Ten days after our wedding, my dad passed away.
It wasn’t entirely unexpected; we knew he was sick, and we knew that at the end of August his doctors had given him 2-3 months to live. However, he didn’t even make six weeks. And while he clearly wasn’t feeling well, was very tired and losing strength, we thought we had a little more time. So much so that when the phone rang at 3:45 in the morning, I assumed my mother had called me by accident.
He wasn’t going to get better. That’s simultaneously the worst part of it and the blessing in disguise. We wanted him to get better, but it wasn’t happening. Something put those cancer cells into overdrive, multiplying so fast the chemo couldn’t keep them in check. And he was so proud and independent that he would not have wanted the level of care he was clearly going to need within the next day or two. I don’t really know how much, if any, control we have over dying, but in the past few weeks I’ve heard many people talk of patients “hanging on” and, conversely, “letting go”. It’s fairly clear he was determined to make it to our wedding, and I expect that, to the best of his ability, Dad let go when he needed to.
It wasn’t going to get better.
It probably doesn’t surprise you that I change the channel every time one of those cancer center commercials comes on TV, the ones that make cancer seem like something anyone can live through if they just get themselves into one of their facilities. They enrage me. Dad got the best care possible and still died.
But here’s what is the hardest for me: the hours between five and nine pm. I was single for a very long time, and Dad was a worrier, so almost every night I had to call and check in, so he knew I wasn’t lying dead in a ditch somewhere. It was a little ridiculous, I know; many of my friends talk to their parents weekly, if not monthly. But it seemed like such a small thing, a quick phone call so he didn’t have to worry. And when he was alive it typically was a small thing – often it was a quick hello, an update on the weather in whatever state I happened to be living in at the time, and a quick update on our individual days: a dump run for him, an intolerable meeting for me. Sometimes there would be things I would see or do where I would make a mental note to tell my dad, because he would either find it funny or interesting. But there were also long conversations, about many things, both on the phone and in person. For all his quiet nature, Dad was a talker, and he liked to talk about things. Even hard things, like war, and hurts, and losses. And even death, when he had to.
After his own father died, Dad said what he missed most was talking to him, and now I know exactly what he meant. It will be three weeks, tomorrow, and I can tell you that in all of my 44 years I have never gone this long without talking to my dad.
The day dad died, and the next few days afterwards, were quintessentially beautiful fall days. The foliage peaked; the air was cool but not too cold; the breeze that blew carried the smell of leaves. I kept finding myself humming the song “Today”, which in the weeks before his death Dad declared as his favorite song. He preferred the New Christy Minstrel’s version; I prefer John Denver (who, early in his career, was part of the New Christy Mistrels — as was Kenny Rogers, which I find baffling).
Today while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrow’s shall all pass away
‘Ere I forget all the joy that is mine today
Dad worked hard in the last few months of his life to find joy in every day. Visits and phone calls, funny pictures of my sister’s dog, finding something that actually tasted good to eat (chemo does weird stuff to your taste, apparently). And he was grateful for every little thing that he could count as joyful. I’m pretty sure that if Dad could send me a message from the other side it would be to look after your mom, take good care of your new husband, find some joy in every day…and for pete’s sake clean out your car.
Now, I probably don’t have to tell you that I’m the sort of person who has repeatedly tried to start gratitude journals and wound up flinging each and every one of them aside after day 2. I HOLD GRUDGES, PEOPLE. But for dad, I’ll make one more attempt at finding joy every day, because he’d want me to. I’m trying to post a photo every day on Instagram (username: lorifindingjoy), but not all joy can be captured in a picture. So on some days, you’ll just have to trust me. (Yesterday I took a two hour nap on the couch and it was blissful.) Some days, I expect I will have to dig deep to find joy. I’ve had a couple of those days, and right now my fall back is to remember our wedding, and be joyful (and grateful!) that dad was able to be there, and was able to walk me down the aisle, and was able to yell “yahoooo” after the ceremony was over. And I’m eternally grateful for photos like this one: