Monday, May 7, 2012

An "S" On His Chest

We all know Superman; the superhero with his strength, speed, x-ray vision, and other superhuman powers who repeatedly saves Lois Lane.  Albeit cliché, we also likely have someone in each of our lives that we consider our real life superman.  He (or she) might not necessarily be the strongest or fastest, or even be able to see through walls or fly, but he seems able to do anything and transcends our normal expectations of what is possible.  

When I think about the journey I'm taking to become an Ironman, it seems utterly impossible.  Two years ago I couldn't run less than a 10-minute mile and forget about running more than 2 or 3.  A little over one year ago, I couldn't swim more than one length of the pool; in November I will swim 2.4 miles as my warmup.  I'm coming to learn that with the right attitude and a lot of perseverance the impossible is indeed possible.  While it's taken some time for me to accept this about myself, I had a great model throughout my life showing me the way.

It's never been easy for Dad.  He lost his mother at a very young age and with a much older sister and an extremely hard-working father he was often left to fend for himself.  As an early teen he was already cooking and cleaning (helping him become the great Suzy-homemaker he is today).  While living in Brooklyn Dad attended advanced magnet schools which propelled him way above grade level when he moved to Long Island.  He quickly became bored with school and with no one to ask if he'd done his homework or how school was that day, he lost a bit of focus on academia.  Dad's a smart guy, but high school was just not his thing.  My favorite story is the one where he would often leave the house to go to school, but instead hung out in the family's pop-up camping trailer out front.  Luckily he attended school just frequently enough to meet Mom.  After high school Dad studied  industrial design and then found his way into the window treatment industry selling blinds and shades.

When I think of my childhood, and of my father, I think of him always being there and of working harder than anyone I knew.  Don't get me wrong Mom was always there too, but this post is about Dad.  Whether it was coaching soccer, being at school plays, or supporting me at any other random event, my father was there.  On Saturdays when he didn't have to work his regular job I often joined him on his second job, making runs servicing sticker machines all across Long Island.  I had access to all the coolest stickers before they hit the machines, and remember how cool it was to help as we emptied out the quarters onto the scale.  

We were never poor, and my sister and I are fortunate to have always had what we needed (and wanted) and are so lucky to have such devoted parents.  Mom and Dad worked extremely hard to support our family.  It always seemed like all was well to us, but there were certainly tough times along the way.  In the 90s Dad changed jobs several times, while Mom worked as a full-time teacher, a private tutor, and the director of a successful summer day-camp.  As time went on things became a bit easier for my family.  Until...

In 2004 Dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer.  As you may know early detection is key with most cancers and cancer of the prostate is no exception.  Major advances in prostate surgery means that the prostate can be more easily removed than ever before with the most minimal lingering effects (in previous years, prostate removal often led to difficult-to-live-with effects such as incontinence and impotence).  Unfortunately for my family, Dad's cancer was not picked up early and, despite removal of the prostate, cancerous cells still remained in his body.  He and my mother saw several doctors and were faced with the decision of playing the waiting game to see if the cancer would spread or aggressively fighting the disease.

Following his recovery from the radical prostatectomy Dad underwent radiation treatment targeted at the cancer remaining in his body as well as both oral and injection hormone therapy.  The aggressive treatment turned out to be the right choice and my father was soon pronounced cancer-free.  While the treatment did kill the cancer it also left Dad with a handful of after-effects which he's carried around ever since.  I won't name them all, but let's say that Mom is one of few women who's husband really understands what hot flashes are all about.  But here's the thing: for all the crap Dad has to deal with, unless you are in the inner circle of trust you'd never know the half of it.  Even in the circle he rarely lets on that something is amiss.  Usually I'll notice it myself and ask if everything is okay only to be told about the most recent malady.   

My Dad is currently retired but he's as busy as he ever was.  Sure there are occasional days when we wonder what he does with his time, but usually his Honey-Do/Daddy-Do/Grandpa-Do list is pretty long.  He makes car trips from Long Island to New Jersey as if it was right around the corner and never misses so much as the most minor milestone for his two granddaughters.  The same can be said about his children and at the drop of a hat both he and Mom flew down for my first triathlon, and he for my Half-Ironman.  

There's no question that the cancer took something from Dad that he will never get back and left him with some badges he can never take off, but what it didn't take is his identity.  Dad never let his cancer tell him who he could or couldn't be and he's never let it stop him from missing a special event or used it as any kind of excuse.  It'd be easy for him to do so and no one would think any less of him, but that's just not who he is.  He's a trooper, not a complainer; a fighter, not a quitter; and a victor, not just a survivor.

As I sit here writing this, with my mother at my side, we have just seen Dad as he first woke up from his anesthesia induced morning rest.  This morning he had successful surgery of a benign fatty tumor on his shoulder.  It was no small mass, easily the size of a golf ball, and was lodged in the area of his bicep and deltoids.  Over the last several weeks it had limited his range of motion and given him pain, but once again he never missed a chance to scoop one of his granddaughters up in his arms and shower them with love.  The results of this morning are as positive as they can be and hopefully will start another run of good luck for Dad and our family.  

As I go through my life and my training I think of Dad anytime I'm even close to complaining.  "My ankle didn't feel great on that run."  "I felt sluggish in the water."  "That ride was miserable."  Thinking of my Dad reminds me to just plow forward accepting each day and each workout for what it is and being thankful for the opportunity to have another the next day.

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