I remember that night. We were waiting for Dad to come home from work so we could go out to dinner. He was really late and we were really hungry. Then, there was a knock at the door. I was only three years old but I remember it so clearly. A large man, a co-worker of my Dad’s, stood on our porch on the cold winter night and told my Mom that Dad had been involved in a horrible car accident with a drunk driver. My Dad was in the hospital with severe injuries and was not expected to make it through the night. He did.
I remember that day. My parents had just signed the mortgage papers on a beautiful old house, a fixer-upper, a project for them to take on together. Dad got a phone call from his doctor after a work physical. He had to get to the hospital right away. The blood work came back from the lab and his kidneys were in distress. He found out that day that he was in renal failure and had to start dialysis. I remember going with him to the dialysis clinic that first day. The doctors were cold. The nurses unpleasant. Fellow patients miserable. I wondered how he would find the courage to go back to that place for his next treatment. He did.
I remember that day. I got a call that Dad was in the hospital once again. It was his heart and he needed surgery. It was different this time. Quintuple bypass surgery, a long hospital stay, followed by treatment in a rehabilitation hospital. Months later, it was springtime. They were finally able to remove the breathing tube so he could talk. He asked his doctors if he was going to live long enough to walk me down the aisle at my wedding that September. They told him, “no”. He did.
My Dad beat the odds, over and over and over again. My Dad suffered greatly. He had continued health problems from that car accident. He had high blood pressure, stomach problems, heart problems, renal failure, painful neuropathy, and other conditions caused by dialysis and the many medications he was prescribed. My father used to say the nerve pain felt like knives constantly stabbing his feet, how he sat up at night as tears streamed down his face because of the pain. He had good days and bad days but he was always, always in pain. He never complained. He said that complaining accomplished nothing. It made him feel worse. He never walked around with a storm cloud over his head. He laughed. He loved. He LIVED. People used to be in shock when they would find out how sick he was because they couldn’t believe it. Sickness never defined him. My Dad didn’t want to be a “sick person” …so he wasn’t. He chose to be “Donald” instead… just like I choose to be “Jen”.
My Dad was bigger than life. He never met a stranger. He told stories like no other. He could make you smile, whether you wanted to or not. He had a quick Italian temper and you were in for it if you found yourself on the receiving end, especially if you hurt his family or were mistreating someone. He worked hard. He played hard. When I was little, before my Dad got sick; he worked all the time. He left before the sun came up and didn’t come home until after dark. We didn’t see much of him but he made sure we knew how much he loved us. If we needed him, he was there. He was the first one to offer help, the first one to jump in when there was work to be done.
When he got older, after he was sick, he finally started to enjoy life. He could no longer work but my Dad was not a man who could sit still. He loved to read. He loved to cook. He made the best tomato sauce you ever tasted – with homegrown tomatoes from his garden that he cooked for hours so that it filled the whole house with that delicious aroma, straight out of an Italian restaurant. He prepared the tomatoes, the onions, the spices in the kitchen, often sitting down in a chair at the stove and taking breaks when he was too exhausted to stand. He canned his tomato sauce along with other vegetables and special recipes and shared his canned goods with friends and neighbors. He loved to cook family dinners. He spent hours preparing everyone’s favorite dishes. He put so much love into cooking meals for our family, meals that he was unable to eat because he suffered from severe nausea at times. He still sat at the table with us and his smile would express how happy he was just to have us all together. We never expected him to go through all that trouble, especially when he wasn’t feeling well, but he wanted to – nothing made him happier than sharing a meal and special times with his family.
He enjoyed reading, gardening, and sitting on the porch. One of my favorite memories of my Dad was picking a bowl of raspberries from his raspberry bushes in the back yard early on summer mornings. We sat on the porch swing and ate them for breakfast, while discussing current events and happenings. He planted those raspberry bushes himself when they moved into that old house and the love he poured into those bushes could be tasted in those berries. He put his love into everything he did and you couldn’t help but feel that love surround you when you were near him.
Nothing made him happier than his family. He loved my Mom beyond measure. He would do anything for her. It was obvious to everyone. It was the little things – the way he made sure she had eaten after a long day at work, the way he picked up her favorite candy for her, the way he protected her. He loved my brother and I more than anything too. It was often embarrassing how he bragged about us, about anything we did. I am sure people were tired of hearing about us but he was a proud father and no one would dare say a negative word to him about his kids. He was so invested in everything we did. He was the most enthusiastic cheerleader and my biggest supporter.
