A Walk Down Luminary Lane

That moment is still etched into my brain like a scar. That moment when my father, the strong-Marine who knew no fear, was sitting in his hospital bed trying to figure out why he had back pain. The moment the nurse walked in and said, “It’s cancer. You have 6 months to live.” The moment I saw fear and shock, for the first time, strike my father’s face. Only cancer could wipe off that 1,000 yard glare.

As I walked through the luminaries at the Relay for Life this weekend, 16 years after his death, his fear-stricken face surfaced into the observable parts of my brain.

Luminary Lane

I’ve lost quite a few family members to cancer, and I have a couple who survived, but the only time I got really up close and personal with cancer was when my father had it.

It’s funny, these luminaries. You can barely see them in the distance during the day. They are just specks of dust hiding behind the trees, the water fountain, the houses, the cars, the living. Like ghosts, I knew they were there, but I could barely see them.

Luminaries in the Day

The Relay for Life had me in a state of mind where I needed dollar bills to cure cancer. Even though I knew approximately 10% (according to their 990) actually goes to cancer research, I was there to raise money. I wasn’t raising money like it was a disability. My feelings were like a box of cake mix that needs oil and water, two things that don’t mix, and you are supposed to mix them together, despite that they aren’t supposed to mix. I was supposed to grab people and suck them into a raffle ticket purchase or something when I felt like that was the opposite of what I should have been doing.

Luminaries Day 1

Right after the diagnosis, my father ran and took out a life insurance policy. They explained to him, “If you die within the next 2 years, your wife will only get this small percent. If you die within 2 to X years, your wife will get Y more percent.” Sounds a little weird, putting a price on a year of life like that. We were battling deep, spiritual things, coming to terms with death, saying goodbye to life, and this company walks in and treats it like its a Black Friday sale.

“We got a corpse here. Starting bid is $200. Do I have two hundred dollar dollar dollar! YES we have two hundred dollars. Do I have $250 dollar dollar dollar!”

The overwhelming emotions walking around these things and reading them… You grieve for every “In Memory Of,” and in the midst of your sadness for that person, you find hope in one that says, “In Honor of a Cancer Survivor.”

My aunt survived breast cancer just months after my father lost his life to cancer. While asleep in her hospital bed, my uncle and mother sneaked out for some dinner, and when they returned, the nurse said, “It was lovely your mother came to visit her daughter. She just sat there holding her hand the entire time you were gone.”

Curious, my mom asked her to describe this woman. After enough convincing descriptive words, my mom responded, “That’s my mother, that’s her exactly. But she died last Christmas.”

All the people I met at the Relay for Life had their story. They had a story similar to mine, but unique in their own way. I wondered which luminaries belonged to them.

It was a long journey to the moment my father needed someone to care for him. He refused to be vegetable as long as he could. He sold radio advertising for a living, and he probably sold more ads from a hospital bed than he ever did driving around. Eventually, his boss knocked down his duties despite my father’s arguments. Eventually, I started doing those things for my father because he wasn’t making sense.

Like one day, sitting on the kitchen table, looking at credit card statements full of prescription charges we couldn’t afford, my adamantly non-alcoholic father freaked at all the liquor purchases.

Another day, my father was shaving his face with an electric razor at the kitchen table and asked my mother to hand him the cat.

My mother asked, “Why do you want the cat?”

“Just hand me the cat.”

“You cannot shave the cat.”

“Just HAND me the cat.”

“I’m not giving you the cat. Get over it.”

“Fine, then get me one of the kids.”

At some point, morphine makes you not make sense.

It was from moments like that to his moment of death that he needed someone 24/7 watching him. My mother was working full time as a school teacher, and my sister was still in high school. My father’s other children from a previous marriage lived hours away. I was the only one wasting my time in college. I took off a semester to care for him. I know other families don’t have that family member who can escape their life to help. Some cancer patients don’t even have a family member who is willing to escape their life to help.

Now I did refuse to change any diapers. I managed to make it through all of cancer without seeing the actual loins from which I arose. Some adult children are not granted that luxury. I told you, Cancer is up close and personal. But I still had to leave my comfort zone to care for a man who I only knew as my caregiver.

I remember one time, my mom and sister were home, and I laid down on the sofa for a nap. They left without telling me. My father must have needed something, but I woke up, and the first thing I saw was my father hobbling toward me with strict determination to make every step. He fell forward within a second of me opening my eyes, and his face landed on a drinking glass sitting on the coffee table.

I helped him up, and he sat Indian Style on the carpet, and I started to look at his face, and he had a huge honker chunk of glass sticking out of his eyeball. Like a child with a nightmare, he was looking down at his hands freaking out at all the blood trying to figure where it was coming from. I pulled the glass out of his eye. Checked his face for more. Grabbed a towel and doused it in cold water. Washed his face and told him to hold it over his eye while I called 911.

But all those moments, we bonded. We bonded every time we watched Animal Planet all day, and every time I spoon fed him the way he fed me as a baby. We bonded in ways Marines bond in a time of war, and cancer is war. It’s the kind of war where you are sitting in the middle of an ocean in a row boat with one oar trying to fight off WWII fighter planes bombing you from every direction. You know you probably aren’t going to survive it, but that doesn’t stop you from fighting for just one more day.

Shaved Cat watches too much animal planet

All the people I met at the Relay for Life had stories like this. Stories where they bonded with their family members at those moments before death, moments they almost didn’t get to have when they were taking life for granted. Moments they would have never had without the crippling effects forcing them to spend more time together than they normally would have.

