Mel's experience happened when she was 22
Last January (2016), I received a frantic phone call from my mother. She had told me my step father, Dewey, had been admitted to the hospital but she had no idea what it could be. In a rush to figure it out, I called my step sister, Jennifer, and unfortunately heard the worst news of my life; or so I had thought. "Dad has Leukemia, Mel." I dropped the phone, I sobbed, I was crushed. What. The. Hell. You see, Dewey is the strongest man I know. He stood at about 6'3" and weighed just above 200 pounds. Despite his size, he is incredibly gentle and comforting to be around. He is kind to everyone, no matter what. He is trustworthy and reliable. He is a role model; someone I had looked up to since I stepped on my first school bus when I was 5 years old. I had no idea this big guy with glasses and a contagious smile that took me to school every day would end up being the most influential man in my life. I used to call him my superhero. The weeks and months following his diagnosis were a rollercoaster. He was in and out of the hospital for weeks at a time, doing chemo and radiation to try and fight this cancer. I did my best to come see him any chance I could. At this time, I was a senior in college, finishing my degree and in the middle of intense research. I was also working full time. But any free moment I got, I was there. I often went up to see him on days I had off class. And we would talk for hours about just about everything. On days he wasn't feeling well, I would study while he slept. Sometimes on those days, we wouldn't exchange a word but I was there for him and that's what mattered. Throughout his treatment, I was kind of like the middle man for my family. Being the only one with any sort of medical knowledge or background, I was the one to translate the medical jargon so my mom and the rest of our family could understand. It was hard being the only one with the ability to recognize the actual reality we were in and then having to relay that to my worried siblings and mother. I'll be honest, it gets very tiring giving bad news. Because of the drugs he was on, life was very strict. He became immunosuppressed; meaning that he had virtually no immune system. He was at risk of catching any and every type of pathogen out there. At this point, an infected hangnail could be a life or death circumstance. Obviously, this was really hard on my family. We worried constantly, often became neurotic about cleaning and the foods we were eating. We were changing clothes after work and school just to go to the hospital to avoid the spreading of any germs. Precautions were high, and the emotions were higher. The weeks went by with lots of highs and lows. Treatment after treatment. Procedure after procedure. We thought we had finally done it. He was declared in remission for the second time in July of 2016. He had previously undergone his second bone marrow transplant and it had worked!... or so we thought. Unfortunately, when you do a transplant of any kind. There is a possibility that the human body can reject the new cells. And that is exactly what happened. He wasn't feeling good. We knew that. After two failed bone marrow transplants, who would be? But we did our best to stay positive. I think this was the hardest time of it all. School had started again. Dewey was back in the hospital. Side note: I was a biology major in college; with a concentration in medicine. My senior course load consisted of classes focusing almost exclusively on pathology, and much of the time, cancer. My research was focused on breast cancer. My life was consumed by cancer, in school and at home. I was so distracted, I missed class several times, completely unintentionally. I just couldn't keep it together. I had no idea that when he went back into the hospital in August of 2016, that he would never come back out. Over the next few weeks, things got progressively worse. Dewey had contracted what is called Graft Vs. Host Disease or GVHD. A definition for those who are not medical people: Immunological injury suffered by an immunosuppressed recipient of a bone marrow transplant. The donated lymphoid cells (the “graft”) attack the recipient (the “host”), causing damage, esp. to the skin, liver, and gastrointestinal tract. GVH occurs in about 50% of allogeneic bone marrow transplants. - GVH. (n.d.) Medical Dictionary. (2009). Dewey had what was called Acute GVH, meaning that it developed within 60 days after the transplant and the infection centralized in this gut (stomach and intestines). It was a miserable three weeks in the end of August. His infection worsened by day. His dignity deteriorated by night. He was miserable. But he fought. He fought like hell. He told me one day in early September, the fight was worth it to him. Because even though he was in so much pain, it hurt worse to watch his family, watch him suffer. If that doesn't speak to what kind of hero he was, I don't know what does. On Saturday, September 17th, I got a call from my mom -- "Mel, it's bad. You need to come right now." I got to the hospital 30 minutes later only to find out he was in the ICU. The infection had spread to his brain (optic nerve). He had lost vision in his left eye. He was yellow from jaundice. He was in multi-organ failure. My step sisters were there. My mom was there. Everyone was there at the hospital except, Dewey's sister and Mom who were on vacation on the east coast. We called and got them on the first plane back to Madison. How long did we have? At first they said, about a week. Then they said a few days. So, we called everyone we knew that would want to say goodbye. I walked into the room the same as I had so many times before and he looked up at me and said "hey kiddo", just like he always did. I sat down next to him and took his hand, and he said the one sentence that I replay in my head every single day. "This is it, Mel. It's time, I can't fight anymore." I begged and pleaded for him to stop saying that. My hero, my superman -- I was sobbing -- he had to fight. But it was clear, he couldn't anymore. I sat on the hospital room floor quietly crying for what seemed like hours. Only getting up to see the most amazing thing. At around 2pm on Sunday, we wheeled Dewey outside one last time. He wanted to see the sky and smell the grass. As an avid outdoorsman, he wanted to enjoy the last few hours he would be on this earth. Nearly 30 people came from all over to say goodbye to him that Sunday afternoon. Nicole, my step sister, brought her dogs whom Dewey called "the boys", up to the hospital see him one last time. The nurses and doctors were in shock. They told us, "we have never treated someone who is so dearly loved." After everyone had gone and we were back inside. I sat down to say goodbye to him for the night. I laid my head on the bed and held his hand. I told him how much I loved him and that he was my hero, a real superman. I began sobbing as I looked up to see tears running down his face. I had no idea that when we said goodbye, that would be the last time I would ever hear him speak. Maybe I was naive or something to think he would pull through but ignorance is bliss, I suppose. When I came back to the hospital the next morning, he was barely functioning; barely holding on. Watching him struggle to breathe while holding my sobbing mother and step sisters, I have never felt more powerless in my life. I thought back on the last 8 months. What did we do? What didn't we do? Where did we go wrong? All impossible questions to answer. I was honestly not sure how he was still here and then I realized, he wasn't finished; he had one last goodbye. Dewey's sister, Charolette, and Mother, Dorothy, had just landed and gotten off the plane in Madison where Charolette's son Luke picked them up. They were on their way to the hospital at a life threatening pace, knowing Luke. But this truly was, life or death. At around 10:45am, Charolette and Dorothy walked. Dewey woke up, just for a brief second to see their faces. Everyone sobbed as the family, his siblings and parents said their goodbyes. His daughters, Nicole and Jenni on his bedside held their daddy's hand. My mother, his partner for 16 years, sitting in front of them and me holding them all. We all watched as he took his last breath. At 11:26am on September 19th, 2016, we lost the greatest man I had ever known. The kindest and most genuine soul of any human being I had ever met. Dewey had touched the lives of countless individuals, kids and adults alike. He was the most hardworking and dignified man who took cancer head on and lost. He holds a special place in my heart and I didn't know how I could ever feel whole again without him. Dewey made quite the impact on me over the 16 years I had known him. He taught me what it meant to be kind to everyone. He taught me about sports and stocks. He taught me how to swear before my mom was ever ok with it. She used to say "Melissa! Where did you get that dirty mouth?!" I would always respond with, "Why don't you ask your F***in boyfriend." Haha. The swearing lead to shit talk and he gave me some of the fondest memories of us bantering back and fourth as my mom laughed saying "You two!" and shaking her head. Most importantly, he taught me to embrace who I am and never apologize for it. I cannot thank him enough for all the time we spent together, the lessons I learned and for his undying support, my entire life. I spent the next few months, diving into school and working as much as I could. I spent time with friends and my boyfriend, hoping to heal through the relationships that were still thriving in my life. I would think of him often, choosing to remember him how he was before he was sick. What his voice sounded like, his belly aching laugh, his shit talking and his hugs. I struggled through school but I knew I had to finish for him. It's what he would have wanted. December 2nd is my birthday. I woke up next to my boyfriend, feeling grateful but missing Dewey. This is the first one he had missed in 16 years. Since it was my birthday, I didn't think anything of a random phone call saying I had a package to be delivered. The door bell rang and I thanked the guy for my flowers, assuming they were from my mom or some other family member. When I opened the card, I suddenly felt whole again. The tears came flooding down as I read, "Happy birthday, you little shit! - Dew". Like I said, he was the best shit talker around but the most caring individual I had ever known. That was, quite literally, the greatest gift I have ever and will ever receive. When someone asks me how I overcame this experience, I will say I never did. You never overcome the loss of someone like Dewey. He was too special to live life fully without. The days get easier but the sadness never leaves. Not a day goes by that I don't think about him. Not a day that I don't miss him. I had so much more left to say to him, so many more jokes to laugh at, football games to watch and hugs to get. But in my case, my days are easier because I know he's with me always. I am healing because he gave me more than flowers that day. He gave me proof that he will never leave my side. He gave me proof that he will always be my superhero. If I have any advice to anyone who has ever lost a parent; it sounds generic and cliche, but man, remember the good times. Don't remember the arguments or fights. Don't remember the pain and suffering. Remember the laughs and the funny moments. Remember their courage and corky qualities. Remember what it felt like to hug them and hear their voice. Remember the love. It's because of Dewey that I had the strength to graduate college despite all the things against me. Becomes of him I had the strength to move across the country. Because of him I decided to dedicate a year of my life to serving a struggling community. I remember him always and exude his strength in every action I take.
Written by Melissa Klonsinski
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sharfartereom September 26, 2020