My family was approached by a reporter from a local paper to see if we were interested in having our story of the past year laid out in print. With an aim to give rise to an encouraging and motivating article for families who have found themselves in a similar boat to us, we consented. The reporter asked Mom, Brit, and I to answer a set of questions about Dad, about our attitudes in dealing with his illness, about our epic Giddy Up Tour road trip, and about our present day life. In formulating responses to each of these questions, I found myself drawing upon an endless reservoir of stories and sentiments, so I just went with it. I'm sure what the reporter had in mind was something more to the tune of a page-long bit of raw content -- I wrote 10.
Unless the paper plans to do a special issue on Team Freeman, it is quite clear that only a fraction of this great stuff will find its way into print. I leave this for you now, those of you looking for reflections on this galvanizing year for the Freeman Family.
Thanks so much for taking a look.
Can you tell me a bit about your dad? Some of your favourite things about him or a favourite memory.
Dad had the personality that made him a favourite character in the lives of many. He was the kind of person that found the fun in any situation and made sure to not take work and life too seriously, though he lived up to all of these duties with great vigour. Dad had a sense of humour that could be adapted to suit any audience, such that he could have a room of people from ages 5 to 95 howling at his quirky facial expressions and wild gesturing. Dad cared little for social norms and very infrequently allowed the formality of a situation to dull his attitude or his behaviour. To operate within your little box of comfort was not an option for Dad and he made sure it wasn’t for the people around him either. Being the first person to waltz over to a group of strangers and ask loudly, “So, who are you guys?!” was his style, and in plenty of cases, those strangers-no-longer would be brought back to his original companions, perhaps leading to an out-of-hand dance party. Dad was known for being the guy to skitter across the dance floor on one foot shouting ‘Hup! Hup! Hup!’ He was never afraid to be that guy.
Dad was never afraid to say ‘I love you’ to his friends, even -- read: ‘especially’ -- if the phrase actually went ‘I love you, man.’ He nurtured close relationships with a broad variety of people – all ages, races, and walks of life – and he was sure to let them know how much they meant to him, which surely had a profound effect on so many lives. He loved his family fully and deeply, being the guy who was always there to help, wherever you were and however late it was. Dad cried happy tears every Christmas when he read the personalized cards that Brit and I wrote – the competition between us wasn’t to see if our card would make him cry, but how fast.
Mom and Dad had a perfect love and was the glowing example of a thriving relationship for anyone they met, but especially for Brit and me. Through our parents, we have a proper understanding of how the selection of an unendingly loving partner and being an unconditional lover, yourself, is of utmost importance in ensuring lasting happiness in life. Mom and Dad did so much together and seemed to love every minute of it. When I was traveling in India, thinking that I was the adventurous one as I rode my motorcycle on the ‘wrong side’ of busy mountain roads, I found that Mom and Dad would take quite a while to respond to my not-so-frequent emails. When the messages came back to me, they would explain that Mom and Dad had just been so busy with their adventures of the summer – living on our small sailboat for days and days, battling 40 knot winds returning from regattas far afield, and hootin’ away at late-night, rum-saturated post-regatta parties. Their lives were somehow more exciting than mine, and I was so proud of them for it.
A favourite memory of mine is when I secretly returned to Canada on Christmas morning after traveling Southeast Asia for four months. My aunt and uncle delivered me to our house under the pretense of ‘showing off their new puppy’. There was no puppy, only me wearing Thai fisherman’s pants, sporting a poor quality moustache, and lugging a dirty bag full of gifts, memories, and tattered clothes. Mom cried, grabbed me, and wouldn’t let go. Brit laughed a little, cried a little, having ‘WHAT?!’ written all over her face. Dad clenched my hand during Mom’s perma-hug and with tears of pride in his eyes called out “You bastard!” This moment of overwhelming joy is an example of something that comes part-and-parcel with every celebratory occasion my family experiences together. Our love for each other allows us to fully experience each other’s happiness as our own.
Dad was a fanatical and extremely talented sailor, so some of my favourite memories of him are when he is clutching the tiller in a strong wind, zipping across the water with boats mere meters away from ours, riding on the precipice of control and disaster while an intensity dominates his eyes and a smile stretches across his face. This was his element. I’m so happy that he was able to spend so much of his life in that element, and I’m so happy that every member of my family has lived in that element with him at some point or another. Many of our vacations were sailing-oriented – the British Virgin Islands, Antigua, St. Bart’s, the Adriatic Isles of Croatia – and there were few occasions where you could see a man more alive.
