Sunday, June 21, 2009

My Dad had CLL

My dad had CLL and survived with it for over 20 years. He died in November 2003, just 15 months before my own diagnosis with CLL. This Father’s Day has me reflecting again on his life and the influence he had on me. I wish I knew more of the details of his disease, but I don’t for a few reasons. First, Mom and Dad were the type of folks who never questioned doctors and never asked questions of doctors. Second, we were in Germany when he was diagnosed and lived in Texas the rest of the time while they resided in upstate NY. Most of the information we got, came from whatever information my oldest brother, Jim, could find out from the doctors. In the beginning, that wasn’t too much because Dad didn’t think it was necessary. We got lots more information near the end, because Jim and his wife, Barb, became his primary care giver. They did a lot for them over the years, and still do for Mom. Third, we didn’t have Internet for research until the late 90’s, and then I really didn’t know how to research back then. I still feel a little guilty for not being that informed. I wish I had known to give him the best advice there is to give to someone with CLL: go see a CLL specialist for a second opinion and not just a general oncologist or hematologist!

Mom and Dad came down to visit us most every winter, sometimes for a few months at a time. I always suggested he bring his medical records when he came, but he never did. He also never got copies of his tests. I remember when he was first getting chemo, I asked him what kind and he said the kind that goes into your arm. He didn’t know the name, just that it was chemo. We rarely called it CLL, just “leukemia.”

He was one tough guy. In the early 90’s, he was told there was nothing more they could do for him. I guess he didn’t listen. He went into what we think was a spontaneous remission and the leukemia stayed in the background for many more years. However, he was assaulted with several more cancers. He had multiple skin cancers taken off, and no, I don’t know which kind. Then he had thyroid cancer and had surgery and radiation. Also throat cancer and he lost his voice, except for a hoarse whisper, for several years. I think that bothered him more than anything. He suffered seizures, but medication controlled them. And he had a horribly bad heart. The last couple of years they told him he only had 10% of one artery open and all the rest were blocked. He took nitroglycerin pills just to get the trash to the curb his last year.

Now, you would think that with all that going on, he was an invalid confined to bed. But you would be wrong. Except for that last year he was very active. He did retire a little earlier than he wanted from his job as the shoe designer for Norwich Shoe Company. They made shoes for Tom McCann, Hush Puppies, several other brands and many discount stores – same shoes, different labels. After retirement, he bought a large boat, large camping trailer and they parked it up on the Black River and he fished there and Lake Ontario all summer for many years. He also played golf most of the year unless there was snow on the ground and then still would if it was only a little snow (used a different color ball). The last few years his heart was too bad to play 18 holes but he would play a few. And then he would also go to the indoor driving range and hit a few buckets. He didn’t want anything slowing him down.

He was always surprising us. None of us were sure he would make it to their 50th wedding anniversary. Then, when we were planning their 60th anniversary celebration, we thought he was just willing himself to get to it. May 30, 2003, five and half months before he died, Mom and Dad celebrated their 62nd anniversary!
One time when he was on hospice, he drove down to Texas to visit us! He just told them he was going to be gone for a little while. They removed him from hospice after 18 months that time.

When the leukemia revved up again those last several years, he would get pneumonia multiple times a year and it came on very, very quickly. He could be fine and then within a half hour be running a very high fever – sometimes 105 degrees or more. Night sweats were terrible for him. Sometimes they had to change the sheets and pillows more than once a night. Mom always tried to make sure someone went with him out on his boat when he was fishing, but she wasn’t always successful. She even went out with him sometimes and she never used to do that.

His last year was the only year when he really couldn’t do much of anything. He lost a lot of weight and for the first time actually looked sick. Mom’s 89th birthday was that October 25th, just a couple of weeks before he passed and even though he was quite ill, he insisted on taking her to their favorite little restaurant. So, with Jim and Barb’s help, he took her there. I understand they had to help him walk in, but he made it.

Because I was always careful with vacation time, both while in the military and after in regular jobs, we were able to go and see them often. In fact we went up three times the year he died and we were able to spend time with him less than a month before he died. All four of us brothers were there then. But what about the years when he wasn’t sick? Here are a few of the things I remember about him.

