The One About My Dad
I wish I knew the right way to start this entry. I wish I didn't have to write it at all. I think I'll start by telling you that yesterday, while I was digging around for the photo album of the trip to Egypt Dad painstakingly put together, I found my Dad's senior yearbook. I'm sure I'd seen it before, years and years ago, but it felt like I was looking at it for the first time. I flipped to his portrait page, and found this:
I recognized the poem the second I read it--it's a walking song that features in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Many people will remember that my Dad was a huge Star Wars fan, but he read the works of J.R.R. Tolkien obsessively from a very young age and I think the two sagas were often at war for dominance in his heart. He loved that series madly--he'd reread it every few years, especially when a new book was released with illustrations or maps, and was a total member of the FRODO LIVES club. Some of my earliest memories are of him reading an old paperback version out on the deck of our cabin in northern Arizona. It's not something many knew, or would think just from looking at him, but I feel like it's an important puzzle piece as to who he was as a person. You can trace the lines of that passion as they snake out to all of his other great loves and favorite movies, and, more importantly, his character.
Bilbo composed the song, and it's repeated several times over in the series with modified verses. Frodo explains it this way: "He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. 'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'" I've always interpreted it to mean that there is the potential for adventure at every split in the great road of life, but you can't predict what you might come across. You only can face it with courage in your heart, and the strength you already bring with you. Really, it was a beautiful choice for a soon-to-be graduate, especially one who already had one foot on the path to success and everything in life to look forward to.
It is also appropriate for the last journey my dad will take.
After an extremely brave battle with cancer, my father passed away peacefully early on Monday morning. His illness was not something my family chose to talk about publicly. My dad was a private person, and he never wanted to feel pitied or treated any differently--he strove to keep life as normal as possible. The best testament to this I can think of is that he went work at the same time he was going through a dozen chemotherapy treatments. He lost his hair, struggled with horrendous side effects, and still, he wanted to do all that he could for the company and the people on his team. Even when he was too weak and tired to drive on his own, he would have my mother drive him and she'd sit and wait for him in the lobby of his office until he was ready to go home. When I tell you he was the strongest, most determined person I have ever known, it is not an exaggeration. He set goals and met them, he refused to back down when it came to doing the right thing, and he could be impossibly stubborn about the smallest things. Cancer was something that happened to him, not who he was.
When he was originally diagnosed, the doctors told Dad to get everything in order at home, because it would be a miracle for him to survive to autumn. He proved them all wrong, and did it with a kind of casual nonchalance that was so him. In February, after his last chemo treatment, his doctor told him he was in almost complete remission. We were ecstatic. My family planned a trip to the United Kingdom to celebrate my parents' 30th wedding anniversary. Dad was so excited he would be able to see at least one of The Hobbit movies when it came out in December, that he would be here to see my brother graduate college, and be there when my next book came out.
You cannot imagine our devastation when we learned that this was actually not the case.
Two weeks later, we discovered that he had an extremely rare complication--the cancer had gone to the lining of his brain, the one place where the chemo that had been so effective on him couldn't reach. It was the cruelest twist of fate and the worst kind of irony imaginable. There were no effective treatment options, no clinical trials available. The doctor told my dad that many patients in his position choose to go spend their final weeks at a beach, sipping pina coladas. My dad gave him his patented Are-You-Kidding-Me? look and told him he wanted to fight. That he was willing to do everything he could on his end, if his doctor was only willing to try. And, you know, we genuinely believed that his force of will would be enough to prove Dad right again. He had that special ability to make people believe something impossible was actually only a few steps away. I remember him telling me once that when it came to crises and problems, there were two kinds of people in the world: the first group will spend their time wallowing, trying to figure out what caused the problem, or why it was happening to them, so much so that they get sucked down into their own panic. The second group saw a problem and immediately began looking for solutions, for paths to take or even create when they didn't already exist. Dad was firmly in the latter group, and I admired him so, so much for his level head and determination.
Although he spent the last week of his life in a hospital, there wasn't a day that went by that he didn't tell my brother, sister, and I that he was going to be around for years, and that we weren't allowed to cry because he would be fine in the end. It wasn't denial, either. The stories he read when he was young seemed to back him up. After all, the heroes he knew didn't falter. The noble-hearted always persevered in the end, so long as they stayed true to their beliefs.
And yet, sometimes the hero doesn't pull through. Sometimes the true victory is in refusing to give in to despair when life disables you severely, and brings you to low after low. He never caught a break. Not a single one. But if you think he complained about his bad luck, you'd be greatly mistaken. "It's another thing to get through," he'd say. "We'll do it together."
My dad overcame so much in his life, but it was always a struggle to get him to talk about it. When I was younger, I mistook this as him being shy. As I've grown up and come to know him as an adult, I finally understood how deeply ingrained his humbleness was. So much so, that when I was working on his obituary yesterday, my mom had to ask me to include that he earned his CCIM designation. Guys, I had no idea what the hell that even meant until I looked it up. He was a certified expert in his field, and was one of the first ten people in the state of Arizona to hold the title. Only 6% of people who practice in his field ever obtain it. Basically, he was a certified bad ass. This is even more impressive when you consider that he grew up with learning disabilities that were so terrible that his mother was told it would be a miracle if he ever graduated high school. Not only did he graduate high school, he went to college and earned his MBA. He worked HARD. His own father passed away when he was still in high school, and Dad did everything in his power to step up and help take care of his siblings and his mother. He was DRIVEN. He knew from a young age exactly what he wanted to do with his life, and he was one of the lucky few that loved what he did and the people he worked with.