How was your dad diagnosed? What were his symptoms?
Dad was diagnosed with his cancer -- an aggressive and ultimately terminal form of brain cancer called glioblastoma mutiforme -- following a series of events that made it clear that the observed change in his behaviour was neither coincidental nor short-lived. Dad would declare to my Mom that he ‘just couldn’t connect the dots’ and that he was living in a haze. He found himself forgetting dates and names, having trouble with mathematics and time-telling, and in the weeks leading up to his diagnosis, he would experience lapses in spatial awareness – he would get lost. One time, he phoned my Mom from the grocery store, in tears, declaring that he didn’t know what he was doing there, that he couldn’t read the list she had made, and that he didn’t know how to get home. Mom picked him up from the store, and in the face of some pretty terrifying indications, they had a laugh about the whole thing, attributing the confusion to similarly named list items –broccoli and bocconcini, let’s say. They could find the humour in any situation.
What confused my family’s collective mentality towards Dad’s symptoms was the fact that he had lived with multiple sclerosis for 17 years prior to being diagnosed with cancer. His symptoms last winter looked like a new manifestation of his pre-existing neurologic condition, and to many of us, this seemed to be the beginning of a long-dreaded progression of his historically well-controlled disease. Unfortunately, as I say now, it was not. At the time, though, this progression was the worst-case scenario and would lead to a significant adjustment in our lives. We had no idea that this set of symptoms indicated such a deadly antagonist, and how the impending life adjustment would be so ultimate.
Dad’s M.S. neurologist, with whom he had become very close other the past decade-and-a-half, expedited the imaging and diagnosis process at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and had us swing through for a holiday season MRI. When the results indicated a cancer-resembling foreign mass, my Mom placed a call to Britney and to me, who were both certain that additional M.S.-related lesions would be found, and nothing more.
A biopsy performed one week later confirmed the presence of a malignancy within Dad’s brain, and hours after he recovered from his craniotomy, I told him the news. His response: “Well, now we know. That’s one less thing to worry about.” That’s Dad for you.
What were his last months like for your family?
Our last months with Dad were beyond all expectation -- absolutely outstanding -- and, I would say, these months were the main reason my family has fared so well in the time following his death. Dad’s condition during the course of his illness was, indeed, quite volatile with days of overwhelming fatigue, hindered cognitive function, and debilitating dis-coordination followed by days of high energy, full access to memory, and advanced mobility. The uncertainty made each day a rollercoaster, but we realized early on that if we kept Dad busy – both physically and mentally – there were marked improvements in his performance.
Whenever Mom saw Dad becoming tired in the afternoon, she would swoop him up – which meant helping him dress, being his support as he walked slowly through the house, and guiding him carefully and with great effort into the passenger seat of the car – and take him out to a coffee shop nearby. We were fully capable of making coffee at home, but caffeine was not the object here. We had friends and relatives on call for these kinds of trips and within 15 minutes Mom and Dad would have at least one couple to join them for a drink and a conversation. The change of scenery, the fresh air, the small helping of exercise, and the cerebral gymnastics of conversation improved my Dad’s fatigue better than any nap could. With these ‘therapy sessions’, we saw Dad’s days brighten up wonderfully, and in this way, we were able to share Dad’s time with his friends in a casual and mutually beneficial way. Our house was a revolving door of visitors during Dad’s illness, which was an amazing thing, but having these friends join us for adventures outside the home was always the most fun.
Following this theme, we stacked our calendar with outings and social events. Here is an excerpt from my ‘10,000 Miles of Therapy’ article describing some of the things we got up to;
We managed to pack the goodness of many years into a handful of months. We enjoyed countless dinner and coffee dates with friends dropping in from near and far. We cycled a 130-mile charity tour benefiting Toronto’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, with Dad and I riding an adapted tandem bike. We participated in our local multiple sclerosis walk, for which Dad sat as committee chair for many years.
