My father and his wife - my parents divorced when I was eighteen and my father eventually remarried a decade later - graciously allowed us to stay with them until we found work and could establish a place of our own. Though living at home again after so many years felt somewhat strange, I must confess that it was nice to be among family after nearly a decade away. In essence, we were happy to be home, and the anticipated arrival of my son filled the summer days with sweetness and joy.
Like most diagnoses, the diagnosis my father's wife received during that summer came as a shock. Dismay and sorrow quickly tainted the sweetness and joy. My father's wife battled against the disease with all the strength and optimism she could summon. My father, for his part, channeled the bulk of his time and energy into supporting her in every way he could. Whenever the four of us were together, we all spoke encouragingly and optimistically about chances and odds, but when we retired for the night, the hushed and somber whispers of reality filled our rooms.
My son was born a few weeks before Christmas and his arrival brought some cheer to an otherwise cheerless season. The arrival of new life briefly eclipsed the shadow of gradual death. For a few short weeks we were granted a reprieve, but it didn't last. Rather than provide improvement, the treatments my father's wife endured only served to exacerbate the cancer in her lungs. Some time in the New Year it began to spread through her body like spilled black ink. Her condition worsened in the most heartbreaking and unoriginal manner possible - gradually, then suddenly.
And through it all my father was there beside her. It pains me to consider how agonizing it must have been for him to watch the person he loved fade and wither before his eyes. At how excruciating it must have been to know he could do nothing more than provide comfort. At how harrowing it must have been to feel powerlessness to the point of pain.
Not that he spoke of these things much. True, he confided in me every now and then and sometimes hinted at the torment that was silently tearing him apart, but he never showed it. He remained steadfast and indefatigable, even during her last days at home during which he had to physically carry her every time she needed to leave the bed.
On a few occasions, I wondered how I would cope under similar circumstances, but merely attempting to imagine my own wife in the same situation proved too difficult. I assured myself that I would act as solidly as my father was acting, but I timidly doubted that my well of strength ran as deep as his.
How easy it would be to succumb to weakness; to resentment; to despair. How easy it would be to reach for the bottle, or pills, or something worse. How easy it would be to lash out - to shake an impotent Learean fist of rage at the stormy skies. How easy it would be to take a bad situation and make it worse. Yes, it would be all too easy. I imagine the temptation to give in would be perpetual.
Yet my father never gave in.
My father received little in the way of formal academic education. Nonetheless, he is a clever and resourceful man. He had trained to be a chef when he was a young man, but eventually taught himself to build houses. He rarely goes to church and barely ever mentions God, yet he is firmly rooted in something that extends beyond the material. My father possesses little formal knowledge of psychology or theology, but his attitude and actions during those ten months demonstrated that he knew more about the human mind and spirit than a thousand psychologists or theologians ever could.
My father would probably have a difficult time articulating the theory of why he never gave in during those ten months, but his weakness in theory is overshadowed by his strength in practice. He just intuitively and innately understood the art of not giving in. Put another way, during those ten months, he never talked the talk. He never uttered a word about picking up suffering and bearing it. Not a breath about being a good person - one who refuses to worsen suffering. Regardless, when the time came, he proved he could walk the walk. He picked up his suffering; he bore it; he remained a good person; he did not intensify the suffering.
Not even after it was all over and he was left alone with a cruel and undeserved void that penetrated the very essence of his being.
Unlike my father, I received a formal academic education, but in those ten months following the diagnosis of his wife's cancer, my father taught me more about the human mind and spirit than a thousand psychologists or theologians ever could.