I stand in front of the mirror, eyes focussed on my reflected hands as they fastidiously go about their task. I watch as each hand works together, almost autonomously from the rest of my body, my right-hand circles the wide end of the tie over the small end and then pulls it up into the neck loop from underneath. Both hands continue deftly through the process and after a couple of minutes as if by muscle memory, they finish the task.
I used to wear a tie every day; it was an essential component of my work attire. I’ve amassed a collection of ties in every colour, pattern, and style. I love ties, the fabric, the patterns, colours, the way they make me feel when I put one on; powerful, confident, in control. Today’s tie is blue and adorned with multiple tiny green and gray turtles, each not much bigger than a polka-dot; an uncareful eye may mistake them as such. I especially love this tie; it was a Christmas gift from my kids a few years ago; another reason why this is the perfect selection for this evening.
I lean in close to the mirror and examine the finished product, a little minor tweaking, and it will be perfect. I straighten the knot of fabric and fold the shirt collar into place. I nod slightly as if providing my own approval for a job well done. I stop momentarily to examine the full picture reflected in the mirror. “That will do,” I think to myself. I want to look just right tonight. I pull the bottle of aftershave down from the shelf and pour a bit into my palm. I rub my hands together and smooth the balm onto my freshly shaven face, and down my neck, the smell of cedar and sandalwood lingers in the air subtly. I close my eyes briefly as I take in the scent, it’s light and fresh, not overwhelming. By the time I open my eyes again, the aroma has already faded into the background.
I take one last glimpse in the mirror before turning away. I pick up my suit jacket, neatly laid out on the bed, and slip it on, first my left arm, then my right. The cold silk lining sends a momentary chill through my thin shirtsleeves causing an instant prickle of gooseflesh up and down my arms. It takes only a few seconds for the suit jacket to warm to my body temperature, and the prickles on my arms dissipate. I don’t button the front of my jacket, but I do hold the two sides together, lapping one side of the fabric over the other. It’s clear that I’ve dropped weight since I last put it on, a symptom I’m sure, of the decline my body is going through. Like an echo in my brain, I am reminded of the doctor’s words, “Three months, maybe a little longer, six, possibly nine if you’re really lucky.”
I am acutely aware that the three-month mark is approaching. I am doing relatively well, all things considered. I’ve been receiving some palliative treatments intended to buy me a little more time, so far it appears to be helping. Somedays I can even set this all aside and forget for a few hours that I am staring down the barrel of this loaded gun. Other days, when the pain is ricocheting through my body, or when I’m too tired to get out of bed, it’s impossible to forget. I am thankful for the possibility of a stretched deadline though. Suddenly the ‘lucky nine months’ feels more like a reality than a longshot. I wear this realization like a cloak; it feels warm and comforting and safe. While I know that my time will still come, I can’t help but feel like I’ve been given a very precious gift. This ‘extra’ time is an opportunity for me to continue to live and grow and experience life in ways that I could never understand before being smacked with the very real and raw realization that life doesn’t go on forever. Although I fight hard for this extra time by dutifully obeying my doctors, taking the chemo, showing up for radiation, eating the right foods, and looking after myself, there’s never been any guarantee of a granted extension of life. So now as the three-month mark approaches and I’m still here, I can’t help but feel immeasurably blessed to be doing this well.
I think back over the past three months and wonder in perplexity at the speed in which time has flown by. I am reminded of the days before my diagnosis when I would live from weekend to weekend, content to let the days between speed by at a nearly frantic pace, consumed by work, kids’ activities, chores, errands, and well… life. These days it’s all different, I’ve slowed down, both a choice and a medical necessity, and suddenly I find myself living from day to day. In this new way of life, I purposely and frequently stop and remind myself that each moment is precious. Each moment, whether filled with happiness or despair, is still a moment to reflect upon and to appreciate. These days, I am not content to sweep any time under the rug – I don’t have the extra time to misuse. In this new enlightenment, I have realized that whether the time is good or bad, I can still live it fully. I can, and do, embrace the significance of every situation, and in doing so, I see things so much clearer than I ever used to. I realize the value of living in the moment and have come to appreciate the opportunity to see life for what it is – a series of events, some good, some not so good, but all are rich and detailed and meant to be intimately experienced, explored, and appreciated. Still, sometimes it’s hard not to wonder if I’m doing enough with the precious little time I have left.
