It was springtime, and we were setting up our new three-bedroom apartment that would be large enough to accommodate my husband, myself, and my dad. My dad’s cancer prognosis seemed good: chemo was continuing and there was no reason to think it wouldn’t keep working; plus he was being treated at one of the best facilities in the country. I was only a few short months away from starting a full-time clergy position straight out of seminary. My husband and I, newlyweds, were bravely facing what married life, and life as full-time caregivers for a parent, would look like.
My dad had first moved out to California because the chemotherapy cocktail he had been on stopped working. It wasn’t all that surprising, and there were options; it was time for a change, but it was a change that necessitated more doctors, higher levels of care, and a cross-country move. We were in survival mode at that point: get Dad on a new cocktail, take care of him. We had short term goals that were about managing the situation. Fast-forward two months and the crisis had passed. We had transitioned from surviving cancer to living with cancer. I still thought Dad needed to be in California, which would only work if he lived with us. My husband and I faced the reality that this could be longer-term than we had thought. We realized that everything we had planned for the future together could in-fact include caring for and living with my Dad.
One day as we were walking to the car, just Dad and me, I told him: “You know Scott and I really want to start a family. Would that be okay with you, you know, with all of us living together?”
Smiles were few and far between those days. Dad was not a happy man during his battle with cancer. He was withdrawn, sullen, and depressed. As he took in my words, a bit of him came through, and the corners of his mouth twitched up. He hugged me, restrained eagerness hidden behind a moment of hesitation, said of course, then started making noises about how we shouldn’t have to take care of him and a baby. I silenced him. I told him that it’s what I wanted, what we wanted, to have him be a part of it too. For a moment I got to see him light up, excited, and happier than he had been in a while. I saw his old-self break through. For once in the midst of the chemo fog he was truly present with me.
We never got to that point, as Dad passed away only a few months later. It would be almost two years after that conversation that I would finally get pregnant.
The combination of grief from his loss and our own struggles to conceive a child tore at my heart. Every day I felt further from him, and his absence felt stronger. I continually sought out a way to bridge the distance between his death and his grandchild who was not even conceived. I thought that if I were only pregnant before I spread his ashes then there would be a connection, a moment when he and his grandchild were in the same place at the same time. Every milestone has been like that: the first birthday after he passed, the first anniversary of his death. I wanted their lives to overlap in some small tangible way even though my dad would never have the experience of finding out I was pregnant or holding his grandchild.
Since I found out we were expecting, I keep having this image of a moment I will never have. I see myself in the recovery room after labor, holding my child and seeing the door open. In would walk Dad, somewhat disheveled from hours in the waiting room with a camera in hand ready to start shooting. He would come in both hesitant and eager and the corners of his mouth would twitch up. There would be a moment of joy as he soaked in the image of his daughter and grandchild and felt the profundity of his new title: Grandpa.
I will never have this moment or any moment like it. It has been two years since his passing, and I continue to feel both the comfort that he is without pain or suffering and the incredible cruelty that he is missing out on some of the best years of his daughters’ lives. Dad would have been an awesome grandpa; he would have loved to have been a grandpa, and his grandchildren’s lives would have been better, sweeter, more full of love, had they been able to know him. It is beyond words, though unfair is a starting point.
Life is not without unfairness, and either we can live within that bitterness or allow it to transform into something – anything – positive. Losing someone to cancer, losing someone at all, creates an unparalleled choice of how to live after that person is gone with all of the pain, anger, and bitterness, while not losing the joy, wonder, and excitement that each of us deserves in life.
I’ve chosen to keep finding ways for the life of my soon-to-be born daughter and the life of her grandpa to overlap. Three weeks after her due date, baby girl and I will walk in Purple Stride to raise money for pancreatic cancer (and yes, I already have her purple “Wage Hope” outfit ready to go). She’s already spent hours hearing her grandpa’s guitar being played before she’s been born. Her life will be full of stories of Grandpa Peter, and she’ll know his family, his friends, and everything that brought him joy. Most importantly, she’ll know that even before she came into this world, even before she was conceived, the mere thought that one day she might exist made him happier than anything else ever could.