“I want pancakes for breakfast,” my dad said as he sat at the kitchen table, setting up his placemat, looking up at me expectantly. We were in my childhood home in King City, Missouri, a town of just over 1,000. A town that shaped me, but not nearly as much as the man in front of me had.
My father was the strongest person I’d ever known: a combat helicopter pilot, a judge, a Two-Star General, a leader in the community, a loving husband, the best dad, and my go-toperson and role model since day one. This same man was diagnosed with Agent Orange–related throat cancer in 2008, and on that late-summer morning ten years later, he was home on hospice with oxygen and a feeding tube. He’d literally gone to war once in his life before, and now his final battle was almost over.
Before he got really sick, my dad was known to inject coffee into his feeding tube. I have a picture of him with the coffee and a wry smile. I even saw him put some alcohol
in one time. I figured, Have whatever you want, buddy. You earned it.
But those times had passed, and his condition had worsened. It was shattering watching my dad’s physical decline, especially depending on how he was feeling. He was used to being the go-to person and taking care of everyone else, so it was hard for him to ask for help. My dad and I related and worked together well for his care because I thought about what I would want in his situation to preserve my dignity and independence. I talked to him like a person and explained how allowing help for himself also helped give my mom peace of mind and prevent her feeling guilty if hegot hurt, which made sense to him. If we miscalculated the risk, it would affect others, not just him. That says something about his character: he was thinking of others, even as his own clock was winding down.
Because of the tumor growing and subsequent feeding tube, on that morning, pancakes were definitely out of the question. He’d had that tube for over a year, and he’d never once complained about not being able to eat. Occasionally, he’d say something smelled good, but that was it. He was usually content holding my baby niece Josie, or JT as he liked to call her, during meals. And we had the process down to a system: he liked the formula for the tube heated up for exactly fourteen seconds. Feeding tube formula is essentially a protein shake like Ensure. There’s a tube down the throat into the stomach. You fill a 50 cc syringe with the formula and then inject it through a connector to the tube. The liquid goes straight to the stomach, which is why my dad always wanted it heated up. It upset his stomach if it was cold.
After my dad was on hospice, our family had a rule: if you got up in the middle of the night, no matter the reason, you had to check on him. He was on oxygen, and he’d move
during his sleep and frequently his nasal cannula would come out. We took turns making sure he was getting enough oxygen and adjusting if needed. If his oxygen level became too low, he could become foggy and confused.
That’s why that morning, he asked for pancakes despite the feeding tube. He was oxygen deprived.
In his clear mind, he understood that if he choked, we’d be done. When we signed up for hospice, he also signed a DNR—do not resuscitate. We all knew that. That’s why I’d moved home from Queens in NYC for basically the entire summer when that time had come…to help my family care for him. To soak up every last second I could get with my dad.
My dad and I were always the type A’s in our family, scheduled, regimented people, which I brought with me when I moved back to Missouri for those months he was on hospice. I’d wake up at 5:00 a.m. every morning to go to the gym to do my Dutch Kills CrossFit workout that my coach Dom had posted the night before. Disaster could strike at any time during the day, but at least I would have had an hour for myself. I’d check on him and make sure his oxygen was in place before I left. Then, I’d walk the block to the gym in my hometown, work out, walk back, check on him again, and take a shower. Around then, he’d start to stir. I’d help him with his tube feedings and then get him in his chair, which is where he’d be for the day. I’d get my laptop and work at the coffee table all day, so I was available to help him if he needed anything.
That morning, I came downstairs from that shower when I saw him there, asking for the pancakes. He’d beat me to the table that day.
“Dad, there’s nothing more I want to do in this world than give you pancakes, but you know you can’t have them,”I said. I meant it too. He never complained or made any
requests, so it just broke my heart that I couldn’t give him the one thing he wanted. “If you choke, we’re done. And I don’t think we’re ready to be done yet.”
“Oh yes I can have them,” he said. “Matt said I could.”
Matt, my brother, is a nurse, and he was a huge part of the team taking care of my father. He wasn’t there that morning, though, and I knew he didn’t give that kind of
“Stay there at the table,” I told Dad. “Let me see what I can do.”
I walked over to the microwave and heated up his formula. Fourteen seconds, on the dot. Then, I sat it down in front of him on the placemat, in between the silverware he’d so neatly set up.
“That’s your syrup,” I told him, trying to keep my voice direct and playful in a way that was always “our way.” But maybe it cracked just a little.
I could tell his oxygen levels were improving, and he understood.
He stared up at me then, looking resigned and tired. But his eyes still crinkled with the signs of a smile.
A little over a month later, on August 22nd, 2018, Dad would be done fighting.
Toward the end, Dad was suffering so much that I’d say a prayer when I entered his room that he’d be asleep and gone. He wasn’t himself anymore. Then, sometimes he’d
have some decent days where his oxygen was up and he was a little more interactive. His last “excursion” was to his brother’s funeral three weeks before his own passing. It was good for his nieces and nephews to see him. We didn’t know if it was safe to let him attend, but the service was for his brother, and they’d been extremely close.
I wasn’t able to give him the pancakes he wanted that day, but what I can do is make damn sure his memory lives on. That’s why you’re reading this book.
