Several years ago my dad was diagnosed with cancer. This after several years of misdiagnosis. He’s been cancer free for a few years now. In all that time I never worried about him, never thought he would succumb to the rogue cells wreaking havoc in his body. I either possessed some sixth sense about the outcome or naively thought it impossible cancer would kill him. Most likely it’s latter.
All of this was before his father passed away. My grandfather was in his 90’s. In spite of several maladies he always seemed healthy and sharp. Unfortunately he died several months before Jenn and I traveled to China. I hoped he would meet his first great-granddaughter, but it didn’t turn out that way. I don’t remember the last time I saw my grandfather, only that he was healthy and in good spirits. That’s the way I want to remember him.
When my grandfather passed I realized the truth: my dad is not invincible. The cancer that hadn’t concerned me now did. What if the misdiagnosis had continued? How long could my dad have lived before the disease reached terminal velocity? What if the cancer comes back?
It’s been eight years since we moved to Atlanta. In eight years I have spent less than two weeks with my dad. What scares me is how natural it feels. We’ve been separated before. When I was ten my mother married a Navy man. A few months later we moved to Virginia. I didn’t know how long we’d be there. To my ten year old mind it felt like forever, as if we were never moving back home. But we did move back two years later. To a ten year old two years is a long time. Sometimes it feels like those two years created a chasm I’ve been trying to bridge ever since.
I have a new perspective on my relationship with my dad. I’m a dad now. And the things he went through are beyond my comprehension. We went from spending every weekend together to talking on the phone for twenty or thirty minutes once a week. Two years of my childhood happened somewhere else with other people. I can only imagine how the distance affected him. Hours of conversation and a handful of photographs. Nothing more.
For one and one half year I’ve called Penelope daughter. In that short time I can count the days I haven’t seen Penelope on one hand. And each day wasn’t complete.
In spite of the absence, or maybe because of it, my dad made the most of our time together. I have no memories of spending time with my dad before my parents divorced. But memories after the separation, of going to the beach, making toys from coffee cans and spray paint, and laughing uncontrollably while watching “Raising Arizona” are enduring sources of comfort to me. He excelled at something I struggle with daily; being present. I know what it feels like to be the center of someone’s universe. My dad made me feel that way every time we were together. I know this wasn’t easy for him, yet he did it and made it look easy.
As I begin my own journey into fatherhood, I find myself asking; how my dad did it?
And if I can do it too.