Two days before two Thanksgivings ago, my father was diagnosed with rapidly progressing stage-four colon cancer. He died on Christmas afternoon.
None of us knew he had it. He didn’t know he had it. He never even detected anything crooked or askew inside his body, or at least he claims. Dad was always that dad who was tougher than everyone else’s. It wasn’t until after he died that I realized I always believed it only because he hid every physical weakness from everyone in his life.
One time he broke his leg; it was a solid break right through his femur. It was the closest I ever saw to him fully-acknowledging any sort of pain. I didn’t see it happen, but I heard it happen. We were on a boat dock when his leg got caught between a large boat and the slippery wood panels below. The sound was terrible, like a large dry branch snapping in two, and when I turned around his face was pale white and his eyes were massively large and distant and slightly rolled back. He groaned and bit his lip, then somehow calmly said to me and my mom, “I just broke my leg.” That’s how tough Dad was.
My mother died ten years ago on an April morning. Car accident. She fell asleep, her car rolled, and she didn’t survive.
Dad stood at her coffin alone for the longest time before they closed it. I stood to one side, my two brothers stood to the other, and we all kept a respectful distance while he said goodbye. I’ll always remember how his body shook as he forced his tears and his sobs back down inside of him. Our dad did not cry. Ever. Not even that day. Eventually he involuntarily made that same groaning grunt noise that he did when he broke his leg, and he followed it with, “thank you, Maureen.”
That was all he said to her.
Dad loved Mom the way every woman wants to be loved. He never raised his voice to her that I heard. He was always so grateful for everything she did for him. He worked hard to provide for her and us. He wasn’t petty or spiteful or jealous. He brought her fresh flowers every Tuesday. He once told me he picked Tuesdays because everyone brings their wives flowers on Fridays, but only the most special girls get flowers on Tuesdays.
After his diagnosis, he insisted we carry on with our Thanksgiving plans as if nothing was different. We had a house full of people making incredible food, but there wasn’t a smile anywhere in the home. There couldn’t be. Dad was given two months to live, if he was lucky, and the news was too fresh. We weren’t ready to lose him.
Every Thanksgiving, we go around the table and everyone gives a short speech. We tell about our year apart from each other, our accomplishments, our kids, and our lives. That year, my brother was first to speak. He shook off tears and strained, but couldn’t say anything as he looked at Dad in his suddenly not so overly-powerful state.
Without warning, Dad slammed his closed fist on the table. He was not a man to do such things. “Dammit, I’m not dead yet, and I better see some smiles around this table.” We all went silent because Dad was not a man to use curses, either. Right then, he decided to tell us a joke. He stabbed a piece of turkey and lifted it with his fork, looked my daughter square in the eyes, and said, “which side of a turkey has the most feathers?” My daughter shook her head as he stared her down. “The outside, silly!” he chirped back. After a moment of silence, the entire table erupted in laughter, and soon we found ourselves unable to stop. Once under control, we went about our usual speeches and somehow forgot our looming sadness.
There were 31 days between that day and Christmas day. Each day he became weaker. Every day that passed took significant percentages of him away from us. And still, he never stopped being the dad that was tougher than every other dad. He refused to let himself become a burden for as long as possible, and he somehow maintained that same approach and attitude that his slamming fist demanded at Thanksgiving dinner until the very end. His kids and his grandkids would not mourn him before he was gone.
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