Chrissy D’Agostino: On Losing Her Father to Pancreatic Cancer
Hi Chrissy! Thanks so much for chatting with me. Would love to hear more about your father, and your brother. My Dad was a steady source of calm and grounded energy in our family. He made decisions with a great deal of consideration and conscientiousness. He was thoughtful, patient, and deeply knowledgeable. My Mom would call him a walking encyclopedia. You would be hard pressed to find a topic he didn’t have some knowledge about. You could say he was a man who did few things, and with great care. He didn’t try to have a million hobbies or collections or skills. But those things that he did commit to, he excelled at. He was incredibly well loved by his large family (9 younger brothers and sisters) as well as the numerous communities he chose and gave his time to throughout his life. If something mattered to him, he gave all that he could to show it. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2010 and died 1 year to the day after his diagnosis, in January 2011.
Is there a particular color that reminds you of your loved one? Or a symbol? Quote?
For me, the turquoise color of the Caribbean Ocean reminds me of my Dad. He loved Puerto Rico and Cuba, and we spent a great deal of time there together. I remember once we were snorkeling way out from the shore above a sunken shipping dock in Puerto Rico. My Dad tapped my shoulder and pointed down and swimming below us there was a beautiful sea turtle. It was a majestic experience to be swimming above such a beautiful creature. It is one of the best memories I shared with my Dad.
I love that. Do you recall the moment that you found out that your dad was ill? What was that experience like for you? I was teaching at the time at a private school in Marin County in California. My Dad had been sick and was undergoing a series of tests and lab work. I remember my Mom called me after school when I was cleaning up my empty classroom and told me he had cancer. When I googled “pancreatic cancer survival rates” I knew right away from the bottom of my heart that he would not survive the illness. I just sat at my desk and put my head down and sobbed. My Dad was my anchor in life in so many ways, and it broke my heart to imagine raising a family without him as a Grandpa. To this day that remains one of my greatest sadnesses. I show my daughter his photo, I tell her stories about him. I try to remember what he was like as a parent when I was young, and I try to channel some of that energy into my own parenting. But nothing could ever replace having him here.
What inspired you to become a special educator? Have you ever been able to combine your passions for your work + cancer advocacy? If so, in what capacity was the project, event, or situation? I became a special educator because of my experience growing up with a brother with autism.
What is/was the most challenging aspect of seeing your dad combat his illness? I think for me, one of the most painful parts was witnessing my Mom’s suffering as she watched her life partner slip away before her very eyes. When cancer progresses quickly, you can truly see the person’s life fading away from their body. Their color, their vibrancy. It is dramatic. Nothing can prepare you for it. It was also painful to see my Dad surrender so quickly to the cancer. He really didn’t want to ‘fight’ it. He didn’t even like that word. He was deeply accepting of the whole thing. Which was a different source of pain for me. I was in awe of his acceptance, and also hurt by the fact that he didn’t seem to want to fight for his life. Though now I understand that on some level, he knew it was his time. And with that knowing, came an absence of anything to ‘fight’ with. There was no enemy.
What has been a rewarding aspect of experiencing this journey with your parent?
Seeing how peacefully life can come to an end when we allow it to. My Dad’s final days were quiet and calm. Friends came to honor him, to read poetry, and to bear witness. He witnessed the comings and goings without being a part of them somehow. He was already on another plane. He allowed us to have the time we needed, by his side, without resisting anything. And when it was time, it was time. The night he died, his beloved brother arrived from Scotland around 11pm, and he died that night around 4am. The words of his best friend, spoken at his memorial, summarized so eloquently this experience: “He proved to us that not only can you live well, but you can also die well”. I feel that dying well was his parting gift to us. The days following his death were steeped in a sort of spiritual serenity. I remember the quality of light in the house. The colors of the quilt covering his body. The deep, gentle peace surrounding us.
Was is one piece of advice that your gave you that will always stay with you?
The day my Mom called me to tell me they had transferred him to hospice care, I burst into tears and asked her to ask him for advice for me when I become a parent. He said, “Be spontaneous”. I hear his words in my mind on a daily basis and work diligently to embody them in my parenting.
Is there a time of year, date, or holiday that you find the most challenging? How do you handle this? January is a difficult month for me. Not only is it the month my Dad died, but my older brother Andy also passed away in January (5 days before my Dad’s death date) several years after my Dad. My memories of both their deaths rise so close to the surface around those dates. I try to surrender to the waves of sadness and allow myself to be held by my loved ones. Its hard though, because as the years pass, I think people assume it gets easier. They mention it less. Fewer friends and family members reach out. But for me, grief hasn’t been a linear process. It’s more like the ocean. Sometimes I’m on a big, steady boat. Sometimes I’m floating on my back, looking up at the sky. And sometimes I’m being crashed over by the enormous waves.
If there is one piece of advice you could give young people with an ill parent, what would that be? I try to be careful about advice. I feel it implies that my experience is relevant to your life, and I don’t know that to be true. I believe grief knows how to move through us, and trusting in its wisdom is our work. In many ways, we are always grieving - grieving our very mortality. It shows up in how we live, how we hurry, how we avoid. The loss of a loved one makes it feel more acute, but it has always been there.
What keeps you inspired?
Thank you for this beautiful share, Chrissy.