What makes a hero?
According to Philosopher and Scholar Joseph Campbell, a hero is an archetypal figure who takes a journey from his or her ordinary world, goes out on an adventure, through a decisive crisis wins a victory, then returns home transformed with gained wisdom to offer others. This podcast features inspiring stories of real people on The Hero’s Journey and the pivotal moments that changed the course of their lives forever.
We don't sweat things, we don't get angry, we don't get worried about what's going on the world, because we've experienced the worst. So everything else isn't so bad. I'm not happy about the journey we had to go through but I really believe we're better people for the journey that we went through.
If you heard my very first episode in Season One with Lisa DeLong, then you’re going to be amazed and delighted to hear this guest: the man who walks beside her in the journey of life. Dave DeLong joined me live to share HIS powerful and unique perspective on the story of their family, moving through multiple tragedies and traumas, into insight, perspective and wisdom. I’m so grateful that he was willing to share from his heart. Let it inspire you to allow the challenges of your life to shape you into a better version of yourself. I’m Belinda Lams and this is The Moment When…
Dave DeLong has been teaching high school algebra and coaching track and cross-country for over 35 years while living in Southern California. He has coached his teams to over 70 league, CIF and state championships as well as guiding many nationally ranked athletes. Dave was voted Teacher of the Year at Canyon High School in 2008. And he’s been married to his high school sweetheart for over 35 years and is the father of four children; Justin, Jessica, JoJo, and Jacob.
I always start every show so far with saying how do we know each other? So how do we know each other Dave?
Well, if my memory serves me right, we went to the same church in Santa Clarita for a while. And my child had leukemia. And then, a few years later, your child was diagnosed with cancer. And I remember you talking to us about that and we had that similarity. And, and I remember Justin talking to your daughter about that, “You'll be okay, it's not that bad,” and that kind of thing, and encouraging her.
Oh. That is so sweet. Well I am so glad that you’re here, and that you’re willing to share this journey. So let’s dive right in. Tell me about your ordinary world before your life changed.
Well, as a young man, I kind of had the perfect life. I was a very good student, a star athlete, graduated from college with honors, married my high school sweetheart, the love of my life. Right out of college I was chosen to carry the American flag in the ‘84 Olympics in LA. We bought our first little home. I got my dream job of a teacher and a coach. Um, we had this wonderful newborn boy named Justin that slept well, ate well, could sit still, didn't cry very much. And everyone we knew would say, “How’d you get so lucky?” And we were living this wonderful, perfect life.
I was a man of faith. I prayed a lot. I volunteered. We went to church every Sunday. I had this strong belief in the traditional Christian belief system. And I really felt like this is what I deserved and this was my reward for living that kind of life.
Dave got his call to adventure with 3 distinct threats to his perfect world. The first came when 5 year-old Justin was given a shocking diagnosis.
The word leukemia, you kind of think, I'm gonna lose my child. But you know, as we went through the process, they assured us that if your kid's going to have cancer, this is the kind of cancer you want them to have. The survival rate was pretty high around 75% and we were sure that we were going to be one of those 75. We lived a good life and did the right things and so therefore it was all going to be okay.
And even though he went through three and a half years of chemo, he sailed through it pretty easily. He didn't have any of the side effects the doctors said that he would have. We spent basically no time in the hospital, other than clinic appointments.
So after the first year, life went back to pretty much normal and went back to being pretty much wonderful. We had added a couple more children, a couple of daughters and they were doing really well.
You know, at the end of it, we all said, “You know what? We're better people because of what we went through.” We appreciated our kids more. We appreciated each other. We appreciated life. We appreciated our faith because we believed that's what brought us through what we had to go through.
The threat had passed. The lessons were learned. With cancer many years behind them the DeLong family thrived once more. Justin now a healthy 14 year old, followed in his father’s footsteps by running track. Dave and Lisa added another son to the tribe named Jacob. With 2 boys and 2 girls, their perfect world had reformed and then the 2ndthreat came. This time more alarming than the first.
