Holidays remain hard for grieving father

2012-12-07T22:00:00Z 2012-12-08T04:51:04Z Holidays remain hard for grieving fatherJohn Burbridge, (219) 933-3371

HIGHLAND | Zack Miczalek didn't run from the fight, yet running was one of the ways he fought back.

During late fall of 2008, the Highland native was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the parotid gland, a rare and aggressive cancer. Treatment included surgery to remove a tumor from the right side of his face, and grafting a muscle from his leg to his cheek to compensate for the damaged facial nerve.

The following spring, Zack -- living with his mother, Laura, and older sister, Jill, in DeKalb -- went out for the Huntley Middle School track team, and was a member of the school's 4-by-100 relay, which placed fourth at the IESA State Track Meet.

"He was planning on going out for track the following year," Zack's father, Steve Miczalek said.

But the cancer returned, which cost Zack one of his ears and part of his jawbone, and prompted another muscle graft, this time from his other leg.

"That pretty much ended his track career," Steve said. "But still he wasn't giving up. He showed so much courage."

Zack went on to take up drumming and maintained his love of skateboarding as long as he could. He also kept an artful journal detailing his battle. Often, his words had a hint of anger, calling out his enemy -- which eventually invaded his brain -- and demanding greater public focus in finding a cure.

Along the way, Zack made some friends, including former Chicago Bears running back Garrett Wolfe, who gave Zack the pink gloves he wore during a cancer-awareness regular season game; and Slipknot drummer Joey Jordison, a meeting made possible by Make-a-Wish Foundation.

Two days after getting a chance to meet his favorite drummer, Zack died -- two years to this day.

"This time of the year has become a struggle for me," Steve said. "But I want to keep his memory alive.

"It's not supposed to be this way. You're not supposed to out-live your children."

Steve still lives in Highland, where Zack and Jill grew up before moving to Illinois after their parents divorced. Life hasn't gotten much easier for Steve since Zack's death. Due to complications from an injury sustained while trying to prevent a theft at a supermarket where he worked security, Steve is now on disability.

"When you're on disability, it's hard to pay the bills," said Steve, who had to give up his house for a small apartment, and drives a vehicle with bad ball joints and more than 150,000 miles on it.

Steve credits the men's group and pastor Lou Rodriguez at Suburban Bible Church in Highland for helping him pull through.

"It it wasn't for them, I don't think I could have lived through all this," Steve said. "Originally, Zack and Jill when they would visit here were the ones who got me to go to the church."

The DeKalb High School yearbook had a two-page in memoriam section dedicated to Zack. And much of Steve's Facebook page features photos of Zack and the poetic literature he composed during his fight to the death.

"I was there (in DeKalb) when he died," Steve said. "He was having extreme headaches, and he was given morphine to alleviate the pain. But he was aware through the whole ordeal, and he accepted Jesus as his savior the night before he died.

"I'm just glad I got to say goodbye."


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