Dad was a man of many, many, natural talents. Dad never finished high school. His own father died when he was only 12 and as soon as he could, he quit school and went to work to help support his family. He was a very, very hard worker. For most of my younger years he worked two jobs. He worked in the shoe factory during the day and at a machine shop nights and weekends. He didn’t have a car during those years, either. Apparently they had just gotten their first car before I was born, and then when I was only six months old, I got severe pneumonia and was in the hospital for quite awhile. They had to sell the car to pay hospital bills. He would walk home for lunch, lie down on the couch for about 15 minutes and then head back to work. He would come home for supper that mom would have ready, eat and then walk to his second job. He would get home about midnight. When he started at the shoe factory, he started in the warehouse moving boxes around and loading trucks (I did that for two summers, too – yuck!). Then he started repairing the machines they used making the shoes, a natural talent. As he watched them working the machines he figured he could do that and since it was “piece work,” getting paid for the amount done, he thought he could make more doing that and transferred to that. (I also worked on a machine gluing down the leather underneath where the heal goes – double yuck. I still have scars from the hot glue.) He watched the Pattern Man cutting out the patterns from the designer’s drawings and figured he could do that for more money. He became a Pattern Man for many years. At some point during that time frame, the second job at the machine tool shop finally was able to go away. After all those years cutting out patterns for the designer’s he decided to give designing a go. Since he had natural art ability, he could paint and draw wonderfully, he made an excellent designer. He was one of several designers for Endicott Johnson Shoe Company. When I was a senior in high school, he was hired by Norwich Shoe Company as their sole designer – well, I should say only designer because he designed the whole shoe! Ha! He did that for about 20 years. Amazingly the sample shoes through the years seemed to always be made in the sizes all of us boys wore. It still bothers me to pay for shoes.

While he was still working for Endicott Johnson Shoes, he decided to open a sport store which he called Don’s Sport Shop. He carried mostly hunting and fishing goods, but other sporting goods and shoes, too. At Christmas he branched out into a fairly large toy section. Mom worked it during the day and he worked it evenings and Saturdays. But they were always closed on Sundays. He had a good business going, but not much business sense. He was much too kind! He gave anyone credit who asked and just kept track on index cards. Many never paid. When kids came in he was always giving them free stuff for fishing. Anyone who asked for a discount got one. Finally after a few years they went out of business. They held an auction and Mom cried through most of it before finally leaving. What didn’t sell got moved to our cellar and he slowly sold it to friends over the years. He refused to declare bankruptcy and slowly paid all of his merchandise creditors off even though it took him many years. He taught me a lot of great lessons doing that.

Now, you would think Dad was working so much he wouldn’t have had time for his boys. He did work a lot, but he still did a lot with us. He coached little league, often took us out with him when he went rabbit hunting. Took us to the town dump where he got target practice shooting rats. One year he took my younger brother and my scout troop to summer camp for the week.

He absolutely loved Christmas and was always the biggest kid there on Christmas morning. He was usually the one to wake us up before dawn on Christmas morning. Sometimes he would have to go to work for a little while and then Santa would show up. Too bad Dad was never there to see him. I remember one Christmas morning he had us all outside to see Santa fly across the sky. He had me convinced I could see him.

Dad and I spent hours and hours fishing. I was the only one of the boys who enjoyed fishing. We mostly fished streams for trout but also some bass and pike. Later in life I went salmon fishing with him.

I cherish the fishing memories. He taught me fly fishing, and how to use all kinds of artificial lures, live minnows, salted minnows, dobson, crawfish, worms and night-crawlers. He also taught me how to go carp fishing with a bow and arrow with a special reel attached. There weren’t too many aspects of freshwater fishing he didn’t teach me. April 1st was always a very special day when I was growing up. That was the first day of trout season in New York State. School? Well, if April 1st fell on a school day, I was allowed to play hooky. It should have been a school holiday, anyway. I would start dreaming of that day for several weeks before the big day. That night was spent in restless sleep of anticipation. Long before first light dad would quietly come to my room to wake me up. That was the only day of the year, other than Christmas, when I was out of bed in seconds. We would quietly get ready and leave without disturbing anyone else. Sometimes we ate breakfast at home, but often stopped at a diner where other fishermen had gathered. We never went to the same stream we usually fished the rest of the year, because this was a special day and special days called for special streams. We usually drove for a couple of hours to get to whatever special place dad had picked out. One never knew what the weather would be like that time of year, but usually it was very, very cold. I remember a couple of times trying to find a stream that wasn’t frozen over. I didn’t care. Many times I didn’t catch anything that day. I didn’t care. Dad almost always caught something, I was proud. One time I watched as he slipped, fell and slid down a dam into the water. I laughed. He didn’t care. He laughed too. And shivered.

Dad and me probably around the summer of 1955 or so.
Dad was a natural at all sports. As a little kid I remember going and watching him play baseball. Almost every year he shot a deer. One year while bow hunting, he shot two with one arrow. There was a doe standing behind a buck and the arrow went through the buck’s neck and into the doe. Oops. When I was a young teen, I discovered he had been a “pin boy” setting up the pins at a bowling alley when he was younger, but he had never been bowling. I was on a junior league and was pretty good, so I talked him into going with me because I thought I could finally beat him at something. I think my average was about 135 or so. The first time he ever bowled, he bowled a 180. I lost. Then he joined two leagues. When he moved to the Norwich Shoe Company, they talked him into playing in the golf tournament during their annual picnic and clam bake. He had never even held a golf club before. He kept telling them he didn’t want to, but the owner of the company, Mr. Weiman, insisted he play. He won the tournament and was hooked for life. I’m not sure Mom ever forgave Mr. Weiman. During another tournament he made a hole-in-one and was so excited because he knew he had won a trip to Scotland because he had purchased an “insurance” that paid off with the trip for a certified hole-in-one. He came home all excited to tell Mom. She turned pale. She never sent in the $100 fee because she thought it a waste of money. I think I heard Dad hollering all the way to Berlin where I was stationed. Dad filled out new paperwork and Mom sent it in. A year or two later, Dad got another hole-in-one. They went to Scotland. He played St. Andrews. They stayed married.