From down the hall, I hear the faint chime of the wall clock singing me out of my reverie. It’s five o’clock; I have to get going, she will be waiting for me. I quickly gather up my wallet, jamming it into my pants pocket, and grab my keys from their holding place on the dish made of tiny stones bonded together into a flower shape. I smile as my fingers run across the smooth stones and close around my keychain. The touch transports my memories to the happy family vacation in Vancouver a few years ago, this dish, a souvenir from a day where the memories made weren’t tainted by cancer and death. In this moment, the memory is so strong that I can smell the seaside air and hear the nearby gulls cry as they dance the pier trying to impress the throngs of tourists in hopes of being thrown an errant french fry or a scrap from a picnic basket. I can feel the small hand pressed into mine as we stand in line waiting to pay for our trinket. She’s holding the dish in her other hand, heavy for her tiny frame, but she won’t let me take it from her. “Are you sure this is the one you want?” I ask her while sending a fleeting glancing toward the table adorned with several others of its kind all in different shapes. Looking up at me with her big blue eyes, wide and serious, she bobs her blonde head up and down. I know she has chosen carefully, she always does, that’s just her thoughtful nature. “Okay,” I say. She tightens her grip on my hand slightly as our sweaty palms begin to slide apart. As if jolted by electricity, her grip sends a volt straight up my arm and into my heart and fills it with the strange sensation that only comes from loving someone so much that it physically hurts. I sigh wistfully at this memory of my little girl. She’s not so little anymore, she’s 13 and officially a woman now. Tonight, I’m taking her out to celebrate.
I park my car outside of the house and walk up to the front door. I tap lightly on the door before pressing the handle and letting myself in. As I push open the door, I am greeted by the regular chaotic sounds of a lively family. My middle son whizzes past me with a mini hockey stick in his hand. My littlest boys are in hot pursuit behind him. “Outside boys, outside,” I shout after them, but they are long gone. In their high-speed game, I’m not sure they even noticed me standing there. My ex-wife, Nikole, walks from the kitchen to where I’m standing, she reaches over and gives me a slight sideways hug. I return the gesture happily. I am thankful that despite everything we’ve been through we can still care about one another. Right now, I am counting on her support as I transition through this next chapter in my life. Knowing that she will be the one left to keep my memory alive for my kids after I am gone is so much easier now that we have come to a place where despite not being married anymore, we’re still a family.
“Thanks for doing this,” she says to me. Referring to coming over on short notice to take my daughter out to dinner.
“Of course,” I reply, “Thanks for calling me.” I pause for a moment, thinking to myself. I begin to speak, my cheeks flush red, and I confide in Nikole, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say to her about it?” I’m clearly uncomfortable with the whole notion that my baby is now a woman. While I have always felt as though I am a proud feminist and I have tried hard to raise strong, confident daughters, teaching them that they can do and be anything they want, the reality is, I’m not sure what to say to my girl about the physiology of womanhood. As a dad, I feel completely in over my head.
Nikole chuckles at me, closes her eyes and shakes her head, “You don’t have to say anything about THAT,” she says, “I’ve talked to her about all that stuff. You just need to be there for her. She needs her dad right now, and you need to see that your little girl is growing up. Just be her papa right now, that’s all you need to do.”
