Monday night, while hanging out at a town festival in an effort to recover from the emotional roller coaster we’d ridden earlier, my mom got a text on her cell phone that knocked me to my knees.
“Dad is dying. He has lung cancer.”
The message came from a woman who, like me, calls a man Dad who had nothing to do with creating her. He was once involved with – not even married to – her mom, and he took care of her when she was a kid. They lost track after he and her mother broke up, but reunited years later. She still called him Dad and he referred to her as his daughter.
That almost makes her my sister, I guess.
You see, that same man raised me. He married my mom when I was about 12, an age any mother will tell you is the absolute worst for girls. I wasn’t sure what to call him, until the day we had a talk about the fact that he loved me and wasn’t going anywhere, no matter what happened between him and my mother. From that day forward, he was my dad.
He was the dad that grounded me and made me keep my bedroom door open when my boyfriend was over. He was the dad that chased that same boyfriend out of our driveway days after he’d broken my heart. He was the dad that listened to me cry and demanded to know how many more times the rest of the family was going to have to hear John Michael Montgomery’s “I Can Love You Like That” on repeat. When I found out I was pregnant a few years later, he was the first one to cry over the loss of what might have been, and the only one to pull my teenaged boyfriend aside for a man-to-man talk. He was the first person we told when we decided to get married a few months later.
He, along with the dad that helped give me life, walked me down the aisle on my wedding day. It couldn’t have happened any other way.
He adored me, and I him.
And then somehow it all went to shit.
He and my mom got divorced, and it was messy and painful for everyone involved. My youngest brother still lived at home with his now-ex wife, and their once intimate relationship vanished overnight. Ours shriveled up over several months.
I don’t even remember exactly how or who stopped calling.
He was moving around a lot. He seemed to be drinking more. He didn’t look like the man who’d been the rock through my teenage years and I didn’t know how to move forward. I moved to Florida instead. We may have exchanged one or two phone calls shortly afterward, but that was it.
I hadn’t spoken to him in five years when my mom showed me the text message on her phone, but in an instant I was 16 and hearing that my dad was dying. My already sore heart dropped, taking the rest of my body down with it. My arms tingled with some psychic longing of a past embrace. I went to Jared.
“My dad, Rick, he has lung cancer. He’s dying,” I whispered into his chest as the music of carnival rides played on around us. “I have to get out of here. My mom is taking me. I’ll text you.”
Jared seemed to understand everything in that instant. He squeezed me, started to ask a question, and then nodded. “OK. Call me.”
It’s no wonder my dad always liked him.
My mom walked me to her car and listened to me sob. She listened to me beat myself up and tried to convince me that it wasn’t my fault that our relationship had deteriorated.
It didn’t really matter anymore whose fault it was, I suppose.
Mom got me his home phone number, which was busy or unavailable for two days. Tuesday night, she sent me his cell phone number. Wednesday morning, for the first time in five years, I heard his voice.
“Is this Rick?”
“Yeah, this is Rick.”
“Yes. This is Rick.”
“Dad, it’s Britt. B-R-I-T-T.”
“Oh. Oh. Well. It’s been a long time.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I heard you were sick.”
“Yeah. You still in Florida?”
“No, actually, we sold our house and our stuff and went around the country in an RV for a while. We just got back a little bit ago and we’re in Parkersburg now. We’re moving to Pittsburgh this summer.”
“Yeah, like in Pennsylvania.”
He laughed. “Yeah, I know where it is. What’s up there?”
I explained a little about why were moving there. He asked me how the babies were and I explained that they weren’t babies anymore. We made plans for us to go visit him on Monday; we couldn’t go Wednesday night because he wasn’t feeling well.
“How do you know you’ll be feeling better next week?” I asked.
“I just… I’ll be fine. I know it will,” he said. “Man, I’ve missed you so much.”
“I’m sorry it’s been so long, Dad.”
“Oh, well, you know, shit happens.”
“I know but, I’m really sorry.”
“I love you.”
He went quiet and his breathing changed.
“Yeah. It’s OK.” He sounded incredibly old all of a sudden.
“OK, we’ll see you Monday then. I love you,” I repeated.
“I love you, too.” I’m pretty sure he was crying, or trying very hard not to, when I hung up.
I cannot believe it took cancer for me to pick up the phone.
Do not wait for death to remind you of what matters. Please.