When I was a little girl, I loved to jump rope. At the start of every summer, my dad and I would go to Mays Hardware Store in our local shopping center and he’d let me carefully pick out several lengths of rope. I so vividly remember the anticipation and luckiness I felt when standing next to him in that store, watching the salesman burn the ends of the rope, the smell of it somehow becoming inextricably linked in my brain with the start of summer and goodness.
We had this tall locust tree in our yard and he would tie one end of it around the mid trunk and would pull the other end out onto the driveway. Every night after dinner, my Pop would come out and turn the rope for me and I would jump for what felt like hours. As he turned it, he would sing anything he could think of really; silly old fraternity songs or songs his mom had taught him, old songs he loved that I’ve never heard again in my life….“I’m looking over a four-leaf clover that I overlooked before….” I became a champ at jumping rope, and then with the super-duper patience and energy it took for him to repeatedly turn two ropes at once in perfect sync, I mastered the most complicated of rope skipping; I became the Queen of the Double Dutch.
This is what I remember; Pop standing with me, turning the ropes over and over in a steady rhythm, despite his fatigue at a long workday, doing the very thing that allowed me motion and joy, allowed me to gain mastery and success, to gain skill and strength.
And he has done this same thing all my life.
When I got sick, I was alone, and he was there. This was a man who knew what awful things cancer could do, as we had lost my mom to it years ago. This was a man who likely had his own issues of post traumatic stress and anxiety and yuck and fear around cancer. Yet, when I got sick, when I went through 15 months of treatment, I never once saw him blink. All I felt was the unfaltering steady rhythm of his presence, over and over and over and again.
Several times a day, and most every night (sometimes even twice a night) for those first six months, I would call him. Almost always I was in tears when I dialed. And it would always be the same, I would say in a panicky, quivering voice, “Dad, I need you to talk me down from the ledge.” He knew I meant the ledge of the catastrophic death spiral, where I stood shaking, convinced I was gonna die, and that my kids would be motherless; a place where I felt so alone in this fear. As exhausting as listening to my gloom over and over surely must have been, he never once did not answer the phone; no matter what he was doing or was in the middle of, he would pick up. He would talk to me until the tears stopped even if it took hours, singing his calm and even advice to me until perspective was gained, until the cancer was talked down to size for the day, until I could breathe again. Pacing me until I caught the rhythm again, and could jump again; over the next hurdle, over the next day of cancer and it’s very complicated and unpredictable nature.
Pop told me this story once about when he had a round of golf with an old friend whom he had played with for years. This man was slowly walking into the sunset with Alzheimer’s, but occasionally on good days he still enjoyed a round with the gang. Pop told me that the foursome had teed off that morning and started down the fairway. His buddy looked and looked for his ball and could not find it, and then they all began to look for the ball. Finally, my dad realized that the friend had never teed off. “What did you do?” I asked. He said,“I dropped a ball out of my pocket into the rough and said, ‘Here’s your ball.’”
Sometimes, a small infraction weighs less than the cost of a friend’s dignity.
It would have been easy for Pop to just give me money when I was sick and could not work. Instead, he reconfigured my finances, my mortgage and other things, so it would all work out with what little I had and thus, I stayed afloat. He just happened to rent a huge beach house that year, coincidentally at the end of chemo, knowing that a vacation was not on my financial spreadsheet, nor was it something I could handle alone sick with two little kids. Sure, he could have just paid for my wigs or bought us a Disney trip, but inherently he understood that sometimes preserving dignity allows for one less thing disease can steal from someone. That cancer can cheat you of a lot of things, but dignity should not and would not be one of them. Not on his watch at least.
He kept the ropes of my life turning so I could continue to do what I loved best, take care of my kiddos. They say the true character of a man is judged by what he does when no one is looking. And that is just when he quietly tossed a ball out into my rough.
But know this, I saw it.
There is this quiet park in the town where I grew up, where he still lives. It has this huge pond, a pond that is cement edged and very,very old. Pop taught me to ice skate on that very pond as a kid. I know it well, as the park was a regular stomping ground of mine as a kid. Filled with murky water, with yucky green stuff floating on its surface, the pond’s depths have always been a mystery, as have it’s rumored contents.
