October 2012 was a pretty brutal month.
I was in my first semester of grad school and trying to keep my head above water in my research and slowly adapting to the sheer amount of mental energy post-graduate studies required. I had moved to BC the summer before, but was still navigating being in a new city and not knowing or feeling connected to many people in Vancouver. And then, like a 2-for-1 deal, we found out that my Dad’s pancreatic cancer was “back” and had spread to his liver. And this news came only a week before my Dad’s little brother - my Uncle Rick - lost his hard-fought 3-year battle with kidney cancer.
Uncle Rick was 53.
I remember every phone call and update that month so well. The fear that came when we found out Dad’s cancer was back followed so quickly by the heartbreak and anger that Uncle Rick was gone, that Aunt Gam had lost her man, & that Brittany, Kristopher, and Cory had to live life now without their dad. I called my own dad the day after after Uncle Rick died and when I asked him how he was doing with everything that had happened, he responded with the longest pause I ever remember in conversation with him. “It’s tough, Lider” he finally responded, “cancer is just tough.” And then more silence, where I choked back tears, trying so hard to be tough for him, but feeling pretty undone by what we had lost and the looming realities of what other loss might be coming. Honestly, I’d never seen/heard my Dad wrestle like that - as per his usual, not with many words, but the weight of what He was trying to process in his head/heart was so evident. It took every bit of financial self-control that I had to not immediately book a flight to my parent’s place just so I could give my Dad a hug/get a hug from him.
To me, Uncle Rick was in so many ways my Dad’s cooler (sorry dad!) blonde twin. All of the Oegema boys were athletic, had/have incredibly charismatic personalities, and laughs/big smiles that would light up a room, but Uncle Rick always stood out amongst Dad’s siblings in all of those categories. He and my Dad were so close in age that I can hardly remember stories from their growing up where Rick and my Dad weren’t playing sports, pulling pranks, and/or getting into trouble together. I admired and looked up to him in ways I never got to communicate to him and loved that we would so easily connect over sports when our extended family was together. I often wished that we could live closer to Dad’s siblings because I loved the friendship they each had when they were together and I wanted to see that unfold on a more regular basis.
In ways that I'm sure only made sense to them, Dad and Uncle Rick got closer when terminal cancer became a part of both of their lives at such an early age. Even in facing cancer/death, they went at it as teammates almost. My Dad was first diagnosed in October 2007 and Uncle Rick was diagnosed in December of 2009, so they both knew what it meant/felt to have to face death and leaving families behind much earlier than either of them ever expected. I remember Dad mentioning on more than one occasion in those "in-between" years that cancer made their conversations with each other so much deeper & that they clearly reminded each other that, when their lives faded here, the only thing that actually mattered was how they loved God and how they loved their families and friends.
Uncle Rick was smart, incredibly hard-working, and yet laid back too in a really wonderful (and rare) way. Of Uncle Rick, his wife Gamble said, “Whenever I think of Rick the first word that comes to mind is brilliant. He was so incredibly smart and talented. His family was very important to him. He was devoted to us and to many friends.”
Before cancer, Uncle Rick was already strong and devoted, but his battle with cancer only highlighted his strength, bravery, and care for those around him. “I was so proud of the strength that he showed in fighting cancer. He never complained but instead encouraged others to keep fighting,” Aunt Gamble wrote.
Of her dad, my cousin Brittany said, “The first thing I think of is how hard working he was. Not only at his job but also at home from small projects/to finishing floors of the house/constantly updating things. He always had a "project" and wanted to have something to work out. Even for those last few years while he was so sick he wanted to be working. He still wanted to be actively involved in his job at work & tried to do as much work as he could from home when he felt up to it. There was a period of time where he was feeling better & even went back to the office for several months to work. He wanted to make sure everything was taken care of. Even in a time where most people would have used being so sick as an excuse to not go to work or not do things around the house that wasn't him.“
But even more than his work-ethic, she remembers his presence. “He was always there. While he was super hardworking, but his family came first. He was at all the sporting games/races/etc. I don't think I understood this part as much until becoming a parent & realizing how hard it is sometimes for both parents to be available & we haven't even reached the crazy activity/schedule yet. But if you wanted him to be somewhere or if you needed help with something he was there.”