My parents... I wish there were enough words in the English language to describe how fiercely my parents loved one another. It was the kind of love that makes all others look like thin shadows in comparison. I was privileged with a happy, happy family growing up, and it was largely because my parents were so secure in their love for one another. They were best friends. When my mom would try to carry out an argument with him, Dad would refuse to participate and would always say that he loved her too much to ever want to fight with her. One side of my dad that I wish more people had been able to see was what a secret romantic he was. We've lived in the same house in Arizona for over twenty years now, and he couldn't remember the next door neighbors' first names--but, believe you me, he could tell you exactly what my mom was wearing the first time he laid eyes on her. He took such great pleasure in finding the sweetest, most romantic cards for every occasion. To fall back on cliches, he genuinely thought my mom was a queen, and he was very much her knight in shining armor. Just yesterday, when my mom was looking for something he had hidden in his sock drawer, the first thing she found was an old envelope and a check she had written to him for twenty-five kisses for his twenty-fifth birthday. He was fifty-six when he passed away. He kept it for thirty-one years.
Mom was his primary caregiver during his treatment; she slept beside him in hospital chairs for weeks on end, helped him walk when he could barely stand, kept him going even when they entered the darkest days. Between the two of them, there was enough stubbornness and strength to save the world several times over. The depth of their love for each other was the most beautiful, precious thing I have ever witnessed in my life. On that last day, when we knew his time was coming, the last thing I remember him saying was, "I love you," to her, before turning his face up and waiting for her to kiss him.
The thing about cancer is this: it teaches you, very quickly, the value of a single day. Of a single word. It turns your life on its head so quickly it leaves you dizzy. Every day for the past year, I've felt our victories getting smaller and smaller. A wish for a miracle cure turned into a wish for one more good year. A wish for Dad to take that last trip to the UK turned into a wish for him to get just one full night of sleep without pain. A wish for a clean scan turned into a wish for the use of one of his arms, so he could take my mom out to dinner again. He suffered so much. So much. I can barely stand to think about it, it drives me straight to tears. Being with him in the hospital that last week, seeing him get weaker and weaker every single day left me with a kind of excruciating pain I didn't know existed until I felt it crawl up inside me and take hold of my heart. I wonder all the time how I will ever be able to shake it.
To get through the upcoming days, I'm trying to force out the awful memories of his time with the illness in favor of those times he was happy and healthy, but still, little flashes of that last week come creeping in. I close my eyes and see the bright red socks he wore. I tighten my hand into a fist, and I feel how strong his grip was in mine, even at the end. I remember how paper-thin and delicate his skin was to the touch, the frighteningly soft cadence of his speech, listening to the rhythm of his breathing to make sure it didn't falter.
I keep trying to remind myself his passing is only one moment in what was a very long journey. Eventually, I know that when I think of him, it'll only be as my strong, healthy Dad, which is the way he would have wanted to be remembered. So much of what I love is tied to him, meaning every day will have its own unique struggle. The music I love, I love because I grew up with him listening to it. The books I read, I read because he gave them to me. I love history because he placed such a high importance on it. I can't even think about Star Wars without going to pieces. You have to understand, my dad didn't love things by halves. When he loved something, it was with every fiber of his big heart. This is the best picture I can think to capture what I mean--how he could still act as excited as a ten-year-old boy at fifty years-old:
He was so overwhelmed and happy to finally be able to visit Antietam, just like he was SO excited when i told him I wanted to go to school in Virginia. One of his life goals was to see many of the Civil War battlefields he'd grown up reading about. Dad was fascinated by military history and incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about preserving it for future generations. When we were trying to decide on what charity we would ask people to make contributions to instead of sending flowers, the first thing that came to us was the Civil War Trust, which he donated to regularly. One of my favorite memories of him was the trip we took to visit colleges in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina during Fall Break in high school. We road-tripped it across so many state lines, visiting every battlefield and plantation along the way, staying in the weirdest hotels including one particularly memorable Howard Johnson. When you read The Darkest Minds, you'll understand, I think, why I chose to set the story in that part of the country. You'll see the echoes of my Dad and that trip.
Since he passed, people have been so quick to reassure me that he was so proud of my siblings and I, but the thing is, we all knew. Dad was never shy about telling us how much he loved us and how much pride he had in us, even when we were little kids. Just this past week, after spending a terrible hour getting measured and prepped for a new, desperate course of radiation, he came out of the room with the radiology technicians and the first thing he said was, "Alex! What's the new name of your book again? I was telling the girls all about it..." Dad never bragged about himself, but he was more than happy to brag about us.
I admire and respect and love him so much. It's only been three days, and already I miss talking to him and half-expect to look up and see him walk through the door. I try so hard not to dwell in how unfair it all is, and I've stopped trying to find meaning or reasons for what happened. He loved his life, every single moment of it, and fought so hard to keep it. I know he's with us in spirit, that he's shaking his head in dismay over how much I've gone on about how great he was. The strangest thing is that when I cry now, it's mostly when someone shows me and my family any small bit of kindness, or remembers Dad for the excellent person he was. It's not even so much sadness as it is gratitude and appreciation that we won't be the only ones carrying him in our hearts. I see now what people mean when they say that grief is a beast that wears a thousand faces. It never feels exactly the same each time it appears, but you recognize the shape of it inside of you regardless.
There's this line from a Dylan Thomas poem that I've been repeating to myself over and over again these past few days: After the first death, there is no other. I believe it down to my core that there is a life beyond this one, and that Dad has gone on to the next great journey. I only wish he didn't have to have such a head start on the rest of us.
Still round the corner there may wait A new road or a secret gate, And though I oft have passed them by, A day will come at last when I Shall take the hidden paths that run West of the Moon, East of the Sun. - J.R.R. Tolkien