I left home for the first time when I was fifteen, less than a year after dad moved out and my parents got divorced. The timing seems odd now because I was relieved he left.
He didn’t understand me. We fought all the time. I was tired of not doing anything well enough to please him, not reaching my potential. Even now, I still see preteen me standing with a rag mop in my hand, tears streaming down my face, his screams ringing in my ears. I could earn A-pluses instead of just As. I could be more aggressive on the soccer field. I could eat my dinner rolls more like a real man.
In leaving, he never left.
Even after he left, I still wanted to leave home too. So I planned an escape. A friend from my small private school had left the year before to attend a boarding school that focused on math and science. At the time, I was planning to be an architect, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity.
I was back before long. But even after I moved away again and my mom lived in that house alone, the memories of my dad still lingered in every corner, in every closet.
He attended every Thanksgiving there, even though my mom’s boyfriend did too.
He was there when I told him I was getting engaged to Genia. And he was the supportive one. I’m not sure I can explain his reaction though. It was the opposite of my mother’s, but it felt like the first sign he was softening and we were healing.
A few years later, he was diagnosed with cancer and started living in the house again. My siblings and I all thought dad would prove to be an immortal crank—still kicking up dust long after we were in it. We were in denial.
He was in denial too. We always had another person in the room when the doctors were sharing news because his interpretation would be rosier than reality.
Right away, we began looking for ways to move him up to Chattanooga where we live so he could pursue treatment with a specialist. He resisted at first, trying to make round trips for chemotherapy while keeping his life two hours away in Anniston, Alabama.
He started staying on our couch for longer stretches at a time. And when he finally decided to get a place of his own in Chattanooga, he was insistent on it being in our neighborhood. He set his eyes on a duplex apartment across the street from our house. Then he waited—we all waited—for several months until it was up for rent again.
My dad was universally loved. We had three funerals for him—one in Chattanooga where we lived, one in his hometown of Paw Paw, Illinois, and one in Anniston. By that time, I could understand why people liked him, despite the experiences of my childhood. We’d found a new way together over the years and especially during the last few months of his life and I saw another side of my dad.
That’s not to say he was always easy to live with. I can still hear him shuffling around the kitchen, scraping ice cream off a plate, long after we’d gone to bed. I can hear him whisper-shouting at his dog who wouldn’t shut up or simmer down at night. And he could still be as particular as ever about every little detail (a trait I’ve learned I haven’t shed myself).
But I watched him play with my daughters, and take delight in them. One of my favorite photos is of him with a big smile plastered on his face, walking with my older daughter as she carried an Easter basket. He called my younger daughter “the blonde bomber” because of her wild energy. And he was kind and warm to my wife Genia—their relationship serving as another light on our road.
The last few months of his life, I’d been training with several friends to ride RAGBRAI—a weeklong trek of roughly 500 miles across Iowa that twenty thousand people embark on each July. I knew it would be challenging, but didn’t really think much of it as a potential accomplishment until the day a visitor said dad had been telling everyone about it.
This was maybe the first time I really felt like he, my sports-loving father, was proud of me, his shy, bookish son.
A Glimmer and a Shadow
In the fall of 2007, dad was doing well and went to a university hospital for an autologous stem cell transplant. It was, the doctors said, his best shot at survival.
He spent about a month at a little apartment near the hospital. They first broke his body down with a more intensive chemotherapy—essentially stripping him of any ability to fight back against anything—before injecting stem cells they’d sucked out of his bone marrow.
My sister, who had moved in with him in Chattanooga, went along so she could continue to care for him. And my brother and I went up one weekend as he entered the recovery phase so the four of us could be together. We ate take-out and ice cream as we watched reruns of Family Guy. Watching my dad vacillate between shaking his head in stern disapproval and being unable to hold back belly laughs is burned into my memory.
He was officially declared in remission just before Thanksgiving. And we celebrated.
For years, we’d developed a tradition of having a giant family meal that included my dad, my mom, and my mom’s boyfriend. The dinners were full of awkward pauses and glances, but we were thankful to be together without strife. This particular year, we also added my mom’s mom and hosted the whole thing at the boyfriend’s house.
We had a feast. Everything was delicious, including the Krispy Kreme doughnut bread pudding. And I remember us standing around the kitchen island together, holding hands in a giant circle, praying and giving some of the greatest thanks we’d ever given.
Dad embarked on his own journey, spoiling himself with an almost-new car and a trip to see the Dodgers play spring baseball in Florida. He enjoyed that time of his life so much—and, in retrospect, maybe I should’ve seen it for what it was.
In May the cancer came back.
In July he was gone—a week before my big bike ride.
Thanksgiving has never been the same. I’ve never been the same.
Present Pain and a Future Promise
Several years ago, my wife Genia was diagnosed with relapsing, remitting multiple sclerosis. The confirmation followed years of persistent pain and strange symptoms. I struggle to process the pain it causes her now and the pain yet to come. We don’t know what her road will hold or when it will shift under her feet. We just know it will be hard, and we pray for even greater strength when those days come.
Four times Genia and I have sent our older daughter into surgery to correct issues plaguing her right foot, each time hoping it would be the one that worked. We’ve comforted her as the anesthesia began streaming through her veins. We’ve kissed her face just one more time. We’ve wept and prayed she would come back able to walk and play like all her friends.
I prayed for my father to be healed. And he was, before he wasn’t. I’ve prayed for Genia to be healed, and prayed the same for my daughter. We’re called to pray boldly, but I don’t have much confidence in those prayers because I’m not promised an affirmative answer.
I am resigned to the idea that life here on earth is just going to suck sometimes.
What I do believe in and look forward to is the day when Jesus makes our hearts and bodies brand new, more glorious than we can imagine. And I take hold of that belief every Sunday, when I stretch out my hands to receive bread and pull a cup of wine to my lips.
Even with that sustenance—food and drink I can’t live without—it still feels like a fight to believe much for the in-between days though. When I look at the world around us, when I read the book that rings true about where we came from and who we are, I see that some things are just going to stay broken for now.
Cover image by Markus Bürkle.