Going the Extra Mile

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Matt and Pete Dimmer care of The Extra Mile
Matt and Pete Dimmer care of The Extra Mile

Matt Dimmer is the founder and CEO of The Extra Mile, a nonprofit which collects donations of funding and air miles and gives them to people who wouldn’t have otherwise had the means to visit loved ones before they die.

Pete Dimmer was an amazing man, he was also my father. From coaching my sports teams to giving me advice on life, he was always there for me.

He was a handy guy and loved to tinker. He couldn’t sit still and always wanted to fix stuff. When he ran out of things to do on his list, he’d naturally offer to help others. From tasks around the house to asking everyone at ‘the beach’ what they needed help with. He was known as the go-to guy.

From a young age, I remember my parents steering me in the right direction in life. They were well educated and imbued upon my sister and I the importance of getting an education, as well as doing the right thing. Growing up, it was very important to my mom and dad that we knew right from wrong, as it was to most parents—but mine always went a bit further. Leading by example, they taught us about giving back to those in need, and while at the time it seemed just part of life, it wasn’t until I was an adult when it really had an impact on me.

As an adult I hadn’t experienced death in my immediate family. It had been, up until six months ago only grandparents or a friend’s parent or sibling. That all changed in November of 2011.

Dad was fairly healthy for a 65-year-old. He probably could’ve done without the occasional cigarette, but he went to the gym and on walks regularly. Last fall, he began having some serious stomach pains, so he went to get it checked out. Initial diagnosis was a gall bladder issue, so he scheduled surgery. But while scoping him, they determined the gall bladder was actually fine; it was his pancreas causing the problems. Missed in an initial CT scan, he had an inflamed pancreas later diagnosed as pancreatic cancer. Stage 4. After hearing the news, I quickly acclimated myself with as much info on this as I could. I knew that stage was pretty much a death sentence, and the location of his tumor made it impossible to remove.

I had just relocated to LA from Chicago with my wife, Jess, and we were just settling into the next stage of our life. This news made us reconsider everything. Should we move back? Should I take a leave of absence? How and what could we do to be closer to him? All I could think was, my dad was dying.

We had no plans to go home for the holidays this year, rather, just relax out West. After much thought, Jess and I decided we were going to make a surprise trip to see him for the holidays, as this would be the last Christmas we all would get to spend together. We planned on surprising him by coming into the house unexpectedly wearing Santa hats, but it was us who were surprised. His eyes lit up, he sat up as best he could smiling from ear to ear, but he was the thinnest I’d ever seen him. It took everything in me to act like nothing was wrong. He wouldn’t allow us a real hug, because he didn’t want us to feel his bones through his clothes. At this point, he was basically living on a reclining chair day and night, as it was the only thing he could be on and be remotely comfortable.

Our family gathered as planned, and we savored every last minute of that weekend. We’d take shifts with him, while escaping into the kitchen to cry and comfort each other. His wife, son, daughter-in-law, daughter, and grandson made it the best holiday he’d had.

After the holidays, I began taking weekend trips as often as possible. It was dreadful, and acting upbeat and positive during these trips was a challenge. I made it home at least once a month, and had planned on taking him fishing on one of the trips since that was something we loved to do together. When I arrived home that weekend, to my surprise, his condition had worsened quite a bit since the last time I saw him. Instead, we took a short trip to his favorite market (just getting out of the house was a rarity at this point); he insisted on driving. He was dealing with independence issues as be became more ill, and the freedom to drive was something he wanted to hold onto as long as he could manage.

It wasn’t long after that before we had ‘the talk.’ That conversation I never imagined having with my dying father. The one that makes me tear up watching it in movies. The one where he told me there’s nothing that could make him better and he only had a couple weeks left to live. I tried desperately to hold back the wave of emotions that came over me. I fought to be the strong one, but eventually gave in and just hugged him sobbing. We got through it, I told him how much I’d miss him, how great it was to have him as a coach, a dad, and all the other memories I’ll cherish forever.

Subsequent trips proved more frustrating, as his eating had all but ceased, and he was just clinging to life. Then it shifted. His need for morphine was daily, and death was imminent. Hallucinations from the drugs led to his frail body needing to be transported by ambulance to hospice. I got him into the wheelchair, out the door, and he was on his way—never to return to his house.

On his third day there, he became jaundice and unresponsive, except for keeping one eye—his good eye—open and rarely moving. I’d lay with him on the bed, holding his hand and whispering to him that it’s OK to let go. We were all there and loved him so much and didn’t want to see him suffer any more. We watched TV, brought in meals, and took turns walking around the tranquil grounds of the facility trying to come to terms with the event we knew was coming.

Then one day, we were all in the room, and I heard a large exhale. I wasn’t sure where it came from, but immediately Stacey (my step-mom) who was sitting next to dad said, “guys, I think it’s time.” It was so confusing but crystal clear at the same time. We gathered around him, and I held his hand. He took four more breathes and was gone. Hearing that last one hurt more than anything in my life.

About a month before dad passed away, I was inspired to create a nonprofit, The Extra Mile, with the sole mission of connecting families of loved ones dying of cancer when they can’t afford to fly and see that person before they die. Having had the luxury of spending time with my dad and chatting about life prior to his passing, I couldn’t imagine being denied that time because of my financial situation. I was determined to make The Extra Mile a success in his honor, and was able to show him the progress I’d made on one of my last trips home.

As news of his death got out, stories about my dad came in about how he always went above and beyond to help those in need. Stories such as inspiring the soccer players he coached and setting up group homes in neighborhoods allowing people with mental health disabilities to be integrated back into communities. He always went the extra mile. I wanted to honor him and carry on his legacy. By creating The Extra Mile, I’m able to give others the chance I had. To be with their loved ones. To say goodbye.

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