Almost from the moment I knew that a tiny person was growing inside of me, my father knew that a cancer was growing inside of him. We enjoyed a few weeks of bliss, wallowing in joy that the stumbling block of infertility finally seemed to be behind me and my husband, thrilled at the prospect of welcoming a child at last.
At the infertility clinic we had gazed with our own eyes at the tiny clump of cells gathered together like a bunch of balloons. That they would become a child was almost unfathomable then, just the deepest yearning and a hope.
Then, my father learned that he, too, had cells growing deep inside him, invisible to our eyes in that mysterious organ, the pancreas. Pancreatic cancer lurks until it is almost always too late to cure.
The cells within me would grow and multiply, becoming the brown-haired boy we now watch twirl the black umbrella, mimicking Gene Kelly as he belts out “Singing in the Rain,” telling of that “glorious feeling” and being “happy again.”
But my father’s cells would grow and multiply, too. They would block his intestines, make my mother’s tomato sauce taste like battery acid, cause him unbearable pain, and then kill him. His suffering of seven months would be far longer than my labor and more painful, lacking the fairly certain promise of a child at the end.
We journeyed together, my father and I, but the months sped by too fast. I wanted to stop time, to savor those days with my father and my long-sought pregnancy. But as my belly swelled, his grew thin as he faded away. My father, who had once fought fires and saved lives as one of “New York’s Bravest,” was ready for what lay ahead for him, but I wasn’t.
I entered the hospital ahead of schedule to bring a tiny boy named Nathaniel into the world. His name means “gift from God.” And as I left my hospital to tend to my new needy infant, my father left his to go home to die.
Two days later, my father left this world. I’m still reminded of the length of his absence by the number of candles on my son’s birthday cake, the maturity in his four-year-old face. Those of us who are lucky get to welcome a much-awaited child into the world, and I’ve welcomed two. We also get to bid farewell to our parents somewhere along the way. Rarely do the two ends of life’s circle almost touch, perfect and yet tragic at the same time.
In this journey I saw the finitude of this human life, the fact that life has a beginning and an end—alpha and omega—a fact we often forget, except at those moments, the birth of a son, the death of a father. I believe we need to embrace those people we treasure—our fathers and our sons, our mothers and our daughters—for the time they are with us, before they all grow wings and leave. This I believe.
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