I've always had an image of my father in my head (read Santa). Strong, healthy, full of life. When I think of him, that's who I see in my mind's eye. He is eternally young, he is the man who carried me on his shoulders, he's the man who fulfilled my tomboyish dreams by letting me haul lumber through the woods with him, plow snow in the winter with him. He stands next to my mother, also eternally young, cheering me on at softball games and track meets, at high school and college graduations. He's the guy who has always done the heavy lifting for me, the guy who has fixed my broken cars and broken faucets and, on occasion, my broken heart.
Of course, reality is entirely different. This past week, I've watched my father go through major surgery (cancer) and I've come face to face with his mortality. This man is different from the one in my mind's eye: weaker, frailer, grayer...tired. And braver than I ever imagined. Watching him endure this, and watching my mother sit at his side, has been an extraordinary lesson about love. It's like having a beautiful snapshot of what is possible if you can find that one true thing.
I offer a brief glimpse:
It is just a few hours after surgery, and my sister, mother and I are all sitting around his hospital bed, watching him, waiting for his eyes to open so we can tell him he is still here with us. When he finally does wake up, he looks at my sister and me and winks (he has not done this since I was a little girl) and then his eyes connect with my mother's, and it is a moment I can never let go of. She says "you did good Freddie" and she begins to cry, exhausted from the waiting, relieved that he is here, frightened of what's next. He reaches for her hand and says "it will be alright" and I am amazed that even in this moment, his first thought is to comfort her, reassure her. The love between them is electric, their connection palpable, and for a time, they speak a language that only the two of them understand, simply by looking into each other's eyes. He falls asleep, his hand wrapped so tightly around hers that for 20 minutes she cannot move. It is the most beautiful, heartbreaking thing I have ever seen.
Later that night, when my mom and I return home from the hospital, she gets a phone call from an old friend who recently lost her own husband of 55 years to prostate cancer. They talk for a long while, and when she hangs up the phone, my mother says "the last thing she told me was to love him as hard as I can."
I tell her she has done that in a most remarkable way.
She cries a little, and says "Darl, I believe I have, and do, with all my heart."
My parents have given me so many gifts, and the most profound is this: they make me believe in the possiblity of love.
It is most precious.