I was 13 when my dad got sick. Barely noteworthy at first, the situation became suspicious when Dad was still visiting doctors several weeks later. One day he’d seem fine, going off to work as a lineman for the electric company just as he’d done my whole life; the next he’d be sick at home, something which had rarely happened before.
It was Easter time, and Mom became increasingly distracted. No one said much, but I overheard words like pleurisy and diverticulitis. I didn’t know what those things were. I was aware of cancer, but no one was mentioning that.
When the doctors in our town were unable to determine just what was making him sick, they sent my dad to see a specialist in Hershey. I was left in the care of my 15- and 17- year old brothers for a few days while Mom and Dad made the trip. At first I was thrilled–we’d never, ever been left alone like that before– surely it meant our parents were finally ready to admit we were all grown up!
It took only a little while for me to become annoyed with my brothers who were, after all, not the boss of me. But my whining annoyed my brothers as well, and one day after I complained that they wouldn’t let me do something or other one of them snapped, “You brat, our dad is in the hospital dying and all you can think about is yourself!”
And that’s how I found out that my dad was going to die.
A year later, the disease had ravaged him. As a young married man, my dad had been strong and handsome, unaware that the neighbor girls watched from their porch while he worked shirtless around our yard. He’d coached Little League, hunted and fished, wrestled with two sons and steadied his only daughter on pony rides at the county fair. Mostly, he’d been the love of my mother’s life.
Now, at the age of 46, he had the look of a little old man: sallow, wrinkled flesh; thin, graying hair; shuffling steps. . . Dad had consented to several experimental treatments and suffered terribly in his attempts to spend just a little more time on Earth with us.
Since Mom was a registered nurse, she saw to his needs at home as best she could, monitoring the permanent shunt and IV bag which delivered a continuous chemo drip to his diseased liver. She treated him with respect and tried to help him maintain some connection to the life he’d had before. In the late fall, Mom bundled him up and accompanied Dad into the crisp, autumn woods for a final day of hunting. Although she’d never hunted before, she carried his gear and her medical bag, making sure he rested frequently and changing the IV whenever it ran out, right there in the woods. At the end of the day Dad had two pheasants to bring home, and the photo I took later showed a mere ghost of that young man the neighbor girls watched, his body barely there but his eyes shining as he held up a plump pheasant in each hand. On his back was the corduroy pack Mom had sewn so he could carry around his needed IV bag, its tube secured to the shunt in his forearm.
The rest of us coped as best we could; my brothers accepted more and more responsibility around the house, and that year in school I entered the junior high science fair with a project called Radio Isotopes and Intra-Arterial Infusion: a Treatment for Liver and Colon Cancer. With his blessing, I displayed copies of Dad’s actual liver scans, which had been provided to me by his surgeon at Hershey Medical Center.
When Easter arrived again, Mom told me that Dad needed a new suit. “Nothing he has fits anymore,” she explained, “and he needs something nice to wear to church Easter morning.” I was asked to go along to Robinson’s Men’s Shop and help pick out the new suit.
Later in the store, I watched as Dad struggled to try on suits–he was weak now, and walking with a cane. Mom helped him dress and undress again, while a kind store clerk brought clothes to the fitting room for him to examine. Everyone was so somber and Mom was struggling to keep herself from crying, when I realized we were not there that evening to choose a new suit for church; we were there to choose the suit Dad would wear in his casket.
I caught my mother’s eye, and her look confirmed my hunch. She knew, I knew, Dad knew, even the store clerk knew what business we were doing right then, and we continued our sad task with this unspoken awareness.
Sitting on an uncomfortable stool near the dressing room, I watched as Dad came out several times and asked about each new suit, “How do I look?”
So I’d picture Dad in his casket, wearing that suit, and form an opinion.
“Not that one, Dad,” I’d say, convinced I was doing the most important thing I could for him at that moment. He had lost his health, his youth, his dignity; the least I could do was help him find a handsome jacket and pants.
It was a wine-colored suit with a plaid pattern that we picked that evening, and he did wear it to church on Easter morning–the last Sunday he felt well enough to attend services. Two months later he passed away.
As I looked at him there in the casket, dressed for ever after in the suit we’d selected, I told myself we’d done a good job. I will never forget that suit, or how my Dad looked in it. It was the most important outfit I’ve ever picked out.