My father taught me many lessons. One that still resonates true today is, "Be an engine, not a caboose." Lead the train down the track; don't follow it. It's funny how a few words you hear as a child echo inside you decades later.
My pop was a blue-collar guy from a small steel town in rural Pennsylvania. His dad was an immigrant from Hungary and found work at Crucible Steel in Midland, Pennsylvania. After a brief stint at Crucible himself, and after serving in the Army, he chose a career as a heating and air conditioning installer. His was a hardscrabble upbringing.
I worked with my dad for a couple of summers once we moved to California and I found it unbearable. He climbed up into attics and down into crawl spaces beneath houses to do the job. For as much as he had to get out and work, it was hard to get him out of the house to do much beyond that. When he did go out -- basically pried to do so by my mom, and later my stepmom -- he was the life of the party. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone that didn't love my dad. As a young little trouble maker, running around at 4th of July carnivals in Midland, folks would ask, "Hey, are you Jimmy Joe Toth's kid?" and I was proud to say, "Yes." I never told him that.
One of the last times I remember him "getting out of the house" was for my birthday BBQ that a friend graciously hosted. True to form, my dad was one of the last remaining at the party. The host commented that he looked great for a 66-year-old man. When asked how he felt, my father said, "Great," without pause.
Little did I know that four weeks later he would be diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer that had spread to his other vital organs. I remember the phone call vividly.
"Well, Kid, it's pretty bad. I have lung cancer and it's not looking too good." He didn't give me a lot beyond that, and to be honest, I didn't need it.
At that point, my career seemed to be getting on track. Blessed to work at a company that afforded many connections, I naively thought that I could control the situation. I have to add that I work with extremely generous people that put a great value in taking care of each other in times of need. That said, I still felt like I was trying to summit Mount Everest without a guide, nor the right equipment.
Navigating doctors and getting him to specialists in the middle of August when it seemed like everyone in the world was on vacation, including oncologists, was maddening. This was my dad and his life depended on me. I did my best to take charge and find a way. To this day, I wonder if I did enough. A control freak by nature, I delved into this situation as strategically and surgically as possible. That's the only path I knew. Therein lied the big lesson: You're not in control of anything. Life is bigger than you and sometimes cancer happens... even to your heroes... even to your dad.
We never had any bright spots in response to treatment. I wish I could tell you that my father was heroic during this time, but he went into a pretty stiff depression, as many men of his age do when facing this diagnosis. I admit that I question how I handled myself during this time. Was I selfish in my own grief? If I could go back in time I wish we were both stronger and fought harder. I get frustrated with him about it to this day and I truly look in the mirror and wonder if I could have done more -- could I have stepped up and have been a better son? I realize now that the enormity of this reality eclipsed both of us.
Six months in, he started slipping, and it just went from there. Within eight months, my Pop passed away. I'll never forget those days and what is was like watching him suffer the fate of this disease. Putting it that way seems trivial to some extent, but I cannot find words to define those moments.
I know my Dad was proud of me. He made a point to tell me as much and he always told me that he loved me. He also kept me grounded in my roots and never let me get a big head. It truly breaks my heart that he'll never meet my lovely wife, my two amazing stepchildren or my little son. I spent my whole life trying to impress this man and I never got to share what I cherish most with him -- literally the best version of myself as a husband and father.
Earlier this year, I decided I wanted to find a way to fight back. I became involved with The Entertainment Industry Foundation and its Stand Up To Cancer initiative. There are a lot of remarkable cancer organizations out there doing incredible work.
What impressed me about Stand Up To Cancer was their collaborative, innovative approach to cancer research. They are working to be the engine in the fight against this disease.
Through SU2C, I was proud to establish the Jim Toth Sr. Breakthrough Lung Cancer Research Award to help those directly afflicted by the disease that took my father's life. We've lost too many great men, women and children to cancer. It is going to take a massive movement to eradicate a disease that takes the lives of 310,000 men each year, many of whom are fathers.
For anyone missing their dad this Father's Day, my heart is with you. I know what that loss feels like, especially today. For those of you blessed with a loving father in your life, here's my advice -- spend as much time with your dad as possible. You'd be surprised how much getting him out of the house might mean to you one day.
Launch a star in memory of someone you love at su2c.org.