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One Final Family Hour: Stepping Into Familiarity And Closer To My Dad

THON provides something new to everyone who attends each year. For freshmen, the explosions of sounds and color are a lot to take in. Those who have been there before are introduced to new Four Diamonds families and their stories of struggle and triumph. But as I sat at the Bryce Jordan Center’s press row and covered my last Family Hour at Penn State, there was nothing new. It only felt familiar.

My dad was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma in 2010. After eight long years, many of which he was wheelchair- and bed-ridden for, he passed in October 2018, a little over a year after my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a painfully wild ride with hope and disappointment sending my family and I up and down, over and over. No matter what the numbers say about how many people are touched by cancer, it often feels like it’s only out to get you and the people you love.

When my parents dropped me off in my East Halls dorm room freshman year, my dad’s wheelchair could barely fit through the doorway. He had to be taken around to a back service entrance of Pollock Commons because he couldn’t get up to the dining hall to eat otherwise. A few months later, Onward State’s editors informed me just how intensely the blog covered THON. THON can be an overwhelming experience for a first-timer, but even as I learned more about what happened during the Final Four hours, I was surprisingly unfazed.

I quickly realized that I felt so ready to handle my first Family Hour because I was predisposed. I thought I would be untouchable because I had already been touched by cancer. I believed the hours of hospital visits, the number of surgeries, and the pain of watching my parents suffer would prepare me for anything THON could throw at me.

Instead, I blubbered. One family talked about treatments at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, the same place I saw my parents drive off to for treatments and doctor’s visits every week. Familiarity confronted me for the first time, but I rejected it. I left the Bryce Jordan Center with my heart closely guarded, still trapped with the belief that no one could ever understand.

I blubbered again at THON 2017 and missed THON 2018 to be with my mom before a surgery of her own. My last Family Hour at THON 2019 suddenly had a first of its own — it was the first time I’d have to cover THON from beginning to end knowing he wasn’t at home rooting for me.

I spent a couple hours pre-THON looking at old photos of my dad and me. It occurred to me that a lot of them looked like the photos you’d see on the big screens at THON: a father and daughter together, vivacious and happy, willing to take on what the world had in store for us. Like a lot of families affected by cancer, there were pictures of us where you couldn’t even tell who was sick. Familiarity was knocking at my door again.

As Family Hour crept closer on Sunday, I prepared myself for more tears. I asked my friends to bring me tissues as they asked me, “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” and reminded me, “If you need me, let me know.” They knew that of everyone covering THON for Onward State in those hours, I would likely take it the hardest. I thought I’d prove them wrong again. I told myself to leave my emotions behind and bring only my backpack, my camera, and a healthy dose of angst with me when I left the BJC.

I always thought I’d get the chance to side with the Four Diamonds families who brought their child and cancer survivor on stage with them. I thought my dad would make it to my graduation in May, my wedding in God knows how long, and all of the beautiful moments I’ll experience in my life. Instead, I watched the Dameshek family come onstage without daughter Emilia and felt familiarity creep up behind me for the last time.

This time, I craved it. As I watched Natalie Dameshek speak about her daughter’s fight so candidly, I could only think of my dad. I missed the safe and habitual moments we shared in the 21 years I knew him. The familiar was suddenly the sounds of him yelling at the TV during Phillies games. It was the fun pranks he played on my sister and I. It was the love and belief he always had in me. I hope he knew how much I love and believed in him, too.

If I couldn’t have the familiarity of him anymore, I gladly accepted it from the families, the children, the survivors, and the angels at THON. I wept again, and although the feeling was heavy, the weight on me was lightened. My last Family Hour at Penn State was a step in the right direction: into healing, into understanding, and in the direction my dad wanted me to go in.

If there’s one thing my dad never wanted me to feel, it was alone. We reached a point in his journey where we knew he was going to die, but he always reminded me that I would never truly be without him. He would be with me, my sister and my mom would be with me, and now I know that Penn State is with me, too. It turns out to be exactly what we both wanted.

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About the Author

Gabriela Stevenson

Gabriela is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism and Onward State's former student life editor. She is from Norristown, PA, which she normally refers to as "30 minutes outside of Philadelphia" (she looked up the exact driving time). She enjoys really enjoys eating cereal at night, in case you were wondering. To contact Gabriela, e-mail her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @GabiStevenson if you want to feel young again.

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