Stand By Me

“When the night has come,
And the land is dark,
And the moon is the only light we’ll see,
No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid,
Just as long as you stand, stand by me.” – Ben E. King 

For Dad’s seventieth birthday, we threw him a surprise party. We invited his brothers and sisters and their families to Danny’s house and he walked in unsuspecting. Dad never liked to be the center of attention, but he seemed to relish that everyone was gathered to celebrate his big milestone. I enjoyed seeing him with his brothers and sisters, and as expected the conversations were lively and engaging as they always were when his family gathered. I’d always loved his family because they were kind to us even in the worst of times. Sometimes, all you need is kindness.

The years were starting to show on Dad even though he hadn’t received the cancer diagnosis yet. He was overweight and ambled under pull of gravity thanks to persistent back pain, which he attributed to years of working on the assembly line at Ford. His lack of activity didn’t help. Nevertheless, he enjoyed his party and his grandchildren. We took many pictures with him. Little did we know that those pictures would be the last ones we’d take under normal circumstances.

Since I lived on the other side of the country and Jason lived out of state, watching over Dad fell to Danny. When Dad was healthy, Danny simply kept an eye on him and Mom, but after his diagnosis, Dad’s care took a serious turn, and Danny shouldered the load. At first, he kept track of Dad’s appointments and stood in to get the word directly from the doctors so that he could keep Jason and me up-to-date. I appreciated having him there because Mom’s interpretation of the sometimes arcane terms the doctor’s used left me scratching my head. I’d have to call Danny for the real story no matter how frightening the reality was.

In movies and TV, cancer diagnoses seemed deterministic and exact, a decisive moment that often had grave consequences, but in reality, Dad’s diagnosis was halting and uncertain. One moment the doctor painted a positive picture – it may not be cancer – and in another he’d say we’d have to wait weeks for an answer to determine the severity of the situation. I thought time was of the essence in these situations, but it slipped through our fingers like so many grains of sand. In fact, for much of Dad’s life with cancer, we were left waiting and waiting until the heat of the moment forced us into action. Most of the action fell to Danny.

My attempts to find a job closer to Atlanta failed for the most part leaving Danny holding the bag for Mom and Dad. Mom, always gripped by an overwhelming anxiety, struggled to deal with it all. She took care of him the best that she could, but Danny stepped up and delivered for Dad in ways that can only be described as heroic. He made sure Dad got to the doctor and kept tabs on his care. Later, when we moved Mom and Dad closer to Danny’s house, he’d be over at their house more than he was at his own despite having two young boys to take care of himself. That left his wife, Joanie, alone with two young kids. She supported him unfailingly, and I could only be thankful that they were willing and able to support Dad during this time.

We never imagined a time when our Dad would be weak and fragile, but it came quickly and shocked us all. The man who once could put us in our place with just a quick quip had lost his voice in the family. The man who had once dove into a pool fully clothed to save me from drowning could barely dress himself. That stood in stark contrast to how I thought of him.

In one of my visits to see him, I went with him to his chemotherapy treatment. Although the facility was nice and well-lit with natural light, it couldn’t belie the morbid nature of its function. A few other patients reclined in the chairs along the walls as the toxic chemicals dripped into their arms. Dad sat down, looking tired even though it was the middle of the day, and the nurse hooked him up to his drip. We chatted after the nurse left him alone while the bag that hung above his head emptied into his arm. At one point, Dad nodded off, his head lilting toward his chest. I stopped talking and just watched him. I knew my time with him was limited. If the cancer didn’t kill him the wear and tear of the treatments would. The lump in my throat grew unbearable, so I stood up and walked out of the room for some fresh air. I couldn’t tolerate seeing him like that.

The ticking clock echoed in my head every time I called home. I called him most days and felt a sense of relief when he answered even when he sounded weak and far off. I talked to Danny many times a week to get the full story of his condition. Some days seemed better than others. Cancer plays everyone for the fool; it provides a glimpse of hope only to yank it away as if life is some cruel joke. Danny lived the ups and downs much more than I did. Whether he wanted it or not, he had a front row seat to the death of our father, a heartbreaking play that everyone knew would end badly. How he held up given all of the things going on his life I don’t know, but I will be forever grateful for all he and Joanie did to make Dad’s last 18 months of life comfortable or as comfortable as one can be when being eaten alive from the inside.

The three of us, my brothers and I, had learned long ago that we could stand strong together or we could crumble apart. We’d seen first hand what would happen. By necessity, we circled the wagons around our parents, and despite the misgivings we had, we held strong. Danny, the middle child, had always been the strongest, the extrovert, the life of the party, while Jason and I were content to sit on the sidelines brooding with whatever preoccupied us. When it came time to stand by our dad, Danny didn’t hesitate to deliver. It’s in those moments in life that we learn who we really are.

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