Twenty years ago today, my father turned 52 years of age. It would be his last birthday. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer late in the preceding year, Lewis likely knew there wouldn't be many more (if any) birthdays, though he kept up a fairly good facade. Oh there were times it cracked, certainly, but then I've never understood why we seem to demand stoicism from the terminally ill.
Too ill from chemotherapy treatments to do much celebrating on March 21st, we actually celebrated dad's birthday on Sunday, the 23rd. Truthfully, the entire event was somewhat up in the air, depending on how Lewis felt at the time. I was working at Garcia's Pizza, and had a boss who would bend your ear at the slightest query about how her mom died of cancer. When I made the request to take-off that Sunday for what would likely be my father's final birthday, the manager gave me grief. So it goes.
That particular Sunday in March was, as I remember, a fairly nice, meteorologically temperate day. I drove from Champaign to the house in Springfield where dad lived with his fourth wife, Denice, and son Dillon. Family from Champaign also made the trip. It was, to use a cliched word, bittersweet. There was of course joking and laughing and the attempted celebratory mood, but the elephant in the room was often visible if you looked beyond the forced cheer.
It was dad who, appropriately enough, broke the festivities with a bit of a realism when I suddenly heard him say, "Well this has really changed the plans I had for life." I'm not sure what prompted it. I'd been sitting at a table, dad ahead of me sitting on a couch. I looked up when he spoke, at the back of his head that seemed to have become so shrunken since the diagnosis. I don't remember what was said next, but it seemed like the room became a tad more somber upon Lewis' proclamation.
Later in the day I stood looking out the back door, onto the backyard. Dad and uncle Jim (his brother) were walking slowly together around the yard. Unsure of what they were conferring about, I watched their measured pace, their grim countenance and, in that moment, made sure to take a mental snapshot in time. 'He's alive right now,' I thought. 'At this moment, dad is a living person. It won't be this way forever, and probably not for much longer. Right now he's above ground, walking, breathing and thinking. Remember this moment.'
And I do.
Exactly five months after his 52nd birthday, Lewis was gone. The pancreatic cancer had spread to his liver and to his lungs. For the most part, he bore the pain extraordinarily well. The times when he didn't, well, he was just being human. Things like cancer and final birthday parties are not, unfortunately, unique. They happen far too often, to too many individuals and their families and friends. This one happened to my father, some twenty years ago.