NORMAN — Angry voices swarm up the stairs, as unexpected as gunshots, and Ford Chastain stops in mid-sentence.
His shaggy head turns quickly toward the staircase at his Norman home. He’s still smiling – hasn’t really stopped since getting his braces removed a few weeks ago – but now dark uncertainty skitters behind his eyes.
“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. After that, Ford started writing songs, filling journals with lyrics.
“I really think strongly that true art comes from suffering, you know, like bad experiences and stuff,” Ford said. “In a way, my dad’s whole journey through cancer ... gives me something to think about while writing. It gives me inspiration.”
But now the journey seemed to be nearing its end. Ford remained in his room, mind whirling.
“My dad came in to talk to me,” Ford said, “and I think pretty much what he told me was that he was just as sad as I was, only it was a waste of time to sit in bed being sad about it because we had limited time together. We should just forget about the news and just spend time together while we had it.
“I could tell that it really made him sad to see me sad. I mean, it’s one thing to know you’re going to die, but to see it affecting your children is probably the worst of all time.”
Living with a new reality
That first burst of grief was so powerful and confusing that Ford and Maddye ran away from home four days after Jim told them he was dying. They skipped school and drove to their grandmother’s house.
They were looking for somewhere safe, somewhere stable, some place where cancer doesn’t live. They didn’t stay away for long, just enough time to give them breathing room and allow Jim and LeAnn to realize how much they were hurting.
But a strange thing happened in the weeks and months that followed: That cold spike of sorrow gradually thawed, allowing them to forget, at times, that their father was dying. Their grief didn’t go away. They simply found, as their parents did, that it’s impossible to live in a constant state of heightened emotion.
Long hugs and searching glances slowly gave way to quick waves and shouted goodbyes. They adjusted to a new definition of normal.
“They don’t think about me dying all the time,” Jim said. “For the most part, I don’t think they think of it at all, except when I’ve had chemo and they can see me suffering.”
Ford knows time is running out for his father, but he also has homework, music, after-school activities and a social life. He’s a teenager, and listening to a new CD often seems more important than chatting with his dad. Maddye carries a similar load, plus an upcoming high school graduation and a new life in college.
The emotions haven’t gone away, Lankard said. They’ve been subsumed by all the other things going on in the teenagers’ lives. They can resurface at any time, including as arguments with their mother.
If she is like most women in similar situations, then “LeAnn is going through her own fears,” said Lankard, who knows firsthand the pain of losing a husband to cancer.
“She’s going to have to provide for these kids. She’s going to be the one to hope she can get them through college. She’s probably terrified herself. … She cares about Jim, but all of a sudden, she’s worried about her own survival.”
Competing needs gnaw at LeAnn like a school of piranha. She’s a wife, mother, teacher, math coach, daughter, sister, pet owner and caregiver, and each responsibility takes another bite out of her time. She’s inching closer to losing the man she has loved since she was a sorority girl at Oklahoma State, and sometimes the burdens become too much.
“I spend most of my time trying not to be bitter or mad,” LeAnn admitted. “I’m mad a lot. That’s not a secret.”
LeAnn often tells her husband that no one understands what she’s going through. Everyone knows him. He’s the poet, the blogger, the guy on the cover of the newspaper. She’s the one in the background, quietly paying the bills, picking up the house and keeping the family together. People ask about the sick one, not the caregiver, even though LeAnn’s accomplishments are noteworthy.
Recently, LeAnn’s Mathcounts team from Whittier Middle School won the state championship. As a result, LeAnn was named coach of the state team, which will participate in a national competition in Florida in May. Members of her new team come from schools across Oklahoma, so she must travel on weekends to hold practices.
LeAnn is thrilled by her team’s success, even as the new demands on her time increase tensions at home. Jim and the kids could take on more responsibility to help her out, but she wrote that off as a lost cause long ago.
“You can tell my family is spoiled,” she said. “They don’t pick up their own stuff, because all those years I picked their stuff up for them. … They’re very, very bad. I’ve not trained them well at all.”
To LeAnn, Jim’s cancer isn’t just destroying the man she loves; it’s also destroying the partnership they built over more than 21 years of marriage. When Jim is recovering from chemotherapy, she’s “mad all the time,” because he’s too weak to help her with chores — and because it kills her to see her husband hurting.
Maddye is rushing through her last year of high school. Ford is trying to imagine a home with only two people left in it. And LeAnn is moving breathlessly through a hectic schedule that doesn’t allow time for her to grieve.
“We’ve been living with this diagnosis for a year and a half,” she said, “so that’s a long time to know someone’s dying. That’s a very long time. There’s only so much you can do to prepare, and then you go on. You go on.”