It was a sunny day in mid April 2007 when she got a phone call from her dad. He was changing their plans, instead of going to his house for lunch they were gonna meet at the Olive Garden. It was her first time there, and her last time. She knew he hadn’t been feeling well, and that he had something he wanted to tell her. She was hoping this was cause of celebration.
No one knew just how sick he had been, or for how long. He hid it pretty well, but when he couldn’t walk the distance of the fishing pier anymore he knew something was seriously wrong. He denied having a heart attack on the beach the summer before, and instead just said it was too much sun. He didn’t want to face the reality of the situation, no one did.
When they were ordering drinks she acted on a whim and ordered a berry daiquiri. She never drank so it was a treat to her. He encouraged her to do it, afterwards it dawned on her why he was so insistent. When dinner was over, and no more small talk could be made, he brought up the test. They had found a mass in his lung, and they were waiting on biopsy results. It all became so clear to her at that very moment the news left his lips.
This was a setup. He brought her to the Olive Garden so that she wouldn’t make a scene. He planned it all along, and she was supposed to stay positive and chipper about it because they were in public. He knew her too well, because he was right. She didn’t make a scene, she waited until she got into her car and to sob. She continued on with her trip in New Jersey and tried to pretend like it was all going to be okay.
It was early May and she was walking into JC Penney’s to find something to wear to a wedding when her phone rang. It was her dad and he got the biopsy results back. It was malignant, and they didn’t know what stage it was in. That test would come later in the week. There wasn’t a whole lot she could say, she just started crying. This time she didn’t hold it in, and just stood in the parking lot crying. She was the last person he called, it was the one he dreaded the most to make. In true ironic form, the first thing she did to calm herself down was light a cigarette.
He was a life long smoker. He started when he was 14 to look cool in his own admittance. She like him started at the same age, and for the same reasons. They were a lot alike in both looks and personality. They held similar attitudes to money and life, and they couldn’t be in a place for more than a few hours together before they started bickering. Their sameness prevented closeness, which bred resentment in her. They kept their distance and talked more on the computer than by any other means. It wasn’t until she became a mom herself that they began to see eye to eye on things. Their relationship went from father –daughter, to that of friends. They could speak openly about life events, and not fear judgement anymore. They began to heal old wounds, and then the mass happened.
Chemo was started and ended, and started again. He shaved his head because he didn’t want to look sick, and to her he just looked strange. She was used to his thick dark brown hair, that was so soft and full. When his hair finally started to grow back it was baby fine, and grey. This cancer was killing him. It was taking its toll and he wasn’t even sixty yet. He got incredibly sick during the first two rounds of chemo. Although, she never knew this until afterwards because he wouldn’t tell her anything. He tried to protect her from the seriousness of it. She played stupid and lived in a comfortable denial that these things weren’t actually happening. She avoided going to New Jersey because it would make it all real. The cancer, the chemo, the sickness, the sadness and the hope that maybe he could beat it after all.
He had never really been a fist fighter despite being the biggest guy in the room. He was a fighter with wits. If he couldn’t charm you over then he didn’t really want anything to do with you in the first place. He was the type of guy that could sell ice to eskimos and she loved it. She’d study him as she was growing up. Mimicking his actions, his inflections, his tones. When he was driving and flipped someone off, she’d be behind him in the backseat doing the same. When she was five she told her mother that she didn’t love her as much as she loved her daddy. She truly believed that every little girl needed her daddy more than anyone else in this world, she still does.
The cancer was Stage II B. She had no idea what they meant, but after a quick look around on the internet she knew it wasn’t good. They scheduled surgery for October to try and remove his lung. He was in one of the best hospitals in the tri-state region. There was so much hope surrounding him when he went in. When the surgeon came out sooner than expected, we all knew it was bad news. He had to repeat his findings to her stepmother twice because it wasn’t sinking in. The mass had grown. It spread to the wall lining directly behind the tumor which is why they never saw it on the PET scans. There was another tumor sitting over his aorta. They couldn’t take out that tumor, so they left it all behind. Facing him in recovery was hard. He wanted to know how it went, so they all skirted the issue. She asked him how he felt as he flirted with the nurses. He asked her if he still had a lung. She stared at her feet or asked about recovery time.
There was only one time in her life she ever saw her father truly vulnerable. He used to be a cop, and he locked up a set of brothers some ten years earlier. They got out of jail and ran into him at a local dive joint that served fried egg sandwiches. They jumped him and he got pretty banged up. His brothers came the next day swearing revenge, and she’s pretty sure they got it although he would never really answer her questions about it. It crushed her to know that her father wasn’t invincible like she thought for so long.
The months passed as they always do, and pneumonia came and went like the tides. Christmas was the hardest to get through for both of them. His face has grown puffy from the steroids. His hair had grown a lot since that summer and he had it cut twice. It was the little things like that, that he now took pleasure in. She knew this would be their last Christmas together so she video taped as much as she could. He would get winded really easily and need to rest, and she would sneak downstairs for a cigarette.
To be honest this was never how she imagined her father dying. She thought it would have been all the drinking he did. She thought his liver would give out before his lungs. She thought he’d live to be a hundred if God let him because he loved life that much. He never stopped fishing, making friends or throwing parties. He was loved by women, respected by men, and made little kids squeal with excitement when he headed their way. This wasn’t the way his story was supposed to end.
