A death in the family (or how 18 months changed several lives forever)

Today is Daddy’s 78th birthday. That’s easier to say than “would have been.” But in reality, he’s forever young, frozen in time at a very handsome, active and boyish 47. That’s also easier to remember than the shadow of himself he was when he died in 1982 at 48.

My parents were high school sweethearts who got married almost obscenely young by today’s standards. He was 19 and she was 17. When he transferred to Fayetteville for engineering school his junior year, they lived in a tiny trailer, which was what the university called “married  housing.”

Daddy from a college yearbook, circa mid-1950s

I was born in September after he graduated in May. They had just turned 22 and 20 in July. I always say I had baby parents. When Cathy came along, they were still just kids, 25 and 23.

I was 25 the year we learned he was sick. Cathy had just turned 23 the year he died. Girls grow up quickly when they lose their daddies, even if, like my mother, they’re girls in their mid-50s when it happens. If you have a good dad, he’s got your back.

We had a good dad.

Our relationship wasn’t always easy, though. After the early years when I called myself “Daddy’s little  girl,” things got tough until I was a mom myself. He didn’t know quite what to do with a sassy child who physically matured early, and the sassy child didn’t know quite what to do with a very serious, introverted, but funny, workaholic. Typical ’60s style, he worked his rear off for a major company, often getting home late  — and played golf on the weekends. But he never missed a dance or piano recital, and he’d come sit on my bed and talk to me when I was sick. (Since I had asthma for several years as a kid, that was probably pretty frequently.)

He, on the other hand, was never sick. I’d heard about his emergency appendectomy when he was a kid, but I remember him being sick twice. The entire family had the flu when I was about 10 — all four of us piled into Mother and Daddy’s double bed and moaned until we were better. When I was in high school, he had kidney stones and literally turned gray. I cried, I was so scared.

He also took to his bed when our dog Nicky, a miniature red dachshund he called “son,” died, but that was heartache.

The year things went bad started out well. My oldest and dear friend, Kelly, graduated from law school in May. In the photos, Daddy looks young and healthy and vibrant — except for the oddly protrusive tummy, in retrospect. He was always very slim. Ben was a toddler, Liz was a newborn and Mother and Daddy were on top of the world. Young grandparents, proud owners of Cartwright Construction Company, a commercial construction company that was just starting to really take off.

After Daddy started his own company, he gave up the Mad Men look for jeans or khakis all the time. My sister was his secretary/receptionist and I was a stay-at-home mom. We were making up for lost time.

Then one day in September, Mother called to tell me Daddy’d gone to the doctor “for a check-up” — something he’d never done — and because the doctor found a little spot in his lung (“nothing, I’m sure; don’t worry”), she’d be going to the doctor with him the next day. I hung up the phone in a daze, then my knees buckled and I sat on the floor with a plop. My father was dying. I knew instantly.

The spot in his lung was the third place the cancer had shown up — the first was a large mass in his colon (thus the uncharacteristic belly). The second, and what killed him, was his liver; this was 1982 before transplants and when liver cancer was a death sentence. The lung metastatsiswas the first to go, and the easiest to get out, but when the doctor came to Mother, Cathy and me and said, “Well, it is cancer,” I saw my mother’s eyes glaze over, and at 25, I grew up in a flash.

I wanted to tell you all the lessons we learned from the 18 months of my father’s slow and horrible death — and how he outlived the doctors’ predictions by a year or more. I wanted to tell you how my kids adapted to the new reality and learned to check themselves in at Baptist Hospital to get their vistors’ tags and press the button to the elevator to the 10th floor, and how they’d plan what toys to take to show Grandbob or decide in advance what to tell him.

And how close we all grew and  how time is short and you can’t wait for tomorrow because sometimes tomorrow never comes, but that’ll all have to wait. I’m spent.

So let me just say “Happy birthday, Daddy. Wish you were here.”

And, men, get your check-ups.

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