Weeks before I moved into one of those tiny square dorms with the generic oak furniture freshman year, I called it all off. The classes, the sorority rushing, the nursing prereqs. Something in me knew I couldn’t go that far for that long while my dad’s diagnosis seemingly hung in limbo. Everything was stable, but was it really? Calling brain cancer stable seems contradictory to its very nature. At this point, Dad had battled brain cancer for 14 years already, successfully removing tumors twice with little to no change in our swift pace. But the reality was Dad’s sickness still hung like a heavy storm cloud and we were unsure of whether what would come next would be a sprinkle or a downpour.
So I stayed in our sweet hilly town on the frigid shores of Lake Superior, waitressing tables at a local Mexican restaurant. I’m certain many had their thoughts that I was wasting perfectly fine leadership and a good GPA staying put. Dad would have never let me stay for him, so I just told him I was homesick and needed a gap year to keep his lectures at bay. Months after the leaves turned every color of a burnt sunset and the college football season handed out its trophies, we were given the kind of news you knew could come but you can never fully brace for. Dad’s tumor was back. Surgery was set for 2 hours away in Minneapolis. Our large family gathered in the stale waiting room of the hospital after we kissed Dad and sent him into the hands of surgeons and God. He walked back after whispering a strong ‘I love you’ in our ears.
Hours later after raiding the vending machine with all the quarters we could gather, we walked into the recovery room expecting to find Dad strong. He was known for defeating every odd so we anticipated him to be sitting up ready to dream up our next adventure. But when we walked in, it was as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. When closing up from Dad’s surgery, they nicked a vein, causing a stroke — leaving our larger-than-life father, husband, friend paralyzed on the left side and unable to move or speak. I will never forget the feeling of being so utterly rattled and the look of imprisonment he held in his eyes. He was trapped in his own body, unable to fix the problem, and only able to translate every fear through the look in his wide eyes. Hot tears rolled down his cheeks, his left hand lay limp as we grabbed hold of it, and he let out a wail. Our world seemingly broken at its axis, stood completely still in the aftermath. Life would be marked by this moment. No one said it but we all knew it. An invisible flag hung in that hospital room with the bright fluorescent lights, marking everything before and everything after.
The overnight bag we had packed wouldn’t carry the essentials needed for the long haul road standing before us. We would take trip after trip, those days bogged down with summer humidity. Brain cancer patient took a back seat that scorching summer to a stroke survivor, as we traversed the unknown worlds of relearning to walk and talk again.
A few moments stick out to me from that long stretch of days, moments that became major threads in the tapestry of who I was and who I was becoming. I had only been recently dating a boy I had a crush on in high school when our cookie-cutter world imploded. We were mostly still strangers after only having a handful of months of hikes, coffee dates, and him serenading me with his guitar. We were still in the honeymoon stage where everything felt magical and we hadn’t shared any pain. But when Dad’s surgery went wrong — who was the one who picked me off the cold hospital floor? He was. He drove the 2.5 hours back and forth between work shifts, almost daily, just to sit and hold my hand in hospital rooms. We didn’t have the history to give us deep roots to keep us grounded when this storm whipped in like a tornado and uprooted everything in its path. But he didn’t care.
My dad couldn’t talk and as a man of many words and opinions, this agitated him. We were all desperate to hear his voice and hear his opinion. He had been praying for the man I would someday marry since the day I was born. Now I found what seemed to be a keeper, I couldn’t hear his thoughts on the matter. One otherwise boring day, David and I sat in his bright hospital recovery room with the TV buzzing in the background and the nurses popping in and out every few minutes. Dad gestured for me to hand him the whiteboard, and he wrote for a few minutes before turning the sign around to us both. He wrote, ‘When are you going to her ask her to marry you?’ I nervously laughed, wondering if his forwardness was going to kill any chances I had. But though no one said it, we all knew it then and there. The man taking care of me was the very one Dad had spent all those nights praying for.
We were transported to a rehab unit where we would help Dad learn to walk and talk again. Most days felt grueling and defeating, wondering if we would ever hit the milestones we longed for. Just when hope felt too distant, a connection in his brain went through and we celebrated the hope this carried. The weight of this season still felt palpable. Dad’s brain cancer was still a part of the story. The biopsy had confirmed it was aggressive. While laying in the hospital bed, Dad’s friend, Kevin, who also happened to be a licensed therapist posed some questions for him. Mom sat listening while us kids gathered in the family room. Kevin boldly asked what we all wondered without saying aloud, ‘The cancer isn’t going anywhere. You have lost your ability to speak and walk. So Patrick, what now?’
Before he had even regained the ability to speak, my dad grabbed a whiteboard yet again and wrote out the words, ‘I CHOOSE JOY!’ They all then signed the bottom as a promise for them, but really as a promise for all of us. No matter what happened in the days that followed, joy would be our anthem. It wouldn’t come naturally, but we would choose it again and again and again. It felt like a foreign language at first but soon, it would become our native tongue. Instead of anger or fear, joy was going to take center stage and get the loudest microphone.
Eventually, we made it home to the bungalow a couple of steps and a stone’s throw from the rolling waves of Lake Superior. I had been living in a college house with a couple of other girls but moved everything back into my parents to help care for my dad. We didn’t know where our story was headed and I clung to the hope of full healing and restoration in my dad’s body. Still, I packed my bags in that college house so fast and Mom made space to fit my bed only 14 steps away from where dad recovered.
