On May 21st, my Dad passed away at age 59 after a 2 year battle with Lymphoma.
I questioned whether this was an appropriate place to write about such a heavy topic. My Dad was a huge inspiration for me in all of my races. He loved tracking my progress and hearing all the details afterward. He was also running way before I could.
Aside from all of that, his story needs to be told.
Thanksgiving was my Dad’s favorite holiday. He always compared it to Christmas, but without the pressure of buying or receiving gifts, you simply just ate and drank with your loved ones, plain and simple. My five brother’s and I (2 blood, 3 step) always looked forward to going back to Virginia to be there for that holiday because it was always a classy, no expenses spared event. Dad and my Bonus-Mom Christine were also very insistent that we join them.
On Thanksgiving 2008, we noticed my Dad acting mysterious, sneaking off to appointments. My family has no secrets and are quite in your face and so this was a red flag for us. My brothers and I just decided to call him out when he got back and sure enough he confessed to being at the doctors. He was going to wait to tell us. He had been diagnosed with Lymphoma, or more specifically for those interested B-Cell Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, ‘CLL.’ In lay men’s terms, it disables the body from producing antibodies, therefore the patient cannot fight off infection.
We were saddened by this but did not despair. My Dad has always seemed invincible and health problems were of little concern to him for all his life. He would just get treatment and fight.
For those readers who didn’t personally know my Dad, just imagine an older, wiser version of me or my brothers. He was 100 percent optimistic and totally outgoing, befriending anyone. He had few enemies or people he disliked, so we knew if you fell into that category you must be truly evil. He ran, played piano, loved music, golf and his family. We had no doubt that he would crush this disease.
For the first half of 2009 he received treatment from John Hopkins. He had fantastic doctors and by mid-summer the Cancer was in remission.
To celebrate my brothers and I set up a ‘Dudes Weekend’ with Dad down at Bethany Beach, Maryland. We had a blast racing Go-Karts, playing mini-golf and teaching him how to Wii Bowl.
Life went on.
In Early 2010 his Cancer resurfaced, this time stronger.
After some serious consulting by many doctors, his end goal was to live out the rest of his days happy and healthy, whatever had to be done in the meantime. That meant that the solution would be a Bone Marrow Transplant. It is a very risky procedure, but is the only known cure.
In order to qualify for this, he had to get his blood counts up, so back to clinical trials he went. These next few months were grueling for my Dad. He went through so many horrible tests and procedures. One of the harder treatments required him to be hooked up to the IV drip for 5 straight days. He would call us and tell us how much he wanted to go home, but he knew had to endure the pain to get better in the end.
His body was taking a serious beating. After one failed clinical trial, he would have 2 weeks off (where he said he felt great and back to normal) before taking on another. We would constantly get emails from my step-mom Christine (who was by his side for the entire battle) telling us his status.
A sad moment for me was during the NYC Marathon. He and Christine had planned to come up and cheer me on. He had never seen me race so I was very excited. As it turns out, they had to bail on the trip because it was too risky for my Dad’s weakened immune system to be around all of those people. I’m a very positive person, but deep down I knew that was the last opportunity he would have to see me run a race. It was a weird feeling.
My race came and went.
Thanksgiving was a memorable one in 2010 because all 6 brothers were in town. We had such a great holiday with he and Christine. He looked great and seemed normal aside from his swollen nymph nodes. This would be the last time I would see him alive and in a healthy state.
It was also during this time that my brothers, aunts and uncles were all getting our blood tested to help Dad. My brother Phil was the winner. The doctors wanted to attempt a kind of mild white blood cell transfusion that I never quite understood. He underwent this treatment in the beginning of 2011 and after a few weeks we had learned that it failed.
I really am so proud of my Dad’s spirit. Through all this hope and despair, he had such a positive outlook and never gave up.
With all clinical trials failing, the only thing left was the Bone Marrow Treatment, the problem was that my Dad’s ‘counts’ were too low. He started traveling (a 6 hour drive) to Ohio Stet to see another specialist recommended by his Hopkins doctors. They put him on anther clinical trial in combination with some steroids. He liked this one because his nymph nodes immediately reduced in size.
On Sunday, May 15th my step-mom and my Dad went to the movies and had dinner out at one of their favorite places. It was nothing out of the ordinary.
Monday, Christine had noticed his speech was a bit slurred and he was a weaker than normal.