One woman I met told me her story, and you could hear her holding back the tears in the back of her throat. Her daughter was diagnosed with a neuroendocrine tumor. She was healthy and fine with no symptoms, and then she started to develop nausea and made it 6 months, out of the blue cancer. There was only one other person diagnosed with the same cancer in the entire world at that time, and the only place who could make the diagnosis was in Texas. The mom’s team was comprised of all her daughter’s friends. She said, “All her friends still check on me all the time. I may have lost a daughter, but now I have a lot of daughters.”

I had to leave the luminaries of the day to go back to the circus auction of raising funds. At one point, on stage, they shared the most unique survivor’s story.

Canine Cancer Survivor
Cancer Survivor

A man was diagnosed with a tumor at the same time his dog was. They fought their cancer together, and together they survived. Both of their tumors relapsed at the same time, and they both overcame cancer a second time, together.

It’s stories like that which gives you hope in the darkness. The darkness. It was settling in at this point, which marked the time to start the Luminary ceremony.

The sun had set and the people gathered to the miniature lake-like pond lined with luminary bags. By the time I managed to make my way over there, it was dark. It was so dark, the dark didn’t have any shadows.

Luminaries at night

My father’s last week with us was spent in bed. He didn’t move for anything. The morphine wasn’t working anymore, and he suffered in pain and torture for a long couple weeks. He stopped screaming in fear and anger at the ghosts in the bathroom. He stopped eating and doing all the things we do to live. The black cat laid at his feet the entire time. Yes. The one he wanted to shave. She only got up to use the bathroom and eat.

Luminaries Night 9

He laid there for a week with death sitting next to him holding his hand waiting for him to let it go. He wouldn’t. He fought it for a reason. A reason that we still can’t figure out how, HOW. Forget why God created the world, or why God lets people suffer, when I die I hope to find out HOW my father did this.

The cat got up. Where she went, I will never know, but she got up and left and never came back. My mother called us down. “Your father has died.”

Luminaries Night 3

She made all the phone calls she was supposed to make while I pillaged my father’s secret black box of dog tags and memorabilia to harvest the best for myself before anyone else could get to it. I was daddy’s little girl, and in my mind, deserved it more than everyone else for that reason.

Luminaries Night 1

When my mother called the insurance company, she experienced a little obstacle. They called the morgue and made us all prove he died that day in particular at that exact hour. They actually asked the morgue what color his skin was and how cold it was. They think we harvested a dead body for a week. In some ways, we did because while he had a heart beat and brain function, he was a dead man.

The reason? My father died around 1 AM on day one of year 3 with that life insurance in particular. We didn’t notice, but the life insurance company sure did. The man was waiting for a bigger insurance check for my mother. Only my father.

Luminaries Night 4

But he knew. His corpse was given a monetary value based on the length of zombiehood, and despite the superficial rudeness of such a notion, he knew my mother would need that money. All the ghosts of cancer knows that when we pull you aside like a barker and beg for a dollar bill for a cause despite the fact that those you love with cancer don’t have a price, cancer research needs that money. Your dollar bills might give something more important than money to someone else, whether it’s more comfort with new pain management techniques or lobbying to fight Big Tobacco to help prevent someone’s child from picking up a cancer-inducing habit.

The same luminary bags that were specs of dust in the background are now the foreground. You can’t see the houses, the cars, the trees, the pond. All you could see was a bright light. Every single statistic is unavoidably noticed. Every moment of death and survival comes together and paves a well-lit runway for those who are lost.

Luminaries at Night Luminaries at Night

Maybe when I die, I will see a bright light to walk towards, and as I head for that light, maybe, just maybe, I’ll see a luminary. Maybe I’ll see my father.

Luminaries Night 2

This week is Finish the Sentence Friday, and the prompt is, It started in the line at the grocery store… I’m sorry I didn’t write about that. I hope you all don’t mind, but check out the other Finish the Sentence Friday bloggers at Finding Ninee!

Finish the Sentence Friday

Mary Tyler Mom has been writing about her life after cancer. After losing her daughter to cancer. Check out her daughter’s story. She does a lot of fundraising for the Saint Baldrick’s Foundation also known as Donna’s Day and Donna’s Good Things.




  1. What really touched me here was the concept that cancer - or any life threatening illness - gives us the chance to have that conversation with loved ones we wouldn't normally have. So, so true.
  2. Wow, that he held on to be sure your mom would get a larger check. Your father sounds like an amazing man and I'm so glad you had time to bond with him while caring for him. The luminary ceremony is beautiful and heartbreaking.
  3. Cool guy, your dad. Ironically tomorrow is the anniversary of my father's death from cancer. I also do the luminary walk. I always join a team that walks at 2 am or so because there is something very cool about all those lights at night. When you see a bag for Alfredo... that's us! Thinking of you too on my next trek.
  4. Michelle, I've been reading your writing for over a year now. It's been iconoclastic, personal, gritty, and colorful. But this. This. This is the best I've ever read from you. Better than the other pieces that you've written about your father. It's powerful in ways that drew me into your world and sense of wonder. I don't know how you managed to get write this, but I know know know that your father is proud of you for having written this about him. Sending hugs.
  5. I know of the Relay for Life, but I did not know the detail of the luminaries. This is a beautiful, beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it with us. May you hold many bright memories of your father in your heart always.

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