Earlier this week, I had the honor and privilege of speaking at kickoff night of San Diego Women’s Week. It was such a special night for me and it excited and ignited me in ways I didn’t know were possible. My dad had hoped he would be able to attend the event — but, (without trying to sound too cliché) I know he was there, surrounding me and encouraging me as he’s always done.
So, here’s my speech from Monday night. The whole process was truly cathartic for me, and I hope it touches you in some way too.
XOXO Hannah Jane
Wow! What a ride!
— San Diego Women’s Week 2014 Speech —
This moment that I’m in is so bittersweet. It’s also ironic, because I’m here tonight, living out my dreams, the opening speaker at San Diego Women’s Week, surrounded by brilliant, creative and dynamic women…all because of a man. But not just any man…the most important man in my life, my dad.
My dad was magical. He was an author, organic gardener, 5-time Emmy award winning journalist and by far the funniest man I’ve ever known. My dad became a local legend, and rightfully so. He dedicated his life to bettering San Diego from the coast to the mountains. He was the most handsome bald man you’d ever seen, with seafoam blue/green eyes, a wide gap between his front two teeth and a year-round tan from afternoons spent working in the garden. And there was that voice.
One news director described the sound of my dad’s voice as “a warm blanket”…and it was.
My dad, with his endearing gap-toothed grin and his deep, soothing voice, graced San Diego airwaves as a T.V. reporter, weatherman and anchor, 5 nights a week for 30 years…that was all until Friday, January 25th, 2013. That night, my dad signed off the same way he usually did: “Thanks for watching everybody, 2 ½ Men is next.” Nobody knew it at the time, but that would be his final TV sign off.
On Sunday night, we rushed my dad down to the ER for some stroke-like symptoms. I remember feeling like I was living my worst nightmare. Being 23 years old, I knew I wasn’t ready to lose my dad.
By Monday, an MRI revealed what endangered every happiness I’d ever known, a lemon-sized tumor in my dad’s brain. He nicknamed it “the blob” and Surgery was scheduled for later that week.
My mom and I did a ton of Googling, studying up on brain tumors, surgeries, the risks and side effects. The more we Googled, the more terrified I became. And until now, I never really comprehended how my mom must’ve felt… she knew a lot more than us kids.
My parents were married on April 4th, 1987. More out of necessity than nostalgia, they had a quiet little ceremony at my mom’s childhood home in North County, San Diego, her own mom in a hospital bed in the living room, on hospice with terminal brain cancer. My grandma, Phyllis Jane, passed away just 2 days after the wedding. She was only 43 years old. My mom was 23.
Our brains are, quite literally, our hard drives, so it goes without saying that there are a ton of risks that go along with brain surgery, some of which can lead to some pretty bizarre side effects. We read that in some cases, after undergoing neurosurgery, patients woke up violently swearing, while others lost their speech entirely. In a few rare cases, patients woke up with something called “foreign accent syndrome,” which is exactly what it sounds like. When my dad heard this, he joked that he was requesting an English accent.
My dad’s “blob” was located in his left frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is said to control the “essence of humanity” including our ability to feel sympathy, empathy and our ability to understand humor, sarcasm, word-plays.
The left lobe, in particular, controls logic, language and, most importantly, speech. Essentially, this “blob” was threatening to take away everything that made my dad…my dad. He called it poetic justice. I couldn’t even pretend to see the justice in it.
My dad went in for surgery on January 31st. The surgeon planned to remove as much of the brain tumor as he could, and determine if it was benign or malignant. If it was malignant, he could have as little as 6 months left.
Almost 8 hours after my dad went into surgery, the neurosurgeon came out, still in scrubs, and he said to us the top 5 things you never want to hear from a doctor ever…all in a row:
1. It’s malignant
2. It’s a very aggressive type of cancer
3. I couldn’t get it all
4. The odds aren’t good
5. Most patients live only about a year
I remember the sound of my mom sobbing. After that, everything went black.
Several hours after that, we were allowed back into my dad’s SICU room to see him. The four of us put on the bravest faces we could muster and went to his bedside. We rubbed his arms and his feet and said “Hi dad.” “Can you hear us?” “How do you feel?”
