The phone rings and I fish the device out of my pocket. I flash a quick look at the glowing caller ID, it’s from my kids. I smile and slide my thumb across the screen, unlocking it, springing the device to life. “Hello,” I say. It’s the voice of my twelve-year-old son I hear in return.
“Hi, Dad!” comes his exuberant exclamation on the other end of the line.
I smile even wider when I hear him. He’s like a much-needed ray of sunshine on a dark day. “Hi, Kiddo, what’s up?” I reply.
“Mom wants to know if you’re going to make it to our birthday party on Saturday?” he questions.
“Of course Buddy, I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I answer.
“Ok! Good. See you then Dad!” his excited voice rings out over the line.
“You bet Kiddo,” I return with equal enthusiasm.
The line clicks as he hangs up. I chuckle to myself and think, “Sheesh, he’s a man of few words.” I hold the device in my hand and stare at the blank screen, my smile fading. I sigh, and my thoughts wander to my oldest son. This Saturday is a big day in our family. My son and his twin sister, my first born babies, are turning thirteen. “Thirteen,” I think to myself, “How is it possible that they are turning thirteen already?”
I miss the days when my sweet, golden-haired, toddlers would crawl up into my lap after a hard day at work. I’d kiss the top of their tiny heads and squeeze them around their bellies. They would squiggle in my lap, bouncing on me, radiating with energy and exuberance, and their angelic voices would plead, “Do it, Daddy! Do it!”
At their coaxing, I would tighten my grip around their waists and begin to coat their necks, faces, chest, tummy, etc., with what we would affectionately refer to as ‘machine gun kisses’ – a series of rapid-fire, frantic, wild, plant them where they fall smooches. Without fail this makes them squeal and giggle with delight. I remember these days well. The traditions we started. The games we invented. The little things that would carry on from them to their four younger siblings. They were good days. Happy days. It was a period in life where time seemed limitless, and life stretched before us like the ocean in the horizon.
I’m snapped back from my reverie. “Thirteen… they are about to be thirteen.” And I can’t help but wonder, “Will I get to see them turn fourteen? What about their brothers and sister? How is it possible that this might be the last birthday I celebrate with my kids?”
I’ve been blessed with six children. A set of twins, two singles, and another set of twins to round out the bunch. I grew up in a big family. I always knew I wanted a big family of my own. My children have brought me immeasurable joy. Life hasn’t always been easy for our family, but, we have proved time and again to be resilient fighters. My children have always played a large part in my continued showdown with cancer. Their spirits have driven me through times of hardship and pain. They’ve made me want to fight longer and harder. They make me want to be better in every way. It seems incomprehensible to me now that the bell has been rung on this fight, it’s all over. The next battle they fight will be without me.
Their mother and I have been divorced for about a year and a half now. I could blame cancer for that. I could blame a number of things, but in reality, there isn’t one clear cut reason why our marriage broke down. We’ve been handed a lot of lemons throughout the duration of our marriage, at some point, we just couldn’t make any more lemonade. We both made mistakes. We both hurt each other. It certainly hasn’t always been easy, and we haven’t always seen eye to eye on things. She knows what’s happening to me. We talked, hell, the truth of the matter is, we cried. Despite all the hard times and hurt feelings, at the moment when I tell her the news, we are united. We remember the scores of tears that we have shed, some happy and some sad, in the lifetime that we used to share together. But now, this time, we cry for our kids, and we forgive each other. It doesn’t matter anymore who was right and who was wrong. It makes no difference. We are allies now. Our job is to make sure that the children, our children, understand that all that mattered was how much we both loved them. It’s our job to fill the remaining days that we have left as a family with memories that will carry them forward for all the rest of their lives. It’s our job to teach our sons what type of men they should become, and our daughters what sort of men they should marry. And now, we have to do this all in what unquestionably is not enough time.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m sorry this is happening to you. I am sorry for the kids. They love you. They will miss you.”
“I’m sorry too,” I reply, and I am sorry. Truly.
I’m sorry because I know that as I traverse into the unknown future, the cataclysm of my life, and what is to happen, is bound to carve a path of devastation through all of these lives. I feel like a runaway train speeding down a track, obliterating everything in its path. I wonder, am I ripping apart their world? Am I tearing down the very structure of their lives? How could I not feel this way?
Everything they know is what we, their mother and I, have planted into their tiny brains and watched seed. We have seen the roots take hold as they have grown from tiny babies, into toddlers, and children, and now teenagers. We watch, rooting them on, as they work to become the people they are destined to be. But, suddenly, as a parent, I am overwhelmed by thoughts and realizations of all the seeds I didn’t get to plant. Of all the seeds I’ll never plant. Of all the memories I won’t be a part of. Of their futures’ that I won’t have helped shape. I realize that the hardest part of all of this is the understanding that I am breaking the powerful unspoken pledge I made to these tiny perfect creations when they entered into this world. The pledge that bound me to them and promised that I would always be there for them. That I would support, and push, and guide them. The pledge that promised, somehow, without ever truly thinking about the future, that they would grow up, have kids of their own and take them to visit ‘Grandpa’ every Sunday. I am taking this away from them.
I cry very little through this, except for these moments, where I think about my kids and wonder who they will become in my absence. When I wonder who will be there to protect them, guide them, shield them from pain? Who will walk my daughters down the aisle on their special days? Who will teach my sons to be good men? Who will build them, and mold them to become model citizens? Who?
And so Saturday comes, and I join them at their party. These two thirteen-year-olds that I hardly recognize as the giggling, squealing toddlers from my dreams of long ago are surrounded by their friends and family. Their younger siblings are in tow. I cross through the doorway and into the family room where I see 15 youths of varying ages and heights all gathered around a small but growing, pile of gifts stacked on the floor. My newly teenage son looks up, sees me, and disengages from the group. He runs to me, throws his arms around my waist – he’s not much shorter than I am now – and squeezes me as tightly as he can. I wrap my arms around him, inhaling his scent and close my eyes briefly. In the blink of the moment, the other children have come scampering across the floor to join their brother, their leader, and I am enveloped in an embrace from all sides. I look around at each of them, and I linger in this moment for as long as they will allow before pulling away and moving on. The last to pull away, my first born son, looks me square in the eyes and says, “Hi Dad. I told them when you got here that we should all do a group hug.” I smile at him, tears springing to the corner of my eyes, are wiped away quickly before he can see them. At that moment, my questions are answered, the who’s, the what’s, the how’s… the answer is each other. My children, without me, will guide each other. They will be alright. Inside each of them exists the best of both their mother and I. We raised them right. And while there is never enough time on this physical earth to be with those you love, your goal and the only thing that will ever truly matter is love. Love will guide them. I will love them from wherever I am. They will love each other on earth. They will be alright.