Growing up, I was fortunate enough to not only have one man step up as a Father figure, but to have two when at one point I had none.
My “step” Dad, Ken and my Uncle Dean.
Both were and are amazing role models to me and today I’m excited to shine light on the life of my Uncle Dean who passed away a few years ago.
Today is World Blood Donor Day and it hits me hard because I’ve seen someone first hand in need of blood often. My Uncle Dean was diagnosed with stage 4 Multiple Myeloma when I was about 9 years old.
When my Mom got divorced we moved in with my Grandma, Grandpa and Uncle Dean. We all shared a small room in the back of the house and I remember watching Little House on the Prairie with my Mom way past my bedtime in bed. Uncle Dean had all the fun stuff in his room though, cool rock collections, little gadgets and all the technology. I was in there every chance I could get with my baby sister. He was the “cool” Uncle, but serious when he needed to be. He taught me wrong from right, led by example, but always made sure to have fun while doing so. He plastered and cleaned pools for a living and I thought it was the coolest job in the world, let’s be honest–still do. He would take me and my sister along somedays, let us listen to Genie in a Bottle (oh hey Christina..) and we would go swimming in the pools while he worked. Ha! I mean, doesn’t that sound like the best job ever?! Okay, maybe I don’t want the job part–but the swimming everyday, yes. He cared for both my sister and me, helped us when needed and stepped in as a Father figure when we needed it most.
When he was diagnosed with cancer things were chaotic. Quite honestly I don’t remember too much about that time, just bits and pieces of sad, worry, doctor’s appointments and shortly after no more work trips. We would hang out at the house, sometimes go to appointments with him and he would tell us all the cool things about the Doctor’s appointments. He always left out the sad and painful, but instead would come back with stories about getting to see the Stanley Cup and meet fun people. His positivity and faith was what kept all of us going during the hard days.
A few years passed and my Grandpa passed away and my Grandma and him moved into the house we lived in (with my Mom and “step” Dad). He brought all the fun toys, rock collections and a HUGE collection of journals. I didn’t even know he wrote so many things down. That drew me in. I LOVE writing, always have–but those piles and piles of journals, those inspired me and I have kept a journal ever since.
The days kept pushing on, Uncle Dean’s health kept fluctuating up and down and worries were off and on. When he was first diagnosed the Doctor gave him a couple of years to live..if that. At this point he was going on almost 5 years and somehow kept a positive attitude through all the scary, painful and chaotic.
Cancer is a disgusting thing. At this time he had lost almost a foot in height, he looked miserable and it was just eating away at him. Literally, eating holes in his bones. I hate cancer. He needed blood, chemo and other treatments almost weekly and I wondered time and time again why he had to go through this.
When I was 14 we moved to Idaho from Orange County–a big change. My Grandma and Dean came with us and we started our life in a new city, in a new state. I was terrified, angry a little that we had to move–but quite honestly I think we were all a little excited for a fresh start. My Grandma, who was my best friend, passed away shortly after we moved and I faced one of the toughest trials I’ve ever faced in my life. Losing her was hard, really hard. I leaned on Dean and his never doubting faith, his knowledge that we will all be together again one day and my family’s strength to stick together. I think back to those days and still wonder how Dean was so positive. It’s harsh, but he was dying, my Grandma just died and we were in a new state without any friends. Life was hard, it was too hard and it was unfair.
Fast forward to high school graduation, four years later and Dean still as positive as ever, but slowly going even more downhill. This point in my life was my rebellious stage. I wasn’t interested in my family, I wanted to do what I wanted to do and I made almost all the wrong choices. I don’t regret my choices because they’ve made me who I am, but I regret not holding onto my family even tighter during that time.
Eventually, I got over my teenage years and started realizing the importance of family. I reflected on the memories, the importance of my family and quickly realized I probably don’t have much time left with Dean. I wrote, I wrote everything down. It was June 18, 2009 and I poured my heart into my journal..
“Family is important. Why have I neglected them for so many years? Dean is dying, he’s so sick. You should see what he looks like, his face is pale, his skin is thin and he’s barely clinging on. I know he’s clinging on for us though. For me, my Mom, my Dad, Courtney, Ariel…all of us. Remember growing up? Remember when he used to let us steer the car from the passenger side all the way to middle school? Remember when he would keep “secrets” for me from Mom and Dad? Remember how he is the easiest person to talk to? He doesn’t judge, he doesn’t make you feel stupid. He answers your questions, he explains them well and he makes you feel loved. Remember his obsession with flashlights, gadgets, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings? He still has those obsessions, but I am letting them slip right by…I need to soak everything in, every little moment and all of these memories because before I know it they’re going to be gone…it’s going to be too late….”
I went on and on about this for four pages. I spilled my feelings, my thoughts, my worries, everything. It was a scary thought thinking about him not being here anymore. Thinking about essentially, my Dad, dying. He drove me to school, he helped me learn how to drive, he helped raise me and he wasn’t going to be here much longer.
Now, my wedding day. Somehow he made it here, he was here and I was so happy. This was the happiest day of my life (second to Blake being born now). We got married about 4 hours away from where we lived, the drive was hard for Dean. By this point, little did we know..but he had less than a year left in this life. After we were married he came up to me with the biggest smile on his face, tears streaming down his face and gave me the biggest hug I’ve ever received. I couldn’t help but fight back the tears and feel closer to heaven than I ever have before. That day was incredible and I am forever grateful that he got to physically be a part of it.
Our first Christmas as a husband and wife rolled around, we lived in Utah at the time and came home for literally 24 hours to see family. We spent Christmas Eve with my family and we all went around the room sharing our favorite memories with Uncle Dean. We talked about the past, the future and his unstoppable faith. I knew it was his last Christmas, we all did. 12 years later after being given 2 years to live and it was actually happening.
I was in total denial. There’s no way he was going to die. He beat the odds, he was going to be here forever.
As much as I denied the obvious, I knew he was close, I knew it was coming and my heart couldn’t handle it. A few weeks later, hospice was called in and before I knew it I was in Utah getting ready for work and my phone rang. I can still picture everything. Marcus answered it, the thought didn’t even cross my mind. I continued putting my make-up on while sitting on the floor and then the words came out of Marcus’ mouth, “Dean passed away during the night.” I just looked at him, in shock…like this was a total surprise to me, even though it wasn’t. We were all prepared for it, I talked to my Mom almost everyday the weeks before–I knew it was going to happen any day.
I didn’t cry, I continued putting make-up on and almost just ignored it, like it wasn’t true. I let out a few tears before work, but then went into work and went on with my day like it was fine.
Then it happened, we were at the cemetery and the minute I watched them get ready to lower the casket it happened. I lost it. It was real, it was happening. This wasn’t a joke and I wasn’t going to see him again in this life. I had lost a Father figure, a best friend and one of my biggest supporters.
This story right here is the reason I am so passionate about donating blood. It’s the reason I believe in this day the way I do. People need blood more than ever these days between disasters, accidents, cancer, diseases, you name it. We have the power to do something about it, to change the world and to help those in need. It’s simple really. So when The Red Cross and Nexcare asked me to share my story for World Blood Donor Day and their “Feel the Beat. Give Blood” campaign, I was more than happy.
Let’s do our part.
Photos by Angela Minnick Photography