You Got This - Elizabeth Pakosta

My dad would’ve been 85 last week if lung cancer didn’t devour him 22 years ago. Louie was the love of my life, a flawed hero who could do no wrong in my eyes. The wrongs were there, but a daughter’s rose colored glasses are merciful. My father was a cement finisher his entire life; even undergoing chemo, he'd grab “rad” jobs on the side for much-needed cash. He never used an alarm clock and scribbled bids on a napkin at the bar, which he frequented daily. I miss him every second of every day.

Louie would die in my arms, two years after I was married, and five years before I became a mother. I’d kept Willie Nelson piped in his hospice room those last few days and when it was time to take his brother back to the airport, I asked my father, who had been unconscious for days, to wait for me to get back, or to do it right then and there. I told him it was ok to go, I got this. So he turned his head and he went. It was a magical, heartbreakingly beautiful moment to hold a body as a soul departs. A man who busted his ass his entire life and survived three back surgeries, alcoholism and a severe truck accident would be broken himself not by something physical, but something that ate him from the inside on a cellular level. I was 26.

My dad’s parents were fresh-off-the-boat immigrants. They had 11 kids on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. Four of those children would die of cancer, all in row, clustered towards the bottom of the kid heap, one by one. Breast cancer took Aunt Teddy first. Then my pops. Then his brother, Chuck, and finally, a few years ago, my beloved Uncle Gus. Gus had been a barber his entire life, and manned the clippers until shortly before he died in his mid 80s. My grandmother would live to be nearly 100, only to see three of her 11 children succumb to The Big C.

A few weeks ago, the first grandchild of my dad’s band of brothers and three sisters succumbed to brain cancer. My cousin Michael fought it for three years. He was 62.

The first friend I lost to cancer was Christopher. He was gay, hispanic and Republican; I used to joke I had all the minority groups represented in one single buddy. We met fittingly, when he was the information specialist at the library and I was a fresh, young reporter looking for information. We fell madly in friend love. He was one of the wittiest, smartest men I knew; brain cancer devoured that incredible mind a few years ago. It was Chris’ death that spurred me to take my life in my hands for the first time in a long time. He set me on a collision course with life. I wish every day that he could see me now.

You could say cancer runs in my family. It’s in my blood thanks to genetics. It’s in my heart thanks to people like Chris, and my friend, Paula, who fought breast cancer, and won, without even telling anyone. And I feel it in my bones. I feel it every day when I see my son, who got his middle name from my father’s first, and his love for fishing, just like the grandfather he’d never meet, the one who had to troll the stream for trout just to eat. And I see it in my daughter, who gets her middle name from my mom’s first, and her knack for physical comedy, the same kind of silly stuff that made everyone fall in love with her grandfather. The one she’d never meet.

If it weren’t for cancer, my kids would’ve known a grandfather that built things in his sleep, a simple man who was raised not to waste a thing and thus would finish off everyone’s plates at a restaurant. A big, strong, ferocious man my girlfriends would find sitting in his recliner in tighty whities and an undershirt because his work clothes were too dirty for the house. A man who loved Westerns and chasing farts around the house, catching them in his hands, then throwing them in your face like they were live ammunition.

My dad taught me how to hang drywall at 18. My Uncle Gus taught my son how to fish the stream on the farm. My friend Chris taught me how to be more of a woman in his death than I ever was in his life. These are the moments that power me through life. But I freaking hate cancer for the holes it has bored through me. I dream of the someday my kids, or my kids’ kids, won’t have to feel like a slice of Swiss cheese, down in their bones and down in their hearts, because something they couldn’t see or understand ate someone they loved.

I cry for Team Gibs just as I would cry for my own family because their story is also mine. I hope you share yours here, too. Our words won’t kill cancer, only our actions, our donations and our advocacy and research will. But words sure as hell mean something to someone fighting for their life. And to that, I say, Steph, you go girl. You got this.

Elizabeth Pakosta, Walnut Creek, California

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