'Fear Is A Liar'

Max and Sophie Birge’s father, Greg, was first diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer four years ago. And then, in March 2017, the Jasper siblings’ mother, Christy Vaal, was diagnosed with a rare form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia and also has an autoimmune disease. Max, 17, and Sophie, 15, have developed a support system in each other as a result of spending countless hours together at their parents’ sides. The two spend time with their father July 19 at Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center, just a day before he died.

Story by Olivia Ingle 
Photos by Dave Weatherwax

Max and Sophie Birge always say “I love you” when they part ways. And they mean it.

The Jasper teens’ mother, Christy (Crockett) Vaal, admits the two have the typical sibling squabbles; however, they never leave each other without saying how they feel.

“They are very close,” Christy said. “I think they realize what can happen. I think they value each other a little bit more.”

Max, 17, and Sophie, 15, have had anything but normal teenage years.

Their father, Greg Birge, died July 20 at age 59 after a nearly four-year battle with Stage 4 colon cancer. He was diagnosed in October 2014. Christy, 48, was diagnosed with a rare form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia in March 2017, and also has an autoimmune disease.

“Honestly, the scariest part for me was for them,” Christy said of her diagnosis. “My biggest fear being a parent, in general, is that something would happen to me before they’re grown up.”

Greg’s parents in California sent Christy picture albums containing photos of Greg for her to scan for the children and to use at his viewing. Max and Sophie look through one of the albums with Greg, having him identify some of their relatives and tell the backstory of the photos, on July 13 at the hospital.

Both Max and Sophie were all too familiar with the sacrifices that come with a parent having cancer. Then, all of a sudden, both of their parents were sick.

“There really was no normalcy anymore,” Max said. “We got a lot more responsibility.”

They both got part-time jobs to help ease their parents’ financial burden a bit. Sophie worked at the Schnitzelbank Restaurant, and has since gotten a job at Holiday Foods in Jasper. Max was a mechanic at AJ Cycle & Trike Conversions, and now works on a farm.

Greg worked for Stens, and Christy is a licensed therapist. She was on disability for a while because of her leukemia, but has started working part time again.

Max also took more responsibility when he got his driver’s license, making sure Sophie gets to where she needs to go. Both kids have done the grocery shopping. They’ve cleaned the house. They both try to help out where needed.

The siblings have found a support system in each other. “Nobody knows better what I went through, what she went through, than each other,” Max said.

Their friends have remained by their side as well, whether helping Max with Greg’s yard work or visiting when Greg was hospitalized.

Max and Sophie became accustomed to spending hours at a time at Greg’s bedside at the hospital. Sophie finds some time to rest July 9 at the hospital.

Christy’s support has also been unwavering for her kids and Greg, up until his death. The couple divorced in 2008, but remained friends for the kids’ sake. Christy was Greg’s power of attorney — Max would have been in February when he turns 18 — and she said people would sometimes question why she was still so committed to Greg even though they were divorced and she had since remarried; her husband is Vince Vaal of Jasper.

“They would say, ‘That’s just amazing that you would do that.’ I thought, well who wouldn’t? This is my kids’ dad,” Christy said.

Greg was always there when Christy needed him, too. When she was hospitalized last fall, he made sure, one way or another, the kids were well taken care of.

Greg said in May that the biggest change his cancer brought for him and his kids was that he couldn’t be the spontaneous dad he once was.

“It affects the kids, even though they won’t say it,” he said. “I can’t be the outdoorsy, fun-loving dad that mentally I am. Now, I have to plan my life.”

The challenge for Christy was watching her kids endure such a difficult time in their lives.

Through their experience, Christy said she has seen Sophie grow in her faith. Sophie, second from right, began attending a weekly Bible study with Christy, center, during the summer at St. Charles Health Campus in Jasper as she did July 12.

“The hardest part is watching them and knowing there’s nothing I can do,” she said. “When you’re a parent, there’s usually something you can do to help them. There’s nothing. I can’t fix this.”