Tuesday morning my father couldn’t get out of bed. Christine had to use the wheelchair for the first time. She took him right to Hopkins to have him admitted. She sent the brothers an email explaining what had happened. Alarmed, but not to worried as these emails explaining Dad’s condition were common, we hoped for the best.
As Wednesday came. his condition was worse. Christine sent an email at the end of the day saying that she wished she had good news, but he wasn’t getting better. This isn’t a great email to receive while out at a happy hour, and I was immediately upset and worried. Abbe took me home and we went to bed. I was leaving for the Boston area the next day for the Reach the Beach Relay and had been so excited for it. 20 of my best runner friends (aka the Runner Army) were participating.
Thursday morning at 5:30AM I was startled out of sleep by my cell phone. It was my Dad’s ID, but when I answered it was my step-mom. In a very calm voice she simply said “Chris, you need to get here as fast as you can.” Shaking, I hung up the phone and paced. I started backing my backpack. How long was I going away for? One day? A week? I packed running gear, why I have no idea. After talking to my youngest brother Jeff who lives in the city we were booked on an 8:15AM train to Baltimore.
By the time I left for the train the only news I had from my brother Phil who lives close to Dad was that he had brain hemorrhaging and they couldn’t thin his blood because it was too risky based on his steroid treatments. I was really upset and in a daze.
Jeff and I made the train and had a very quiet ride. We were both in denial at the possibility that this could be the end. After a call from my brother Phil saying “Dad’s humor is alive. He was teasing some nurses and now they are taking him for a CT Scan.” we were confused and changed our outlook to hope.
The next 3 days could be summed up with ‘Hope and Despair’ repeating over and over. One of the worst roller coaster rides I have ever taken.
I went to college in Baltimore so it was refreshing to see the old campus. We arrived at Hopkins just after 11AM. My brother Phil greeted us in the lobby and warned us of what we were about to see.
Nothing could have prepared me. My once invincible father was pale and sleeping with so many tubes hooked up to him. His left side had had multiple strokes and was droopy and disfigured. His breathing was erratic. I immediately broke down and cried.
His condition was that he was delirious and his eyes would roll back occasionally. He woke up and I talked to him, telling him to get better so we could go home. He was so confused and was looking right at me saying something to which I couldn’t understand as his speech was slurred. He was so frustrated, he was in there, he just couldn’t work his body.
We watched the neurological team come to some reflex tests with him that nearly broke my heart. He couldn’t lift his left arm and thought it was November 11, 1973. Once again he was frustrated and tried to answer the doctors questions as if to say “Why are you asking me these stupid questions, I’m perfectly fine.”
The doctors thought it was an infection or possibly something with his brain but had no solid answers. They needed to take him away for another test so my brothers and I went to the cafeteria to get lunch.
When we returned he was worse. He was sleeping but his breathing was totally crazy. It hurt just listening to it. We got the doctors and they woke him up. “Mr. Baker, you are having trouble breathing, would you like us to give you a breathing tube?” I saw him look right at her and say yes. That was the last time I would see my Dad conscious.
We were all a mess. We waited for nearly 3 hours while they outfitted him with a breathing tube and something called a main line.
Finally, they said we could go in and see him. I lost it again. It was the saddest thing I have ever seen, breaking my heart yet again. My father had tubes out of his mouth, in his neck, his arms, everywhere. So many machines surrounded his bed beeping and blinking with data. He was peacefully sedated.
We talked with so many doctors. No one had answers.
Our routine was to go in and sit with Dad (I could only last 10 minutes at a time) then go out to the waiting area where we had started camping out. My step-mother never left his side.
As night fell, a wild storm approached and I remember whispering to myself, “If there is a god, he is here now.”
My Uncle Bill, Aunt Margie and cousin Cat and step brother Matt arrived at 7PM. It was good to have fresh faces but sad to have to relive the heart brake of new family coming to the realization of what was happening here.
Before we left for the night, the doctors explained that Dad’s Kidney’s were failing, he had fluid around his lungs and bleeding in his brain. Measures were being taken overnight to correct these things and we needed to be hopeful.
All of us left for Dad’s place except for Christine and Matt. At Dad’s we were all hopeful, and very confused. We drank and toasted to his health and went to bed at midnight.
Friday morning we all arrived back at Hopkins hoping for some good news. There was none. In fact his heart rate was fluctuating between 125-165 which any of you runners out there know is not a resting heart rate. They put him on meds to stabilize him and it worked.