The previous Christmas she had bought him the movie “Big Fish” and sat down and watched it with him. She sobbed at the end when the father dies of cancer himself. He cocked his head to the side and looked at her crying, and all he said was, “Are you telling me I tell lots of stories?”. It was the most appropriate response she could have asked for. He was always telling stories. It wasn’t until she was in her mid twenties that she found out the white crosses in rivers were channel markers, and not where they found dead bodies. She could never tell a story quite as good as him; but she knew that she would be the one to finish telling his story later on.
In February she announced she was getting married after 7 years of living as if she was married. He was thrilled. It gave him something to look forward to. He started concocting travel plans of winnebagos and campsites. He bragged to his doctors about it, and they said if he can make it through one more round of chemo he’d be given clearance to go. He was half way through the last round when the pneumonia kicked in again. He was sure he had it beat. He knew it never rained on his parade.
Growing up he would throw big birthday bashes for her, since her birthday coincided with the 4th of July. If the party started at 1pm it would rain until 12:59. Then the clouds would part, and it’d be beautiful for the rest of the day. She used to think this was a fluke until her 12th birthday. Then it just seemed common place. It really wouldn’t rain on his parade. Her luck wasn’t as plentiful, and there still hasn’t been a year when she’s planned her daughters birthday party without it getting rained out.
She knew when he announced the last round of chemo he wouldn’t make it. She never said it out loud though. That would make it real, more real than the mass, and more real than the cancer itself. She wanted him there. She wanted her daddy to walk her down the aisle. She wanted her dance with him, her moment. Holding on to that hope was keeping her going as well.
In March 2008 he was admitted into the hospital. He couldn’t breath on his own and had a panic attack. The panic attack sparked a heart attack, and they put him on a ventilator. But before they did he asked for one last Heineken and for someone to call his wife and tell her he loves her. She was on the next flight out of Charleston. She walked into the ICU wing where all of his friends and all of their family lined the walls and spilled out of the waiting room. She was hugged, and kissed, and told he’d be okay. She went into his room expecting the worst and found it. He was just lying there letting a machine do his breathing. She tried to keep a brave face on but she crumbled within seconds. They kept him sedated for a week to let his body fight off the infection.
She remembered what it was like being put in a medical coma. She had been there herself 5 years earlier. She remember the people talking in the background more than anything else. It was nothing but darkness and chatter. She heard the nurses come and go, and the doctors give assessments. She remembered hearing her mother cry, and telling her that her father was on the way. She remembered the small things and in that she took comfort. So now she sat at her fathers bedside, and prayed and bargained with God to let him hear her now. She told him everything that she needed to say during the week. She forgave him for her childhood, and cursed him for getting sick. She told him she loved him more times in that week than she had in her lifetime.
He being the stubborn son of a bitch that he is, woke up despite being drugged. The doctors told him he could stay awake so long as he didn’t mess with the tubes. He agreed for the time being, and proceeded to charm the nurses without even being able to speak.
She learned to read his lips, and laughed at his jokes. He had asked for a back scratcher and she made him one out of a spaghetti spoon and a paper towel roll. He was impressed. It’s something he would have done himself. She told him of the wedding plans and asked if she should cancel it. He said no, and she was to have a good time. She honored his wishes. It became clear he wasn’t leaving and everyday the waiting room was filled with people who wanted to sit with him and talk with him one last time. She like him, was good under pressure, and kept the feeling in the room light. She’d make jokes and pretend like everything was going to be okay.
It got closer to the wedding day and she had to leave to go back to Charleston. Before she left town she made a quick trip to the hospital. She brought her wedding dress and did her hair in the bathroom. She wouldn’t let the cancer rob them of this moment. So she went in and turned on the radio, and they got their dance. She twirled around, and swayed while he moved his feet side to side. It’s not the way either of them pictured it, but it was by its own right their small miracle.
She was wed on April 20th 2008, on a day that was supposed to be nothing but thunderstorms. It rained early that morning, which they say is supposed to be good luck. By the afternoon, there was barely a cloud in the sky. She still likes to think that maybe his luck was starting to rub off on her. Her mother walked her down the aisle which was bittersweet for the both of them. Before the ink could even dry on the marriage license she was back in New Jersey. She returned on April 23rd and passed out. The next morning she got a phone call to get to the hospital quick, his kidneys were failing. She sat with her the entire day. She held onto his hand, staring at it. He had such big hands that we used to joke that they were really bear paws. They were so smooth. She just sat there crying and touching. He was starting to get so cold.
She never knew whether she could trust those hands. They were as quick to grab you up and tickle you as they were to smack you. She just knew she didn’t want to forget them. She found herself looking for her father in the hands of other men all the time. Were they as big, as smooth, did they keep their nails trimmed the same way. Did they have kinder hands or were they as hard working.
When her immediate family came in, and sat with him until his final moments she made sure she had a spot next to his hands. She sat and listened as his body worked out its own rhythm of breathing when the tubes were removed. She listened to him snoring like he did in his recliner when she was a little girl. She listened as memories came and went throughout the day. She listened to the stories that people told of him, and when she finally had a moment alone with him she finished his for him.
He was fishing in Montauk and everyone he loved was there. The beer was cold, and the bait was plentiful and the sun never stopped shining. There was music in the air as well as laughter. There was a lighthouse in the distance to remind us of our way home. There was no more pain, no more masses, no more cancer. It was 7:30pm when he took his last breath.