At first, the chemo worked. At least it seemed to work. We didn’t know what to expect. My dad was holding up pretty well. His spirits were high, and his attitude belied the fact he was a sick man. “When you see me panic, then you know it’s time for you to panic,” he once told me. In all my years, I’d never seen him get flustered. Never seen him sweat anything out. He was cool as a cucumber. He was part Indiana Jones, part Cool Hand Luke. A throwback from another era. My dad was all man.
He never complained about what life had dealt him. What might have spun inside his head was a different matter, but his thoughts and emotions never broke through the surface. He went about the biggest war any one person could wage like he was waking for work. He rolled his sleeves, squared his jaw and got down to business. If there was anyone who could conquer this, anyone at all who could figure a way to overcome it, I knew damn well it’d be my dad. He wasn’t going anywhere.
I firmly believed it with all my heart, even if no one else did. I wasn’t being naive; I stuck to my faith. Sometimes in the darkest of hours, the simplistic of ideals burns most brightly. I admired the way my father carried himself, and I set out to emulate his example – to do otherwise would’ve betrayed the strength of his character. My father displayed no signs of weakness or cowardice, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to, either. When we spoke, we spoke only of what he’d accomplished that day, and what he’d be conquering tomorrow. When our eyes met, I made sure belief burned in my eyes. I wanted it to blind him.
Yes, at first the chemo worked. My dad started losing his hair, so he shaved it – ironically, just as I do. He looked good bald; he joked that he was still the better-looking one between the two of us. The chemo made his fingernails brittle & discolored; still he laughed, saying they now resembled the shell of a New Zealand mussel. His appetite was sound, but the days after chemo treatment really sapped his strength. He still managed to putter around his yard, although now he sat and rested for longer moments on his bench, relishing the sun upon his bare scalp.
One day, my father told me that he’d researched pancreatic cancer on his computer. He said nothing afterward; the silence hung thick between us. I knew what it meant. I knew he’d read the numbers, studied the statistics, just as I had. “Numbers can’t measure the fight,” I told him. “I just wanted to know what I was up against,” he replied and left it at that.
There were tough days for him ahead. Even the times I could only speak to him by phone, I could hear it in his voice – a man strained from effort, gritting his teeth in preparation for the next round. After awhile, I didn’t know what to say. Our conversations were about improving his diet, simple exercises at home to help keep his strength, what day and time chemo would be for the coming week.
We had a significant snowfall at one point during that winter. My dad didn’t have the stamina anymore to run his snow blower as he’d been used to; he wouldn’t admit it and put up a pretty tough struggle when he learned I’d be coming over to shovel his walk & driveway. In the end, I won. Barely. But something occurred that day that has haunted me ever since. As I was shoveling, I happened to glance up at my parent’s house and there, silhouetted against the curtains, was my father looking back down at me. I’ll never forget the expression upon his face for as long as I live. He looked like a child who’d been told he couldn’t go out to play. His eyes were so sad; he didn’t want to be in his room, he wanted to be out in the snow, clearing his own property, chugging his snow blower along the block in search of neighbors to help. I turned away as quickly as I could, but it was too late. A spear had been driven through my heart. It was the first time during my father’s fight that I felt the enormity of the situation.
“What’s that?” my dad questioned one afternoon after I came to visit. I was holding a football jersey in my hand. As I mentioned in ‘Part 2: Phone Booths and Four Words’ of my ongoing story, my father had been an amazing football player. He was also a New York Giants fan. But much to his chagrin, I veered off course. I’m a New Orleans Saints fan, as big as they come, and have been since I was six years old. “I’m going to hang this here,” I said, lifting the very first authentic Saints jersey I ever owned into the air. I had it customized many years before – the name PINTO was stitched along the back. “When you’re feeling down, or if you’re feeling weak, please look at the jersey and know that I’m blocking for you. You’re going to score a touchdown. Never drop the ball.”
That Saints jersey would make all the difference in the world later on.
The day came, however, that my father’s chemotherapy treatments stopped working…
(Part Four: Lazarus coming soon)