He relapsed all of a sudden. And the world kind of came crashing down because we knew that if it came back with all that treatment that he had, that this leukemia was going to come back chemo intolerant. And that it was going to be quite a battle.
When he went through the illness the first time, I was immature, scared of the whole thing. The way I was going to handle his illness, was I'm, you know, I’m going to go to work, I'm going to do everything I can as a husband and a father, keep you know, food on the table, a roof over our head. But Lisa's in charge of dealing with the illness, going to the clinic appointments, because she was the nurse. I do what I kind of do in a situation like that, I bury myself into work and staying busy. But the second time through, I was you know, nine years older and wiser and we had an infant at home. She couldn't be running around and doing clinic appointments every day and spending ten hours a day away from home.
So Dave stepped out of his background supportive role and became the primary caregiver for Justin; driving him to clinic appointments and staying overnight with him in the hospital. What happened during the next 5 months was something that Dave did not expect.
You know, there was a lot of time to talk and there's a lot of time to play cards and games and watch movies and read books. And we did all of those things a lot. And it was this uninterrupted time that we spent, like 10 hours a day. And we began to develop this real closeness or bond or friendship that was really great. But it was like a two-edged sword. He'd become my best friend. I was his best friend. But we're in a journey of losing him.
And uh, the, the last few moments before he was intubated and we knew that it was the matter of time, the doctor said, “You know, you need to kind of say your last words because once we intubate him he’s not going to be able talk to you.” I went in the hospital room and you know, and I kind of stroked his forehead and his hair and I said, you know, “Big guy, I love ya. I'm really proud of you for this fight you've done.” And he said, “Papa don't worry, it's not that bad. I love you too and you're my best friend.”
So we did the memorial and we set the stage up on the finish line of the track. And so, at his memorial, the last thing I said is I looked up at the sky and said, “JD, I'll see you at the finish line.” And so I had that put on my, on my arm as a tattoo.
Life as Dave knew it was over. There was no going back to the perfect world. He had now crossed the threshold into the unknown.
You know, I was always a guy that had to know what was going to happen tomorrow. So I tried to be that way, tried to prepare myself and get ready for that moment. And then when that moment happened, instantly I knew that there was no way I was ever going to prepare. Because as a parent, you can't fathom what it's like to lose a child. You can't even come close. Because until it happens, you realize that there's no preparation for it.
I really struggled with how hard it was and how difficult it was to now all of a sudden be without him. And you almost walk out of that hospital the day that they die, and you look up in the sky and you say, “What do I do now?” Because your whole life was spent on that sole purpose of keeping him alive and nothing else. You know, work didn't matter. You know, life didn't matter. It was all just how can I spend the time the most with him and make it the best and try to keep him alive. And then instantly it ends. And so you feel almost purposeless. You almost have to kind of reinvent why you're here.
Stripped to the core, Dave yearned for comfort and help with this pain and emptiness. Reading books and attending grief groups seemed to help Lisa, but Dave wasn’t really interested. He had to figure out his own path to healing.
My team had a lot of kids on it who were his best friends. Because he was a runner, a lot of his best friends were runners. That gave me some comfort to know that I was coaching them and I was being close with his close friends.
I did read a few books, didn't like them because I didn't feel they were ever being honest. I remember just throwing the book across the room and saying, “You're wasting my time because you're not telling me what it's really like. It's really bad and you're not telling me that it is.”
People try to make grief more than it is. To me, it was really simple. It was I missed him. I loved every minute that I was with him and I no longer had that anymore at all. That was my grief, just missing him. And it's hard when you love a human being that much.
In the Hero’s Journey, the Hero meets a mentor who helps him navigate the new world. One of Dave’s mentors was a fellow Teacher and Coach who had also lost his son about 15 years prior to Justin’s death He seemed to be well adjusted so Dave thought if anyone could help him through this process, it would be this man.
