Once upon a time in a land far, far away…
The few memories I have from my childhood are the stuff fairy tails are made of. Loving mom who stayed home to raise my younger brother and me, and a daddy who truly delighted in me.
I’m the first born, four and a half years older than my brother Greg. So, while mom was home with my baby brother, I was free to go on adventures with my daddy whether it was to the grocery store, across town to my grandparents house, or a true adventure on the water. My favorite childhood memories involve being on the water with my daddy… letting the wind take us away in the sail boat, or looking for alligators as we fished.
I was a walking contradiction from the beginning. I loved baby dolls, frilly dresses and ballet class, but I also loved to watch football and play in the mud! I was a strange combination of girly-girl and tom-boy. I was Daddy’s pride & joy. I remember going to Rotary Club Christmas parties and Dental Conventions with him as a young child and seeing Daddy’s beaming face as he showed me off to his friends and colleagues.
We lived in the suburbs before the suburbs where “the” place to live, but my parents drove us into the city each day to attend private school. Education was a BIG deal in our house. Daddy was a fourth generation dentist in practice with my grandfather who we called Pop. If I close my eyes I can still see the details of the office. The antique roll top desk where my Daddy took care of paper work, the large collector’s fishing lures on Pop’s desk in their shared office, the floor to ceiling windows on the top floor of the Medical Towers Building where I would stand and look down just to feel my tummy flip flop. I remember the picture of two-year-old me in a white dress with cherries on the front and the white bonnet that was on my Daddy’s desk, pictures of great-granddaddy May and his brothers that hung on the wall in the dental lab, antique dental drill, pictures from past dental conventions, so much family history that I didn’t appreciate at the time.
All I knew was that I wanted to be just like my Daddy when I grew up! I wanted to be a dentist and work with my Daddy just like he worked with his Daddy. I wanted to carry on the family tradition, not for the sake of tradition, but because it meant spending every day with my Daddy and what could be better than that? How could life possibly be any more perfect?
My memories from my childhood are few, but what I do remember was beautiful. It was perfect. The stuff fairy tails are made of.
When Everything Changed: Cancer Diagnosis
It was shortly after my ninth birthday in January of 1986. My brother Greg was only four and a half. Daddy had spent the weekend at deer camp and hit his right arm on something. I remember it was so swollen that he couldn’t button the cuff of a dress shirt. I didn’t know it then, but he had lumps in his right forearm for many years, but his doctor said that they were just calcium deposits from his years of playing football and nothing to worry about… but that all changed very quickly. Within a few days he had the lumps biopsied and was diagnosed with cancer.
I don’t remember the time frame, but I know my parents flew to University of Florida in Gainesville to see a specialist while my Nanny and Papaw, my Mom’s parents, came from Alabama to stay with Greg and me. Mom and Dad flew home to talk to us about the doctor’s plan. I remember sitting on the king size bed in their bedroom at home when they told us that the doctors in Florida were going to have to amputate Daddy’s right arm in order to remove the cancer. He would then have to go for chemotherapy treatments monthly here in Jackson for the next year to make sure the cancer was completely stopped.
Mom and Dad flew back to Florida where Daddy had the surgery to amputate his arm. During the time that they were away I focused on trying to learn to tie my shoes using only my left hand. I wanted to be able to teach Daddy something when he got home.
While in Florida for Daddy’s surgery, mom sent the following letter to us:
Thursday, February 27, 1986
Dear Meridith & Greg,
We are here in Gainesville now. Today we got Daddy checked into the hospital. His room is on the 6th floor. Room #6411. By the time you get this letter his surgery should be over. Remember every night to ask God to take good care of Daddy. We miss you already and know you miss us. Please be good children and take good care of Nannie and Papaw for us.
Sunday, March 2, 1987
Your Daddy is so brave. He has been the best patient in the hospital. Today he has walked all around the hospital – outside – in the gift shop – the nurses can’t keep up with him! The doctor said he is doing so good that we will be coming home soon. He has done great doing things left-handed. He hasn’t asked me to do anything.
Dad got 40 balloons. They take up the whole room. He has also gotten 6 flower arrangements. We are going to try and bring home the balloons and maybe 1 of the flowers but we won’t be able to bring all of them.
Did it snow there? It got real cold down here but is much warmer now.
Daddy has the picture of you two up here in his room. All the doctors & nurses think you both are sooooo cute!
Daddy’s favorite nurse is a big fat black woman. She is so nice. She told Daddy if he didn’t go to sleep she would pick him up and rock him to sleep like a baby! Wouldn’t that be funny!
Well, better get this in the mail. We love you both more than anything in the world! I hope you are taking real good care of Nannie & Papaw. Give them a kiss and hug from both of us.
See you soon,
Mom & Daddy
(Daddy signed his own name)
Mom and Dad returned home and I remember meeting them at the small private airport in Madison, MS. I remember running to my Daddy and receiving my first one-armed hug from him. It was as if all my fear melted away as my Daddy hugged me. We drove home and were welcomed by the sight of a huge yellow bow tied around a tree in the front yard.
I don’t remember how long it was before Daddy began his chemotherapy treatments, but it was fairly short after returning home from Florida. Greg and I were pretty well protected from seeing the worst of all of that. All we saw was Daddy slowly loose his hair and the man who was so full of life began to look sick. He appeared to waste away.
I’m not sure at what point I realized that Daddy could no longer practice dentistry with only one arm, but I do know that he had already been teaching clinicals at the dental school for as long as I could remember. He hired Dr. Johnny Neely to cover his appointments so the practice continued.
During the spring or summer of this same year my Mom got a job at the local water park as the promotions manager. As a kid this had to be the coolest job a parent could ever have! It meant that I got to spend 99.9% of my summer vacation at the water park!
In August of this same year Pop (my paternal grandfather) fell out in the office while working on a patient who was also his primary care doctor. I don’t remember if it was a stroke or what, but I do remember spending days on end in the ICU waiting room where he was in a coma for what seemed like forever. He eventually came out of the coma, but never fully recovered. This left May & May Dentistry without a May dentist that could physically practice.