‘After the diagnosis, we found out we were pregnant. ‘We don’t have enough time! How am I supposed to raise my children without him?’: Woman honors late father-in-law after passing from tongue cancer with special name for new daughter

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“I know in reality that not all people get along with their in-laws. For me, that’s the farthest thing from the truth.

I started ‘dating’ my husband when I was just 13 years old. He was 14. I was quickly accepted into his family and built a relationship with his sisters, nephew and niece, mom, and especially his father. Phillip wasn’t just a father-in-law to me. He was my second daddy. He taught me to hunt, he taught me to change a tire, change oil, and so many other valuable life lessons that he thought I needed to know. He always fussed at me for my wrongs, but praised me for my accomplishments.

Courtesy of Melissa Mahan

Fast forward years later. My boyfriend and I married on a beautiful snowy April day in the mountains. Phillip was his best man, standing proudly. He was always there for every event, every special moment.

Phillip had this thing where he nicknamed each of his grandchildren on delivery day. There was Pistol, Bullet, Slug, and Cricket. When my son came along, there was so much anticipation for Phillip to walk into that delivery room and call him by his ‘name’. He soon earned the title ‘Striker’ (aka Braxten to the rest of the world). He never once called his grandchildren by their real names. There was even one time where my niece was in the hospital. He showed up, only asking for the room of ‘Pistol Lambert’. He literally could not remember her first name. We have laughed at that memory for years to come.

A few years after he retired, we found out he had tongue cancer. By the time of his diagnosis, it had already spread to his lymph nodes. The doctors felt certain that removing a portion of his tongue, his cancerous lymph nodes, and scheduling chemotherapy/radiation treatments would remove all cancer from his body. Well, it worked… for a little while.

Eventually, the cancer spread to his lungs and his brain. He fought so hard, taking numerous treatments and drug trials. He quit using tobacco. He did absolutely everything the doctors asked of him and more. He did all of those things and still spent time with his family, went fishing, hunting, etc. On his way to the cancer center for radiation and chemo, he’d pick up Braxten every morning and take him to his first year of school. He did whatever he could to spend extra time with him. He wasn’t ready to give up on life.

Courtesy of Melissa Mahan

My husband worked a swing shift, so most of the time he was either sleeping or working. Braxten and I spent our days with PawPaw and Mawmaw. He worked me to the bone because he knew I would never tell him no. And, quite frankly, he enjoyed having me around as much as I enjoyed his company. We successfully cleared off an acre or so of his river property with just two four-wheelers, a rope, and a chainsaw. I can still remember the look on his face, and the HUGE grin that followed, as I helped him work on a sewage line. I asked where the ‘stuff’ goes once the toilet is flushed. He giggled and said, ‘Girl! Your hands are in $&@!’ Disgusting, I know. But I still catching myself giggling at the memory.

A few years after his diagnosis, my husband and I found out we were pregnant with our second baby boy! Immediately, Phillip deemed him little Tillman’s name to be ‘Buckshot’. We couldn’t have been prouder.

Courtesy of Melissa Mahan

By this time, Phillip’s cancer was progressing rapidly. And on January 7, 2012, his body was just too tired to fight anymore. We were ALL devastated. It was too much to process. Braxten was 7. Tillman had just turned a year old. All I could think is they, we, didn’t have enough time with him. I thought, ‘How am I supposed to raise my children without his guidance?’ Tillman would never remember his PawPaw. Braxten was broken. He didn’t understand why his best friend was taken so soon. Neither did I, and neither did anyone in our family.

It was truly a heartbreaking time. It’s still hard. The sores are still very much open and raw.

Courtesy of Erin Blake Photography
Courtesy of Erin Blake Photography
Courtesy of Erin Blake Photography

Fast forward to November 2013. We found out we were expecting, again. We were excited, but there was an odd feeling about this pregnancy. While I was joyous to bring a new life into this world and to have a new baby to love, all I could think about was how this baby was never going to know his PawPaw.

After keeping the baby a secret for nearly a month, we told my husband’s family at a annual family BBQ celebrating Phillip’s birthday. My friend wrote a cute little poem and everyone opened it together. We laughed, we cried, but the overall news made his day a little less sad. I later learned that my mother-in-law told my father in law she was pregnant with my husband on the exact same day 31 years prior. Isn’t it crazy how little things just connect?

Courtesy of Melissa Mahan

Throughout much of my pregnancy, I struggled so much with knowing that my baby, our daughter, would never meet the greatest man ever. I talked to my husband’s aunt (Phillip’s sister) about this a lot, as he was her favorite person as well. One day, I was sitting on her porch talking about my feelings and disappointment and she suddenly told me something. ‘Now, Melissa, you know Phillip is in heaven rocking that baby for all these months that you’re carrying her, right? He’s playing with her until you bring her earth-side and teaching her all of his sneaky ways.’

I found great comfort in those words. Every single time I would get discouraged at the thought that he wouldn’t be at the hospital for her birth, I went back to those words. When my sweet Sawyer Phillips (her middle name is after her PawPaw and daddy) was born, my husband and oldest son had an ‘unveiling’ of her name in Phillips honor. ‘Trigger.’ Although nobody calls her that, she has that special name reserved just for her PawPaw.

He has a Pistol, Bullet, Slug, Cricket, Striker, Buckshot, and now a Trigger.

Courtesy of Melissa Mahan

Raising her without him is honestly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I often catch myself saying, ‘Phillip would have ATE that up. He would so have enjoyed seeing her do that.’ Or, ‘OMG. He would have laughed so hard at that.’ He would have egged on her wildish ways and smiled so hard at her corny jokes. He would have LOVED her being the boss of her big brothers.

I see so much of my father-in-law in each of my children. From their looks, mannerisms, to their morals and values, it’s all him. People very often tell my husband that he looks just like him. To me, he sounds just like him at times. It’ll make my hair stand up on my arms and send chills down my back.

As a family, we talk about him often. We show her and the boys pictures. My husband shares his stories of growing up. Of the things his daddy did and the times they had. We go to his most favorite place, his river house, very often. Taking my daughter to the river house for the first time, without him there, was very emotional for me. I was so thankful my sister-in-law caught a picture of it.

Courtesy of Melissa Mahan

My oldest son shares the memories he had with his PawPaw with the younger kids, so they know what a great man he was. Together, as a family, we all celebrate the good times, hurdle together during the bad, and laugh and enjoy each other’s company as often as possible. But there’s still one very special man missing.

Courtesy of Melissa Mahan

I wish that everyone could experience the love I felt from that sweet man. He wasn’t just a father-in-law. He was truly my best friend.”

Courtesy of Melissa Mahan

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Melissa Mahan. You can follow her journey on Facebook here. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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