October 14, 2010

The Noble Battle

This week, my brave father-in-law surrendered to his dignified battle with pancreatic cancer. Over the years, he and I had an uneasy alliance, bonding over our love of our family. During the past weeks as I recounted positive stories about him for the kids, I realized I have a lot of nice things to say about him. He was a family man to the very end. I am so grateful for the way he was always there for his family.

When I married my spouse, I was so happy to become part of such a great family. One day when I parked my car at their house, my then boyfriend and I went somewhere. I came back to find it washed and vacuumed. Another time, when my apartment flooded, and I had no family nearby, my (didn't know it yet) future in-laws came over with towels, and buckets and shop vacs and helped me clean my place as well as offer me a place to stay because I was dating their son, no other reason.

As with any in-law relationship, there are times over the past 20 years when our respective histories clashed. I'm sure we both spent some time biting our tongues. The things I wished to say seem so insignificant now. I spent a day last week with his lifelong friends, as we gathered and kept vigil. He passed at home and hospice said he was comfortable.  His hospice social worker was so special, she said, I came in here and he wanted nothing to do with me, and I liked him immediately. She had the heart to give a scared and angry man a place to vent. I love her for that. A true angel.

I learned that he called several times a week about his assorted pension and retirement accounts to ensure they were on track and that his wife would be cared for. If the amount varied as much as a dollar, he was back on the phone, getting everything straight.

I learned that as angry as a person can make you in a day, they still have so many redeeming qualities that anger is never worth it. His lifelong buddy calls him an asshole to his face, even on his deathbed, and walked out of the room with tears, choked with emotion. Seeing an almost 70 year old man that touched by the impending loss of his friend just grabbed me. Then his buddy shared a story.

One evening, my mother in law couldn't get my father in law up from the toilet. After several repeated attempts to lift him, finally, embarrassed, called his buddy. His buddy, who has had two hip replacements came over. This stocky man had my father in law put his hands on his shoulders and like a non-fun conga line, lifted him that way. As he was lifting him, my father in law told his buddy, don't you dare turn around.

We laughed hysterically. I thought about the sort of person who has friends for an entire life. I listened to these buddies who grew up together tell crazy stories about how they would run back and forth to each others houses and time it so they could eat dinner twice. I smiled to imagine the mischievous, fun loving boy he was.

This is a friendship of a man who will lift his buddy off a toilet... and laugh about it not with shame but love later. This is a man who never was happier to be a grandfather. I never saw a man light up more than when he met our firstborn. He guarded her with all his gruff knightly qualities. He loved his grandchildren with a passion unmatched.

And now my very private father in law who probably would be aghast if he knew how I was sharing his life stories, is  gone. I kissed him on his forehead and said, "thank you for loving us as much as you did". Then I squeezed his hand and told him there was a cold one waiting for him and it would taste good again.  I like to think he's sitting comfortably waiting for us to join him for that cold one.

What I have learned is that life is not long enough for anger. It's worth it to bite your tongue and if you call someone an asshole, it needs to be with a smile. And whatever you do, if you're lifting that asshole off a toilet with your back to him, hands on your shoulders, do NOT turn around!


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