Dad was in his seventies when I finally won a game of tennis against him. The win was bittersweet. In the past, eager for me to take up the sport, Dad let me have points; this time he didn’t, because he couldn’t afford to. His feet were not working like they used to. Neuropathy–a disease affecting the nerves–was slowing him down, and my win was overrun by the realization of how limited our interactions might soon become.
As an adult, Dad was always active. Because he was something of a social misfit, sports like tennis, skiing, and yoga gave him something to do with others that–unlike small talk–made him feel comfortable, and which he could excel at.
Before he became sick, the sport Dad loved best was skiing, but he soon gave it up when his feet started hurting from the cold. For similar reasons, he had to give up tennis shortly after my bittersweet win. Frustrated, he resorted to long swift walks, finding historic trails to explore. At first, I worried about him on these walks, but soon tucked away my fears of his mortality. I decided to take advantage of the time we had left, and do something we enjoyed together. We embarked on a camping trip like we had done when I still in high school.
Because he was something of a social misfit, sports like tennis, skiing, and yoga gave Dad something to do with others that–unlike small talk–made him feel comfortable.
When I was sixteen, Dad took me to the border between Minnesota and Canada to a string of lakes that he had camped at as a kid. There, I saw firsthand his love for canoeing, sleeping in a tent, and eating food cooked over a fire he had built himself. I remember, specifically, him telling me once about winning a canoeing award at summer camp when he was ten years old. As he told me the story, I could imagine my awkward, friendless father feeling like a champion with his paddle. I’d never seen him seem so proud.
On that trip, Dad imparted to me the many ways in which camping can be empowering. My father seemed superhuman as he portaged over rocky hikes from lake to lake. We sung in the rain and laughed at our sore muscles while we lived in continuous motion, paddling, walking, setting up a tent, or making our food.
Our second camping trip, when he was seventy-five years old, felt different. I panicked each time he lifted the canoe, or took a moment to catch his breath. Instead of enjoying the gorgeous scenery as we glided along, my mind was working out the details of what I would do if he had a heart attack in the woods. I calmed down each time I spotted a road or a house on the horizon where I could run for help in case of emergency. I found the experience so stressful that, after it was over, I vowed that the only way we would ever go camping again was if I had a boyfriend who could go with us. (That hasn’t worked out yet.)
A couple of years after that trip, my Dad was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Since my parents were in Florida at the time, I called the hospital before he went into surgery in case it was the last time we would connect. Dad’s voice was filled with gravel and salt. He didn’t want to talk much, but I told him that I loved him and he had always been my hero. He perked up and wanted to hear more about that. I talked about the time he took to drive me to school, the ski hill, or out to California. I told him how he had given me a love of books, a memory for numbers, taken me sailing, and made sure I could swim. He soon got tired and I thought that goodbye might be the final one.
But Dad recovered, almost like new. He didn’t go swimming anymore, because he now had a urostomy bag, but he stayed active. One of my following visits, I asked if we could rent bikes. Mom joined in, and we had a terrific time roaming the quiet streets in the small Florida town where they’d settled. Shortly after, Dad took up biking as his main form of exercise and fun. He joined a bike group and started racing in local events. I felt proud of Dad’s resilience and silly that I had put his age and ailments in a box marked doom. Dad was thriving, happy as ever, and still living a physical life after not one but two diseases had almost put him in the ground.
I felt proud of Dad’s resilience and silly that I had put his age and ailments in a box marked doom.
Then I got a call.
“Dad had an accident,” my mother told me over the phone.
A car hit my father while he was running an errand on his bike; the driver fled the scene. I couldn’t imagine who would leave an eighty-year-old guy lying on the ground, but somehow, Dad got to the hospital. He was lucky: aside from bruises, he escaped with only a few broken bones in his arms.
The accident couldn’t deter him from getting back on his bike once he was healed. Even after his hit-and-run he’d bike as much as 20 miles a day, and seemed to enjoy pushing himself. His resilience inspired me. I, too, took up biking in the city again, and decided that if my Dad wasn’t going to let preconceived notions of what he was capable of get in the way of doing bike races as a cancer survivor at age 86, I shouldn’t be afraid to go back to school as an older student.
As I get older myself, Dad’s taught me that aging isn’t anything to be scared of.
It was around this time that I started to feel like I really understood my father. Before, I had always viewed my father as the quiet, loner type. Now, I realized that for Dad, staying active was a path to empowerment. He always said that he only wanted to stay alive if he was active and healthy: he never wanted to feel confined. His illness and accident showed me how he was more of a hero than I had imagined. Nothing–not neuropathy, not cancer, not even a hit-and-run–could slow him down.
And nothing did. Shortly after his first hit-and-run, there was a second cancer: a slow-growing multiple myeloma–a cancer of the white blood cells. He went on pills for it, and got back to his hobbies. Then, unbelievably, there was the second hit-and-run. This time, Dad was just standing at a newsstand: a truck somehow backed into him, then fled the area. This time, Dad didn’t even bother going to the hospital. He just drove to Wal-Mart, picked up a couple of canes, and in a couple of weeks, was back to his 20-mile bike.
I feel stronger, knowing this is my father. Sometimes, when I think about all I have learned about him in the last few years, I feel awed: far from being the awkward outcast I mistakenly believed him to be most of my life, he’s a living example of not allowing age, or illness, or anything else define you. True, a part of me worries about him, and wants to wrap him in an anti-aging cloak and keep him here forever. But as I get older myself, Dad’s taught me that aging isn’t anything to be scared of. In fact, it doesn’t have to mean anything at all… unless you let it. No matter how old or how sick, you become, the world will always be full of moments to enjoy, and challenges to take pleasure in overcoming.