I can still see the tan ring around his ankles as he’d prop his feet, adorned with sticky and stained white tennis socks, on the coffee table in the den after a day on the golf course. Sipping his vodka martini and wondering if a golf tournament was on TV,
he would close his eyes for a late afternoon nap.
Now lying in bed with the oxygen pump humming next to him, it’s difficult to envision my father-in-law puttering about his house pretending to clean the backyard pool of its bugs and stray leaves while his beloved black lab, Onyx, meanders behind him. Two years ago, Dave was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. As a retired ENT, he understood the gravity of his diagnosis; he knew what he was looking at when the oncologist snapped the x-rays on the light board. His four grown children, married with families of their own, were—as he knew they would be– devastated by the grim prognosis: 2-3 months to live.
Immediately, preparations were made for a last family vacation in Avalon, NJ. My in-laws rented a palatial house on the beach, and everyone baked in the sun and devoured ice cream cones, not only that summer of the dismal diagnosis but for the three consecutive, unpromised Augusts we were given with him. The first summer everyone wanted to play ping-pong with Pop-Pop or deliver his medium-rare burger with pickles and mustard and ketchup to his plate or share a tub of caramel corn with him. Last summer, just sitting next to him on the porch and enjoying the sunset was enough.
My father-in-law defied the odds. He responded favorably to all his chemo treatments, and the cancer’s growth was halted. We had three consecutive Avalon summers and two joyous Christmases with him –lucid and in his own, quiet, sleepy manner—participatory. During the past two years, he has been able to celebrate his wife’s 70th birthday, his 47th wedding anniversary, and in August 2008, he held his fifth grandchild in his arms.
I believe in appreciating every single moment we have together. Even though my father-in-law is visibly suffering so much that he can no longer sit up in bed or breathe independently, I believe in appreciating the chance to have the long goodbye because it has given everyone a chance to love him and to care for him and to treasure time with him for the past two years and 5 months; and it has given him a chance to know how much he’s loved. The long goodbye is —difficult and painful. It is also a gift.