His older brother had already left for college when the cancer was discovered, so it was just Millard and his terminally ill father, who coped with it together each day. In their case, the sickness brought a change of heart. The once abusive father reinvigorated his faith and gained a whole new perspective. “My dad went from being the guy I was afraid I’d become to the person I most wanted to grow up and be like,” says Millard. “We went from a very strained relationship to becoming best friends.”

Because the cancer was slow growing, his father didn’t become seriously ill until his son’s senior year in high school. Every few months, he would spend about a month in the hospital; and, for the times he stayed home, Millard served as his primary caregiver. The family used Hospice and in-home nurses until an in-home nurse died in a car accident about a month into the care. Painfully affected by the death, Millard’s father didn’t want another full-time nurse, which meant even more responsibility would fall on his son’s young shoulders. “I had to start learning how to give him his shots in the middle of the night,” Millard recalls. “It was my senior year; but on weekends, I wouldn’t get to go anywhere. I’d be home, and every three hours I would give him shots that took 20 minutes to push through his IV. I was taking care of my dad as an 18-year-old. If the nurses moved him too much, he started crying and called for me. That’s something you don’t ever want to hear as a teenager.”

By the time he was a college freshman, his 320-pound father had withered down to 118 pounds. Throughout this time, Millard often used made-up words to avoid cursing, which eventually turned into a game between father and son. Millard would say one of these fake words, his father would accuse him of swearing, and the two would humorously go back and forth. Oddly enough, this game played a role in the last words Millard’s father ever spoke.

When their father had been in a semi-coma for two weeks, his older brother flew into town, thinking it would be the last time to see his father. Checking on his father one morning, Millard recalls, “His feet were cold, and it freaked me out; so I ran to get the nurse. When I turned to go out of the room, my sister-in-law screamed because my dad sat up and was reaching for me. I ran back over and took his hand. My brother came in and took his other hand. We were sitting there. This was it: the moment.”

With his boys in hand, the father’s breathing slowly began to stagger. “He would exhale; then about 30 seconds later, he’d take another breath. The time between breaths kept getting longer and longer. All of a sudden, I got so anxious I yelled at the top of my lungs, ‘D--- it! Breathe!’” Suddenly, the breathing started to pick up, at least momentarily. “My dad turned, looked at me, smiling, and said, ‘I got you.’ After that, he closed his eyes and passed away.”

Among so many tears, Millard had to laugh. Though his older brother didn’t know the reason for the laughter, he later said it helped him feel that everything was going to be OK. Shortly after, Millard wrote the lyrics to “I Can Only Imagine,” even though the song would not be unveiled for many years. Remarkably, the song might never have surfaced if not for a conversation late in the illness. With his own sports-related dreams falling flat, the father always criticized Millard for pursuing music. Millard says his father thought it was a joke.

“Right before he passed away,” the son recalls, “my dad said, ‘Whatever you do, just be passionate about it. Don’t go for the 9-to-5 just because you have to. Whatever makes you happy, whatever fulfills you, do it.’ I’ll tell you, that was just what I needed to hear to stay broke for another six or seven years doing the band!”