“Til death do you part.”
We all heard it in front of friends and family the day we were married. A vow of commitment to our soul mate that slipped through our ears quite easily, the thought of actual death years away from the happiest moment of our lives.
And then, one day, mortality strikes. For some it happens sooner than for others. For Derek K. Miller it was a day in January 2007, when he was diagnosed with a cancerous lesion in his intestine: colorectal cancer. He was 37 that day.
This week Derek isn’t speaking, a month-long battle with laryngitis has worn him down. Truth is, many things wear Derek down since he decided to stop aggressive treatment of his cancer in November. He is dying, a fate he has accepted will come sooner rather than later.
He has two daughters, who, for more than a third of their lives, have lived with a dad who has cancer. They have seen him go through chemo and the side effects, radiation, surgery, weight loss and gain and loss, and so on. They were seven and nine when he was diagnosed, and he’s never been shy about sharing his fate.
“Whenever I got news of any kind, good or bad, we told them,” he says.
Actually he’s told the entire world. Derek has been online for more than 30 years. “It’s almost always been a social experience for me,” he says.
His blog at Penmachine.com is not a cancer blog, per se; it’s a personal blog where cancer just happens to be the most personal thing a person can go through and share with the world.
His older daughter will read his blogs every now and again, and she is as okay as one can be with a dying dad. His younger daughter has struggled more with focus at school, but she has the support of the people around her to deal with things in her own way and on her own time.
The conversations he’s had with his kids don’t get weighed down with the heavies of the situation. It is what it is.
“I think a key thing I have learned is that you can’t imagine what’s really coming in your life,” says Derek. “You can plan, and do what you enjoy, but you can’t expect your plans to work out — in both good and bad ways.”
“I think and hope that’s what my daughters can take from my disease and death. Not that you could die any day, but that you should pursue what you enjoy, and what stimulates your mind, as much as possible, so you can be ready for opportunities, as well as not disappointed if things go sideways. I don’t look back and regret anything, and I hope they can find a way to do the same.”
Derek’s outlook on life (and death) is matter-of-factual. He’s made his peace with his fate, his destiny is determined, he knows how it will end. It’s the rest of his family that is unsure. Life is yet to play out for his wife and kids and when it comes to those days of weddings and grandchildren in the future, he’s sad to miss them “but really, it’s not so much that I won’t be able to witness them, but that my wife and kids won’t see me there, or have me there to support them.”
After the clock runs out on his time here, Derek’s spirit will live on. He’s spent time curating a digital legacy, insuring his blogs, photos and interviews will remain online.
If it’s possible to have a sense of humour about death, Derek has it. A recent Facebook update summed up how he’s facing the weeks, months or year ahead.
”Mad Men season 5 might be delayed to late 2011 or 2012?,” he wrote. “B-b-b-but I might be dead by then, dammit!”
Derek died May 3, 2011. This was his last post.
This post was originally published at Man of the House in May, 2011.