Coping with losses, one lesson at a time
My dad has been the primary role model for me as long as I can remember. Smart, engaging, practical, funny and generous, he empathized with the struggles of those around him and urged me often to “make allowances” for the people I failed to understand or appreciate. He had survived a long battle with rheumatic fever as a child. He knew what it meant to suffer and nearly die. He had also experienced the highs and lows of wartime, the Great Depression, his family’s home construction business and his career in real estate and mortgage banking.
At age 16, I was devastated when my father was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Exploratory surgery on his knee revealed rare muscle tumors that had spread to his back and groin. Just 48 years old, he was determined to survive. He gave up smoking right away and asked me never to start. He was upbeat and confident about the future, despite the poor prognosis he faced and the suffering he endured.
His diagnosis came in May of 1965, and he died that September. Despite the surgery and the effects of follow-up radiation and chemotherapy, he spent three summer months at home, where my mother and younger sister had transformed the dining room into a rehabilitation facility of sorts. Car trips to outpatient treatment about 30 minutes away became part of the daily schedule for Dad, my older brother and me. These trips went on for many weeks. They taught me a great deal about my dad, and I cherished them. He never complained, and I never ceased to wonder how he could do this. “Thank you so much,” he would say from a wheelchair each time with a handshake, a warm smile and a look of compelling gratitude. Often the doctor or hospital staff who had just treated him could do little more than nod, grimace and thank him in return before glancing over to me and my brother. Their eyes, posture and faces said it all. The emotion was deafening.
There were many other emotional moments that summer. To help take care of Dad at home, I had cut back on my summer job teaching tennis clinics for the local recreation program. Dad had taught me to play in the first place, and the program director understood the circumstances, so I worked just a few mornings and evenings each week. That left much of the day to look after my dad and talk together, just the two of us. There were belly laughs, wonderful stories and pangs of awful sadness when he gasped in pain or endured the indignities of a stubborn, tenacious cancer.
I learned a lot about growing up. One consistent theme was appreciating what you have rather than complaining about what you don’t — a theme which reverberated through me the day I smashed my racquet in anger on the court. This stunt did not sit well either with me or my dad, of course. I had a history of outbursts in singles play, but this was a new low, even for me. Lots of players hurl a racquet in disgust now and then. It’s a frustrating game. No one rears back and throws their racquet right into a stone wall. Even under the stress of that summer, I knew better.
Dad admonished me patiently, saying, “life is too short for that.” He went on say that bad shots are an integral part of the game. “Without bad shots, there wouldn’t be any good shots.” The lesson went well beyond this brief introduction, and I got the message. I started applying it to my life beyond tennis as he had intended, but it was not easy to do, especially under pressure.
At 16 years of age, a boy like me does not easily understand that life can be short, not when life as he knows it has barely begun. My remaining days of boyhood were quite limited by then, and I was still clueless about that. The realization of finite time would bear down on me abruptly and bring lessons of its own. The most important one was to try to become more like my dad.
As a cancer patient myself now, I realize how important it is neither to forget nor to hide the lessons he taught. Life is too short for that.