Jeremy Burton and his mother, Cassandra
Tumor. One word, five letters, and absolutely no meaning to a 12-year-old boy named Jeremy. He stood outside his room with his two older sisters, Cierra and Aryssa, leaning on the banister as their mother explained to them why she and their father had spent the previous night at Mercy Hospital. As their mother finished her account of the past 24 hours, the moment of silence sank into the house. No one spoke, no one made eye contact, but all knew that the same image had appeared in all of their heads: An image of a devoted husband, a loving father and a dedicated federal judge lying in a hospital bed, knowing that from that day on, he would be fighting the hardest battle that he’d ever encounter — the battle for survival against cancer.
A few days passed and my dad returned home. The man of 56, who was habitually happy, seemed unchanged following his serious diagnosis. He continued to sing “My Girl” by The Temptations to his wife as he got dressed. He kept making his “world-famous” eggs with vegetables that nobody could ever manage to duplicate. And if anything was an indicator of how great he felt, it was that he continued to have his midnight snack in bed: cookies-and-cream ice cream, a package of M&Ms or even warm cookies when Cierra or Aryssa were up to making them.
My dad’s uncanny happiness confused me beyond belief. When he began using a urinal to pee, instead of walking to the bathroom, I could not help but question how sick he really was. I thought to myself, “If he’s working from home, cooking, singing and driving on occasion, then surely he is well enough to stand up and walk to the bathroom instead of making me empty his pee all the time.” Soon after, my old man began to limit his driving. Next, he started walking with a cane. Before long, I found myself helping my dad so much at home that I oftentimes could not sit down for more than 20 minutes without hearing my named called. Each time I heard it, a little bit of reluctance built up inside of me. My day, which usually started at 5:30 a.m., was now ending around 11 p.m. or midnight with no break.
Things were changing and there was nothing I could do about it. I felt myself slowly losing grasp of my own life. Balancing a high school schedule in my accelerated 7th grade curriculum, being captain of my club soccer team, friends, sleep and my father’s sickness — it was all becoming too much. He felt as if he were tied to the bottom of a pool, wanting nothing more than the ability to free himself from the pressure that surrounded him.
The pressure lasted until one Saturday night in August. My dad had been in the hospital for a few weeks, recovering from a stem-cell transplant, while I’d spent most of the summer at a science camp in Dallas. After flying back to Chicago from camp a week early, I visited my dad at Rush Hospital.
Visitor hours were over, but the hospital made an exception for me. I found my father sedated. No matter what I said or did, he couldn’t respond to me. Like so many times that year, I felt helpless when my dad needed me the most. I reached out and placed my hand in his as my grandma placed a cool towel on his head.
The pressure that I had been trying to control for the past few months finally became too much. My legs gave up on me. They began shaking so much that I couldn’t find the strength to stand. My mom held me up as my legs and stomach fell. Tears that I had held back for so long began flowing down my cheeks. After leaving the room to regain my strength, I spoke what would be my final words to my dad. My mom told me to tell him everything that I would if he were awake. With tears still in my eyes, I murmured, “I need you. I can’t live without you. I can’t go through life without you. I love you, Dad.” After my final words, my mom, grandma and I packed up our stuff for the night, planning to see him in the morning.
Early Sunday morning, my mom got a call asking the family to come and say our final goodbyes. Although he remained sedated, everyone said their goodbyes to my father. I had said all I could the night before in the privacy of my mom’s and grandma’s eyes. I couldn’t think of anything more worth saying.
That morning, my dad lost a hard-fought battle. Although the battle was long, my dad fought till the end with a smile on his face. People have always said that I strongly resemble my dad. I’ve grown accustomed to the statement, but I only wish that one day I will remind others of my dad not because of my appearance, but instead for the strength and courage that I display when faced with adversity.
Jeremy Burton is a 16-year-old student at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, and won first place in the Teens with a Family Member or Friend with Cancer category Feb. 27 at the 4th annual Gilda’s Club Chicago Teen Essay Awards Reception. For more information about the contest, or the Club’s more than 300 free monthly programs for men, women, children and teens affected by cancer, call (312) 464-9900 or visit