A lot of tears and love went into the sewing of ballet slippers for 12-year-old Hanna and 8-year-old Claire of Bridgeport.
Same for the baseball field in the front yard for 10-year-old Dalton.
In the past year, their father, Tim Huya, has taken on several projects for them – labors of love and grief management.
Last Father’s Day, the kids lost their mom, Melissa, to brain cancer. For the past year, Tim has played Mr. Mom.
“Figuring out each day what to do with the kids, how to be a mom, how to be a dad is a challenge,” he said. “I’m still a dad. I have a way of dealing with them as a father; she had a way as a mom. Her way tended to win out. It’s hard learning. But we’re learning – me to be a Mr. Mom, them to be without their mom.”
Tim married Melissa Rawls Feb. 15, 1997, in Woodward, Okla. The couple welcomed their first child, Hanna, in 2000, two days shy of their third anniversary.
Almost two years later, Dalton was born in December 2001 with their youngest, Claire, in March 2004.
For years, the family lived a life of normalcy. In October 2009, things changed.
One Saturday morning that month, Melissa suffered her first grand mal seizure, which consists of a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions.
“We took her to Bridgeport hospital, where they ran several tests,” Tim said. “They said some things didn’t look normal in her brain so they transported her to Harris Hospital in Fort Worth. By that evening, they said there was something in her brain.”
The shaking stopped Sunday, and by Monday, Melissa was home.
But before leaving, the couple was told that the mass on Melissa’s brain needed to come out soon.
“We went to the neurologist’s office that Thursday and talked more about what it was, how big it was, right in the middle of the brain,” Tim recalled. “It’s something that needs to come out soon. Why all of a sudden did it appear? It has been there for a while, but it hasn’t caused something to make you look. No one looks at their brain on a regular basis.”
Wanting a second opinion, the couple scheduled a visit with a physician in Dallas.
“Monday we were over in Dallas,” Tim said. “He had a different approach. He wanted to wait a month, take another picture and see if there had been any change. If it did, maybe consider other options … Thursday we’re told it has to come out immediately. Monday we’re told to wait a month … Not knowing how to decide, we asked the doctor and he suggested we get a third opinion. ‘Who else is out there?’ we asked. And he suggested M.D. Anderson in Houston.”
As the couple sat in the parking lot of that doctor’s office trying to sift through their options, they had a striking realization.
“She said, ‘That means it’s cancer. If they’re telling us to go to M.D. Anderson, that means it’s cancer,’” Tim recalled. “I said, ‘They didn’t say cancer. They said tumor.’ We didn’t understand. Cancer, tumor – they were new vocabulary words.”
EMOTIONAL ROLLER COASTER
A few days later, the two made the trek to Houston.
“They took a lot of pictures, had a lot of things hooked up to her head,” Tim said. “The doctor identified it as glioblastoma (the most common and most aggressive malignant brain tumor) at an advanced stage … They told us we had to go back the next day and do a biopsy.
“A few days later we’re back for the procedure,” he continued. “The primary finding showed that it was cancer that needed to be removed or treated or it was going to continue to grow. We had to wait a few weeks to do anything – she had just undergone an eight-hour procedure, and the next was going to be 12 hours.”
In that procedure, surgeons were able to remove 90 percent of the tumor. To remove the remaining 10 percent would risk permanent damage.
“It was a lot of scary information,” he said. “We knew they couldn’t get it all out. But we just prayed and prayed.”
When the couple returned for a follow-up in December, they received signs of an answered prayer.
“While you’re at M.D. Anderson, you wait a lot,” Tim said. “And while you’re waiting, different people come in and check you out, people getting their education. While they weren’t talking to us, we heard them allude to ‘it not being there. It’s gone.’
“Finally, when the doctor came in, we asked. He said, ‘Well I don’t know how to explain this, but the 10 percent that we left in there, the 10 percent we couldn’t remove, all we can tell you is it’s not there. It’s not showing up on the MRI. We don’t know what happened.
“But as Christians, we knew. God got his tithe.”
Melissa still had to undergo 32 treatments of radiation to “sterilize” the area of the pre-cancerous cells that could grow again.
“We were on an emotional high,” Tim said. “She had to go through it, but it wasn’t there.”
When Melissa returned to M.D. Anderson in March 2010, the roller coaster took a plunge for the worst.
“They took another picture and compared it to the photo in December,” Tim said. “There was growth. There was a new tumor. The radiation and chemotherapy didn’t work.”
Without any other treatment options, Melissa agreed to try a study medicine option – a combination of medicines individually approved by the FDA but not in combination.
“From March, we had to go every 28 days for medicine,” Tim said. “She was doing pretty good from March to September – it was steady, or there was some shrinkage. A ride up on the roller coaster.”
Again, the roller coaster took a dip.
“In September, she started having the shakes again,” Tim said. “And by her birthday in December, things changed … After a surprise birthday party, we were playing Wii Dance. That night, her right leg started getting weak, numb and tingling.”
At that month’s appointment, scans revealed the tumor had grown.
“When tumors grow while you’re undergoing a certain treatment, you can’t do that treatment anymore,” Tim said. “We had to do something different.”
As they prepared for the next option, Melissa suffered a second grand mal seizure in January 2011.
“Her brain was so swollen, there were no ridges,” Tim said. “They said surgery couldn’t happen. They were preparing me that she might not make it through the night. But she woke up Friday, and the swelling had gone down. By Friday afternoon, the swelling had gone back to normal. By that Monday, the strength in her leg and arm was restored.”
After being released, the couple left on a moment’s notice to go back home to Bridgeport. From January to April, she did rehab. But then, the roller coaster took another plunge.