We got rum-rowdy for several parties at Dad’s yacht squadron clubhouse, where he operated as social representative and membership director. We watched stock cars roar by for Dad’s birthday celebration — something Mom and he did frequently in their dating years. Most significant of all, Dad, with Mom’s help, walked Brit down the aisle on her way to marrying the love of her life. This wedding was put together over two weeks, happened 16 months ahead of schedule, and made crystal clear to me that Dad’s ‘Make Each Day Count’ philosophy can introduce absolute magic into your life.
Dad’s second last month, in particular, showed a remarkable upturn in his energy and physical ability, which appeared in perfect temporal alignment with our participation in the PMCC’s Ride to Conquer Cancer (RTCC). Dad and I rode 216 km on our superbike alongside Mom, Brit, and a broad collection of cousins, aunts, uncles, and close family friends, all of whom raised $2500+ to join the fun. Dad’s task was not an easy one and I’m not exaggerating or waxing poetic when I say that he was my engine on the front of that bike. We pushed up multi-kilometre inclines and battled strong winds on our journey, with Dad turning his wheel 90% of the time. He rode like a champion. He pushed to the end, which is exactly how he performed in the grand scheme of his life.
Dad passed away almost one month following the moment we crossed the RTCC’s finish line. He used his moments of optimum health to the fullest and wasted no time on a long decline – maximum joy and minimum despair. Dad suffered several very serious seizures while we were at a cottage in the area of Havelock, ON, and as we rode an ambulance to that small town hospital, it was very clear that his disease had finally progressed past the point of recovery, and it was probable that this would be our last visit to a hospital with him.
We shared so much love with each other during Dad’s last months and we made sure to not keep this love to ourselves. We maintained an open-door policy wherever there was a door we had control over – at Princess Margaret, at our home, on our numerous adventures, and, of course, at Dad’s funereal party, ‘Geoff-Fest’ – and were so happy to receive all of the visitors we did, to let Dad and his ilk experience each other as much as they could in the time they had left. We also made sure to keep everyone updated remotely by keeping a blog* that described Dad’s condition, the progress of his treatment, our family’s adventures, and the little bits of magic that came standard with each day. We also used that blog as a platform from which we could share the benefits of Dad’s ‘Make Each Day Count’ philosophy. To the nearly 650 followers of the blog, we made clear that Dad’s whole life and legacy can be summed up by his mission to spur positive change in his world and in the lives of others. Dad was the spark that set so many lives alight with energy, beauty, and humour. He was the playmaker. He was the catalyst. We realized the position of power this closely-followed blog put us in, so we used it as our channel to touch the lives of our support network in a positive and encouraging way, in spite of our family’s undesirable situation.
*Carepages is an extremely simple-to-use blog engine that is designed specifically to allow families to keep their close circle up to date with details of an ailing loved one’s health, using selections from their email’s address book. I think that the suggestion of keeping a blog should be in every information-guide given to a new cancer patient and their family, and I think Carepages is the best and most user-friendly forum through which these people should write it. The act of writing, itself, is therapeutic for the one composing the messages, but it is also helpful and healthful for the receiving audience. No one asks ‘How is he doing?’ when they enter the hospital room, because they already know. Everyone already has a sense for how the room is going to feel when they arrive for their visit, and everyone should understand the ‘rules’, if you have any, before they decide on a visit. Most importantly, the blog puts an immediate stop to the calls and emails pouring in to the primary caregivers, since they have just laid out the facts, simple and clear, for those concerned. The blog was one of the most helpful and crucial tools we discovered during our journey, and I would be very pleased if it were mentioned in the article.
Why did you decide to do the trip?
We decided to set out on our road trip for several reasons, but the primary motivation was that the journey would be a clear show of solidarity with Dad and his ‘Make Each Day Count’ philosophy. This road-trip was a way for us to firmly set ourselves on a positive course, continuing life fostering Dad’s spirit of adventure. We realized that there would be few other points in our lives that would allow us to take off for such a journey, and we were, indeed, lucky to have this opportunity to share such a significant, therapeutic endeavour with one another. We saw our window of possibility and we jumped at it, knowing that there would not be a moment in any of our futures when we would regret our choice. This was Mom, Brit, and I making each day count.
What made us choose to travel North America, specifically, was the fact that as a family, and individually, we had a ton of experience as jet-set world voyagers, but none of us could say that we had extensively traveled our own continent. I had a huge interest in getting a feel for the central and western areas of the United States, while we all seemed to have a deep enchantment for the western provinces of Canada. This journey would provide a lot of ‘firsts’ for us -- a lot of things we could check off our lists – including our chosen method of travel. What do you think your dad would say about your trip?