He said, “Dave, it's, it’s like having a thousand pounds on top of your chest and then each day, one pound is taken off. You don't notice the one pound because you still have 999 pounds on your chest. And it's this weight of grief and sorrow and sadness.” And then he says, “But one pound each day comes off. You don't notice but through a year, you feel a little lighter and then two years, a little lighter, and three years a little lighter. There might be a hundred pounds that stays on your chest, but it's not the thousand pounds that was there at the beginning.” That I could grasp, that I could understand as a man. And I said, “Okay I think I can deal with that.
Dave had another mentor as well. She was the loving presence who had faithfully journeyed by his side the entire time; his perceptive wife Lisa.
We started doing a lot of walking together. It's almost like a time of meditation where you get away from all the distractions and you just walk and talk about whatever pops in your head. About what happened that day. You know, what funny things the kids did. And that really helped. And as she started to heal and I could see her being happy again and I could see her wanting to help other people that had gone through or were going through the same things we were going through, it kind of gave me the okay that I could be okay, that I could begin to feel happy, that I could begin to feel feelings for other people rather than just myself. I know she's a very wise person and is full of intuition and I've kind of known to follow that.
I took my cues from her and that helped because when is it okay to be okay? When is it okay to laugh again and, and feel a little bit normal? And you don't know. (Laugh) So I used my wife as the person that let me know it was okay because I knew she was feeling the same way I was.
I’m Belinda Lams and this is The Moment When…Today we’re talking with Dave DeLong about the pain of losing his son and his heartfelt search to find his way through the grief… His story continues.
Some years had rolled by and life began to feel a bit more normal without Justin. Then, one day, Jacob, now 6, had developed some flu symptoms. Lisa had a funny feeling and insisted that he get a blood test. The 3rd threat arrived when the Pediatrician phoned Dave with some disheartening news.
She says, “Dave, I know what you guys have been through and I'm really sorry to tell you this but we believe that Jacob has leukemia.” This whole feeling of we can't do this again, there's got to be a mistake. It's really mono or some kind of immune system problem but not leukemia.So we pull ourselves together and off to the hospital and they do further bone marrow tests and sure enough, it's the same exact leukemia that Justin had had. And this time, going through the illness and the treatments was so much harder than the first time because we knew what could happen. We knew what we were facing and the possibility of losing another child and thinking, there is no way we can do this again. It seemed as though we spent our life living over a trapdoor and we didn't know when it was going to open. Our whole world was going to cave in.
It put us in a tailspin and it was very hard to do anything; hard to work, hard to coach, hard to be a husband, hard to be dad. You're so fearful now of feeling that feeling again.
Well-rehearsed from years of experience with Justin, Dave knew the drill. He buckled up and took Jacob to his treatments. But things didn’t go as smoothly as Justin’s first years of chemotherapy. Jacob had numerous complications and eventually developed a life-threatening side effect called VOD. His kidneys began to shut down and things were looking very grim. The doctor pulled them in his office with this warning:
“You need to be ready to say your goodbyes. If this doesn't reverse in the next few hours, we're going to lose him. He needs to start peeing and his kidneys need to be to be reversing and doing their job, otherwise he's going to drown in his own fluid because he won't be able to breathe. And we can't operate or get the fluid out because he'll bleed out because he had no platelets. So he said, “There's nothing we can do other than it has to happen naturally.”
He basically said we're hoping for a miracle. His words were, “We keep our fingers crossed.” Now that affected me very much because we had you know, maybe the greatest cancer doctor in all of the country for kids and all he could offer us was keep your fingers crossed. (Laugh) So I turned to God and said, “You got to offer me more than that. It can't be a matter of luck. You've got to step in and help somehow.”
And right about midnight, he woke up and said, “Papa, I got to pee.” You know, I grabbed the urinal as fast as I could and he peed in the urinal. And then 20 minutes later I need to pee again. 20 minutes later I need to pee again and again and again and again. I remember the first time he filled the urinal up and holding it up to Lisa and saying, “This was liquid gold baby” (Laugh) because we knew that that was what he had to do in order for him to survive. The next morning, they took chest x-rays and the x-ray guy came in said, “We think we messed up because this couldn't possibly be the same child we x-rayed the day before.” And they said, “This is nothing short of a miracle.”
