By Lisa Lance
“You don’t have cancer,” my sister, Katie, says slowly, with certainty.
“Are you sure? A few weeks ago you thought you had a stroke because the side of your face felt numb,” I say. (The “stroke,” as it turned out, was a pinched nerve from spending too much time in front of her computer.)
“Yes, I’m sure. You’re the healthiest person I know.”
“No, I’m not. But thanks, I needed to hear that. I’ll talk to you later. Love you.” I hang up the phone. About twenty minutes later, I receive a text: “Stop worrying. You don’t have cancer.”
About once a month, my sister and I have a conversation just like this. Sometimes I think I have a brain tumor. Other times she’s hysterical and convinced that her “number’s up.” This anxiety about death is a constant undercurrent in our lives, and it’s grown stronger as we’ve both entered into our thirties. It lies in wait until one of us notices some minor change in her body or reads a news story about the latest health concern. Then it swiftly attacks, aided by an army of medical websites and online symptom-checkers, and the panic sets in. Whichever of us thinks she might have a fatal disease calls the other, and we take turns calming each other down. We are our own little support group, reassuring each other that we still have plenty of life left to live.
On an ordinary Monday in March, I step out at lunchtime to mail a couple of birthday cards. I pull my car into the post office parking lot and sigh when I see the sign that says it’s closed. As I drive through the suburban streets toward a nearby Starbucks, my thoughts begin to work their way from the cards on the passenger seat next to me to the upcoming anniversary of my own birth. I will soon turn thirty-three. It may not be one of the traditionally important birthdays like eighteen, when you’re officially an adult, or even thirty, when you realize you’re actually supposed to be an adult, but to me, thirty-three has its own significance. To me, it means I might only have one year left.
This fear originated in the summer of 1987. I was nine years old, and it had been a year of changes. We had moved from Minneapolis to Fargo, to a new house where I had my very own room and no longer had to share my personal space with my little sister. I was a junior bridesmaid in my aunt’s wedding, and I wore a grown-up pink satin and lace dress just like the one my mom, the matron of honor, wore. I was looking forward to a new school and new friends. I was about to be a fourth-grader, and life was good.
But on the morning of August 18, I woke up to chaos. My mom found my dad collapsed in our basement laundry room, and by the time I realized what was going on, an ambulance had already taken him to the hospital. It was too late; he died. Just two weeks earlier, we had celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday.
His death was sudden. One night he was there, and the next morning he was gone. At the time, the circumstances of his passing were mysterious to me, and I didn’t find out the official cause of his death—heart failure—until many years later. Because he didn’t have a history of heart trouble, my mom suspected radiation poisoning from treatments he’d received for Hodgkin’s Disease in the early 1970s. I was never given a clear explanation of his death, and I still don’t quite understand how it could have come about so quickly.
My memories of that day are fragmented, like I’m looking through a kaleidoscope in dim light with all the pieces jumbled around. I know my grandparents were there, and I clearly remember sitting on the edge of the tub in our guest bathroom with my grandma and sister while my mom was still at the hospital. My grandma, a farm wife whose need to control life led her to the point that she ironed washcloths so wrinkles could not infiltrate her linen closet, sat on the edge of the tub and told us we should be prepared in case he didn’t make it.
Then the scene swirls in my head to Katie and me sitting on the couch in our basement family room, crying as my mom explained to us that he wasn’t coming back. A pastor who lived in our neighborhood was standing next to her. We’d never seen him before, but apparently someone thought a strange pastor was better than no pastor at all. Then the scene shifts again as my dad’s parents arrived, my grandpa climbing the stairs in our house carrying his brown leather portable liquor cabinet. And my dad’s sister, who was six months pregnant with my cousin, arrived on our doorstep without her husband. Everything else about that day is a blur.
Since we had moved so recently, and many of my dad’s family and friends lived in the Twin Cities, we had two funerals. We drove the four hours to Minneapolis for one, which was held at the large Lutheran church where I had been baptized, attended preschool, and carried a palm frond to the alter with the children’s choir each year on Palm Sunday. The church was usually such a comfortable, friendly place, but this time, as I walked to the front of the sanctuary with my mom and sister, wearing my new white and navy funeral dress, I could feel the pitying stares of the people sitting in the rows of wooden pews. We made our way to the open casket in the front where my dad lay so still, as if he were sleeping. I reached my small hand up and touched his lips. Their coldness confirmed the reality of his death—although the figure in the casket looked like him, he was not actually there.
After the funeral, we drove north and did the whole thing all over again, this time at the church where my father and mother were married, in the small town of Rustad, Minnesota, where my grandparents lived. I think the universe has shown me a great kindness, acknowledging that two funerals for a parent might be just a bit too much for someone so young; I scarcely remember the event in Rustad at all.
When I think about scenes from his life, the memories develop like Polaroids in my mind. “Puff the Magic Dragon” will always be one of my favorite songs, because it reminds me of the times he would play the guitar and make up funny words to familiar songs. He would help my sister and me produce concerts on the stage of our fireplace hearth, providing the tape-recorded background music and audience applause as we sang doo-wop along with the Manhattan Transfer into our hairbrush microphones. Even though he had a job as a salesman, I picture him working with his hands. He had built that fireplace, as well as the deck on our house and a new roof on our lake cabin. He took pride in his work and in his workshop in our garage, but he didn’t say a word when he discovered I put Hello Kitty stickers all over his big red toolbox and wrote, “I love you Daddy” in black marker on his workbench.