Max and Sophie became accustomed to spending hours, days, even weeks at the hospital when Greg contracted infections due to his cancer and chemotherapy. Christy’s been hospitalized, too.

When Christy was still working and Greg was in the hospital in Indianapolis, Max and Sophie commuted to Indianapolis daily because they weren’t yet old enough to get a hotel room for themselves. They slept and did their homework in waiting rooms. They missed some school.

They saw Greg almost die twice.

Max remembers a time when he was 14 and Greg was deathly ill in the hospital. In an effort to be a “normal” teenager, he and the rest of the family made the decision that he would go to band camp. Max remembers saying goodbye to his dad, not knowing if he’d ever see him again.

Sophie remains at her father’s side, holding his hand July 19 as she tried to get some rest. Greg died at 6 p.m. the following day.

While Max was gone, Greg took a turn for the better and the father and son were reunited via FaceTime.

“I have a picture of him leaving and Greg’s on the vent and unconscious, and then I have almost the same identical picture when he came back and he’s leaning over him and Greg’s smiling and he’s awake,” Christy said. “It’s just really cool to see.”

At first, Greg and Christy tried to protect the kids from certain things. But eventually, they found it was better to be upfront about everything.

“There’s nothing that could really shock us anymore,” Max said in May.

We saw him whenever he was septic,” Sophie said of her dad.

Greg added: “The kids have been through every phase of this with me.”

He had a similar fear to Christy’s. He and his kids were close and he was most afraid of dying and leaving them.

“It’s a lot to lose,” he mumbled from his hospital bed at Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center in late June when doctors suspected he had a week or less to live.

“But if I can put them (my kids) on the planet, I’ll be OK,” he added, the words just barely recognizable.

Christy allowed Max and Sophie to play a role in making the choices, like selecting a casket on July 21, that they believed would best pay tribute to Greg. “A recurring thought as I watched them look at caskets was, ‘They should not have to be doing this at their age. They shouldn’t have to be going through any of this at their age,’” Christy said.

At that point, Greg had been in the hospital since June 6. Max came home from work that day and Greg felt so ill that he asked his son to take him.

“I didn’t realize what it would come to in the end,” Max said.

As the father and son were pulling out of the driveway, Greg told Max, “I don’t have a good feeling about this one.”

He was right. He never left the hospital again.

Max, Sophie and Christy spent all of their days by his side and went home at night to sleep. As Greg got sicker, they ended up staying the night at the hospital.

Max’s goal was to stay strong for his mom and sister.

“You always have that one person you kind of look up to. But when you see that one person break, it gets hard,” he said. “That’s what I try to do for Sophie and Mom. If I don’t break, then you guys won’t break. It’ll get us through it.”

While Max has always been a big support for her, Sophie has also leaned a lot on her faith.

“It’s a lot more positive than sitting here moping,” Max said while he and Sophie looked through old photographs July 23 to put on poster boards for Greg’s viewing.

“I’ll catch her say things every once in awhile, and I know that’s something that helps her,” Christy said, adding that she attends a weekly Bible study and Sophie attends with her mom when she can. The family is Catholic, but recently they’ve been attending Redemption Christian Church in Jasper.

Greg died at 6 p.m. on Friday, July 20, surrounded by his family at Memorial Hospital. A visitation and service were held four days later at Becher-Kluesner Downtown Chapel in Jasper.

Greg was originally from California. He served in the Army from 1978 to 1983, and was a sheriff’s deputy in California for many years. At the service — where he was honored with military rites — he was described as comforting, calming, brave, funny and tough.

One recurring theme of the service was that “Fear Is A Liar,” which is an alternative Christian song by Zach Williams. When Christy first heard it, she knew is described Greg perfectly.

“Greg wasn’t fearless. He had fear,” Christy told the crowd gathered at the evening service. “However, he never let fear win. ... He knew fear was a liar.”

She offered advice for her grieving children and told them not to fear living life without their dad.

“If your dad were here now, he would tell you there are times you will be fearful in life,” Christy said. “That’s OK. You are strong enough to put up a fight.”

And just like their dad put up a fight, so have Max and Sophie. Life hasn’t been the same since his death. It never will be. There’s fear, but they are fighting.

Sophie sleeps in one of Greg’s shirts nightly. When Max arrived home with some of their dad’s belongings July 23, including a bottle of his cologne, Sophie ran to her room to retrieve her dad’s shirt so she could spray it to make it smell like him.

Since her father’s death, Sophie has been trying to stay as busy as possible, taking more hours at work. She sleeps in one of Greg’s shirts every night.

Greg’s phone still receives text messages, and Sophie still texts him and says, “Good night, I love you” and “I miss you.”

She’s clinging to her faith even more than before, and is excited to go to Redemption Christian Church on Sundays and its student ministry, The Well, on Wednesdays.

“She will wake me up on Sundays and wants to go,” Christy said.

Sophie and Max talk to their grandparents — Greg’s parents, who live in California — often, which helps them still feel connected to their dad.

It’s the little, unexpected things that remind Max his dad is gone.

A moment when Greg’s death really hit him was when he had to fill out a paper about his parents’ occupations in his welding class at school and he had to write “deceased” for the first time next to Greg’s name.

“What they’ve been through has definitely shaped their personalities and their strength,” Christy said. Christy gives Sophie and Max some time to spend with Greg.

It’s also difficult for him to drive past the house his dad rented and see other people inside.

Max’s biggest fear of living life without his dad is “becoming a dad without my dad.”

“Just trying to be the man he was,” Max added.

Sophie asked, “Who’s going to walk me down the aisle when I get married?”

“I volunteer as tribute,” Max said, raising his hand. It lightened the moment, and made both Sophie and Christy laugh.

Christy’s had both of those realizations, too, that Greg won’t get to see either kids marry or have kids.

“He’s never going to get to see our grandchildren,” she said. “Things start hitting you about how life is going to change, especially for them (the kids).”

Greg was originally from California. He served in the Army from 1978 to 1983 and was a sheriff’s deputy in California for many years. While cleaning out Greg’s house Aug. 7, Sophie reads a short story they found titled “A Day In The Life of A Rookie Sheriff” that she and Max believe was written by Greg.

Max inherited much of Greg’s clothing and all of his hunting stuff, and is looking forward to deer hunting with his dad’s rifle this fall. Sophie is reminded of her dad daily, since she inherited his bedroom furniture.

Both kids also have their own urn with Greg’s ashes.

Max is using a small piece of his inheritance to have his 1980 Chevy stepside truck — which he and his dad were redoing — painted before his senior pictures in October.

“It will mean a lot to me,” Max said of the truck finally being finished. “It was a coping mechanism and gave me something to focus on.”

Once Max graduates from Jasper High School in May, he plans to study diesel technology at Vincennes University. Sophie, who is currently a sophomore at JHS, isn’t sure yet what she wants to do as a career, but after interacting with medical professionals over the past four years, she thinks she wants to go into the medical field, maybe as a nurse or an ultrasound technician.

Christy’s hope is that she can continue to be there for her kids. She said she’ll likely have to go through another round of treatment soon.

“One worry I have is that there’s a lot of pressure being the only parent and the fact that I’m sick, too,” she said. “I have to stick around. My worry is just to make sure I’m here.”

Max and Sophie admit they’ve learned a lot about themselves over the past four years, and have grown up fast. They look at life a little differently now.

“It doesn’t matter who you are,” Max said. “When you see people you care about, especially your parents, go through that, it definitely makes you stronger as a person and makes you realize how fast something can change.

“Don’t take anything for granted.”

“I want that one,” Sophie said to Max about the shinier sheriff’s jacket he was trying on. “It looks like a girl’s jacket. No offense, Dad,” she said, as she looked to the sky. The two found Greg’s sheriff’s jackets in his basement while cleaning out his house Aug. 7.

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