There are dozens of country songs that talk about the love between a little girl and father. I danced with my dad to one of those songs, I Loved Her First by Heartland, at my wedding 13 years ago. Though, to be honest, I was dancing on his feet every chance I had since I took my first steps. When I was a young girl my dad was my Prince Charming. He taught me to fish, to ride a bike, to shoot, and to drive a car. He would take the red eye home from his business trips to ensure he was at every sporting event and he never missed an important family moment. While my mother, my brothers, and my three children (ages 8, 5, & 2) are his whole world, I will always be his baby girl.
My dad, Jesse A. Cox, was born October 28th, 1948. While growing up, Dad and his siblings didn’t have much. However, with the love and care my grandparents showed them, they knew no different. After high school, Dad attended junior college, enlisted in the Army Reserve and became a Green Beret. He went on to serve active duty, jumping out of perfectly good planes while taking up body building. To this day, fitness is still important to Dad. After the military he worked at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, FL as an assistant to an orthopedic surgeon. My favorite story from that time revolves around a candy striper that the nurses introduced him to. That spunky, adorable brunette was none other than my mom, or as Dad calls her, Precious!
November 13th, 1976 my dad’s life took an unexpected turn when he was involved in a horrific accident. While mowing the lawn on a friend’s property, a tree collapsed on him and crushed his spine. He endured major back surgery and needed rods and a body cast to support his recovery. Not knowing if he would ever fully recover or even be able to walk again, his perspective on life and his future quickly became clear. In 1978, after seven years of dating, he married the girl of his dreams, Debra Russo. Soon after saying “I do” this duo became a trio. In December of 1979 I was born, followed by my two baby brothers, Garret in 1983 and Clay in 1985, completing the Cox family of 5.
Dad always stressed the importance of education, hard work, and perseverance to follow our goals and dreams. The same day our family celebrated my high school senior prom, we celebrated my dad’s graduation from Shorter College with a bachelor’s degree in business. He showed us that no matter our age, we should never stop learning and growing. My brothers and I have cultivated our careers with these lessons in mind. Garrett is now a member of the football coaching staff for the University of Tennessee. Clay pursued a career in the same field as his dad and recently launched his own distribution company, Pioneer Machine Sales. Similar to my dad, I work in sales and corporate procurement contracts, while working alongside my husband, Nick, to run our Atlanta based gyms/business, BTB Fitness.
Throughout his 35-year career in the machine and tool industry, Dad led by example. His positivity is contagious, his advice heartfelt, and he has always worked with the highest professional and personal values. He has earned the respect and admiration of his colleagues, many of whom he calls friends. As much as he loved his career, he could not have been more excited to announce his retirement one day after his 70th birthday. He looked forward to spending more time with his family. This was a time for JJ (as my kids affectionately call him), to travel, to fish, to go boating, to spend more time with his grandkids, and to share his golden years with the people he loves. My parents raised their kids, lovingly and selflessly taken care of their four aging parents, and they even shared their home with two parents for twelve years, becoming empty nesters only recently.
I cherish watching the love and bonds between my dad and my kids deepen. When each of them started to talk, Dad would asked them “Who loves you?”. The first answer out of their mouths (with a little prodding) was… JJ! Now it doesn’t matter who asks them that question, they always say JJ first. He has taught them how to fish and how to ride bikes. The girls share his love for Hallmark movies, dancing, fishing, walks/working out, dominoes, oatmeal raisin cookies, reading, and they love convincing him to watch their favorite Disney movies. He has taught Guy, my son, to flex his muscles and throw a ball. His love for them is beautiful, pure, and just one more side of my dad I hold dear.
Never did our family anticipate that just nine months after retirement, our dad would receive a devasting diagnosis. In early 2019, Dad noticed changes with the grip in his right hand. His workouts seemed different, and he experienced some loss of strength. Initially we thought these changes were symptoms of Dupuytren’s contracture mixed with nerve damage and arthritis from his back injury, but something still wasn’t right. He noticed that his right bicep was no longer the same size as his left. His muscle mass had deteriorated substantially.