Fresh out of brain surgery, without skipping a beat, he opened his eyes, smiled and said…“ELLO!!” —
My dad lived exactly 11 months after the diagnosis. And I was lucky enough to spend all 11 months right by his side, doing my best to absorb every ounce of him. My entire life, my dad had been my mentor. I was following in his footsteps, working towards a career in journalism, as he trained me on and off camera, for T.V. news. But it was our love of words that really bonded us. And my dad’s greatest gift to me, was the gift of writing. When he got sick, our relationship with words, and with one another, took on a much greater significance. From his hospital bed we started a blog we called “The Nancarrow Project,” where we adopted a policy of transparency and shared everything as it happened. My dad lost the use of his right hand early on, so I became his hands, typing as his dictated, more eloquently than ever.
As writers, words are our therapy, and with each post, a flood of support would follow as others also shared stories of love and loss, reassuring us that we are not alone. Each comment felt like a bear hug…and my dad hugged back, writing more than 50 blog posts in those 11 short months, garnering more than 20-thousand followers and nearly one million blog views.
During that time, my dad mentally, physically and spiritually transitioned as the disease progressed. He endured countless surgeries, treatments, medications and complications, and with each new phase my dad was changed, but the greatest elements of his personality stayed the same and, in some cases, they were even magnified. He documented his musings of self-discovery on our blog, and, as the months passed, my dad offered up more and more of himself. In his final 11 months, my dad taught me 8 invaluable life lessons I will keep forever. And I want to share those 8 lessons with you tonight…
In February, my dad’s first lesson, was a lesson of laughter. He’d been busting guts for 59 years but, in the face of terminal cancer, I wasn’t sure if he’d retain his sense of humor…and I wouldn’t have blamed him if he hadn’t. But, just hours into his diagnosis, it became obvious that humor was one aspect of his personality that wouldn’t stay the same, it would become literally larger than life.
From the ICU, my dad publicly revealed the news about his tumor in a blog post he personally titled “Tumor Humor.” Of having terminal cancer he wrote, “The doctors tell me I have between 1 and 3 years to live. So boo-hoo, poor me…Having my family and friends around me for the past two days has confirmed that my strength will come from humor—not worry.”
A few days later he was released from the hospital, aware of his predicted “expiration date” (as he called it) and he had big plans. First up, on the way home, before anything else, he wanted a manicure (I told you he wasn’t just any man). He left the nail salon that day, not just manicured, but also with a fresh glossy coat of cobalt blue nail polish.
He wrote on his blog “For the past 40 years I’ve worn a suit and tie and done nothing crazier than to have a “soul patch” for a while. But today, I had my fingernails painted cobalt blue. The barista (or whatever you call her) at the Pannikin said, with genuine sincerity, that she liked them and it made my day. It excites me about the possibilities of tomorrow.”
In March, my dad taught me his 2nd lesson…adventure. Suddenly, life had become time-sensitive, so he went out and lived it with curiosity, fascination and excitement. He told me he was “obsessed with having a good time.” My dad wasn’t allowed to drive because of seizures, but that was lucky for me because it meant that I was guaranteed an invitation to almost every fun activity, even if only as a chauffer.
We went camping and built bonfires, we designed centerpieces and adopted a puppy, we harvested honey from a beehive, planted organic gardens and got lots and lots of mani/pedis. During that time, my dad was childlike with wonderment, and he just radiated positivity and joy.
He wrote: “For me, time just keeps speeding past. I don’t want to miss another sunset, another milestone in my kids’ lives. I’m not pushing for grandkids but I don’t want to miss them if they come. I want to see my boy’s name up in lights and see both my girls achieve all that they dream. It’s weird how time takes on new meaning—and it’s not a bad thing. Suddenly, no moment is wasted and there is no time to dwell on the negative.”
In the Spring, my dad taught me lesson 3…resiliency. He had a second brain surgery in April, and as soon as he was sprung from the hospital, he and my mom took off on a road trip up the California coast. Even though he was sick from the chemo and still recovering from brain surgery, my dad found beauty in every moment. He hardly mentioned the headaches or the crippling nausea, instead he spent his time in awe at the sight of condors in flight and the sounds of the ocean lapping against kelp beds. He wrote: “To me, this is how it feels to be alive.”