It was at this time that my brothers and Christine and I had the discussion with his doctors on ‘what to do.’ Never in a million years did I think I would ever have to have this conversation. My Dad never wanted to be hooked up to machines, which was exactly the case at that moment. We made a decision that we would give Dad 48 hours. If there was even just an inkling of recovery, we would keep him going, but if he showed no signs of improvement we would let him go.
The doctors took him off sedation and gave him antibiotics, the theory now being that he had an infection that was attacking his whole body. They wanted him off sedation because they wanted a neurological reaction from him, something that showed he was still fighting and mentally in tact.
Once again, all day we were in and out of the ICU. I was in such a daze, it felt like a dream.
At 3PM, Friday my brother Jeff’s fiance Ali, and my Grandma and her boyfriend arrived. Ali knew by our faces that it was grim. As I approached Grandma (one of the most amazing women I have ever met) she kissed me and smiled saying “Hi Christopher, so is he better?” I started tearing up and she looked down saying, “Okay. Let’s go.”
Walking my dear Grandmother down to see her dying son is the hardest thing I have ever done. We both wept as we slowly walked arm in arm. “Chris, he means so much to me. He can’t, not now.” Crying I repeated, “I know Grandma, he means so much to all of us.” We both wept hard upon entering the room, her caressing his head and whispering to him.
All day we spent calling relatives telling them that needed to get here. Most of them in denial that Bruce would surely get through this. Hope is so powerful, and I was loosing it.
As Friday came to a close the doctors explained that his condition was ‘poor.’ We would need a miracle. His body was basically failing on multiple levels.
Before leaving for the night I was in his room and for the first time I was left by myself with him. Something deep down inside of me knew this was the end. I talked to him. I held his head and told him so many things, most of which he already knew, we were close. I was crying really hard and told him to stop fighting, that he didn’t need to be scared for him or for us, that we would see him later. I told him to watch over me and that every race I would ever run from here on would be for him. “Bye Dad.” as I walked out of his hospital room.
As soon as we got back to Dad’s place Christine called me. “Chris, I’m sorry to tell you this, your Father’s heart stopped briefly. If it happens again we aren’t going to resuscitate.” As I relayed the information to my brothers and relatives everyone lost it and the reality of what was inevitable set in.
Saturday morning at 5AM my brothers and I sped to the hospital in silence. I cried under my sunglasses the whole way.
In Dad’s room it was very somber. Dad’s condition had gotten worse again and it was time to let him go. We waited until the rest of our group arrived 30 minutes later before doing anything. The nurses had removed everything except the breathing tube and had redressed his bed, making space for us to lay with him. He was very peaceful.
Each family member had some privacy and said their goodbyes to Dad. Soon after, the nurse said it was time to remove the breathing tube. A few of us left the room because we are queasy.
All of us surrounded Dad, quietly crying as we all tried to tell some fun stories of him. He was breathing slowly. He was sitting up a bit and we were holding his hands and talking to him. It was so heart wrenching seeing everyone in tears. Every time I heard my Grandma’s cries I cried harder. Then, his eyes opened! It was so amazing, he just sat there watching us. His eyes were so colorful and beautiful at that moment.
His breathing slowly stopped and he left us peacefully.
We all hugged each other and were crying profusely. I had thought the whole ordeal took 30-40 minutes but the nurse told us it was only 7 minutes.
2 weeks later on June 4th we had his Memorial Service. It was a celebration of life, 5 friends and family members got up and told stories of him before bagpipers led us to his burial site. It was so beautiful and I know he was up there smiling down upon us. Afterwards, we had a huge reception at the Lansdowne Resort with food and drink. There were around 300 people in attendance.
He will be missed.
I have been thinking a lot about life (obviously) lately.
My Dad lived a great life, and had amazing experiences and friendships. Have I? Have you? Are you happy? If not, time to get working on that. Do you dream about taking a trip to the Grand Canyon? Take the trip. Do you want to learn the guitar? Take cooking classes? Have kids? Stop wasting time. Do you want to run a marathon? Don’t be scared, I believe in you.
My father’s wishes were to raise money for Lymphoma research so this doesn’t happen to another family. If you wish to contribute, please follow the link below. Any money we raise is going to be doubled by an anonymous donor.
Thanks for listening.