After my father had surgery for pancreatic cancer and was told he had six months to live, he came home from the hospital and found that some certificates of deposit had come due at the bank. He could renew them for seven months or 13 months he took the 13.
Three months after his surgery, we drove him to Nebraska and went out to dinner with one of his brothers, who also had cancer. Afterward, the two brothers stood outside in the golden light of the setting sun. They shook hands, each trying to pull the other off balance, slapped one another on the back, laughed heartily and said, "Let's do this again next year!"
In October, the month in which Dad was expected to "check out," as he called it, he phoned to say he was flunking cancer. "The doctor showed me my blood markers and they're in a straight line, like test scores at school when you get the same grade over and over. Then they drop real sharp, like when you flunk a test. I'm flunking cancer!"
He went to the gym, swam laps, lifted weights, attended retiree luncheons and Sunday night dinners at my brother's. He lent a hand to the neighbors, painted the foundation to the house, and replaced all the old light switches with new dimmer switches.
When his married grandson and his wife flew in for a visit, he asked if they'd like to go along on his walk the next morning. "Yes," they said. "Good," he said. "See you at 5."
They traipsed up and down hills for three miles in the summer heat, looped through a nearby business park and finished it off with 33 stairs up a steep embankment.
On rainy days, I'd ask how he was and he'd say, "It's dreary and cold and wet here a perfect day to be alive."
On sunny days, I'd ask how he was and he'd say, "If I was any better, I'd explode!"
In January, he renewed the license tag on his car, taking the two-year option instead of the one.
Eventually, Dad began losing weight, 50 pounds in all, leaving him with little padding to cushion his bones. His one round of excruciating pain happened after he had been crawling around on the floor, replacing a bathroom faucet. My brother and I went to the doctor with him.
The oncologist swung open the door to the examining room and bellowed, "What the hell were you doing plumbing?" To which my father responded, "What? You want I should stick to electrical work?" They joked and jawed, and you'd never know the man on the table was facing death.
Soon after, hospice began checking on Dad weekly. "A nurse stopped by today," he said. "She's very nice. And she's rather heavy. I'm concerned about her." And he truly was.
Three days before he died he had been to the store to buy a birthday card for a friend and carried his next-door neighbor's recycling tub to her garage for her.
Dad died at home April 13th, surrounded by family. In the two years he lived under the cloud of cancer, there was never a trace of self-pity, only thanksgiving and gratitude for the gift of life and the extra time.
He taught his children well both how to live and how to die