I nod, relieved, and more relaxed, but say nothing while I think the matter over thoroughly. Nikole is right; I need to acknowledge that my life is not the only one changing. Everyone around me is changing too. This life, this moment, this experience certainly isn’t all about me. My children will come to age, mature, and grow, and they will do this while my body breaks down and prepares to slip away into eternal rest. Not to acknowledge these changes robs us all of the opportunity to recognize that life is fleeting at all stages. We are born, but we don’t stay babies. We’re only toddlers until we learn to run. Childhood ends when we become teenagers, and teens become young adults. Girls become women; boys transform into men, and life shifts and moves and evolves. It never stays the same. Try as we might, we can never stop this process, and so we adapt and accept it. In our family, we realize how fleeting life can be, and we are choosing every day to recognize and appreciate each step. We are learning to say goodbye to the old “us,” and welcome the new people we are becoming. Tonight is all about that. Tonight is about saying goodbye to my little girl and welcoming instead, a blossoming young lady, so full of promise and spirit, just waiting to take on the world.
I look at my ex-wife, and for a while, we lock eyes and see into each other’s souls. We see each other for what we are, we are scared and uncertain, and completely overwhelmed, and we’re both just trying to do our best to be good parents to our daughter and her siblings. We love and want the best for each of them, and at this moment, I also realize that I still love and want the best for my ex-wife. This love is not romantic but instead is wrapped so tightly and deeply around how much I have come to appreciate and respect her. Unexplainably, I suddenly see the strength she has developed, and I can feel that she sees the same in me. I love her because, through all of this, she is embracing my desire to grow and I can see that she is growing and changing too, we have both become very different people than we were when we were married. She is readying herself to be a single mom raising six kids alone, and through this, I have not heard her complain once. Instead, despite the anger we have felt towards each other in the past, we’ve been able to put this all aside and work together to make these last months memorable. Though we have been a mom and dad for 13 years, it dawns on me that it has only been these past three months where we have come to truly understand what it means to be parents. In this time of adversity, we have only just realized what it means to be a family.
I don’t envy the role she will take on when I’m gone, and she is running this family by herself. It will be hard, I know this and so does she. Despite this, we have made a choice, and that choice has been to hold each other up through this challenging time, to respect, appreciate, and love each other for what we do for, and mean to, our children. In doing so we are both able to be the best parents we can be, and in return, we’re confident that we’re raising our children to be the best people they can be.
Though as a family, as well as individually, we are all changing and transitioning, we are helping each other to do it in a way that makes us all better people. We are fostering an acceptance of change and guiding each other to build the strength to acknowledge that you can’t always select what happens in life, but you can move on and make the best of whatever it becomes. We are trying to teach this to our children in a way that respects and embraces how incredibly challenging it can be, particularly when life can sometimes feel so overwhelmingly unfair.
We work towards reinforcing that in each and every unknown there is an opportunity and a blessing. These blessings come in moments like tonight, where life is about celebrating the good changes, recognizing that everything has a time and a place and that when it’s over, it doesn’t mean it’s gone forever, there will always be a part of the past that lives on into the future. We make memories and store them as snapshots in our brains to remind us of where we have come from. Each of these mental photographs speaks the story of the love and the legacy that we built together back when we were all different people; back during a different time. I am counting on the moments like tonight with my daughter to provide some comfort to my children in the years to come when I’m not there to help them as they develop into adults and follow whatever paths life may lead them down.
As Nikole and I stand together, each lost in our thoughts, I catch a glimpse of my daughter as she appears across the room. She is wearing a pale pink sweater and a navy blue skirt that falls just a little above her knees. Her slender legs are covered by a pair of gray tights, and she is wearing a pair of shoes with a slight heel, clearly borrowed from her mother’s closet. She is still tiny, the heels don’t fool me, she’s not much more than five feet tall, possibly not even that, and I have a hunch she won’t get much bigger than she is now. Her long sandy brown hair, darkened from the baby blonde, is neatly pulled back into a french braid, no doubt, lovingly crafted by her much more fashion conscious sister. A few wisps of fine hair have come loose from around her temples, and she tucks them behind her ears as I watch. Her mother has let her put on a little bit of makeup for the occasion, some mascara, and a touch of pink lipstick. She is beautiful. Almost as if overnight, or perhaps it’s just because it’s the first time I’ve looked at her as anything but my baby girl, she has taken on some womanly features. I whisper from the corner of my mouth to Nikole, just loud enough for my daughter to hear, “I’m not ready for this.” My daughter flushes pink briefly before returning to her regular alabaster tone.
