By Lyndsey McCleary Schroeder
I found the Hirshberg Foundation website while searching for information about signs and symptoms of pancreatic cancer. I clicked on their link and began looking at their site. The information provided was so clear and easy to understand. I emailed their office with a question and heard back within hours. I felt like I had made a connection and in some way, my dad helped me find them. I created a You Can Help Fund on their website in honor of my dad. I knew that this was where I wanted donations to be sent. I have kept my promise to my dad to find some good out of his bad diagnosis and am currently working with my daughter on hosting three events this year – all benefiting the Hirshberg Foundation.
Ken McCleary, my dad, was twelve days from his 44th birthday on November 1, 2007. A happy, fun-loving, open armed, funny, healthy and hardworking man, he enjoyed his time mostly surrounded by family and good friends. After several days in the hospital with unexplained stomach and back pain, the doctors told us the news. This healthy, wonderful man that we all adored had pancreatic cancer, and so aggressively that it had already spread to his lungs, his liver, and his lymph nodes. Stage 4 and terminal. Inoperable and not likely to respond to any other methods of medications or treatment, the doctors gave him 3-4 weeks left of life.
Hearing that his time was now limited, the first thing Dad requested was to be taken home with his family (whom he made promise to try not to cry), friends (more than just the two at a time most hospitals let in), football (a diehard Lions Fan), good food (that he pretended to be hungry for), and most of all, his birthday on November 13th. With our now crunched time to have him close, we watched football, laughed, loved, and smiled in his presence. But with our backs turned, we all cried and ached for the man we all knew was each day looking worse than he had the day before. Any time Dad would catch us with tears in our eyes, he’d say “I don’t know why everyone is crying, you all only have to miss one guy. I have to miss ALL of you.” Of course, he said it with a smile. He always had a way of trying to make things easier by joking. And of course, frequently asking what we planned on doing for his upcoming birthday, because according to Dad…you don’t have a birthDAY, you have a birthMONTH.
One afternoon, my mom reluctantly left the house for the grocery store. There were few things that my dad would actually eat or drink, so she made sure she had whatever he wanted available. The second he heard the garage door close, my dad looked me right in the eye and said “I need a favor”. Of course I told him, “Anything.” Big blue eyes staring directly into my watery green ones said “I need you to make something good happen from this thing. It can’t be all bad. And don’t be all sad all the time, I don’t like that. Can you promise me that one favor?” Loving him even more than I thought possible, I could only nod. He couldn’t have asked me for anything harder. But a promise is a promise.
Around 11 p.m. the first Friday night he was home, he awoke from sleep, not himself. Always within speaking distance, and mostly by his bedside, my mom and I knew something was wrong. This was the moment we had secretly been hoping would never come. For the first time, he admitted he was in pain and let it show by the tears in his eyes. My mom and I were watching the strong, healthy, worryless man we idolized become weak, vulnerable, and critically ill. We finally got him calm enough to lie on the couch and looked at each other while we watched his breathing deteriorate and his face wince in pain. “It hurts. Can’t breathe.” was all he could get out. My mom told him how much he meant to her and how much she loved him, and I smiled at him and told him I loved him. And then I told him the biggest lie I’ve ever told. I told him that we would be okay without him if he was too tired and needed to stop fighting. I told him that we would all learn how to continue in our days, learning from all the things he had already taught us. I told him it was okay to let go, that we understood and didn’t want him to hurt anymore. He listened while I lied, looked at my mom who tearfully nodded, and mumbled something quietly….”I love you both.” At 11:15pm, he took his one last breath and my hand on his chest felt that one last heartbeat. Just eight days after his diagnosis, my dad lost his battle. It was November 9th, four days shy of the birthday he so badly wanted to celebrate one last time.
In place of a birthday party that November 13th, we held a funeral. At the wake, I made a promise to my dad and everyone there that loved him that we would never forget him, that we would always use November as Kenny’s “BirthMONTH”. So Unconditional was born. The name, because it just is the best one to describe him. An open armed, always forgiving, inviting man to everything and everyone. Family, friend, foe, child, adult, co-worker, or stranger – it never mattered to him who you were, he just wanted you to feel comfortable around him. “Unconditional” seemed the only fitting title for any event or idea that would be put on in his memory. So to start, every year we hold “UNCONDITIONAL Birthdays”. November to honor Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, a never forgotten “Happy Birthday” to my dad, and my own personal way of letting him know that I haven’t forgotten my favor of trying to make something good come out of something so sad.