photos by: Morgan Browning
Senior Sean McMahill’s arms wrap around his dad Jeff’s broad shoulders. Sitting on the edge of the king-sized bed, Sean’s toes grip the beige carpet, and his fingers fidget as tears glide down his cheeks. His head sinks into his dad’s chest as the room silences.
Next to them in the bed is Jeff’s wife Annie and two of his daughters, Danielle and Madeline.
Circling his bed are twelve folding chairs. On this day, the chairs held co-workers and family members. Some days they held friends from elementary school and other days he was surrounded by members of the Lancer football team. Light spills into the room, illuminating the turquoise walls that surround the people Jeff impacted as a father, husband, friend, co-worker and coach.
These people in Jeff’s bedroom and visitors to follow make up Jeff’s “team.” They were on the sidelines of his life, filling his last moments with stories of losing kids at the park, jokes about his co-worker Chris Jones being homeschooled and debates over who is responsible for Sean’s fishing skills. In the midst of laughter, for just a few seconds, everyone forgets the reason they were there in the first place.
When Jeff was diagnosed on Feb. 27 with stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer affecting white blood cells, he was scared – but not that scared, he said. The doctors told him the odds were on his side. They told him it would be chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant and then it would be over.
But on Oct. 25, doctors told Jeff they had done everything they could to help him and estimated he had about a month left – two weeks later he was admitted to hospice. Jeff took his last breath at 6:55 a.m. on Thurs. Nov. 10.
This bedroom is a microcosm of Jeff’s life. His family, who sit as close to him as possible, were with him since he first noticed a lump on his left shoulder. His friends who sit around him came from as far as Hawaii to be at his side through his battle.
The ACE bandage crossing Jeff’s left shoulder sticks out just above his Adidas shirt. White gauze wraps his elbow with a small tube sticking out; these pieces became part of him over the past ten months and defined every day after.
Cancer meant no more Royals games. No more hours of fishing with Sean. No more playing catch outside and, most devastatingly, no more watching Sean on the field for Lancer football games.
“There are a million regrets [like] ‘I wish I hadn’t picked on that kid in 3rd grade,’” Jeff said.
“What about that kid at work?” Chris quickly retorts. The room bursts into a flood of laughter as Jeff smiles, lightly shaking his head.
Jeff’s mom, Susan Bates, leans over to one of his co-workers with a teary-eyed smile.
“This is what goes on all day.”
One chair empties as his boss, Dom Schilt, gets up to catch a plane back to Chicago; the room settles from laughter into silence. It’s quiet enough to hear the sharp breath both Jeff and his boss take in with a tight hug.
“There hasn’t been a lot of sadness in the room until they come and go,” Jeff said. “When they come it’s ‘thank you for being here, I love you’ and when they go, it’s ‘I love you a lot I really appreciate you being here’ – there’s no goodbye.”
Sitting in the fourth folding chair from the door is one of Jeff’s best friends and co-workers, Dave Templeman. Dave presses his index finger and thumb into his eyes, pulling crinkles onto his forehead. Raw emotion replaces his usual humorous quips as he says what he will remember about Jeff.
“I hope I have enough strength in my body that you are carrying in your pinky because it’s just humbling; it’s inspirational,” Dave said. “That’s what’s going to carry us all through this. You know I love you, Jeff.”
A floral tissue box is handed around the circle of co-workers and friends. Some wipe their eyes, some dab their noses and others just grip the tissue as if it’s Jeff’s hand they’ll never let go of.
ESPN flashes on the TV behind everyone in the room. Just after glancing at the latest scores, Jeff squeezes his eyes shut as he takes a sip of water from his Royals mug to wash down a pill the size of a baby aspirin.
“They guessed my chemotherapy would be done by September and the first thing I thought was ‘When’s the Rockhurst game?’” Jeff said.
Jeff never missed one of Sean’s games. Baseball. Basketball. Football. From the day Jeff taught him to throw a ball to the time he watched his son take the field as a varsity athlete, he was at the sidelines as both a parent and a coach. He sported Columbia blue Lancer gear beginning when Sean was a third grade cornerback.
In mid-September, Coach Dustin Delaney asked Jeff to speak to the football team at their weekly motivational meetings. Jeff spoke about cancer, strength and teamwork to the once baby-faced third graders he coached years ago. These now-bearded senior boys, who tackle 300 lbs opponents every Friday night, began to cry because the reality of the loss looming before them wasn’t something they knew how to tackle.
“On the days he felt like giving up, [when] he couldn’t get out of bed or walk, he had his team behind him,” senior Nigil Houston said. “He told us that if you can’t do it for yourself just know you always have a team. And if you can’t push yourself, your team will always push you.”
When they heard that Jeff wasn’t getting better, they decided to spend one Saturday morning raking the McMahill’s yard. Before going outside, they each walked down to the basement, where Jeff was watching his beloved K-State Wildcats play Iowa State. Jeff was waiting for each one with a hug and something special to say and in what is typical Jeff McMahill style, he even did that for the ones he never coached.
Since his diagnosis, Jeff’s team was behind him, pushing him and supporting him. Friends set up a meal train supplying mounds of chili, enchilada casseroles and vegetables. Visitors stopped in and out beginning at 10 a.m. with berry Slurpees or a Dairy Queen peanut buster parfait, Jeff’s favorites. Sean shaved his head in solidarity and when Jeff could hardly lift his wrist to read his watch, his wife Annie was there to lift it for him.
The seats in the room remain full. When one person leaves, someone else enters. When Jeff feels his thoughts drift into the reason everyone is there, someone would squeeze his shoulder. When the conversation gets too sad for too long, Jeff or Dave lighten the mood with a joke.
At the sound of approaching footsteps on the carpeted stairs, Jeff turns his head asking where his wife is. Thinking, he twists his silver wedding ring. Annie sits back down next to him as she wraps her hands around his.
Jeff wanted to spend his last few weeks waking up every morning to Annie’s luminous smile. He wanted his children to take turns laying on his chest while he played with their hair just like he did when they were two years old. He wanted all of the chairs to be filled– and they were.
Even when the chairs fold up and Jeff isn’t there to crack a joke, the McMahills know– it was a life well-lived.