when my father was 60 he was arrested for a crime he committed nearly 50 years earlier and sentenced to death. it seems unfair that at such a late stage in his life, when he had fully atoned for his sins, that he would still be held accountable for actions he committed so long before. at 14, he was young and careless and did things without fully realizing the consequences of his actions; simply put: he didn’t know any better. by 60 he was a professional man, had served in the army for his country, raised three morally-sound children and had a wife he looked forward to growing old with. now, because justice apparently had to be served, growing old seemed unlikely. that’s the funny thing about cancer: it can lurk forever beneath your bed like some disastrous boogie man just waiting for you to fall asleep.
as a teenager, my father and his family used to vacation up at the russian river, lathering baby oil on their pale, irish skin until it turned a crisp and oaky brown under the summer sun. his parents never yelled at him because back then, they didn’t know they had any reason to. cancer waited until life had settled down and had finally become enjoyable before it cast its shadow across my father’s face. and just as quickly, it made its way underneath the surfaces of his skin.
my father has been sober for 15 years. the only thing cancer granted me, besides an increased appreciation for my father’s life, was the chance to see the effect a substance of any kind had on my father. to go from zero to morphine in less than a month was quite a sight to see. there was the trip to the hospital that resulted in my father performing an impromptu song he had written for his doctor; there was the trip to the hospital where, tired of the repetitive question “reason for visit”, he began to answer “hysterectomy”; and most notably, after his first surgery, where we learned that the cancer had already spread to his lymph nodes, there was the ride home in the very somber car when my father announced he had two, very pretty anesthesiologists.
“did you hear that barbara?” he slurred to my mother, “i had – not one – but TWO women on me.”
a cancer diagnosis finds you at a fork in the road, where you have two paths to take without any indication of street name or destination. it is another cruel trick cancer plays on you that you only know where you are going when you’ve actually arrived there. my father’s path miraculously ended at Recovery; you can guess where the other road leads.
i go in and out of believing we have any control over our fate. i keep expecting the winds to carry me to europe where i can write all day long and learn a language that makes my tongue move in ways it hasn’t before (well, unless i’m trying to impress someone); but inaction doesn’t do much for you either. all i can say is that we must always be in constant pursuit of our own personal happiness, provided it never steps on the toes of someone else’s. without us, it has no chance to survive.
so fall in love when the mood strikes you, even if it goes awry–start with yourself and work outwards. signal when you’re changing lanes and ignore rude waiters–or, for that matter, rude people. have good table manners and keep your kitchen clean. own at least one house plant, even if you can’t keep it alive, and always call people back. eat lots of vegetables and send someone flowers when there’s absolutely no reason to. send your mother a post card next time you travel.
i don’t mean to sound like i know it all, because lord knows i’m figuring this stuff out as i go along; but if there’s anything i’ve learned in my short time here, it’s that it’s important to give yourself a break once in a while. because the road ahead may present to you its own direction, in direct contrast to all of your intentions; and so you must live in such a way that upon arriving you can say “i have lived, and i lived well.”