Shortly after moving back home I borrowed my dad’s car to return and finish the final cleaning of our old place. Dad’s car wasn’t getting much use since he had stopped working and lending it to me gave my family the freedom to get out and about while I was away. It’s worth knowing for the purpose of this story that the only spare key for mom’s car was on dad’s key ring.
The morning after I returned home I got a flustered call from my dad asking my to return his keys, not the car, the keys. Mom’s keys had gone missing. “Sure thing dad!” But the keys were no where to be found. I searched high and low in a very panicked way, like a child who had disappointed her father.
My dad was not a patient man with things like this. In fact I would have to say it was quite the opposite. We now had 3 cars between our families but only 1 of them had keys that could be located. Two homes were being torn apart from top to bottom. One man was cursing while two woman scurried frantically praying to locate the missing keys. Even before a thorough examine could be completed dad had called the dealership to have another key made for mom’s car and was picking that up before heading to the post office to organize a retrieval of the mail key. All with the speed and fierceness of a tornado.
That night, at bedtime I found my dad’s keys. Nestled in a pile of toys next to my 5 year old’s bed. I almost flew in to the same sort of frantic rage that had consumed my father’s morning but instead I asked him “did you take Gramp’s keys?”
“But what are these?”
“Those are the keys I was playing with.”
“But why didn’t you give them to me when I was looking for Gramp’s keys?”
“Cause I didn’t know those were Gramp’s keys.”
It was perfect in it’s logic. And thankfully I could laugh the crazy of the day away and present to my dad the next morning his returned keys with a story. To this day I am not certain he fully believed his grandson. But I did.
My dad so often carried the weight of the world on his shoulders alone. Making it easy to lift from peaceful to angry at what may have appeared to be the tiniest of things. This day the lost keys gave him something familiar to place his attention upon. He could fix this while stamping his feet and cursing at those around him and for a few short hours feel parts of who he was before he became the man with inoperable cancer. So though we were battered a small bit by the storm of his frustration he found a safe harbor. He had something to do other then be sick.
I had been singing in a choir for almost two years when I moved back home, a church choir. These are two things I never would have predicted being a true about me. Growing up church was not a part of my experience. No one in the house went to church and religion was not something we spent any measurable amount of time believing in. Yet my dad held and a gifted to me a deep sense of spirituality. It was this foundation that afforded my the open mind to visit a progressive united church and fall in to the community and questioning provided.
I confided once in my friend and fellow church goer that I had a desire to sing in the choir. I had no training, experience or back ground in such things. I simply longed to sing. And so she held me to my words and picked me up for choir practice.
Growing up with my dad, I heard him belt out many a tune. Not just singing, the man would own the tune and sing it with vibrato, any chance he got, the national anthem, Christmas carols, a good tune on the radio. When I knew I was moving back home I put out the challenge to him, “I’ll join the Knox United choir if you do.” He accepted and I wept my way through Wednesday night practices and Sunday sermons with my dad just a few seats away. Somehow the sacred space, the words, his courage would all gather in my tear ducts every time, fueled by a knowing of how rare and fleeting this would be.
After the first rehearsal, as I drove us both home, he said “I think I’ve been a closet singer my whole life.” It was muttered almost fully under his breath but I caught it and just as quietly agreed. Sitting both of us eyes forward in the car made it easier for this new level of sharing. This place where reflections of a life running out could fall without their full intensity.
It was an inspiration to me, that even now, sicker then he had ever known, he was still stepping up to the challenge of doing something brand new and wildly outside of his comfort zone. Each year as I smile at this memory I am reminded not to hide any of my passions, or hopes or dreams inside a closet but instead to sing them out loud and now even when faced with huge obstacles.
When we rounded the corner in the car, we fondly called goldie, he was already there waiting with his camera. His constant companion capturing the moments we might otherwise have forgotten. His frame standing the same height while the rest of his body shrank. It is so true that cancer eats away a person. The first time he had cancer it never started to eat away at him. It had been caught fast enough and he moved more naturally in to sickness and back out again to health. This time, it was hard to imagine he would come back to health again. The speed of it all indicated only a going deeper in to sickness.
He was quick to begin unloading our belongings, despite the constant reminders from mom to take it easy, to slow down, to simply stop. He was my dad and there wasn’t much that would convince him that slowing down that role made any sort of sense. He carried always the gauntlet of patriarch. It was never spoken but in small and subtle ways he steered our family. He held us all together in ways we wouldn’t notice until he was gone. He was the one in charge and we never questioned his guidance.
The truth of it is that he had picked the house for us. The plan to leave our community and move was a quick one. With in 24 hours we had made the decision, found a possible rental serendipitously just 4 doors up the road from my parents. We had not been able to get to see the house before signing a lease. Dad walked up took a look and decided indeed this space would work for us. He watched us begin to settle in, quietly in the back ground making sure that we were going to be okay. And only then did he retreat to his seat at the end of the couch just four doors down the street. Saying “I’ll leave you alone now so that you can get settle in.” Always with an heir of strength, for himself as much as it was for us. It was something he could hold on to, a control he could have while the rest spiraled wildly out from him.
I was relieved to be home. To be back in the town I grew up in but mostly to know dad was only a few doors away. No one ever spoke the words out loud but there were spaces in the fiber of my being that knew this was his ending. And I was knee deep in gratitude for the opportunity to show up for him. though truly this was just as much for me as it was for him. I needed to be there in ways I had yet to truly admit or discover.
One thing I had counted on for my whole life is that my dad would show up for me. Even if there was more time driving then there was visiting he showed up. Even if it meant missing out on something he had planned, he showed up. Even if it was just words that soothed my panic, he showed up. Even when illness and treatment stripped him of health, he showed up. It was so ingrained in my experience of living that I most often didn’t notice at all, taking it for granted.
And when he died it was ridiculously challenging to understand how I could ever be okay in a world where he would not be able to show up again. The parties he would miss, the walks we couldn’t take, the voice that would never again mumble, “don’t worry. It’s gonna be fine.” with a wave of the hand as if to dismiss the trouble with an his magic wand.
Slowly, as I untangled myself and found some space to breath under the weight of it all, I opened one of his parting gifts inside of myself. What I found under the wrap and ribbons was a message. A deep knowing that showing up was not just what he did for me, it is what he taught me to do. For myself, for my loved ones and for those who’s lives touch in to my own. Beyond his physical self lives this piece of who I am connected in to him and carrying me more courageously forward. His way of showing up for me beyond his living life was planting seeds of this very gift with in my own heart.