October 6th, 1975, my father Richard Burdette Burns died of what can only be described as a long, drawn-out series of ups and downs in his battle with Brain Cancer. In those days, the “science” of brain cancer was in its infancy and frankly the medical techniques used to treat the disease were as devastating as the disease itself. The disease and treatments changed him, or at least changed his behavior in so many tragic ways. It was unbearable.
I have very few memories of my real father… many of them are wonderful, but one in particular haunts me to this day:
Dad had just gotten out of brain surgery and his entire cranium had been removed to expose the brain. The scar all the way around his head was Frankenstein… when he woke up he wanted to see his family and Mom brought us all into the ICU where we were surrounded by crazy noises and frightening things. Upon seeing his terrible scar we burst out crying and were afraid to get near him. I still get sad thinking about how that made him feel, but I know he was a strong young man and knew we still loved him.
It’s so tragic in so many ways, but I’ve come to realize life is sometimes tragic… and bad things happen to good people every day. But with the gift of life we must also accept the hard times and persevere. This process teaches us how to appreciate the gifts all around us. And if you look close enough, you’ll see you are surrounded by these gifts of life, it’s just harder to recognize them when things are not going well.
So it was not a happy time… but we were fortunate to be surrounded by love and the hope of a day when it would be.
Mom, being overwhelmed with all of this, was juggling the responsibility of holding down a full time job, while also raising her three little boys. Family pitched in as much as possible and Grandma & Grandpa Burns, and the entire Burns clan (Uncle John, Aunt Sue, Aunt Marsha) did what they could to see we had times of joy in our lives outside the evenings we shared with Mom after work. Uncle Ricky (Mom’s half brother) was also a fun and positive influence in our lives, and remains so today.
Meanwhile, Mom’s childhood sweet heart was changing before her eyes, our Dad was becoming someone we didn’t know. Everyone knew Dad had a history of brain cancer, but when things started going bad again, nobody knew it was because of an accelerated relapse of his tumors, and those tumors were fundamentally changing the operation of his brain, his personality, his actions. The tumors were taking our Dad away.
In the year before Dad died, Mom made a decision to move us away from L.A. to Salt Lake City. Mom simply could not handle the responsibility of it all while simultaneously watching the love of her life turn into someone she didn’t know.
I can’t imagine how hard this decision was for her, but I know to this day she has deep feelings of guilt because of it. And why wouldn’t she? She was forced by life, to make a decision between keeping herself healthy and raising her children, or staying with our father and risk losing her own life… leaving us orphans.
She did what she had to do, but that does not make it any easier for her, or for Dad’s brothers and sisters (and his Mom and Dad – Grandma and Grandpa Burns) who cared for Dad during his final days. Sometimes there are decisions we have to make, that we can never reconcile…
During this period, we were active members in the Mormon Church and there was a lot of support from family, friends, and neighbors. This help was a Godsend for Mom, and later in life I realized how great it was for us boys too. I’m no longer active in the church for personal reasons, but to this day I have nothing but respect for the organization because of the fabric of family, and caring for one’s neighbor… good tenets for anyone to follow regardless of your race, creed, or political leanings.
But at the end of the day, it was Mom who came home after a long day’s work and made dinner, cleaned up, did the laundry, got us ready for bed, ready for school, made breakfast, drove us to and fro, took as to the doctor, paid the bills. All you Moms and Dads out there know exactly what I’m talking about… the grind.
And in spite of all that, no matter how dark things got, Mom always took time with each of us one-on-one… tickling our backs to help us fall asleep, singing a lullaby to ease our anxieties, holding our hands as we drifted off into a dream world that was in some ways better than the reality we all shared.
Dad lost his battle with cancer this day 39 years ago, but he left behind a legacy of three brave boys… all of whom carry him inside, and will never forget his kindness, his sense of humor, and his insatiable desire to enhance the lives of those around him.
We remember fondly the good times, and as time has passed the bad ones have softened too. From those memories comes the realization that life is not easy, and maybe it wasn’t meant to be. Maybe its all a test to see how we react, I don’t know.
But one thing I do know is the lessons we learned from Mom and Dad have stayed with us: Lessons of love, understanding, perseverance, and appreciation for the good things in life.
Mom and Dad taught us life is precious, and the “meaning of life” is to make the most of it by enhancing the lives of others.
Maybe some day we will be reunited. That would be a great reunion filled with hugs, laughter, and tears… (and perhaps a couple finger-pulls to get the laughter going again :-))
Until that day I will do my best to treat my friends and family with respect, love, and always do what I can to make their lives just a little bit better… with no regrets when I reach the finish line hand-in-hand with the love of my life, Amy Libutaque McBeth.
“So live your life that the fear of death may never enter your heart”…