Anne’s Story

Anne-Meike de Wiljes
Hanover, Germany / Washington, DC

How are you?
– I’m great thank you.
That’s not unusual, you’re always great.

Not long ago someone told me exactly that. I always smile and am always happy because what else should I do? Crying helps to relieve some pressure but the pain is always there. I don’t want people to be shocked or upset if I tell them how I truly feel because I’d rather see them happy.

I get this positive attitude from my dad, Peter-Michael. He died of prostate cancer on July 25th, the day before my mum’s birthday, a week before their 26th wedding anniversary, a month before the beginning of my senior year, and almost 10 years after his diagnosis.

When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer at 46, I was 12 years old. I cannot remember much of what it was like when my parents told me because it never crossed my mind that my dad would possibly not be there anymore. I knew what cancer was, but he didn’t look ill. And he never showed much of what was going on inside of him so we could not and would not worry or treat him differently. I did not care that his cancer had metastasized and could not be operated on, nor did I care about him getting hormone therapy, with the consequence of losing his hair. All I cared about was that he did not go away, that he was not in pain, and that I was able to help and control it somehow.

The hormone therapy worked so well that he went from a PSA of 180 to below the measurable and for many years he was able to live a, to me, normal life. During that time everything was like I had just assumed it would be from the beginning on – if you think positively then it will somehow all be ok. When he entered early retirement because work got too much for him, I did not see it as if he was not able to perform his job anymore. Instead I looked at it as if it would grant him more freedom and finally enable him to do the things he wanted to do, such as spend more time with my mum, my brother and I. This positive perspective became more challenging when his cancer became resistant to the therapy, when his pain began and when he started chemo following oxygen, radiation, and homeopathic therapies.

When he started chemotherapy I had left my home in Germany to go to college in the United States, away from my dad and my family and away from having to be faced with his illness every day. Over the phone I was only sometimes able to hear and find out how he was coping. I could tell when he was not well, but I couldn’t tell how bad it actually was.

When I did get to talk to him he never wanted to speak much about himself. He always wanted to know how I was doing and help me with future plans, relationships or simply homework. I was able to make him “happy” and ease his pain or his worries by distracting him, by showing him that his child was on the right track and most importantly by showing that I loved him, whether it was through sending little notes or a warm hat for when his hair wouldn’t be there to do the job anymore.

When I got older and the severity of his cancer became more and more clear to me I made the choice for myself to accept that he was dying by either beginning to say goodbye or by strongly believing and working to convince myself and him that it was not yet time. I chose the second option and looked at life instead of death as well as the possibilities instead of the worst outcome. This attitude was what helped me get through the toughest times and was what gave him strength too.

Especially in the last few months he always said how strong I was for being determined that this was not the end. This coming from a person that had dealt with cancer, as he did not like calling it a battle, just did not seem right. Many people that have witnessed loved ones in the dying phases talk about having reminisced about good times, preparing themselves for the passing. We did not do that. Until the end my dad did not want to accept that his time was up. He still wanted to live. Eventually my dad did not die of prostate cancer, but of the pain and weakness caused by the bone metastasis. In those last months I was able to just lay with him, often in silence, put my hand on the spots that hurt and read to him out of books from his favorite writers – even at that point still trying to convey his advice, indicating that I should definitely read those books, too.

Seeing my dad suffer was painful. On the other hand compared to children who have lost their parents unexpectedly I am thankful for having been able to tell him all I wanted to say and realizing that every day in life matters.

At one point, I asked my dad what the meaning in life was and he told me that his meaning in life is family. He wore the “American University dad” hat I sent him all the time, even when it wasn’t cold, because he was proud of me. Therefore even though I was not able to change the outcome I know that I gave meaning to his life. Until this day I wear a bracelet that he made for me everyday because I too am so proud of being able to call him my dad.