by Jennifer Gelsick
When I was asked to write about my Dad, I struggled with it. I wasn’t sure where I should start. My father, Donald Edward Smitley, was born on April 25, 1956. He was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma on January 30, 2012 and fought as he lived, with faith, grace, and love, until he took his last breath on October 15, 2013 at the age of 57. Mesothelioma ultimately took his life, but it was a beautiful life, and he was so much more than just a disease.
Over these past few months, I’ve been reflecting on what it was like growing up with my Dad. I had told many people that I would have rather had 30 short years with him as my father than 100 with someone else. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. My Dad was the perfect father to me.
Growing up, there aren’t a lot of memories that don’t involve my Dad’s laughter. He had an unfailing knack to make the best of any situation and bring out the best in those around him. People were always drawn to him; he had a magnetic personality that just made people want to be close to him. I was blessed to have him all the time.
Dad was a handyman. He could literally fix anything. In my home, there was never a call to a plumber, contractor, or electrician. Mom and I just told Dad what was broken, and the next thing we knew, it was fixed.
Dad was a musician. He always said he just “played at” the guitar, but he had the most beautiful voice. I remember growing up and sitting with him while he played and sang. He would always sing “You are My Sunshine” to me, and “Rocky Top” became what he called his theme song. Later on, he worked up the courage to begin singing in Church and became a staple at community events; people loved to hear him sing. His love of God and neighbor always shone through. He also joined a bluegrass band called The Dunbar Boys (named after the town where he lived his whole life) and loved being on that stage performing for whomever happened to be around. It didn’t matter if there were 10 people or 300 people there; he always had the best time singing with his friends.
Dad was a special kind of dad. He was fun, goofy, and never afraid to look silly to make me smile. We were watching some home movies over Christmas where Dad and I were walking our dogs. Then, of course, I decided to walk Dad. I put the chain around his waist and dragged him all over the place. Some neighbors who were outside asked him what he was doing and he just laughed and said, “I’m getting walked!” He was constantly doing things like this. When he saw that I was happy, he was happy too.
Even though I danced my whole life, Dad wanted me to try out all different sports. Not necessarily by being on an official team, but with him. We spent hours outside playing baseball, kickball, and throwing a football around. I never exceled at any of these activities, but looking back, he was trying to help me become more well-rounded (or maybe to just be able to play games with the other kids). Plus, he liked chuckling at me when I would kick as hard as I could and miss the ball completely.
We were always going on adventures together. Whether it was taking a ride in the mountains or trying to bake cookies at home, he made even the most seemingly ordinary activity special. My Mom worked late one night a week; I was never in bed on time those nights. It became a game to see if I could get ready and be “asleep” under the covers by the time she got home. We never made it.
You would think that these things would have changed a bit as I got older, but they didn’t. Every Saturday morning was our time. Mom would be at work, and we’d be off. We would go out to breakfast, shopping, up to the mountains, for ice cream, do a project at home, and visit family… all in the same day. Those days are such precious memories for me.
Dad was more than just fun. We always had the kind of relationship where we could talk about anything. Dad gave the greatest advice of all time. No topic was off limits for us: school, work, faith – we discussed it all. He always knew exactly what to say. If he wasn’t sure, he would tell me to let him think about it and he would let me know what he came up with later. And he always did.
The day my Dad passed away, a piece of me went with him, but a piece of him stayed here with me. Even when he felt his worst, he wanted to work to help others battling mesothelioma. He believed that if he could help even one person, then what he was going through was worth it. His faith in God always carried him through.
I am honored to continue to work with the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation as a part of their Rising Leaders Council to help to eradicate this awful disease that causes so many families to be torn apart. I am also a part of MesoConnect, which allows me to remain in close contact with those in the meso community and do my best to help them heal, vent, and grieve. This organization does so much for so many, and my family and I will be forever grateful to them.
I could write a book, or 50, about Dad and his kindness, generosity, and genuine love for life, God, and his family. He was perhaps the single most powerful influence on my life. He didn’t just tell me how to live a good life, he showed me. This is a true testament of the life of the most amazing person I’ve ever known, and I was blessed to be able to call him “Dad.”