Soon after a fishing trip in May of 2019, my dad visited his primary care physician hoping to get a referral to a hand specialist. Instead his physician referred him to a neurologist, who he saw less than 4 weeks later. Never will I forget the call I received from my mom after his appointment. I was sitting at my kitchen counter and my first thought after she shared my dad’s diagnosis was that his neurologist had to be wrong! We needed to get a second opinion as soon as possible. That second opinion and subsequent tests confirmed that Dad indeed had ALS.
So here we are. We have embarked on our new journey. We are coming to terms with our new reality. Our family came up with a plan to fight the disease and to do what our family does best – support each other, lift each other up, and be the rock for our dad in the same way he has always been for us. We researched the disease extensively and immersed ourselves in all we need to know in order to be prepared to face the future with ALS as a part of our lives.
We have all experienced so many different emotions. I’ll admit this includes a bit of denial. At first my dad had the mind-set that his diagnosis was a death sentence and honestly, who could blame him? However, there were many comforting phone calls between our family and friends, and a lot of praying. One of those calls was from a dear friend who gave him inspiration, advice, and assured him he should continue to enjoy life while living with ALS. A few days later Dad shared with my mom that he was thankful for their life together and thankful knowing that their future still holds great things. He made the decision to be proactive and to fight the disease. He will not let ALS take his spirit. He will continue to work out, walk, keep a healthy diet, work to keep his weight on, enjoy life, and pray his body keeps up with his drive. It was around this time that we took the fortunate step of calling a friend we met several years ago who has since become involved in this field. This is when we first learned about Augie’s Quest.
Dad, now almost 72 years young, has not quit. He never backs down from a challenge, and it’s no different with his ALS diagnosis. He met with the top three ALS doctors in the country and he continues to read research and fight this disease. Despite it all, the disease has progressed quicker than we hoped it would and Dad’s daily life is becoming more challenging. His body is slowing down, eating is tough, he continues to lose muscle mass and swallowing is a task. He can no longer fish or drive, and he is slowly losing his independence. Dad was naturally doing all these things with ease at this time last year, and now he is humbly asking for help. We are especially fortunate to have my mom as our matriarch, not only as she continues to support my dad during every step of this journey, but also because she was the lead Speech Pathologist for Gwinnett County’s (GA) Preschool programs over the past 20 years, experience that has and will continue to benefit my family and the community.
My parents witnessed my grandparents collectively endure the need for a feeding tube, the need for oxygen, a massive stroke, and being wheelchair bound. We couldn’t have imagined that Dad would experience a comparably painful journey. We pray daily that we are one day closer to a cure, a step that is imperative to the ALS community. The families we’ve met have shared their stories, beautiful and yet heartbreaking; many have lost loved ones to ALS. Many have family members who are struggling with the disease, like my dad, but still have so much hope and life left to live.
We must fast track treatments, accelerate the platform trials, and use our voices to advocate for our loved ones because a cure is needed, and it is needed now! Spread the word, keep our families in your prayers and please, donate to Augie’s Quest. Help them continue the crucial work they are doing in pursuit of a cure for ALS. My dad, like all ALS patients, deserves a better quality of life. He deserves to live pain free, not need to rely on medical devices to perform the most basic of daily activities.
During my childhood my parents were united, truly a dynamic duo. Although things weren’t always easy, they made it look like they were. Throughout their 41 years of marriage, they exemplified the generosity, goodness, love, faith, and strength that binds a family together. My husband and I work hard to pass on these values to our kids. This Father’s Day is another day during which our family will sit in awe of Dad, knowing just how lucky we are to be together and how lucky my kids are to have their JJ. He is simply the best father and grandfather we could have asked for.
Sugarland is another country music duo my dad and I love. There is a special Sugarland song I proudly sing to him when we drive together. I’ll never stop singing to you, Dad. We love you to the moon and back. You’ve got this!
Love your baby girl,