“She got weaker on and off,” Tim said. “In March she got weaker … Then in April, she had another grand mal seizure, and she was transported to Decatur hospital … Again, they started trying to prepare us, asking if we had a living will, what our stance on resuscitation was, etc.
“Friday night, we were scared,” he continued. “But by Sunday she was up and doing stuff. Monday, we decided to move her over to in-patient rehab across the street.”
While there, Melissa continuously shattered goals set for her.
“If they asked her to go up and down the stairs once, she did it three times,” he said. “She wanted to show the kids that she was not giving up.”
Then May 13, she got hit with a urinary tract infection (UTI).
“I had come to Bridgeport for an awards ceremony for one of the kids when I got a message from my sister-in-law, who was staying with Melissa,” he said. “It didn’t sound promising. So as I headed back to the hospital, I stopped by the house and grabbed a phone book. As I drove back, I called the funeral home and started making arrangements.”
Melissa, however, was not giving up, and she started up on the roller coaster ride.
“Eventually, she got up; she started walking with the walker,” Tim said. “Physically, she was improving again, beating her goals.
“Every week, every month, you’re on an emotional high, then an emotion low. You’re happy, then you’re sad. You make progress, and then she’s being wheeled out on a stretcher. An emotional roller coaster.”
The steepest plunge was yet to come.
Melissa was due for her almost monthly check-up. Because it wasn’t a specialized procedure, doctors at Wise Regional Health System could perform the MRI.
Unaware of the results, the couple went across the street to the cancer center for her scheduled treatment a few days later.
“When we got there the doctor asked, ‘Didn’t your doctor from M.D. Anderson call you?’” Tim recalled. “No … She closed the door and said, ‘Well, they got the results of your MRI, and its the second month of growth.
“We can’t do treatment anymore.
“They’re recommending hospice.”
Melissa returned home. But at the generosity of a colleague of Tim and members of the Bridgeport community, the family was able to take a whirlwind trip aboard a jet to do three things Melissa had listed as things she wished to do before she died.
“On Saturday, May 21, we had breakfast in Bridgeport, lunch in the Grand Canyon and dinner in Fresno, Calif.,” Tim said.
From Fresno, the family visited the Redwood Forest of Sequoia National Park, and the next day, they made the trek down the white sandy beaches of Monterrey Bay so that she could stand in the Pacific Ocean.
A few weeks later, Melissa was able to attend her daughters’ ballet recital.
“She turned to me and said, ‘I got to do it. I got to do it all,’” Tim recalled.
The following Friday the family shared their last meal together.
“I can’t remember what we ate, but I can remember the three words she had to say,” Tim said. “I asked her, ‘Do you know who I am?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ Then she paused a little bit and said, ‘Love you.’”
Saturday, she became less responsive. She was then transported by ambulance to Wise Regional to get an IV for antibiotics to treat another UTI.
“Those were our last hugs goodbye to her,” Tim said.
At the hospital, she was given “lots of medicine to buy her extra time, but she didn’t respond accordingly.”
At 6 a.m., the alarms went off.
“Her oxygen level had dropped below 90 and never came back up,” he said. “It was just watching the numbers continue to go down. At a certain level, she had tears. I had tears. I just held her hand through that countdown. The doctors came in and looked at me. I looked at them, and we nodded.
“She was gone to play basketball, her favorite sport, with Jesus.”
Tim then made the dreaded trip home to his kids.
“We always told them what was going on,” he said. “Well, as best as we could explain to a 7, 9 and 11 year old, we told them what was going on. We told them there was something in there that they had to take out. When things didn’t look good, we told them doctors don’t expect Mommy to be cured. We were just to enjoy every day with Mommy because we didn’t know how many we had.”
After the kids presented their dad with trinkets and tokens, they gathered in Hanna’s bedroom, and he broke the news.
“I told them, ‘Mommy wasn’t coming home. She had gone to heaven,’” he recalled. “We cried and we held each other in a group hug.”
Yearning for the company of their “church family,” Tim and the kids attended that day’s service.
“I didn’t want to be around moping, getting all depressed, so we went to church to be with people who showed us so much love and care and support,” Tim said. “People who continue to show us that love and care and support. There was nothing possible without the community of Bridgeport. They were our family; they took care of our kids.
“When an ambulance came, there was someone there to take the kids. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
Tim said it’s that community support and prayer that has pulled his family through.
“I’ve worn out my driveway in the last year, walking up and down it in my talks with God,” he said. “You pray every day. You do a lot of talking. He’s been there to listen to everything I’ve had to say.”
In addition to God, Tim has found listeners in online friends, posting his thoughts and feelings first on Melissa’s page before making his own.
“It’s become my Facebook diary, the readers my psychiatrists,” he said. “I just ramble on through the night. I didn’t have any particular person to talk to. I had 300 to 400 Facebook friends that got to put a ‘like’ on it. Seeing the likes is like someone nodding their head as if I were talking to them.
“It was a way to say whatever was on my mind. You don’t expect people to talk back. You just want someone to listen. That’s been the best thing for me. Whether it’s God or Facebook – the more you talk, the more comfortable it is talking,” he continued. “It doesn’t make it any easier, but it just feels like a tremendous weight is lifted.
With that weight lifted, Tim was able to focus on the kids and their grieving process.
“Dalton wanted to start playing baseball, so my December project was building the field in the front yard to give him a place to practice,” Tim said. “In October, we secured the three-and-a-half acres adjacent to our property. Since then, we’ve built a camping area, and we had our first camp out in May.
“It’s helped us move on,” he continued. “If you gave me a list of things we’ve done this past year and how it was handled, and you told me that on Father’s Day, this was going to happen, I would’ve said, ‘No way! You’re wrong.’ But it happened. God didn’t give me any more than I could handle.”