“Do you think I should tell them we can hear them?” he asks. “I don’t think they know you’re here.”
Ford’s father, Jim, was diagnosed with terminal cancer more than 1 1/2 years ago. Since then, the family’s emotions have been difficult to keep in check, and tempers are stretched taut as bowstrings. Minor provocations launch flurries of verbal arrows, all speeding toward targets no one really wants to hit.
Most conflicts rage between Jim’s wife, LeAnn, and the kids. Ford says LeAnn and Maddye, 17, do the bulk of the fighting; Maddye says LeAnn argues most with Ford, 15.
Jim tries to stay out of it, which explains why he’s a target, too. A cruise director by nature, he just wants everyone to have a good time – thus forcing LeAnn to be the disciplinarian, a role she’d prefer to share. If pressed, Jim will back his wife; when he does, the kids view it as betrayal.
“My mom definitely gets stressed out a lot easier now,” Ford says. “And my sister, too. … I don’t like to see them all angry and stuff, but I guess it’s just the same way for me, only I seem depressed.”
Arguing isn’t unusual among families living with a terminal illness, experts say. Nor are other emotional reactions, such as crying at inappropriate moments, wanting to run away or feeling overwhelmed and frozen. Such families are trapped by untenable options.
“There’s no resolution to this except his (Jim’s) death,” says Charlotte Lankard, a therapist who counts Jim among her friends. “That’s the piece they can’t get around. What’s happening is they’re fighting among themselves because they know these people won’t quit loving them. You can dump on these people, and they won’t go away.”
Living in the shadow of a death sentence isn’t easy. It gets more complicated once the initial shock wears off and everyday life intrudes.
When Maddye found out
Maddye burst into the house with the sort of over-the-top enthusiasm only teenaged girls seem able to muster. It was October 2007, early in the school year, and she’d had a fantastic day. Everyone she’d ever met deserved to know about it.
“Oh my gosh!” she exclaimed, spotting her parents. “I have the BEST story!”
As her words poured out, she noticed something amiss. Her mother’s eyes looked red. She’d been crying.
Maddye’s tale ground to a halt. This scene looked familiar. “What’s wrong?” she asked, already fearful it had something to do with cancer.
“Sit down,” Jim said. “We have something to tell you.”
She sat quietly as her father broke her heart. He was dying. Didn’t know how long he had left.
Maddye’s tears didn’t fall until she entered her bedroom. Then they gushed out faster than the story she’d been telling minutes ago. A lifetime ago. At some point she left the house, finding a perch outside. Jim followed.
“He sat next to me,” Maddye recalled. “He had some tissue, and he gave it to me. It was kind of a nice moment, even though it was so bad.”
Memories flashed through her head: Jim reading Shakespeare to her before bed, chasing her and a friend as a drum-heavy section of the “Titanic” soundtrack played, weeping as he shared news of their dog’s death with her and Ford, convincing her that the vacuum cleaner would suck her brains out.
Once, when Jim was having a bad day, she’d asked him to get her an apple. Annoyed, he ordered her to get it herself, but she persisted until he stomped into the kitchen. He returned with a green apple.
“Dad, I only like red apples,” she told him. His face twisted in uncharacteristic anger.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he growled, then chucked the apple at her.
She’d never been more shocked ... until today. How could her father be dying? How could he leave her?
What was she supposed to do?
Ford gets the news
That same day, LeAnn and Jim picked Ford up after school. That was unusual.
Ordinarily, his dad picked him up after class. Just his dad. They’d drive off listening to music — one of Ford’s songs, perhaps, or something by Tom Waits. They might swing by Starbuck’s on the way home or stop at Burger King so Ford, a vegetarian, could get a fake hamburger.
It was guy time. As they drove, they’d alter song lyrics, especially Beatles lyrics, changing every iterance of “love” into something vulgar. Sometimes Ford would drop hot food into his dad’s lap while he was driving; with his only hand gripping the steering wheel, Jim was helpless to stop him.
Mom shouldn’t be here.
Ford climbed in. His parents told him the news.
He didn’t say anything. When they got home, he retreated to his bedroom, trying to figure out what he’d do without his father — without his friend, his muse.
Back in third grade, right after his dad was diagnosed with cancer for the first of five times, Ford wrote an essay about Jim for an Oklahoma City “father of the year” contest put on by the National Center for Fathering. Out of more than a thousand entries, Ford’s placed in the top five.