How to be a good dad in the face of tragedy.

by Nathan Sexton, VP of Special Ops

It seems like yesterday that my wife, Elizabeth, and I signed our first mortgage. We were just a few months away from having our son, Jack. Adding to the insanity, I had recently switched jobs to work at a budding startup called Bellhops, which meant I’d taken a voluntary 50% pay cut. It was a leap of faith.

Elizabeth and me.

Then came Jack…

Jack’s first photo op.

He was a hefty 8 pounds, 15 ounces. I had no idea what to do with him. I was less of a “read the parenting books” kind of guy and more of an “I’m sure I’ll figure it out” kind of guy. And then I had to change his first diaper. My wife was lying in her hospital bed, laughing as I struggled. “I think I’m hurting him! He keeps screaming every time I touch him!”

Months passed and things seemed too good to be true…at work. I was Vice President of Operations. We’d raised our first round of venture capital funding. I kept telling my wife, “Just give it another three years with my nose to the grindstone, and I promise I will be a better husband and Dad.” I was working 60+ hours every week. Truth be told, I don’t think I had the ability then to turn off the “go” switch. It’s how I’m wired. But whether I thought it would take three years, five years or ten years to build the business, I should’ve realized that family was the most important thing in my life.

The first day in our posh new office space, a huge milestone for the company, I collapsed and had three seizures. I don’t remember any of it, except that I woke up in the hospital with a nurse telling me I had a cancerous tumor in my brain. I didn’t believe her, but it was true.

We had the baseball-sized tumor removed on June 19, 2015, resecting all the visible portions of it. A week later, the diagnosis wasn’t what we hoped: Grade 4 Glioblastoma. The worst kind of brain tumor. Fifteen months to live. I was neurologically healthy after the surgery and I was young, so my life expectancy was 24 months. Still, when someone tells you that you have two years at best to live, it changes your priorities. I realized how much I had neglected my family. I wasn’t the husband I wanted to be for Elizabeth nor the father I wanted to be for Jack.

Since the diagnosis, my priorities have completely shifted. Elizabeth and I have come to accept that whatever happens to us is meant to be. We trust God fully. As I sit here and type this at University of Alabama at Birmingham, we recently found out the tumor has grown back, which means all the radiation and chemo didn’t work. We are here to begin a Phase 1 clinical trial to hopefully make progress in finding a cure for this horrible disease.

Which brings me back to Jack.

It has been amazing to see him grow up. To actually see him, not just hear about it from my wife like I used to. He’s two-and-a-half now and I’m starting to see my influence on him. He wants to be “fast like daddy,” as he has witnessed me running a few races recently. He is super interested in music, and since I play the guitar, he wants to play the guitar: “Daddy play guitar! Daddy play guitar!” He likes for me to play it, and then he goes and gets his Mickey Mouse ukulele and strums along as I play.

Jack playing his Mickey Mouse ukulele.

I have to admit, I have quite the running shoe collection (it drives my wife insane), and it is something Jack has grown to love, too. He is always putting on my shoes and saying, “Wow! Now, I am fast like Daddy!”

Jack’s first trail run!

His personality is like mine, but he looks like his mom. I can already tell he’s going to be a handful, and he is all boy. He loves pretty much anything with wheels: dump trucks, excavators (I was unaware that’s what they were called until Jack informed me), racing cars. He also has a talent for skinning his knees.

Jack and his skinned knees.

I don’t regret having the tumor or the short life expectancy that comes with it. If it brings others inspiration, positivity and a stronger faith, I’ve done my job here on Earth. Even though I may not be able to see Jack grow up, technology has provided me a way to teach and coach Jack through crucial life lessons even after I’m gone.

I’m making Jack a private Youtube channel to watch when he gets older, with videos about things like good manners, solid relationships, hard work, how to treat girls, my recent love of distance running, his faith, and more. I still remember my Dad taking me on a “guy’s trip” to hike Mt. Leconte in the Smokies when I was young. I was so excited to have some bonding time with him, and I hope Jack feels the same about these videos.

We all have a clock ticking on our lives, so we must cherish each and every day with our families and children. I have been blessed to prepare for my inevitable passing. Some may not be so lucky. I may only get to spend a few more months or years with Jack, but I hope I have inspired at least one person with this message to put family first. It sounds like a cliche, but it’s the truth.

This C.S. Lewis quote reminds me to choose family over work, over ambition, over anything else I think I want:

“Love is unselfishly choosing for another’s highest good.”

I hope it does the same for you.

Me and Jack after radiation.
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