The “moment when” reveals itself in very unique ways for each Hero. Drained and exhausted from the long and emotional years of trying to save his kids, Dave came face to face with his very personal pivotal moment.
One way that I dealt with my grief was that I, I kind of turned to food; eating whatever I wanted, not really caring maybe because you've lost your child, so you’ve lost a little bit of your own will to live and maybe live the best you can. Food seemed to be the thing that comforted me. And so I gained a fair amount of weight, maybe 70, 80 pounds and I developed diabetes. I knew the symptoms, a lot of family members had had it.
And I knew it was time to say, “Dave, it's time to grow up and get over this and get on with life and stop treating yourself this way.” So I think the diabetes because it scared me about shortening my own life, about living a quality of health that I wanted, that was kind of a pivotal moment right there where I needed a kind of say, “Enough is enough Dave and you need to worry about you now and take care of you so that you're gonna be here for your family.”
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Today we’re exploring how caring for others includes caring for yourself as well…with my guest Dave DeLong.
Dave took the road back to his ordinary world, transformed by the journey through grief. He shared how it impacted his spirituality, his marriage and family.
Your idea of God changes dramatically from this fairy godfather/mother that takes care of their own to what the hell are you doing? How could you allow this to happen to us and me? So my discussions with God very much changed. I don't know what you're doing, why you did this. All I can do is keep having faith and you’ll pull me or direct me in the direction I should go.
I think anybody that experiences the loss of a child is going to come out the other end different with some questions and with some belief differences than what they did going in. I don't know how you cannot. I'm very much more realistic now and have a much better grasp of my relationship with God, rather than this guy that takes care of me because I do the right things.
I get that. How has the loss of Justin impacted your relationship with the rest of your children?
One of the things that was really difficult for me to deal with, with Jacob when he got sick and had the possibility of losing him: I can subconsciously feel that I've kept him at a distance at times, not wanting to be close in case I lose him, because I don't want to feel that same pain that I felt with Justin. To this day it's something that I have to battle. And I don't like myself because of that. It's not something I wanted, but it was something that I know that at times, I have done.
It's getting better with time. I'm closer with my kids I think than I've been maybe ever. Now, that they're older we've had a lot of tender moments and some good times and because we're away, when we do see each other, it's very special.
None of our kids would say, you know, “I don't have a good relationship with my dad.” But is it as good as it could have been? I'm not sure. I’m not that I can answer that question.
It's like your heart is protected in some way and you know it and you're trying to open it But the fact that you can see it and talk about it you know, it's part of the healing.
So, I know that when Jeff and I went through losing a child and we were told by doctors that, not even losing a child, just going through treatment, going through the whole cancer experience, we were told that people often lose their marriages. And that, you want to turn on each other and all these horrible things that can happen and we thought we are not going to be those people.But some people don't make it. So I want to hear about your experience with Lisa and how you guys have navigated that.
You know, we didn't have a plan because how do you plan when you lose a child? A lot of people lose their marriage and we knew that but we really didn't talk about it much. You know, I talked about my wife being very wise and having a lot of really good intuition. And the one thing I can take credit for is listening to her wisdom and her intuitions and not really knowing myself what to do, but taking the cues from her and having her help me.
And the walks we went on I think had a really huge part of our healing together. We had a lot of really deep conversations. We did one thing and again it was her that we agreed to let each other grieve in the way we wanted to and not try to control it. Why aren't you feeling this way? Why aren't you feeling that way? I feel this way. How come you're not? We didn't do that to each other. We let each other do what each other needed to do in order to heal and we didn't judge each other or have any kind of bitterness. We understood that people grieve differently and we let it happen naturally.
