I have two cedar chests in my house. One holds many of Zoey’s things—her blankets, the shell we received at her baptism and a mold of her little feet among other mementos. The other, smaller, one holds what I have left of my father who died 19 years ago today. His auxiliary police badge, a pin with F-14 fighter jets, a Mickey Mouse watch and a batman key chain (the key chain and how I came to possess many years after my dad died is a good story for another day). Just a few items, but they say so much about who he was.
I heard a song on the radio the other day. This one was from Brad Paisley although the sentiment is not unique. He talks about writing a letter to his younger self. What would he say? And it made me wonder—what would I say to my younger self? “Buckle up, it’s going to be a rough ride”? Or “oh, you think THIS hurts? Just wait”. Yes, I imagine myself being snarky to my younger self too. But would I really want to warn myself? Would it alter the choices I made? Because I’ve had some beautiful moments mixed in there. And I certainly wouldn’t want to pass those by for fear of being hurt.
In that smaller chest, I have a few pieces of folded paper. One has the words I spoke at my father’s service. Another is a piece I wrote for a program for the Relay for Life a few years after my dad died. I pulled it out last night as I looked through that little chest. I can’t remember the last time I read it; but looking back, it kind of is my letter to myself:
My sophomore year of college, my father was diagnosed with cancer. I still find the words hard to believe at times. My family began the fight and never believed he would leave us. We tried to keep things as normal as possible, but there were always nagging signs of the battle. The house was filled with medical equipment and my parents would leave for weeks at a time searching for treatment in Chicago. Despite the horrible circumstances, my father’s fight with cancer also brought some amazing moments of love, courage and survival. Those moments now help me understand why my family had to face the struggle.
One night during the two year battle stands out as a defining moment of my life and of my family’s love. Though at the time I did not realize the impact the event would have on my outlook on life, I look back and understand what the evening meant. My father was being recognized for 25 years of service at his company Christmas party. My mother, father and I attended. After dinner and the ceremony, the band started to play. My father asked me to dance with him. For a few minutes, only my father and I were there. We danced, we talked and laughed and simply enjoyed each other’s company.
As it turns out, that was our last dance. My father died a year later. He will miss my wedding day and I will have to cherish that night as our father-daughter dance. At my father’s funeral, I told the story of how my father and I danced for the last time. I related it to the Garth Brooks song “The Dance”. As the song says, “I could’ve missed the pain, but I’d of had to miss the dance”. My family suffered a great loss and my father fought through an unthinkable amount of pain, but the moments we shared brought us closer together.
I will never know why my family had to suffer and why my father died when many are spared. However, I do understand that the battle we fought showed my family what strength, determination and love can conquer. I know that evening would have been just another night, but in the back of our minds we knew that we may not have many more nights to share. We were able to share a brief moment in the middle of all the pain. Though I don’t remember the details, the song or the band, that dance helped me understand the tragedy that comes as part of life and shaped my attitude towards the events I must face. Life is a dance. You only have a few brief moments and then it ends. You have the choice to sit out or take the chance. Sometimes the music ends before we want it to, but we are better for the time when we let another person into our hearts.
My father fought for his life, now my family fights to keep our lives together and his memory alive. We believe that when one person is diagnosed with cancer, the family is diagnosed. Upon his death, he left Sharon, his wife over 25 years, Bryan, his son, and me, his daughter. We survived and continue to fight. Each day, we take a deep breath and a few small steps. Despite all the terrible things that came with the disease, we focus on those moments that brought the family closer together.
I may never know what that night meant to my father. I do know that for me, the dance a father and his daughter shared will last a lifetime. I remember that night when I’m alone and scared, tired and weak and know that in his arms, I am stronger. I also know that on my wedding day, he will lead me out on the floor, put his hand in mine and we will share yet another dance—if only in my heart.
“I could’ve missed the pain, but I’d of had to miss the dance…” The song tells me to live each moment and to cherish the people I have in my life. I know that I will have pain and hard times in my life, but all those times are worth fighting through so that I can dance again.
Dad, I hope you are dancing with Zoey now. I miss you both. I love you both. And please let her have extra ice cream (but no Tang sandwiches!).