When I was only seven, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer. When he went to what is now Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, the world’s finest cancer hospital, the prognosis was grim. They could remove his cancerous lung, but they would first need to install a pacemaker on him just so he’d survive the operation. And even if he made it through the lung removal, he would be so weak, he would spend the rest of his life in a chair. And, he needed to realize that despite all this, he would never live to see his kids graduate from college.
He learned all of this the day before Thanksgiving. He told my brothers and I after Thanksgiving dinner what was happening, that he would be gone over Christmas, and that the doctors did not think he would come back. He told us how much he loved us, and how hard he was going to fight this thing. I remember how calm my father seemed as he held us. He knew he would make it. And he did.
My dad missed Christmas that year and came home missing half of his left lung and with a scar so large and sensitive that for years afterward, he could accurately predict the weather based on how sore it was that day. During physical rehabilitation, he built up his chest muscles so much it pushed the pacemaker out of his body, and he needed surgery to re-implant it. So much for life in a chair.
Years later, when I graduated from college, my dad gave me a magnificent wristwatch to congratulate me, but also to thank me for helping him defy the best doctors in the world. He likewise gifted my two brothers when they graduated, too. Although I’ve always been a little nervous wearing a timepiece this expensive, I have worn it every day without fail, and will do so until the day it passes to my son Connor.
It was to my wristwatch that I looked when I got the call on April 8 that my father had died. I remember looking to see what time it was, but all I could think of was how, for so many years, this watch had symbolized my father’s triumph of the spirit. Now it also reminds me that to all things, there is a limit. For all people, an end.
Losing a parent takes with it your last youthful delusions of immortality. More than ever, I feel the need to provide for my family now and after I am gone, which is why I am sharing this news with you here. Few others can appreciate so immediately what it means to lose someone, and how much love it takes to provide for those left behind.
The second hand of my watch passes by, telling me with each faint tick that our time is never as long as we want it to be. And as ready as we might be to depart this world, the ones we love will never be eager to let us go. The weeks, months and years that will distance me from my father must be treated like the precious treasures that they are.
One day, I will see my dad again, and between now and then, I need to be strong for my little ones just as he was strong for me. I know I can do it. I had the best teacher in the world. I still do. Thanks for reading, everyone. Stay close.
Note: After the initial publication of this column, I learned that my watch was bought with money from my mother’s father’s estate. My mom never made a big deal about that, but it was pointed out to me by my brother, and I now think of the watch as a gift from both my parents, which only makes it twice as precious. Parents are like that.
Below is the pocket watch my father willed to me when he died. It was given to him by his father, who got it from his father. It still works flawlessly.