, seeing, walking. It was really hard to hold out hope. Every type of chemotherapy drug was failing. Even the experimental ones that "showed promise in mice" weren’t doing the trick. Towards the end, we didn’t even recognize my dad as the same person. Eventually, he wanted to get off chemo all together so he could feel good in what little time he had left.
We moved him to the Hospice House in Merrimack as things got worse. Hospice is a funny place because it seems like everyone from your entire life comes to visit you, as if it’s the last episode of a TV show and the writers decided it’s the perfect time for a reunion of every character that was ever on the show (no hard feelings, Seinfeld). The most interesting characters were the ones I never met, because they each brought their own anecdote of “what a great man your father was.”
The one that sticks out the most was one of my dad’s dental patients that came in on one of the last days of his life. My mom, brother, and I had never met him. He told us how he met my dad at another practice and started seeing him when my dad opened his own practice. He had been his patient for twenty years, and had nothing but praise for my dad. Apparently, he found out about my dad’s diagnosis at a recent appointment. The man was carrying a portable keyboard, and asked us what kind of music my dad liked, and then he played a classical melody.
Most of my memories of my dad are from when I was a kid, and I didn’t really have a complex understanding of who he was. Part of me feels like the anonymous man with the keyboard knew the wonderful qualities of my father more than I did. He knew him for longer than I was alive after all. This is what I think about the most when I reflect on the loss of my dad.
I recently repeated the same Wikipedia search I did with my dad and brother ten years ago. The prognosis is not much better. My experience with brain cancer wasn’t like a cute movie where the main character is diagnosed and has a year to reclaim his life and spend quality time with loved ones. I watched my dad deteriorate into a different person, while never truly saying goodbye to him.
The National Brain Tumor Society is committed to finding a cure by driving strategic research and advocating for public policies. We need to cure this deadly, devastating disease. Please consider joining me in the fight.
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