All those amazing things he did, he did while he was suffering. I watched that man struggle to stand, to walk, to deal with the pain he felt on a daily basis. Still, through that pain, he managed to help so many people. He was feeling sick after dialysis but he still drove fellow patients home who were too weak to wait on their public transportation rides. He was up most nights in pain, but still managed to anonymously gather presents for the family of a cashier at a local convenience store, whose grandchildren weren’t going to have much of a Christmas. I watched that man give of himself when he had so very little left to give but he did it with pure joy.
My Dad was my hero and watching him live his life with dignity, with strength, and with pure defiance of the illness that caused him so much pain and anguish helped me through my own struggles. I learned that bad things happen to us, that life knocks you down sometimes but that doesn’t mean you have to let it keep you down. You always got back up. I learned that we all have difficult times but life is never so hard that you can’t help your fellow man. I learned that through helping others, we help ourselves. I learned that life is about more than working and getting ahead. Life is about the little things – sunshine, a home-cooked meal, fresh red raspberries. I learned that even when faced with an uncertain future, you never, ever gave up. I learned that God often uses us to teach others, that our suffering could have been for the benefit of someone else. As much as I wished I could have taken my Dad’s pain away from him, I felt like witnessing how my Dad dealt with his illness, I was better equipped to deal with mine. That might have been the best gift he ever game me – the gift of witnessing his strength.
I remember the day that I found out I had cancer. I didn’t know if I was strong enough to make it through the next day, let alone the next year of treatments. I didn’t know if I could make it through chemotherapy, a double mastectomy with reconstruction, and radiation therapy. I did.
I remember the day I had an injection to boost my white blood cell counts. That night, I passed out in the bathroom. I crawled to my bed. I suffered horrific bone pain as a side effect of my treatment and I didn’t know if I would make it through that night. I did.
I remember the day I found out my cancer returned. When the doctor said that I had stage 4 cancer that spread to my bone and lungs, I didn’t know if I could get out of that chair. I didn’t know if I could face treatment again. I didn’t know if I could ever truly enjoy life again. I did.
I did …because I learned what strength was from my father. I did …because I saw that even on my darkest days, there was still so much for which to be thankful. I did …because I wanted to make my father proud. I did .. because I wanted to be here for my family. I did … because no matter how much life I had left, I was going to live it in a positive way.
I had bad days, days I couldn’t get off the couch, when I was so tired I couldn’t move. I had sad moments, when I thought about whether I would be here to see my son graduate high school, help my daughter pick out a wedding dress, meet my grandchildren. I had anxiety-filled days when I waited for the blood work or scan results and prayed for good news. I had days when I questioned why God would allow this to happen to me. I gave myself permission to have those moments … to feel the pain, to be angry, to be fearful, to release those tears… I could visit but I refused to let myself take up permanent residence in that place. That wasn’t good for me. Complaining, losing hope …that wasn’t what my Dad would have done and that wasn’t what I was going to do either.
I learned that even through my pain, I was still able to bring joy to others and in turn, bring joy to myself. I learned that happiness could be found in the simple things, the every day things that most people took for granted, that most people never even noticed. I learned that when you are forced to think about dying, only then could you really start living.
Living…that was what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what my future held. If I followed statistics, I only had a 20% chance of being here in 5 years. The thought of leaving my family, my kids, this life- crushed me … so I chose not to believe that. If my Dad followed what the doctors told him, he wouldn’t have walked me down the aisle on my wedding day. I wasn’t going to believe for one second that I wasn’t going to be here in 5 years or even 10 years… doctors and statistics don’t have any control over that. I am my father’s daughter and I can beat those odds just like he did. None of us were guaranteed tomorrow. None of us knew when we would be called home. I wiped all those generic statistics from my mind. God was in the business of miracles. God decided when He was finished with me and I believed I had a lot left to do on this earth. I wouldn’t spend that time curled up in a ball on the couch. I would spend that time with my family, helping others, and loving life. An important lesson I learned from my Dad was that no matter how much time you had left, you really had to live it. You had to enjoy every moment, live every second, do what made you happy .. right here, right now. Thanks to the lessons I learned from the Dad that God blessed me with … I can honestly say, I do.