But he wasn’t perfect. My dad abused alcohol in an attempt, I suppose, to deal with the remnants of a childhood with his own alcoholic father and enabling mother who dreamed of having a doctor in the family but instead wound up with a son in medical sales. He had a favorite bar near our house, Sandee’s, and our family would often have dinner there. I was allowed to feel like a grown-up with my own kiddie cocktail, and we would spread cheese on rye crisp crackers from a basket on the table while we waited for our food. The place was full of people, bright and cheerful on those nights, but I also remember visiting in the afternoon, when I knew we shouldn’t be there. On those days, it was cold, dark, and empty except for my dad and the bartender, and me sitting in a booth with my sister, impatiently waiting for him to finish up so we could go home.
Even from my limited childhood view, he and my mother didn’t seem to have a happy marriage, and many nights I’d wake up to him yelling and her crying. I alternated between hiding under the covers with my stuffed animals and venturing down the hall with the hope that if they saw me, they would stop. As much as I would like to only remember the happy times, I was too aware of the dynamics within our house to simply file away the more unpleasant memories in the archives of my brain.
But the most vivid memories of my childhood, and of my dad, are of trips to our two-room, yellow log cabin on Little Toad Lake in northern Minnesota, about an hour’s drive east of Fargo.
It’s at the lake where I spent the most time with my dad, and where I most felt his presence after he died. It’s where he taught me how to fish. I loved the quiet hours in our battered red and silver Lund boat, drifting among the lily pads as he showed me how to bait the hook and cast my line, and the thrill of riding in the bow with the wind in my hair as we sped back to the dock with our freshly caught dinner. It’s where he taught me how to build a campfire, stacking logs in a teepee formation with just the right amount of birch bark and newspaper underneath for kindling. And it’s where he showed me how to toast the perfect marshmallow for s’mores, helping me rotate them over the smoldering coals until they turned golden brown. To this day, I feel most at home—and most alive—outdoors, listening to the soft lapping of water against a shore, breathing in the earthy scent of pine, or getting lost in the dancing flames of a crackling fire.
About once every three years, I travel back to the Fargo area for a family reunion, and I take a trip out to the country cemetery where he’s buried. All of the grave markers are flat, which makes it easier for mowing and other maintenance, I’m sure, but more difficult for visitors to find individual plots. I always wander through the rows for a while, silently acknowledging the graves of other family members who have passed on, most of whom were in their eighties or nineties when they died, before finding my dad’s resting place. His stone is a small rectangle engraved with my birth flower, lilies of the valley.
The last time I visited the cemetery was for my grandmother’s funeral in 2009. My mom’s cousin Curt, who had been one of my dad’s best friends, told me a story I had never heard before about one of their many hunting trips.
“I wonder what he would think of me now,” I said, and then I laughed. “I’m a vegetarian.”
I realized how different my life is from the one he lived. While he would skin deer in the garage and freeze the meat for our winter meals or teach me how to gut a fish for dinner at the cabin, I can no longer bear the thought of killing animals for food. Although he could be great fun to be around, he also kept his feelings bottled up and, when he was drinking, would explode in fits of raging frustration. I love to relax with a glass of red wine or a few beers with friends, but I consciously limit myself. And I write to work out my emotions and practice yoga and meditation to ease stress. He was unhappy in his medical sales career, and, as far as I know, didn’t have the chance to explore something that truly interested him. I am lucky to be able to further my passion for writing through graduate school. As I worry about my own health and my own decisions, I can look back at his and learn from them.
On this sunny afternoon in March, I sift through these memories as I drive from the post office to the coffee shop, and I think about entering the last full year before my own thirty-fourth birthday. I wonder what my father might have done differently in that year if he had known it would be his last. Tears stream down my face as I finally understand just how young thirty-four really was—is—and just how much life he should have continued to live.
Did my dad understand on some level how much time he had left? Seeing him every day, it was difficult to notice the signs of his declining health, so physically apparent in photos from the summer of 1987. It’s clear to me now that he quickly went from tan and muscular to a gray, gaunt shadow of himself. What did he want to do with the rest of the life he never had? Was he happy with the choices he made along the way? I’ll never have the chance to ask.
In 2002, when I got married, I tied my dad’s wedding ring into the white satin ribbon of my bouquet so a little piece of him could walk down the aisle with me. My sister did the same at her wedding. Nearly twenty-five years after his passing, I continue to carry the memories of my dad with me. For good and bad, his choices have influenced mine, and his death has shaped my life.
I may always have those phone calls with Katie, needing her to help calm my fears. We don’t know if we’ll live to be thirty-four or one-hundred-and-four, but every birthday marks the gift of another year lived. It’s a struggle to stop all the worrying and just enjoy living. But I think of my dad, and I try.
LISA LANCE is a writer and communications manager living in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of the M.A. in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University, her articles and essays have appeared in publications including Baltimore Magazine, National Parks Traveler, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Seltzer, neutrons protons, Bmoreart, and Sauce Magazine. Learn more at www.lisalance.com.