We have the opportunity of hearing great stories of everyday heroism; Andrew Dennis's story about his father is a prime example.
In 1973, Andrew's dad, Ted, was a 36 year-old, second-generation Brookdale, Manitoba farmer. He and his wife, Joyce, had two boys and two girls under the age of fourteen. With harvest approaching, Ted noticed a persistent lump in his neck. The initial medical advice was to "suck on a lemon" to soothe the sore throat. Wisely, they sought another opinion. Following a biopsy, the diagnosis of lymphatic cancer indicated only months to live.
"It was really pretty scary when Mom and Dad sat us down and told us," Andrew recalls. "We knew about cancer; we'd lost neighbours and both of Dad's parents. I wondered how I'd be able to step into his shoes and keep the farm in the family if things went badly."
But Ted was an optimist, a 'natural-born farmer.' His was a purpose - to raise kids and grow food - that propelled him into each day on the farm. After each radiation treatment, Ted would hurry home from Winnipeg and jump back on the combine. Joyce was kept busy bringing him clean, dry shirts so that the dye-marked radiation coordinates on his skin wouldn't sweat off. A quiet man (but tough as nails), his perpetual farmer's hope and his conviction that "life is fleeting" earned him eighteen more harvests before the lymphoma returned. During that time, Ted and Joyce nurtured children, fields and livestock.
Much love was invested in the children. Andrew's conversation is peppered with his dad's nuggets: When asked "Why you?", Ted would reply, "Why not me?". When in hospital, he saw others' needs as greater than his. When people were anxious about his health, Ted would calm them. Ted's love of hockey is echoed through Andrew's Maple Leafs hat, the skates around the house and the "Hockey Night in Canada" ring tone on his cell phone. "He coached me and my brother every year right through the minors, and he played in the over-40 team for years," Andrew recalls.
In 1991, the lymphoma recurred. Ted received the news that he might have only two more years. Again, "because farming is what kept Dad going," Ted would head straight home after chemo to feed the cattle. "He was fighting to preserve his roots and a way of life." That indomitable spirit scored another eight years with the family.
Ted especially admired Mario Lemieux's win over cancer. Andrew still recalls his dad's delight at Lemieux's electrifying first comeback goal. Ted was inspired by seeing people still doing what they loved in spite of cancer. That's how Sandra Schmirler turned him into a curling fan.
Late in 1999, the lymphoma struck again. Following the treatments over winter, Ted was back in the fields again. "That last growing season, he was like a kid in a candy store," Andrew recounts. "Every fall morning, he would just bounce out to the combine. It's like he was bathing himself in all the sensations of the life he loved. I think he was aware that this would be his final harvest. Up until his death, he spent only twelve days in hospital."
There's another important thread to this story. Upon Ted's first diagnosis in 1973, Andrew had made a stone amulet in shop class and gave it to his dad. That fall, the Dennis family bought a new pickup and the amulet became the truck's key chain until the 1991 diagnosis. Andrew's son, Riordan, retrieved it and gave it to Grandpa Ted on his birthday (December 1), to wear around his neck. It was with Ted until his last day, January 28, 2001, when it moved to Andrew's neck.
Things went quickly at the end. Ted had always wanted to fly and, on his birthday in 2000, Andrew passed his flight test. Holidays, the weather and Ted's deterioration kept them grounded. Finally, on January 31st, conditions were right; Andrew, his father's ashes and the amulet made a pass over the farmstead. "Ted had left his earthly home," Andrew says, "but the care and research provided by CancerCare Manitoba gave him 28 years he was told he wouldn’t have. He got to see his children grown and happy; he had a chance to play with seven of his nine grandchildren. CancerCare Manitoba gave our family a wonderful life and, for that, our gratitude is undying."
We're thankful for Andrew's story. Your ongoing generosity will help us to share Ted's farmer's sense of hope and possibility with cancer patients from every walk of life in every corner of the province.