My dad’s 4th lesson came in the Summer: passion. He blogged: “One of the lessons I’ve learned in life is that happiness lies in discovering your passions and exploring them fiercely. Wherever they are, whatever they may be, seek out your passions and cultivate them.”
My dad spent July preparing for a big acceptance speech, hopped up on steroids to keep the brain swelling down. He wasn’t much for awards. In fact, he threw away all five of his Emmys. But, I don’t think he’d mind me telling you that he was moved to tears when he learned he was being awarded 2013 Journalist of the Year by his peers at the Society of Professional Journalists.
He blogged: “The award allowed me to sort of design what I’d like to do for the rest of my life. One of the most important things for us is to help with what blindsided me, specifically Brain Cancer. Secondly, I’d like to continue to work on what’s been my life’s passion: conservation and The Ecolife Foundation. Third, working to improve journalism, the profession I love so much.”
It had been a rough few weeks leading up to his speech, and we all held our breath as he walked up to the microphone, sporting a brand-new, custom-tailored suit and what he called his “Bond villain scar” across his still perfectly-tanned bald head. Without a script or even a note card, my dad delivered the most beautifully written speech I’d ever heard. The audience left that night feeling a sense of hope, never believing a man, so eloquent and tenacious, could possibly be dying of brain cancer.
In September, my dad taught me lesson number 5…altruism. Back in the hospital after an array of complications, my dad spent almost 3 weeks in intensive care. Surgeries, sutures, IVs and the continuous sounds of beeping, buzzing and moaning flooded our senses. But my dad was never the kind of guy to throw a pity party, instead, he helped my mom throw a birthday party. I turned 24 on September 15th. My mom stayed up all night decorating the ICU with glittery, hand-painted posters and we “celebrated” with old pictures and memories of easier days. And, even in his dire circumstances, my dad couldn’t help but think of others.
In a post he titled “Reporting Live From Hell,” my dad wrote: “This challenging [hospital] visit has reminded me how real this is, but it has also hardened me for the fight ahead. I don’t have a lot of energy to carry on today, except to say that if you’ve got cancer: DON’T FREAKING GIVE UP.”
He later wrote that he had learned “that it is far better to do good for others, than to do good for oneself.”
And, as always…he was right. —
In the Fall, my dad’s 6th lesson, was a lesson of gratitude. By October, he was having a more difficult time getting around, his breathing had become more labored and he had made the decision to stop treatment. Hospice came on board and the living room was transformed into a hospital room, packed wall-to-wall with a medical bed and an oxygen tank, a wheelchair, a walker and a cane my dad referred to as a “walking stick.” And as we moved into November, our usual holiday decorations were displaced by hoards of latex gloves, pill bottles, syringes, and more gauze than I’d ever seen. You’d suspect that, by this time, anybody else would’ve lost their grit…but not my dad.
Some days, I could’ve sworn I saw a ring of light circled around his head. That’s not to say there wasn’t sadness. There was. A lot. But as Thanksgiving approached, most of the sadness was subdued by an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. On our blog, he wrote: “I’m not sure what life holds for me in the months ahead — but for this Thanksgiving, I’ll be with the most important people in my life and I have plenty of reasons to be thankful.”
In December, my dad taught me lesson 7…to be at peace. Two days after Christmas, my dad wrote his final blog post, titled “Energy.” He wrote: “Now I’ve come to the next road in my journey, where I’m learning acceptance, and to be at peace with the understanding that my time is extremely limited..”
He went on to say “There’s a lot that passes through my mind on these sleepless nights — mostly my family and what comes next. I want to know if Susie, Graham, Hannah and Britta will continue to grow long after all of this. I hope they continue to fight for others’ needs right up until the end of their own needs. I hope they will draw more strength than pain from having experienced this adversity…
I hope that they treasure the importance of each day and are understanding of the fleetingness of life. As for the question of what’s on the other side — truth is, I don’t know. But I believe that life is energy and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change forms. And whatever form I take on next, I just hope my connection to those I love will remain.”
