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- October 16, 1995
- Vol. 44
- No. 16
A Troubled Rock Star Faces a Demon Not His Own—His Daughter's Cancer
For Neil, however, those personal trials seemed to pale last April when his 4-year-old daughter, Skylar, of whom he shared custody with Rudell, was diagnosed with Wilms' tumor, a kidney cancer affecting children. She underwent six operations, plus extensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments during the next four months but died on 1 Aug. 15. "This ordeal is something no parent should have to go through, " says the 34-year-old rocker, whose just-released solo album, Carved in Stone, includes "Skylar's Song," which Neil wrote for his daughter before she died. "More than that, I wish no child ever had to go through it." (Proceeds from the song will be donated to charity.) At his three-level beach house in Malibu, Neil talked about Skylar with Los Angeles deputy bureau chief Todd Gold.
IT WAS EARLY APRIL, AND SKYLAR came down with flu-like symptoms, so Sharise kept her home from preschool. It didn't seem anything to be concerned about. But that night, Skylar doubled over in pain and couldn't walk. Sharise took her to West Hills Medical Center. At the time, I was away at a pro-celebrity car race. When I returned to the hotel, I got a message to call a friend. He said, "Dude, Sharise is looking for you. Skylar's in the hospital." I got a sick feeling as I tracked Sharise down. She was hysterical. She said "Skylar has cancer!"
Skylar was rushed into the emergency room and opened up. The doctors thought her appendix had ruptured, but it hadn't. The problem was in an area behind her stomach, where they removed a tumor the size of a softball. I associated cancer with old people. What could this child have put in her body to get cancer?
It took me an hour to get to the hospital. As soon as I saw Sharise's family crying, my heart sank. Finally, I saw Skylar in intensive care hooked up to tubes and machines. It scared the hell out of me. A few hours after surgery, in her half-sleep, she was talking about Cinderella. She was more awake the next day and very scared. She didn't know what was going on. She just wanted to know when she was going home.
The doctors had told us that Skylar needed to be transferred to Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, where they could make sure they had gotten all the fragments of the tumor, which had ruptured around her abdomen. All Sharise and I could tell her was, "Soon, honey, you can go home."
A CAT scan indicated tumors on both kidneys; it looked bad. Later that week doctors operated to remove the tumors, but after they opened her up, they decided to leave everything intact and try-saving the kidneys and shrinking the tumors using chemo and radiation. But Skylar remained in a lot of pain. Within a month, despite the treatments, a tumor on her right kidney that would eventually grow to 6½ pounds began pushing her abdomen against her lungs, making it hard for her to breathe.
At one point, Skylar said, "Daddy, I'm never going home, am I?" I said, "Of course you are." Sharise and I never gave up hope. We brought Skylar's dance clothes and toys to the hospital. We watched videos and sang songs. It was hard, but she recovered from the operation. Finally, even though she was getting shots of morphine for the pain, the doctors decided she could go home and do chemo as an outpatient.
We brought Skylar to Sharise's house at the end of May. It was the first time in more than a month that she was in her own bedroom, but her stomach hurt constantly. After four days we took her back to the hospital. Doctors found she had a bowel obstruction from the previous surgery—some scar tissue had formed on her intestines and twisted them—and Skylar had her third operation within two months. She said to Sharise, "Mommy, I don't want to die." We reassured her, telling her, "You're going to go to sleep for a little bit, and when you wake up, Mommy and Daddy will be right here." But inside we were really scared.
Following the operation, she whimpered, "Dad, please don't let them cut me anymore." What do you tell a child? Skylar's tears ripped at my heart. Meanwhile her breathing got worse, a fast panting that resulted from the right kidney's big tumor pressing against her lungs. Her color was bad. You could actually see bones through her skin. I hated telling her she needed another operation, but there wasn't a choice. The surgeons wanted to remove the right kidney. When they opened her up several days later, they found the cancer had spread to her liver and intestines and the muscles in her back. Removing the monstrous tumor from the right kidney would have caused so much bleeding, Skylar would have died on the table. So the surgeon patched her up and hoped for a miracle.
About a week later, on June 3, Skylar stopped breathing. The doctors put her on a respirator and gave her medication that essentially paralyzed her so that she wouldn't expend unnecessary energy. Over the next two weeks she continued to fight. I don't know how. Throughout the ordeal, I've wondered why this happened to someone who never got a chance to live. I've nearly destroyed myself asking if she was being punished for something I'd done. I've blamed myself because cancer runs on my mother's side of the family. When I search for a reason for Skylar's death, it's as if she has opened my eyes to all the suffering other children and their parents are going through.
On July 26, Skylar underwent an operation to remove the tumor that had overtaken her body. The doctors explained it was extremely risky, but if she was going to have any chance at beating the cancer, this was it. I had no idea if I was saying goodbye forever. Ten hours later the doctors returned. They had removed the 6½-pound tumor, the size of a football, and had also taken out her right kidney, half her liver, part of her diaphragm, a piece of muscle in her back and the tumor inside her left kidney. She eventually regained consciousness, but about a week later she underwent another operation to deal with a possible infection from the previous surgery. After that, she got worse. Her remaining kidney wasn't working well, and her lungs began failing. The doctors told us she was slipping away. We called our families and told them it was time to say goodbye. Skylar was on painkillers and remained unconscious. I knew she could hear me, though, so before I left that night, I told her I loved her.
I had just gotten home when Sharise called. "Her vital signs are dropping," she said. "You'd better come back." I just started crying. Skylar was dying. It took a while for me to get to the hospital. In the meantime, Sharise sat by Skylar's side as "Skylar's Song" played in the background. Finally, Sharise told her, "Don't be scared, sweetie. Go to sleep now. It's all right." Minutes later, Skylar passed away.
I got to the hospital 10 minutes after she died. Her little body lay on the bed. I told myself that at least she wasn't in pain anymore, but I've never experienced anything as sad as being in that room. On Aug. 18, Skylar was buried in a tiny pink casket. At the service, we celebrated her life.
Since then my girlfriend [actress-model Heidi Marks, 23] and I have gone to the cemetery often. I've been sleeping with the blanket Skylar died in because it still smells like her. Nothing's changed at home—her room is exactly the same. But there are too many painful memories, so in November I'm moving to Las Vegas. Immediately after the funeral, I went out of town, running away from reality. But then I couldn't run anymore. I returned to L.A. and started talking to a therapist who has really helped me deal with grieving. Sometimes I think Skylar is still here, and I think I'm insane. But my therapist says that's normal. It's part of letting go and the healing process. If you've never gone through this, it's hard to know what you're supposed to feel. I think of Skylar every day. I know someday the loss won't hurt as much as it does now. But I loved Skylar very much, and that will never go away.
- Todd Gold.
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