“Hi, Daddy,” she says. She rarely calls me that anymore, but in this moment, I think we both need the comfort of remembering how things were when she was younger, and things were simpler.
“Hi Sugar Cookie,” I reply, calling her by my favourite age-old nickname. “You look so grown up,” I say. This I say for myself because, clearly, she doesn’t recognize this shift in herself. She comes towards me, and I grab her coat from the wall hook beside me. I hold the coat up, and she turns around to slip it on while I hold it. I pull the tail of the braid out from beneath the collar. She turns around and looks at her mom, then looks at me. We are both smiling at her, our minds full of our own private thoughts of the past, present, and future. I am lost as to what I should say, and I know Nikole feels the same as I can see from the corner of my eye that she has moved her hand up to cover her mouth, a habit adopted from her own mother, used when trying to stifle tears. Our daughter is our baby no longer. Our emotions can be felt hanging thick in the air; they are a mingled dichotomy of love, pride, and joy, with sadness, fear, and indignation. The whirlpool of feelings creates a tension for us all and under the pressure of the moment, my daughter screws her face into a look of intolerant disgust, and in a signature move so familiar from when she was a baby, she plants her heel firmly into the floor and looks us both directly in the eye, one after the next.
“Ugh,” she says. “You guys are so weird!” In the time it takes for the words to escape her lips, Nikole and I have devolved into a fit of laughter. We both know she’s right, we are a little bit weird. We let the moment pass for now, but I take a mental snapshot for my memory scrapbook. This moment is stored in the recesses of my mind with intent to recall it again during the times to come when I’m going to need something happy to chase away the dark, scary clouds that threaten to take over my mind in the uncertainty that looms ahead.
It’s time to get going. We have reservations for six o’clock at the fanciest place in town. I hold out my arm, and she slips her own through the crook of my elbow. I lead her to the entryway and open the door. We pass through, her first, followed closely by me, she doesn’t let my arm go. I escort her to the car and open the passenger side, she gets in, and I shut the door for her. I cross behind the car and peering over the roof towards the house I can see Nikole standing in the open entry, watching us, her hand once again covering her mouth. I look at her, smile widely, and give her a wink. “I think we’ve done pretty good Mama,” I say loudly to her so she can hear me from across the lawn. She nods, and I can see the flood of tears trail down her face.
She clears her throat, moves her hand away from her mouth and shouts back, “I think so too Papa. Now you two go and have fun!”
I nod, open my door and get in. I put the keys in the ignition, put my foot on the break, and put the car into drive. I turn to my daughter, smile genuinely at her, remembering once more how easy it is to be in her company. She may be growing up, but she’s always going to be my little girl. I find great comfort in that. “Ready to go?” I ask.
“Yep,” she says cheerfully. “You know I’m going to get the most expensive thing on the menu right?”
I laugh, this kid has always been able to crack me up. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” I reply and reach over to pat her on the knee. She reaches down, puts her hand on top of mine. I flip my hand over and take her, still, tiny hand in my palm and squeeze it gently, and just like the day in Vancouver, my heart is jolted with love.
It’s been a long time since I had such a tender moment with my daughter. I think this is her way of acknowledging that she understands what’s happening to us all. My heart swells with pride and joy. As I put my foot on the gas pedal and begin to roll slowly down the driveway, still hand in hand with my daughter, I know deep in my heart that she has grown into a very kind and loving young lady and someday she will be a very amazing woman.