So he was given his diagnosis in late September, being told he had no more than two months left on this earth. Jim had fought his whole life, and he was used to it. When mid October rolled around and Jack came to pick up Katie for the Homecoming Dance, Jim stood, walked across the room and greeted Jack at the door. Jim reminded Jack, with a stern look that even though he was full of cancer, Katie’s curfew remained the same, and then laughed after he said “I’m on death row Marshalls, I got nothing to lose to hunt down your skinny ass and beat you to a pulp.” That last statement caused the whole room to break up into laughter and cut the tension that was growing when Jim spoke of the cancer that was eating him.
Jim was in the homecoming pictures for their junior year. He was in the prom pictures for their Junior/Senior prom that spring too. Jim was even with Carmen at the football game and both jumped for joy and screamed for their daughter’s boyfriend as Jack ran in the touchdown that won the game and clinched the state championship. He had lost a lot of his size, but Jim was still an intimidating figure.
For their graduation, Jack and Katie each bought a red rose and both of them presented their flowers to Carmen after they walked out with their freshly graduated class. Jim was there too, but with the now ever present oxygen tank, he couldn’t move around very easily. He was committed to see his Princess walk down at least one aisle. “One aisle at a time,” Jim said, “I’ll fight until I see her walk down at least one.” Jack remembered Jim saying that as they were sitting on the porch, the summer between their junior and senior years. Jim was nodding off on the porch swing that Jack and Katie had bought Jim for Father’s day that year. It quickly became one of Jim’s favorite places to be.
Jim was a skeleton of a man when the end came. He was in the bed that he shared only with Carmen. His last week alive was spent with Carmen, ever present by his side. She left only to go to the bathroom. She held his hands constantly. They talked as he drifted in and out of consciousness. They talked about memories of their life together. She brought up the incident with Nick Williams and she told him how thankful she was that Jim protected her. She wept so hard that she shook the bed and begged Jim to forgive her for putting herself in a place that allowed it to happen. Jim got his arms wrapped around her and told her all is well.
They talked about their wedding, and how on their honeymoon Jim had made her feel so special, she felt just like a virgin again. They talked about the struggles to get pregnant early in their marriage, and the joy of pee on a stick that yielded a positive response. They laughed about the names Carmen called Jim during childbirth and the fear Jim had when his Princess wouldn’t hold still after entering the new world to allow him to count her fingers and toes. They cried together when they talked about how Jim’s bullheaded stubbornness kept him from the doctor in the first place. But within the same breath, they both laughed at the fact that Jim had actually outlived the surgeon who gave him less than two months to live.
They talked about his Princess, his times with her, what a beauty she had grown to be and the choices she was making now. They talked about her future and where he hoped she would end up. Jim told Carmen that he fully approved of Jack and that if Jack were to ever ask, she was to tell him that.
Katie stayed home from school the last three days of her Papa’s life and she spent two of those days with him. He wasn’t there much for her, but just to spend that time with him was enough for her. Sometimes Jack would sit in with her. Other times she just wanted to be alone with the man who protected her from the world. He knew she was there but couldn’t always find the breath to communicate with her. So she would just hold his hand, stroke his face and talk softly to her earthly guardian.
The day before Jim left the earth, Katie whispered in his ear that she planned on marrying Jack Marshalls. When she said that, a big smile came across Jim’s face and he opened his eyes slightly. She said Jack hadn’t asked her yet, but Jack was the next best thing to her Papa. Jim squeezed her hand as tightly as he could, which was barely anything these last few days of his life, and said in a whisper, “I think that would be a good thing for you Princess. I like Jack.” Katie gently hugged her papa and smiled a big smile.
Before Katie left, almost sensing that this would be the last time she would see him alive, she said to her father, “Papa, thank you. Thank you for the sacrifices you made, including giving your own life, so that I was cared for. Thank you for loving momma and being the example I needed to find in another boy. I love you Papa.”
Jim’s eyes moistened for the last time in his life, tears ran down his cheeks and he said “Princess, the dates we shared throughout your life were some of the best times of my life. You are a beautiful young woman and I want you to continue making the right choices you have been making.” They hugged and he closed his eyes as she said goodbye to him.
Carmen asked Jim what his favorite part of life was the day he flew to the angels. At first she didn’t know if he had heard her or not, he was drifting in and out so easily. It was a while before he answered her, without opening his eyes.
“My life with you Carm. The whole thing. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. The struggles, the joys… the ups and the downs. I know what love is because I know you.”
That was one of the most coherently clear answer she had heard from him in the last couple of days
Then he asked her, “What about you, Car? What was your favorite part of this life?”
She sniffled a little and responded, “You. You are my hero. Every time you walked out the door to go to work, I thought to myself, ‘There goes my hero’ and every time you came through that door at the end of the day, my heart skipped a beat and my stomach fluttered a little.”
She continued, “You have been and always will be my hero Jim. And I know you are Katie’s hero as well.”
With that last statement, a smile stretched across Jim’s face, and he started to light up, his eyes still closed, hiding the bright blue sparkle. His shoulders seemed to swell with pride and his body almost appeared to puff back up to the big physical guy that he was before the cancer. Tears painted Carmen’s cheeks and she leaned into him for one last time. She listened to his labored breathing and the oxygen hiss from its container until the breaths became slower. She picked her head up and bent forward into his face. She whispered, “I love you Jim” and kissed him on his cheek. His mouth was open and the breathing tubes snaked their way into his nose, providing him with easier breathing.
As she started to sit back into her stool beside his bed she heard a faint whisper above the hiss, “I love you Carmen. I’ll love you always.” And with that, Jim Ieshteen, the mountain of a man, breathed his last breath.
Carmen sat beside him holding his hands for another ten minutes or so, listening to the noise from the oxygen tank, hoping that he would come back to breathing again. When she realized that it wasn’t going to happen, and that Jim was truly gone, she reached over and shut the valve off. The hissing stopped and Carmen was left in a room of silence.