Last April, after too many phone calls from my mom at the hospital, I decided I needed a few days off of work and a few days at home. My father had three surgeries since that February and though my parents never said it was serious, something told me to go to North Carolina.
Just go home.
When my mom picked me up from the airport, my father wasn’t with her. She was coy about the reasons why, just saying that the incision from his appendix surgery was deep and painful, and that riding on bumpy Southern roads was difficult for him. I wanted to pry for more details. I wanted her to come clean.
I wanted her to tell me what was really going on.
But she didn’t divulge and I didn’t press, instead I tried not to look at her as we drove the two hours back to Asheville from Charlotte, her blue eyes glowing in the traffic and car headlights. They looked sad and tired, and though I told myself it had just been a stressful few months for her – with the medical billing, hospital trips and all – I knew it must be more than that. My mama doesn’t lose her spunk for any ole’ reason, it has to be something major.
My dad was awake when we made it back home, but he didn’t greet me with a big glass of red wine, like he usually does. He wasn’t playing his music from the satellite radio that he’s explained how it works about a million times to me. He wasn’t asking my mom to dance in the kitchen, in their matching Kmart slippers, kissing her in the same way I imagined he has since they first met in 1985. He couldn’t hide his smile – that one that’s just for me, just for his little – and only – girl, just for his daughter that broke his heart by moving 800 miles away to New York City. But I could tell he was uncomfortable and exhausted, distraught and full of thoughts he wasn’t sharing.
Again, I didn’t ask too many questions, I just curled up in the corner of his chair on his side, like I always have and laid my head on his shoulder, careful not to touch the gnarly stiches I was afraid of brushing up against. He smelled like Old Spice and soap, and I let out the first big exhale since February when my mom called to say my dad’s appendix had burst and he was going into the ER.
Should I come home? I can catch a flight tonight? I asked, holed up in a conference room at work, trying my best not to think the very worst.
No, no. It’s not a serious surgery, she said. I’ll tell you if you need to come back, don’t worry sweetie, she said.
Two weeks later, I called my mom while walking Lucy, our morning ritual, and her voice was frantic: Your dad’s stitches came undone during his sleep last night, we’re at the hospital getting staples instead.
Mom, do I need to come home? Is he okay? What’s going on? The hospital again? I asked, stopping in the middle of the street as Lucy looked up at me confused. My mom reassured me that all was well and I should just keep my phone on.
Two weeks later, I called after work and asked about their day and my mom so casually said, Oh, your dad had another surgery today. No big deal, sweetie. Everything is fine. Don’t worry!
Mom, why did you never want me to come home when dad went to the hospital all those times? I don’t understand, I asked that night after dad went to sleep well before we did, something that almost never happens. What’s going on, mom? Again, she refused to divulge anything, and I dropped the issue, reminding myself that if something was wrong, they surely wouldn’t keep it from me.
The next day we went for a long walk as a family and then to the Lucky Otter, one of my parents’ favorite watering holes. We sipped on margaritas and we all ignored the awkward tension between all of us, the big secret that no one wanted to say, but needed to be said. We made small talk and I tried my best to stay positive, just waiting for the shoe to drop and smash the conversation. I watched my dad give my mom the look to reassure her and she gave her encouraging smile, a quick nod of the head, and a huge gulp of her drink. My dad sat his down and said words I still hear crystal clear:
You know when I had that last surgery, Linds? He started. I kept eye contact. Well, when my appendix burst, they tested the organs around, just to make sure everything was fine and unaffected. And they found cancer. I had some of my colon removed and I find out in three weeks if it’s gone completely. They caught it early, so it’s probably going to be fine. I didn’t want to add stress to your life or worry you before I needed to. You’re an adult, you should know, but I wanted to protect you.
I thought I might burst into tears, and they started to fill my eyes (just as they are right now as I type this) and in front of all of the people at this restaurant, I walked over and sat in my dad’s lap and hugged him. And I did cry. He did too. But mostly, I just felt relieved. Relieved to know the truth. Relieved that his surgery went okay. Relieved that I would know his diagnosis in just a few weeks.
Relieved I was still able give my dad a big bear hug, as we’ve always called them.
And by some miracle of the best kind, his cancer is still gone today. He goes every three months for testing (I hold my breath all day long on those days) and he’s had other issues since then too, but he’s mostly at the end of a very long road of recovery. One that’s tested my mother’s patience, my father’s courage and my strength.
One that’s changed our family.
My father has always been this brave, resilient man in my eyes – someone that’s capable of absolutely anything, and who always encourages me to take risks. He’s lived a big, full and exciting life, and more than that, he’s let love guide him every step of the way. A true romantic, a funny guy and a tormentor – he’s had my heart my entire life, and frankly, it’ll take quite a man to ever compare to him.
And though ‘cancer’ is a very scary word, one that I didn’t fully understand until it affected me directly – my dad fought it. He refused to let it bring him down. He wouldn’t let it define him. A little over a year later, he’s riding his bike. He’s looking forward to swimming at our lake house this summer, his stitches cleared by the doctors and only a scar left to remind him. He’s planning a big trip with my mom next year – their 29th year of marriage. And he’s sending me letters every few weeks and leaving me funny voicemails nearly everyday.
He may seem more human now to me – instead of a superhero. But I treasure him more. I value his advice, his words and just being able to hear his voice. I think about him more often and I miss him more than before. And though I didn’t think it was possible, I’m a bigger daddy’s girl at 25 than I probably was at 12.
On Father’s Day and every day, I’m thankful for the wonderful, incredible and loving man that I’m lucky enough to call dad. I can’t wait to introduce him to the man I’ll marry, call him when I get that book deal (and yes dad, buy you a new boat when I do), and watch him hold my future children.
Thanks for teaching me to never, ever give up. And dad – thank you for never giving up either. I love you from NYC and back, and I’ll always be your butterfly.