DeKALB – Mark Canaday was in the grips of the illness that would eventually take his life, but nurses marveled at his strength, and how he rallied when it mattered.
He fought his way back three times, most notably: Once each for sons Brandon, Chad, and Christopher.
"The nurses said he was incredible," Mark's wife, Amy, said. "He heard certain voices, and he would rally. Three times, he was able to rally to communicate to his boys how much he loved them before he lost them. The love he has for his boys is amazing."
Canaday died Monday, after battling esophageal cancer since he was diagnosed in February 2014.
He left a legacy among the state universities' housing community, and was a catalyst for Kiwanis Club, Barb Boosters and Christ the Teacher Parish Newman Center.
When Amy met Mark
Mark Canaday met Amy Carr while they were attending Culver Stockton College in Canton, Missouri.
The summer after he earned his master's degree in criminal justice at St. Ambrose University, they began a 25-year marriage, and Mark landed the first of many jobs in which he'd foster student camaraderie, discipline and, ultimately, enrichment.
He worked at Illinois Math and Science Academy as a resident hall counselor for five years, then was housing coordinator with Illinois College for a year.
"He loved it," Amy said. "Loved housing, loved being around college kids. Every college he went to, he was the police liaison, in addition to working in housing."
He began at Northern Illinois University, where Chad is about to start studying accounting as a freshman, as a hall director, and rose to the role of assistant director of housing, as well as judicial community standards.
To gauge how beloved the Canadays were in the NIU community, the university chose the family as a beneficiary their first Northern Illinois University football jersey auction, an effort to raise money by selling Corn Fest-themed jerseys.
The Canadays' oldest son, Brandon, a 20-year-old Southern Illinois University-Carbondale student, has followed Dad's lead. He's a residential adviser, and involved with the Residential Hall Association and other associated committees.
"Dad's pretty famous in housing," Brandon said. "At national events, everywhere I went, everyone would ask, 'Are you Mark's son?' There's no getting away with anything. He had a legacy, in state schools especially."
In 1996, Mark and Amy Canaday buried their firstborn, stillborn daughter, Briana, a victim of the heart defect pulmonary artresia.
They were told they had less than a thousandth of a percent chance another child would have the condition. Their first two children, Brandon and Chad, escaped it, but Christopher, a junior at DeKalb High School, wasn't so lucky, and has undergone numerous open-heart surgeries.
Nonetheless, Christopher has seized his days. While his dad, a certified umpire, would recuse himself from umping behind the plate during Chad's and Brandon's baseball games, Christopher's games had just one umpire – sometimes dad.
"He was 10 times harder on his own son than he'd ever be on anyone else," Amy said. "Chris was a good pitcher, but that strike zone shrunk."
"It's just a game," Chris said, grinning big at the family's dining room table. "At least we were having fun."
The family for many years took camping trips with the Vaughn-Low and Laudicinas families, which also had three children like the Canadays.
Upon arrival one year, with the beds placed alongside the pop-up camper, the three Canaday brothers were struggling to roll out the camper's awning.
Dad wasn't quite tall enough, either, but grabbed a plastic picnic table – only to have one of the legs give way and send him crashing down on his back, knocking the wind out of him.
"He couldn't breathe, but he tried to play it off as a big, tough guy, that role model as dad," Amy said. "For years and years, they've laughed about that."
Mark laughed, too – eventually.
"It took a week or two," Brandon said.
"His pride was hurt," Amy added, while cracking up.
A long battle ends
After his cancer diagnosis in February 2014, he underwent four rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, but it couldn't stop the cancer from metastasizing into his back, spine, ribs, lungs and bloodstream.
"Some of that stuff was supposed to make you go bed-ridden for the next three or four days," Brandon said.
Yet in early May, the day after treatment, Mark told Amy they weren't resting. They were hitting the road.
"He said, 'Let's do it, let's road trip. Let's see my Brandon man,' " Amy said.
"He drove six hours to visit me with mom, to help pick up my stuff before summer was over," Brandon said.
Brandon illegally parked his motorcycle in front of the truck, and Mark, the de facto watchman dozed off in the passenger seat while Amy and Brandon tackled the loading.
"They could have stolen everything, and the motorcycle," Amy said.
She laughed. She couldn't help it, looking back.
"We had fun with life, and we made the most of every day," she said. "That was our philosophy."
That credo carried into Mark's last days.
Things took a downturn heading into Father's Day weekend. The Friday leading in, he was given three to six months.
Father's Day morning, the doctor tearfully told Amy to salvage what she could.
"He said, 'I'm just going to have to stop this conversation here. I want you to go enjoy your boys and your husband. It's Father's Day,'" Amy said. "He gives me a hug, and he's got tears in his eyes."
She and the boys brought Liquid Plumr – Mark's digestive issues had gotten pretty bad – and giant headphones so the boys could horse around without bothering their pops.
"Practical jokes, because that's who we are," Amy said.
Still clinging to three to six months, she found out June 18 it was a day to a week. Mark had developed pneumonia overnight, and later June 18, opted for hospice care.
"He said he'd fought the fight, and he said he was sorry, and I told him, 'You don't have to be sorry,' " Amy said. "We were blessed with the most amazing father and husband on the face of this planet."
The funeral Mass for Mark Canaday will be at 10 a.m. Monday at Christ the Teacher Parish Newman Center, 512 Normal Road, DeKalb, with the Rev. Matthew McMorrow celebrating. Burial of cremated remains will be at a later date at St. Patrick's Catholic Cemetery in Galesburg. Visitation will be from 3 to 7 p.m. Sunday at Anderson Funeral Home in DeKalb, with a Wake Service at 7 p.m.
In lieu of flowers, memorials can be made to the Mark Canaday Memorial Fund, addressed to the Canaday Family in care of Anderson Funeral Home, Ltd., P.O. Box 605, 2011 South Fourth Street, DeKalb, IL 60115.