He was all about adventure.
Jennifer Landon said she couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 years old when her dad, during a winter vacation in Colorado with their family, woke her in the wee hours, told her to put on her snow gear and then led her outside to a picture-perfect landscape of fresh-fallen snow.
But the snow wasn’t lily white. It was carnation pink.
“I loved strawberry-flavored milk,” she explained in a recent interview, “but we were really not allowed to drink it at home. To my delight, my dad had covered the entire backyard in (Nestlé) strawberry Quik. He brought out spoons and let me run around eating as much strawberry snow as I could.
“That’s only one of the many, many awesome memories I have of him. He loved to create adventure for us kids.”
Jennifer’s brother Sean has a similar memory.
“Dad would take me along on his errands occasionally, and he’d buy me marshmallows and candy, which was a huge treat because my mom was super healthy and made sure we ate only nutritious food. He’d say, ‘Now, don’t tell your mother!’ and of course the first thing I’d do when we got back home was tell her.”
Not long after, when Jennifer was 7 and Sean was 4, pancreatic cancer hit their family hard, out of the blue. Their beloved father, the renowned actor Michael Landon, was diagnosed with the disease and passed away three quick months later. The Landon family grieved deeply, as did millions of his fans around the globe.
He left behind nine children, including Jennifer and Sean, and his wife, Cindy.
As the youngest Landon children (today they are 30 and 27 years old, respectively), Jennifer and Sean keep their dad’s memory alive by sharing their favorite stories or by watching “Little House on the Prairie,” “Bonanza” or another of the popular television shows he starred in. On the anniversary of his death each year (2014 marked the 23rd anniversary), it’s common for the family to spend the day together, reminiscing about what made their dad so special.
“I was too young to know he was famous,” Sean said, “but I knew how fun and playful he was.”
While Jennifer and Sean are today building their own successful careers – she as an actor, writer and musician and he in real estate development, they admit that the effects of losing a parent as children are long-lasting and that they may never fully grasp how that loss shaped them.
“It is devastating beyond comprehension to lose a parent, especially at an early age,” Jennifer said. “When Dad was fighting the disease, Sean was too young to understand. I understood more; I knew if he was doing well or not well on any given day. When he passed away, I suddenly saw things differently and questioned everything. Even today I question rules and structure. I can’t say how much his death has affected me, but I know it’s a significant part of the fabric of who I am.”
Sean said that suffering loss at a young age has made him stronger, as well as empathetic to others struggling in tough times. These characteristics remind him of his dad.
“He always wanted to help the underdog, which is ironic because I see pancreatic cancer as an underdog disease – it’s not as mainstream as other cancers, and it needs much more attention. A lot of people don’t even know what a pancreas is. I’m sure my dad would have wanted to reach out to those afflicted with this disease if he had been given the time.”
Sean and Jennifer are advocates for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network. They’ve attended the organization’s annual Advocacy Day event in Washington, D.C., and met with their members of Congress to raise awareness and advocate for national funding for pancreatic cancer research.
They said the fight against pancreatic cancer will always be important to them. It’s one way of staying connected to their dad.
“His mission was to genuinely – and on a spiritual level – connect with people,” Jennifer said. “When I watch his shows, I can see that even though he’s acting, he is always tethered to the audience. Even today I can feel the connection he and I had. Although I was a kid, he talked to me like an adult and treated me like one. One time we sat down together and watched (the dramatic movie) “My Left Foot.” I was six years old!”
Sean and Jennifer agree that they’ll always cherish the special moments and memories their dad created for them. And they’ll never forget how brave he was, especially during his fight for his life.
Said Jennifer: “My dad used to play a game with us on the beach where we’d lie in the sand just at the edge of the ocean, facing away from the water on our stomachs. The rules of the game were to not look at the breaking waves. But you could hear them coming in, and you never knew whether they’d break on you and wash over you. The suspense was crazy! But it was exhilarating because you didn’t know what was going to happen – you just had to be brave and wait it out and see.”
The game was an adventure in bravery, as is life. Was Michael Landon using the game as a teachable moment for his young children?
“I would love to have a conversation with my dad and ask him that,” Jennifer said. “It’s sad that I can’t, but the short time we had with him was a true gift, and we’ll have these special memories forever.
“Everything can be a gift, depending on your perspective.”
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