When I came back to New York after my dad passed, I remember sitting in the airport and coming across a quote that would be meaningful later: “Trust the wait. Embrace
the uncertainty. Enjoy the beauty of becoming. When nothing is certain, anything is possible.” Later in this book—which contains vignettes, advice, and lessons from my father and many other influential people in my life, little stories and scenes that have stuck with me through all my years that I believe can add some value to yours—I’ll share the airport story with you.
I have shared the pancake story with many people because I know the message goes beyond what happened at that kitchen table. I want people to know it’s the little things in life that make a huge impact. Take the time to enjoy little things, like pancakes, that you take for granted. Someday, you may not be able to. It’s a simple message to hear, but it’s a hard one to internalize, especially in our busy lives.
When I arrived back in NYC, I took a day off of work, and my husband suggested we go get some pancakes. He snapped a photo, and I posted it with the story. This is where #PancakesForRoger started.
Over the next few months, I started receiving pictures from people who said they’d had pancakes and thought about my dad. I still get text messages saying people can’t have pancakes without thinking about him. His birthday is February 22nd, so the first one after he passed, I decided we could use #PancakesForRoger to help get some recognition for the University of Missouri School of Law Veterans Clinic, which trains law students to help veterans and their families navigate the complex VA claims system and essentially builds a network of ambassadors for veterans across the US.
The mission of the Veterans Clinic is important to our country for obvious reasons. Those who have given all deserve to be taken care of. In a time of increasing divisiveness in our country, I don’t know anyone who would argue that simple fact. And the Veterans Clinic helps people do that. Besides that, the mission is important to me and my family on a personal level. Before my dad went to Vietnam, he had completed a semester of law school. Because he had a BS, he was able to go through Officer Candidates School (OCS) and start his military career as a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps and a combat helicopter pilot. My mom didn’t want to be an active duty military wife, so he went on reserve duty and resumed law school.
Though he was actually activated to be deployed during Desert Storm, the Air Force deemed it more important for him to be home during that time because my brother had
cancer*—another story I’ll share with you in this book, also filled with lessons. Just because he didn’t redeploy didn’t mean Dad stopped caring. He still liked to go visit
the veterans. He was also quick to point out that people were patriotic and pro-military during Desert Storm, but many Vietnam veterans did not have a good homecoming.
In the 1990s, people tied yellow ribbons around trees in their front yards. But when Dad came home, veterans like him got spat on.
Dad often shared that he would go register for classes in a wig to cover up the military crew cut because he didn’t want to be heckled. In law school, he found more of his tribe, being surrounded by classmates and professors who also served. He talked about their gatherings with pizza, beer, and war stories. He valued those peer-to-peer mentors who had experienced similar journeys.
My brother, Mom, and I agreed that Dad would want people to make donations to the Veterans Clinic in lieu of sending flowers after his passing. Our family became integrated into that system for that and another big reason. My dad lived below his means—another thing he taught me that I’ll share with you later—so there was enough money to provide for my mother and to set up an endowment scholarship for veterans who want to go to the University of Missouri School of Law. The first recipient, Alex, is in his final year at the time of this writing, and he’s currently in the National Guard. He also works at the Veterans Clinic. That personal connection has been great for us. We met him for the first time at a #PancakesForRoger breakfast at the University of Missouri, and I’ll never forget it.
People have been after me to write a book for a while because I so often share my “dadisms,” so I thought there was no better way to honor my dad and help veterans than
by writing Pancakes for Roger and donating part of the proceeds to the Veterans Clinic to help further their mission to help veterans and their families navigate the VA system and appeals process. This work is particularly important because VA claims take, on average, seven years to process. I don’t need to tell you that is unacceptable.
My dad’s claim took three years, which we thought was a long time…but the clinic thought his experience was incredible. As I mentioned, he was both a Two-Star General and a judge, so he knew how to write and advocate for himself. One in fourteen of our veterans actually pass away during the process, waiting for what is owed to them. By helping the Veterans Clinic, we are paying tribute to my dad while also helping others benefit from his knowledge and experience. That little oxygen-deprived moment over pancakes had a ripple effect we couldn’t have realized at the time.
I own an insurance brokerage in New York, and my company now aligns with a charity every year. In February, we encourage people to go have pancakes and post a picture with the hashtag. For every picture posted, we donate to the Veterans Clinic. The first time, we threw the idea together and received about 100 pictures. Since then, the tradition has taken off, and it’s been really fun. Kids get involved, and this past year, people in all fifty states and fourteen different countries participated. People in the
military, veterans, the American Legion, and others have pancake breakfasts now. The first year we saw maybe a couple hundred pictures across our social media platforms, but this past year, there were more than 1,000. We gave awards for the most creative pancake, the school spirit pancake, and other contributions. It’s great and feels like part of his legacy.
Pancakes have become a special ritual for my family too. We’ll eat them in his memory. He had two funerals, one at our local funeral home and one at Arlington National
Cemetery, and after his full military service at Arlington, we invited our close family and friend circles to come to the house we rented the following morning for a big pancake breakfast. Those rituals are particularly important to me living in New York City, since my in-laws are here but not my immediate family. I want to hold on to the traditions and rituals that remind me of my family and of growing up.
So many people tell me they had pancakes and thought about my dad, and I can’t tell you how much those stories make me smile. People tell me how he helped them or share other stories about him, and it helps keep me going.
*A portion of the proceeds from the sale of this book benefits the University of Missouri School of Law Veterans Clinic to further their mission to help veterans and their families navigate the VA claims and appeals process.