Marriage can be like walking a tightrope a little bit. It can kind of teeter one way or the other in the hard times of your marriage. But it definitely felt that way during that time. I thought a lot about why is it that couples break up? And I have my own conclusion, that they want to start over, like hit the reset button because the grief is so bad, the pain is so bad. You're the reminder of it. Every day that you spend together, you grieve together so you never get away from it. So by splitting up and starting over in your life, you have a chance to get away from that grief and start the life over, run away from it in a sense.
After Justin died, my wife said I want to move. I'm the one home every day walking by his room, I don't want to be reminded. I want a start-over. I want a new house with our new family. And we all like, Why do you want to leave the house that Justin grew up in? You crazy?But again, I knew enough to follow her intuitions and her wisdom.
Grudgingly, the family — the kids — followed her. It was a very good distraction. It was like starting over. It gave us that feeling that this is our new family and our new beginning. And this is how it's going to be rather than living in the past, we moved to the future. And I think that helped our marriage because rather than running away from each other, we ran away together. And I'm here to tell you right now I'm absolutely in love with that woman more so than I've ever been. I am very happy that I didn't decide to do something that I would have regretted.
Not only did Dave’s relationships shift, but so did his priorities. This awareness was highlighted while on a trip to Mammoth when he received a potentially frightening phone call from the neighbors back home.
“Your house is burning, you're losing it.” We were about to lose everything that we owned. My wife and I did what we normally do, we go for a walk and we had a discussion. And I remember her saying to me, “Do you feel a sense of loss?” And I said, “Not really. Is that strange?” And she said, “I don't either.” And we started to ask this question like why don't we feel like most people feel when their life is about to burn up? And we said, “It's because we've experienced the worst thing a person can experience and losing stuff isn’t that big a deal. We can replace the stuff probably with better stuff.”
It was very eye-opening for both of us how far our life had come and we really had our lives in good perspectives because we don't sweat things. We don't get angry. We don't get worried about what's going on in the world, because we've experienced the worst. So everything else isn't so bad. I'm not happy about the journey we had to go through but I really believe we're better people for the journey that we went through.
It's one thing to have one devastation. It's another thing to have another devastation that you can make up in your head that wouldn't happen again and it did. So how do you find yourself today when you imagine going through the rest of your life with that knowledge?
What the future holds we just don't know. You know that it can turn in a second. So we try to live in the moment, be happy with what you have and I'm really excited about that. I'm excited about my life with my wife and our journey together. We both live our lives where what brings us happiness is really important. And so, I only see more of that in my future, but you just don't know.
Now, it's been about 12 years for Jacob. We're beginning to get in that mode of you know, life as normal, we don't think about it much. When he gets a cold, we get a little nervous. You know, I think we'll be that way till he’s you know, when he's 45. But so far so good. We very much enjoyed him and hope that we have many more years with him.
The Hero’s Journey isn’t complete until the Hero brings home the elixir to offer others. Here’s what Dave brings back.
When your life is perfect, it's easy to look at other people whose life isn't going well and say, “This is your fault. You don't have control like I have.” And then when you lose control of your life, you realize that it's not always the decisions you make but what happens to you. And it's developed definitely more empathy for me and understanding and I'm more loving and caring about people and not so hard and not so dogmatic about life as I used to be. It softens you to go through this. And uh, being a softer person isn't so bad.
I offered Dave a few words about what I see in him.
I want to say I'm really proud of you. I'm really proud of the way that you have allowed this to shape you; that you're tender hearted, that you're strong at the same time, that you're honest and that you chose life for yourself. And all the things that were against you, against those decisions; the pressures and the circumstances that, people might make the other choice, you have chosen towalk through. And that's so hopeful to me to see somebody that went all the way through and got to the other side and can stand there and say “Yes, I'm not in that place I was. I broke through.”
Dave plans to retire in about three years. He continues to enjoy his life in California with Lisa and visiting his three children in Oregon. You can check out themomentwhen.me to see the photo of Dave’s tattoo as well as listen to all the other episodes.
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