When we got the call in April that my dad had been diagnosed with cancer, we knew that our time with him was limited. We just didn’t know what that limit was and it took some time for the doctors to sort that all out to the degree that they could.
That is something we all know, isn’t it? That our time with the people we love is limited. But most of us don’t live that way until the day we get that call.
Why is that? Do we not live in the full light of that knowledge because we get so caught up in getting day-to-day life done; lunches packed, bills paid, laundry folded? Or is it because living in the full light of that knowledge would be so paralyzing that we couldn’t go about the business of getting day-to-day life done?
Either way, a cancer diagnosis, is just that — it’s a blinding flash that seers the retina with that awful truth, that we are fragile and limited beings. And it leaves you squinting, stumbling and disoriented, like walking out of dark movie theater into the mid-day sun. And the only way to move forward is to look down at your feet, looking no further ahead than the next safe place to step.
Sean’s second-grade year ended late in May and the very next day, the three of us left for Illinois not knowing what to expect when we got there.
Steroid therapy and radiation had shrunk the brain tumor enough to restore his cognitive and speech abilities, so by the time we got home that first week in June, he was more or less like his old self, albeit a bit more tired and a lot more cold.
We spent our time together that week mostly out on the drive way, just as we often did in my growing up years in that house. Only this time instead of fixing stuff, mowing or working on a car, he sat in a lawn chair in the gentle June sun, wearing a hat and coat, trying to absorb the heat from the concrete, and watching the earth awaken to another season. I wore shorts and a t-shirt and tried to amuse him like I was seven again. “Hey Dad! Watch this! Watch me jump rope! Hey Dad watch me do a cartwheel! Hey Dad!…” Until he would nod off. Then I would sit beside him and watch the cars go past and his chest rise and fall until he stirred again.
That week was as unremarkable as any other week I might have come home in the past 32 years. We hung out together on the driveway, not doing anything in particular, just happy to occupy the same space. That’s the way it’s always been with us, that’s the way we like it.
We didn’t really talk about the cancer, we talked around it. We didn’t deny it, but at the same time, we didn’t acknowledge it. We are not a people who cry and hug and pour out our feelings. We know how we feel about each other, so pointing it out with words isn’t necessary.
At the end of the week, I stood beside our packed car. We had said our goodbyes and now it was time to head back to Texas. AD was behind the wheel with the engine running, Sean, in the backseat, having done several rounds of hugs and waves and had settled in for the long drive. But I stood there beside the car, with the door open, paralyzed, unable to make myself get in.
My dad stood away from the car on the driveway, just as he did 32 years earlier, the day I got in a car and left for Texas, where I would make my life. On that day, long ago, I was but 21-years-old and did not yet fully understand that time was limited. But I did take note of something about him on that day, something about his posture or the tensing of his mouth that told me that this day had come too soon for him, that it was snatching something he loved and treasured, right out of his hand and out of his house and out of his life. And I never needed him to say that.
On this day, he held the same posture of 32 years before, only now he leaned on a cane, the same tensing of the mouth, only now he looked tired and small and his fragility was beginning to show.
I dropped my chin to my chest and began to sob. “I don’t want to leave, I don’t want to leave…” was all I could say. My mother hugged me. My dad stood away and looked down.
I took a deep breath and got in the car and we backed out of the driveway. AD patted my leg because what else is there to do?
I would make two more trips home to spend time with my dad but Sean would not. As we pulled out of the driveway, he hung out the window and waved and yelled, “Goodbye Papa Ed! See ya later alligator!”
It was time to get time to get back to getting day-to-day life done for awhile, until the next phone call.
I cried all the way to St. Louis.