Dad is probably still going bananas over the fact that we did something so ‘out there’ and ambitious. This is a journey that Dad absolutely would have loved to take, so we made sure to bring him with us, as I described in my article;
Mom, Brit, and I created new memories with Dad over the course of this tour, too. We brought Dad’s cremated remains in colorful jars and scattered small portions in the most breathtaking and resonant settings we happened upon. Each of us took turns to whisper a small dedication to the wind before letting it take him away. These were some of the most beautiful, personal, and cherished moments of our entire journey. From the caldera rim of Crater Lake National Park at dawn, from the craggy panorama of Yellowstone’s entryway, Beartooth Pass, and from 20 other magnificent vistas we wished Dad peace as he sailed freely about the universe.
There we so many times during this journey that we could feel Dad beaming from wherever he was and whispering, ‘You guys are so awesome’ into our ears. Among other ways, Dad comes to us in the form of rainbows, just like the brilliant one that appeared in the hours after his death, to give us reassurance that we are on the right track and that he is doing just fine. I still see Dad manifesting himself in my life abroad – upon landing at Bole Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the most luminescent rainbow appeared over the countryside, showing me Dad’s clear approval of my most recent adventure.
How did the trip help you?
The road trip was an opportunity for Mom, Brit, and I to be alone with our thoughts, with each other, and with our living memory of Dad. We were able to step away from the duties that had consumed most of the last year for us and finally attend to ourselves and to our future. We had all been living at 100 miles per hour for the previous many months, and even in the time after Dad’s death we had an enormous amount of work to do. This journey gave us a chance to be quiet, to let us get in touch with our private selves, and to let the changing landscape be the one to do the talking and entertaining for a while.
The trip gave us the opportunity to dive deep into our experience with Dad over the years -- to reflect on famous, quintessential stories that frequently come up in conversation, and to reflect on the not-so-famous moments; the subtle, beautiful moments that made themselves clear when we thought hard. We made sure to share these moments with each other around our nightly campfires, as we were humming down long prairie roads, and just before we drifted into unconsciousness within the cozy confines of our motorhome. Knowing that Dad is alive and well in my memory gives me confidence that he is alive and well as he cruises the universe.
As a family, we were able to speak openly about a broad set of tough topics that we would surely encounter in the days ahead. We have long-opted to take a forward-thinking approach to life – an example of which being our choice to shine a big bright light on Dad’s life for his remaining months rather than crumbling under the pain – so we sought out some helpful texts and were gifted others, which helped introduce some truly beneficial exercises and topics for conversation. We spoke at length about life’s purpose moving forward, about our outlook on life, death, health, and nature of humankind. One of my favourite and one of the toughest things we discussed was the psychology of missed opportunity and regret. Mom, Brit, and I know that there will be times in the future that we will wish he were present for – my wedding, retirement adventures, and being a grandparent to Brit’s and my children along with my Mom (the world’s greatest child-wrangling team) -- but we have absolutely no regrets about the time we were fortunate enough to have Dad in our lives. We can move forward with the comfort that Dad’s spirit and guidance lives on within each of us, as he was a central character in the development of our respective characters.
Even if our journey were a complete wash in all other senses (which is the furthest statement from the truth), being able to come to conclusions like these, as a family, would have made the endeavour a massive success. Being able to share these kinds of ideas with others along our path also served as a method of reinforcing our own understanding of the issues, and to reaffirm that our feelings were flush with our words.
What were some highlights of your trip?
Our campfire ‘Dad’ story sessions were outstanding – so many important and nearly lost memories made themselves during these magical times.
Spreading Dad’s ashes across the continent was an incredible experience – acts rich in meaning as we let his body fly across some sweeping landscape. Some of these important and gorgeous vistas included the wide beaches of Lake Superior Provincial Park, the meandering waters of Lake-of-the-Woods near Kenora, the broad plains near the rodeo town of Cody, Wyoming, the stormy high-altitude plateau of Beartooth Pass in Montana, the resonant, intricately-constructed Temple at Burning Man festival in Nevada (I was the only member of my family present for this one), the crashing coastline of Big Sur in central California, the peaceful and miniaturizing Redwood forest floor in northern California, the other-worldly caldera rim of Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, the sweeping mountaintops of Squamish and the ancient, deep blues of the Pacific coast in British Columbia.