When Uncle Rick’s cancer had spread to his brain, my cousin Brittany moved up her wedding date by a few months “because we were afraid he wouldn't be there or be able to make it for the later date.” As it turned out, that decision was a wise one, since Uncle Rick died only a week after their originally scheduled date. There’s no way to describe how thankful I am on Brittany’s behalf that she got her dad with her on her wedding. The pictures of her and Uncle Rick on her wedding day fill my heart with more joy than I know how to explain. I remember looking at the photos a few months after my own Dad died and crying because I was just so happy that even though she wouldn’t get him for so many things after, she would always have that: a stunning gift in the midst of deep pain.
There’s something about walking through cancer and loss that changes us - in profound and yet almost subtle ways. It re-shapes our priorities, shapes our character, and influences the decisions we make in ways that are hard to articulate. And in a upside-down kind of beautiful way, talking with family members about our different journeys with loss has given me new glimpses of the ways God really does weaves redemption in the wake of death - breathing hope and compassion and wisdom into and around the pain.
Brittany speaks beautifully of how cancer made her “really realize how short life can be & living each day (as cliche as that sounds) to the fullest." How it inspired her to give up her full-time income so she could stay at home with Jackson (her adorable son) "because I don't want to miss anything with him." And in regards to faith, "it’s definitely made my faith stronger & relationship with God stronger in the absence of having a dad on earth.”
My Aunt Gam herself is an incredible fighter, and watching her strength, spunk, and selflessness in responding to Uncle Rick’s battle and death has inspired and blown me away again and again. When I asked her how losing Uncle Rick has changed her, she said, “I am a better person for knowing Rick. He had such faith in me. He was my encourager. I blame him for my tenacious spirit. My faith in Jesus Christ is so much stronger today partly due to Rick's fight with cancer. The adversity brought us even closer. I have peace knowing that Rick is healthy and happy in Heaven. Because of what I saw him go through, I continue to help out in the chemo room as a volunteer. I hold hands, I pray with the patients and I try to lift their spirits."
It never ceases to amaze and encourage me that our own pain really does make us more aware of others' pain and more willing to step into those places with them. And, as crazy as it is to articulate as such, how those places are so often the most powerful reminders that hope, compassion, and strength grow in the most unexpected of contexts. It's an honour to not only remember the impact and legacy of the family members that we've lost, but to stand encouraged, inspired, and so proud of the strength of the family members "left behind" too.
And a fun timing story? I pretty randomly picked today as the race for Uncle Rick. But then I found out from Aunt Gamble that Feb. 7th was the day she and Uncle Rick went on their first date - Feb.7th, 1987 - twenty nine years ago today. Her first impression, “I loved his big beautiful smile and the way he looked at me.” Maybe it's the (unashamed!) hopeless romantic in me, but I just love that.
So - here's to you, Uncle Rick. To your spunk, your work-ethic, and your consistent presence & steady support for your family and friends. For facing cancer with such bravery and strength and fighting so so well. It's truly an honour to have know you and been influenced by the person you were and the life you lived. //
Throughout Project Hope, I'll be running a race for each one of my family members that we've lost to cancer - 9 running races in total - and taking part in the Love Does Bike Tour in May 2016. All with the goal to celebrate how crazy beautiful life is, to honour those that we’ve lost to cancer, to mark that cancer and death and injuries and sickness aren't the end of the story, & to support the incredible work of Restore International in Uganda, India, Nepal, Somalia, and Iraq. To find out more about the project: click here, and/or how you can get involved/support this goal: click here.