The day after Thanksgiving, my parents took the well-beaten path toward Minneapolis to Dad’s chemo. We knew the drill well, a day-long, arriving home after dusk, tired and nauseous. I called Mom to check in around noon and she kept it oddly short, factually stating they were on their way back already. I figure she didn’t want her tears to give the days to come completely away before she was in arms reach to catch my tears. She did give instructions to gather at their home, and we were all old enough to know to listen when mom speaks. They walked in, Mom’s eyes giving clues of the news to come. She tried to smile and while it was beautiful as ever, the glisten seemed to be on a dimmer switch and turned all the way down. When you know the words to follow will change your whole world, how do you ask?
‘The cancer has spread from the left side of the brain to the right. The doctors have exhausted all efforts. We’ve decided we’re going to finish Dad’s race this side of heaven together at home.’
Sobs broke out. The kind where you have to force yourself to take a deep breath between in order to stay afloat. We wanted the finish line to be years from now after Dad had walked me down the aisle and rocked his grandbabies to sleep. But we were told the finish line was in sight and to savor every last step. We didn’t know if we would walk minutes or miles, but we promised each other to finish the race hand in hand.
It became apparent the dream I carried in my tiny adolescent heart of my dad walking me down the aisle wasn’t going to be my reality. David and I had postponed our engagement for me to focus on being present with my family during this time. Even though the wedding was temporarily halted, I had already gone dress shopping months prior. I hadn’t paid for the dress, just tried it on and twirled around it when I was out visiting with a girlfriend. I sat on the kitchen counters with hot tears pouring down my cheeks, heartbroken at the new reality Dad wouldn’t be there to walk me down the aisle. Within minutes, Mom was on the phone like the fairy Godmother she is, paying for and overnighting the dress.
Only two days later, Mom handed me the wedding dress she overnighted from Denver. I hid away in the bathroom and stepped into my lace dream dress while I applied waterproof mascara. Feet away, Mom helped Dad into his suit in the room next door. I could hear her preparing him for the moments to come, making space for his heart to breathe in the sacred moments of waiting to see his baby girl as a bride. I remember it feeling as though there wasn’t enough air in the world. I kept losing my breath and choking on my tears. Brain cancer had robbed us of a lot of moments, but it couldn’t rob us of our final dance.
My nails weren’t painted and I curled my hair myself in between wiping away the seemingly endless stream of tears. It wasn’t staged or super fancy. But it was heart and soul packed into a few holy moments. It was a dad doing what he always did best, sweeping his girl off her feet one last time.
All the months of physical therapy, all the miles he rode on his bike post-stroke to regain strength, all the hours he pressed through the pain was all worth it for to stand on his strong, yet shaky feet and dance me around the dining room one last time. We prayed together over my future and wept, while I begged and pleaded with God to heal him. I mean, how do you dance on the edge of heaven with someone you love and selfishly not ever want the music to stop? We both trusted in the goodness of God whether the cancer miraculously left or not. We also faced the reality that time was falling and we wanted to catch every last drop and savor it. So we did the best we knew how. We laughed with swollen eyes. Stepped on each other toes to Sinatra. Sobbed hysterically. Made promises he’d still walk me down the aisle.
Days later, we walked my dad straight into the arms of Jesus, carrying him over the threshold into eternity. We piled onto the bed as a family while he took his last breaths on this side of heaven. The sky lit up in every color of pink and orange over the vast blue inland sea that night, seemingly announcing his safe arrival home. Months later, Mom whispered into my ear as the sky broke as we made our way down the aisle, ‘Heaven has the best seat today. See love, Dad’s still here.’ When you look at my wedding photos, the locket of him and I is perfectly lit by that sun.
That same abundant grace has woven into the tapestry of our story even as the years have passed since Dad’s death. We received our foster care license in the mail on Dad’s birthday, a dream I know he’d be cheering wildly for. Now as we await the adoption of our fifth babe through foster care, it is set to finalize right around his birthday again. Coincidence? Maybe. Winks from heaven? More likely. We’ve also raised half a million dollars in honor of his legacy — choosing joy, spreading hope, and ending hunger for children in our community through Project Joy.
When I look over our story and see the boy who got Dad’s blessing in that hospital room as my best friend and husband almost a decade later. When I see the babies I get to raise who carry dad’s dimples and stubbornness. And when I see the brave words my dad wrote, ‘I choose joy,’ putting into motion a fierceness in my mama to fight childhood hunger in our community — I see redemption blooming up from the ashes. We didn’t get the miracle we prayed for this side of heaven, but the miracles we have seen are too many to log or keep track of. Beauty and goodness have blossomed where death tried to claim victory.
If I could, I would grab my scared 18-year-old self by the cheeks and say: ‘Sweet sweet girl. Do not be afraid. Yes, you will learn to face death in the days to come. But what you will actually do is learn to live. To choose joy. And to find heaven scattered among your days. The days to come may stretch you as though you are a rubber band being pulled to capacity. But you will not snap. You will fly forward with knowledge of the preciousness of life and enough miracles under your belt to believe that anything can happen.’”