My father went away one day and someone else appeared in his place.
Eight-and-a-half years ago, he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. On December 5, 2005, intense brain swelling stole much of his understanding in the span of hours; after surgery, followed by years of chemotherapy, the disease has turned him into a homebound medical dependent.
My father is no longer the man who raised me, but he still teaches an astounding series of lessons that I try to pass along to my daughters -- Athena, 8, and Kallista, 6.
1. Take the children on a trip, now.
My father criss-crossed the country as a finance executive in the 1980s, and he delighted in acquiring vast amounts of frequent flier miles. We are solidly middle class, but he uses his miles as the basis for increasingly elaborate air/hotel combinations that extend us outward from our Allentown, Pennsylvania base: first Florida/Disney and Niagara Falls/Thousand Islands/Toronto, followed by California, Hawaii, then Paris and London. As we travel further from home, my world expands exponentially.
As I travel solo to Denmark and Tangier this year as a writer and academic, and then with the girls to Montreal to watch my wife, Kelly Haramis, perform her Montreal Gazette-teased one-woman show Double Happiness: A Tale of Love, Loss, and One Forever Family, I remember this: Travel is a life choice. And it's always time to go if you can.
2. Charm others, particularly medical personnel.
One day, my father suddenly can't see at the edges. A hospital nurse attempts to diagnose his peripheral vision loss.
"Mr. Schneiderman, keep your eyes on my eyes, and then tell me how many fingers I am holding up on the edge of your vision."
It takes Dad a few tries to not follow her hand with his eyes, but he finally gets it.
"Two fingers!" he says.
The nurse is amazed, since he is clearly impaired. She asks how he knows this, and he explains:
"Whenever people hold up their hands for a test like this, they usually use two fingers."
3. A white lie is essential for calming tantrums.
My sister Lisa, brother-in-law Robb and their children visit from upstate New York. Robb will drive back from Chicago in my parent's car, which they are acquiring.
Since my father is always fatigued by his brain damage and a regimen of fog-inducing anti-seizure medicines, the visit is mostly everyone hanging out in his house. There's no family trip to the Art Institute. Want to see the Hancock building? Maybe next life.
My mother and sister get exactly one local lunch by themselves over the course of the visit. The night before, my father begins ranting loudly that they must spend some of their precious hour away at the car wash. "We cannot deliver a dirty car to Robb," he screams, "The car must be clean!"
"Dad," we say, "There's no time and nobody cares." This deeply offends his sense of middle-class identity and propriety. He's cursing under his breath. He's caught in a tape loop of rage.
Finally, we tell him Robb will no doubt dirty the car during the long drive, and he will therefore wash the car immediately upon his return home to New York.
This appeases him, and the storm calms. We could waste the time we have arguing with him, or move along so we can enjoy our time together. There is no choice, really.
4. Tell your children you love them.
Be specific. On the eighth anniversary of his "Alive Day," we celebrate at a local restaurant. Midway through the meal, my dad turns serious.
To my mom: "I just want to say thank you for everything you have done for me. You take care of me every day."
To me: "You found me treatment at Duke (The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke University Medical Center), which has kept me alive."
To Kelly: "And to my daughter-in-law, you make the most delicious baked goods for me. You bring me cookies and brownies. I love everything you bake and I am so thankful for you and this food. There is nothing you make that I don't want to eat. "
This continues for five minutes with a description of various cookies from the past. It's an Oscar Lifetime Achievement award in clipped English, entirely in honor of Kelly's baked goods.
5. Live by willpower.
When my mother texts from the ER to tell me Dad's had a stroke, I speed the two miles to the hospital with visions of paralysis, rehab facilities and the end of his life arriving in a crash of even further-diminished quality.
I burst through the security doors to see my father in a hallway gurney. The ER is overflowing and there are patients strewn through the corridors. He's alone, his eyes are shut and I am on the verge of a breakdown. The stroke, I fear, has taken him even further away from us, and I'll never hear him speak again.
Under the fluorescent lights I watch him, frozen in sleep, alien, silent. "Dad," I say quietly, touching him lightly on the shoulder, "Dad?" His eyes jump open. He looks right at me and says, "Can you believe how f*cking long I've been waiting here?"
It's not his famous impatience I want to pass to my daughters. Quite the opposite.
Yet through a mix of luck, quality medical treatment and an effective unwillingness to recognize most obstacles, my father has squeezed everything he can from life under a death sentence. He's present each and every moment, even when the present becomes overwhelming.
My Dad knows this is the only life he's going to get. He's had eight years to know it more than many of us ever will.
And so every day is Father's Day for me. I spend each moment with my daughters as if it will be the best possible moment of all.
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