When did your dad die? When was he diagnosed? When did you go on the trip?
Dad went from investigational imaging to biopsy to diagnosis during the last days of December, 2013 and the first days of January, 2014. Our extended family’s Christmas celebration was held in Dad’s room at St. Michael’s Hospital.
Dad died on July 8, 2014 after being in hospice care the Ian Anderson House in Oakville for 6 days.
‘Geoff-Fest’ – a celebration of Dad’s life with 500+ guests and a boatload of Mount Gay Rum – was held on July 13, 2014 in the Caledon Ski Club lodge, Belfountain, Ontario.
We had the RV in our driveway for decorating – ‘Make Each Day Count’, ‘Giddy Up’ and ‘In Honour of Geoff Freeman’ were emblazoned on the RV’s exterior using large decals – on July 29, and we returned to Oakville on September 22, 2014, making the trip last 55 days, which, by coincidence, was the age reached by my father before he passed away. ‘Freedom 55’.
How does the trip affect you now - in your life, grieving process, etc.
For me, trip is now a point of pride. I tell people that I spent almost three months with my family in an RV and some respond by saying that they couldn’t imagine being in such close quarters with their parents and siblings for that long. At that, I smile on the inside over the fact that I could have journeyed for another three months, six month, nine months with those guys. The journey makes it so clear that my family is something special, and that the unique love between us is something that was actively cultivated by my parents and grandparents. Above all else, I aim to cultivate this beautifully woven network for myself and my future family, because this type of strong, far-reaching love is the only way that my family has made it out of this overwhelmingly negative ordeal with positive thoughts in our minds and warmth in our hearts.
The trip allowed me the peace I needed to discuss with myself what was important in life, how I could pursue those things, and how I could best honour my Dad in the future. The trip allowed me to identify the help I need to live with the grief that I will carry with me the rest of my days – grief is not something to ‘get over’, it is something one learns to healthfully live with – and it has helped me identify the needs of my Mom, sister, and everyone else that fostered a great love for my Dad.
This trip served as an excellent pilot project in conducting a grand adventure without the physical manifestation of my Dad standing beside me, lending advice, and beaming with pride as I told him about all of the craziness I, along with Mom and Brit, got up to. Dad certainly was there to help us along, encourage us, and to tell us how awesome we are for doing what we were doing. We just have to listen a little bit closer now. Now that my family has executed a successful pilot, we have opened the door for a great many more adventures in our future, hence my departure for Ethiopia. I hope to have Mom join me for a journey in Tanzania this February and I know that Mom, Brit, Denis (Brit’s husband), and I have our sights set on Burning Man festival next year, since I returned with such fantastic reviews of the event last year. There also exists South Africa’s version of Burning man -- Afrika Burn – which is glowing on my radar.
What are you doing in Ethiopia? Does your family live in Oakville?
I am living in Jimma, Ethiopia this year with my girlfriend, who has taken up an assistant professorship in the Biomedical Engineering Department of Jimma University. I joined her in order to lend support – I, too, am a biomedical engineer – and in order to continue scratching my adventure itch. I am currently in the process of writing a novel chronicling my family’s journey over the past year, and I thought that Ethiopia would be a fine setting to lay down some pages and to spur inspiration for further writing. Dad was always so proud of my vagabonding – motorcycling through north India last year, backpacking South America in 2012, hitchhiking the eastern seaboard of the United States in 2010, and so on – so jumping at the opportunity seemed only natural.
My Mom lives in Oakville and, until Christmastime, Brit is living with her. Brit’s husband, Denis, will be returning to Toronto in late December after spending almost a decade nurturing his company’s business in Montreal, much all of our delight. The couple recently purchased a beautiful house on the east side of Toronto and will move in when Denis returns. It seems that I will arrive home for my holiday visit at the perfect time to lift some boxes for those kids, which I am actually pretty excited to do.
This Christmas will surely be a tough one, but I am confident that we have the tools and the love we need to make it through and to make the time we share with each other great.
Thanks, cheers, and #makeEachDayCount, friends.
All the best from Mike in Jimma