I could go on and on, but I think you have an idea of what he was like. He was far from perfect and certainly had his faults, but he always took care of his family. He loved us and we loved him.

I hope I am able to keep fighting my own CLL as long as he did and with the grace he did. Maybe if I can go 20 years they will have a cure. If not, it will still have been a nice long life. Keep praying.

I wish any fathers reading this a very Happy Father’s Day. If you have lost your own father, I hope you have wonderful memories of him as I do of my father.


Celeste Maia said...

What a fantastic tribute to your father, John. Your memories of him and the things you both shared, his life, his great talents, his CLL and how he simply went on living not giving too much attention or concern to the disease. Your father was a wonderful man who passed on to you how to be wonderful yourself! I must say that I truly enjoyed your post and yes, my father was also an exceptional man. Happy Father's Day to you, John!

justme said...

What a wonderful man your father was — what a heritage. And now I see where you come by your "wig-wearing ways." Ha!

Happy Father's Day, John.

Mikha'el said...

What a great story and tribute. My father passed away from Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia in 2001, 5 years before my diagnosis of CLL. Interesting to find more and more familial relationships with this form of cancer. Memories and stories are great to share and hope for many years for us all to be able and continue writing.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful tribute to your father! My dad died a week ago at the age of 73. Our relationship had been very strained. I did go out and spent several days with him which were wonderful. He died two days later.

Andy said...

Hi John.Having never had the pleasure of meeting your dad i feel like i may have missed out on a great experience :-).It is pretty obvious to anyone reading this post that you and he had a great relationship.Keep up the blogging my friend, you are an inspiration to many of us in a world of uncertainty.Andy :-)

ann said...

An awesome tribute - Thank you John for sharing this with me. I feel as though I have met your Dad, but I know that is not possible. What a blessing your family is to eachohter, and all you meet!

Lisa said...

Im glad to have come across your blog.My husband is 44years old and we have just found out that he has CCL.We have six kids the youngest is 2years old.We are christians.My husband is at the early stages of this disease. Blessings to you and your wife.... Lisa

John Wagner said...

Welcome Lisa. If you have any questions I can help you with, please email me at

Lee Erin said...

Hello.....I feel you just described my dad! What a special father you had! My dad was diagnosed in 1988...21 years ago. He has been on a rollercoaster ride as well...CLL is a terrible unpredictable disease and I pray that they find a cure and you are able to benefit! Sounds like if you are as tough as both of our Fathers you will be here to be blessed with a cure! That is a daily prayer for me anyway! I made the "dreaded" visit today to suggest hospice and you know the first time you hear that word your guard goes up. My sweet Daddy had a little fire in his eyes today but I felt it was time and I am praying that Hospice is everything I promised him it is.....He will be 71 next month and sees hospice as a death sentence. Do you have any positive info I could share with him? Im sorry to ramble but after reading your blog I feel like you are a great person that has done his research and keeps a positive attitude. Once again...sorry about the rambling just been a big day. Any info is appreciated. May God Bless you and your family with health and Grace.
Lee Erin.....TeXAs

Bill said...

Jack (John) - Thanks for such a beautiful tribute to Dad. (sorry I've been so busy and haven't read it sooner!) I can't believe I even learned a thing or two about Dad! (that's what comes from being the baby.) I'm only sorry he never got to meet Ruthie. I know they would have loved each other and he would have been just as silly as she is. I'm going to keep your tribute in a diary to give to her when she is older so she will know what her Grandpa was like. I only hope that she will think I have some of the same attributes. Love you and am thrilled that your health is staying strong!

John Wagner said...

Lee Erin,

I'm sorry, I somehow missed your reply. I don't know how to get in touch with you, so please email me at

John Wagner said...


Yep, Dad would fall in love with Ruthie. He loved to tease and kid with the little kids and act silly. I'm sure you have some memories of Dad I don't have, particularly after I joined the Air Force. I have watched you with Ruthie a few times now and you are a great Dad and you are building special memories for her now.

Anonymous said...

Hello. I am a student and doing a project on Leukemia. I found yours and your Dad's story through doing a web search on Google. I found you blog and I am very touched by your Dad's story. Do mind telling me what his name is?

John Wagner said...

His name was Donald J. Wagner.

Anonymous said...

Thank you!

caren_of_courage said...

I enjoyed reading this. My dad was diagnosed in 2002 and is just undergoing chemo now at 76 years old. We are from Christchurch, NZ, bred tough, survived the quakes, and coping with CLL. I suspect I have it at 53 face very full and wide all of a sudden, and now a large lump in the right front side of my neck. I have five daughters and intend to make the most of life. Thanks for sharing your story!