The following day, my dad passed away. I had the privilege, and the heartbreak, of writing a post I never wanted to write: my dad’s eulogy. On his beloved blog, from his beloved laptop, I typed:
“Loren Alan Nancarrow, longtime San Diego TV icon, organic gardener and conservationist, passed away Saturday, December 28, 2013 at the age of 60, following a courageous 11 month battle with brain cancer. Loren is survived by his wife, Susie, their son (Graham, 25), their two daughters (Hannah, 24 and Britta, 20) and the love of an entire city. To his family, his friends and to the San Diegans that love him, he was larger than life…
Loren was a renaissance man, a guys’ guy who was as similar to Bear Grylls, as he was to Martha Stewart. A man who loved getting his hands dirty, as much as he loved arranging a centerpiece. He liked making homemade peanut butter and candles, vanilla extract, beef stroganoff…and did I mention centerpieces?
My dad was a kayaker, an organic gardening guru and a lover of wonderment. He enjoyed Bob Dylan, Jack Daniel’s and hot sake and was an avid collector of walking sticks, beach glass and beautiful german shepherds. My dad knew everything there was to know about citrus trees and roses and tomatoes, raising chickens and earthworms and monarch butterflies. He was a human Pinterest board.
Loren Nancarrow will be remembered as liberal but open-minded, firm but kind, intellectual but hysterical. And he won’t mind me saying, he was a quiet but strong supporter of medical marijuana.
He was proud to be San Diego’s Organic Son.
We love you wonderful dad, husband, friend and hero: You are not gone, just gone ahead. “
It’s been almost 3 months since I lost my dad. When people ask me how I’m holding up, I always smile and tell them “I’m doing really well.” Some people look at me with disbelief, as if they suspect I’m putting on a great big, joyful front to disguise my pain. Others look at me as if I’m cold for feeling happy so soon after losing my dad. But the truth is, I am happy. I feel happy to have known him, I feel happy to have loved him and I feel happy to have his DNA running through my veins every moment of every day.
In those terrifying and harrowing 11 months, my dad and I spent almost all our time together just being happy. We cooked elaborate meals and cared for the roses, we read Dr. Seuss books and trimmed bonsai trees, we listened to music and discussed literature and, towards the end, we pondered what lies beyond this life.
And, my dad’s eighth and final earthly lesson, was a lesson of faith. He taught me to have faith in something more than I can see with my eyes. He taught me to have faith in signs and in energy. He taught me to have faith that we’d see one another again.
While my dad was dying, he taught me the eight lessons I needed to truly live. And living was something my dad had mastered…because his life, was a life well-lived. Because of him, I know laughter and resiliency, adventure and passion, altruism, gratitude, peace and faith. And it goes without saying that, because of him and because of my beautiful and magnanimous mom, I know love. Real, unconditional, everlasting love.
So, thank you for allowing me to stand up here to talk about a man, on a night so deservedly dedicated to women. I wish my dad could’ve been here, in the flesh, tonight. He wanted to be and would’ve been honored to be surrounded by a group as impressive as you, although he’d also be totally fed up with all the crying.
You see, at work and at home, my dad spent most of his time surrounded by women and he could chat it up with the best of us, but even he had his girl-time limits.
On a blog post he called “Girl Talk,” my dad, with his witty and irreverent humor, wrote
“I raise a toast to my girlfriends: Enough already! I love you but I’ve got man stuff to do—rattlesnakes to wrangle, fires to build and facial hair to grow. And I think I’ll watch some baseball. There’s no crying in baseball.”
So, as my dad undoubtedly gets back to doing man stuff in the sky, it’s time for us ladies to get back to doing girl stuff here on Earth. Which, in the case of all the extraordinary women here, means “discovering our passions and exploring them fiercely.” But before we all return to shattering glass ceilings, I want leave you with a Hunter S. Thompson quote my dad lived by during his final 11 months of life, and I hope it will resonate with you the way it did with us:
“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”
Hannah Jane Nancarrow speaking at SD Women’s Week 2014 @ Bernardo Winery