But there was my Pop one day, doing what good Pops do, taking my 6-year-old sister to swing and play at the park. That was the day the park was pretty empty; it was also the day a very young child fell into the pond. The little girl’s grandmother called frantically out for help and as my sister later described by lowering her upturned palm down slowly, the child was sinking. And just like that, Pop jumped in. My 77-year-old Pop, who has had bypass surgery and stents too numerous to count, who has had so many surgeries he no longer has a belly button, and who harbors a host of the other ailments of aging; knee-jerk and without a second thought, he went into the pond. Not really knowing just how deep it would be, not really caring about the muck and ick or how it could effect his own health; just caring only about getting his hands under that child and saving the little girl. And he did.
And that is just how he did me with my cancer. That no matter how murky and icky the cesspool of cancer was, and what risk of reawakening old wounds it held for him, no matter what effect on his own health it could have, he just jumped in. And just as my little sister described with her lowering hand, I sank…. daily it seemed, until I felt the catch of his hands, pulling me back up, into the light and air from the murkiness to where once again, I was able to breathe, and believe that I would live.
He saved the girl.
Later, after cancer was seemingly (fingers crossed) over for me, I had a chance to talk to one of Pop’s friends, a woman who is the director the local breast cancer organization where Pop has volunteered for years, even before I got sick. This woman talked with me quietly yet at length about how utterly devastated my dad was when I was diagnosed. She told me how he would frequently go to her office and unload his tears and anger and angst to her and the staff. It shocked me at first to hear this, because in all the days I cried, in all the times he saw me very sick and weak and bald, in all the times the news was really, really bad, I never once saw him blink.
I think he knew that if I sensed fear in him it would be game over mentally for me. That if he stopped turning the ropes, if he missed just one beat at a regular rhythm, if I felt just one falter, I would lose my timing and would stumble and fall. Never trusting the cadence of life could be normal again. That even at 43 years of age, I still looked to him to find answers on how to pace my steps when times were tough, and to find my rhythm and footing when I had lost my timing. To sing me the songs of reassurance I needed to hear to feel comfort, his words reminding me in a deeply innate way like the smell of rope burning, who I was and where I came from, what I was made of and what I could do. Pacing me with their sure and even tempo.
My knee jerk when I talked to his friend was to thank her deeply for as I told her, holding him up while he held me up. My knee jerk of gratitude and seeing and appreciating what people do when no one else is looking is a sense that comes only after years of watching a good example right in front of you. Of seeing the four-leaf clover that others have overlooked, of knowing how lucky feels and smells, of knowing as Pop says, that turtle didn’t get on the fence post all by himself.
Of watching for a lifetime what he did when no one was looking.
Of having a Pop like my Pop.
After five years, my dad was selected as a Volunteer of the Year for his lifetime of work in his community, and he was honored with a cash award. I felt lucky, so darn full circle, to be sitting in the audience at the dinner in his honor. And true to form, he thanked others for allowing him the opportunity to work with them, he thanked his mom, and then, in one fluid motion he accepted the check, turned, and handed it to his friend with the breast cancer foundation to fund ten thousand dollars worth of free mammograms. That pretty much sums Pop up.
This he has taught me. You never forget who helped you, who held you up, who got you on that fencepost. And just like with jumprope and all things in life, what comes around, goes around, as it should. One hand washes the other, give quietly and often of yourself, be selfless, do the right thing especially when no one is looking, put other’s first and always maintain their dignity. You must always take the high road because of course, that is where an abundance of four-leaf clovers grow.
Pop tells people of how impressed he was with how I handled cancer. Holy cow, I think, how I handled cancer? I am impressed with how he handled cancer, twice now and I won’t ever forget what he did for me. He got me on the fencepost, he kept me alive.
Sometimes, I suspect as all really good parents do, I hear him fret and wonder out loud about whether he was a good dad, whether he took the time to do what his kids needed, whether he worked too much, or at times fell short in patience. Those wanderings and wonderings themselves, just the mere of existence of those concerns, tell me how much I was and am loved as a child.
But I already knew that.
This is what I remember; since I was a tiny girl and through all the rest of my life’s many hardships when I have stumbled, Pop standing beside me, turning the ropes of my life over and over in a steady rhythm. Despite his fatigue at a long workday, despite his own needs; doing the very thing that allowed me motion and joy, allowed me to gain mastery and success, and to gain skill and strength. Learning, through the gift of his time and patience, with his words and the comforting, soft, thwack…thwack…thwack of the rope hitting the ground recorded deep in my soul, to pace myself again, to jump the highest of hurdles with grace and dignity, and to master the most complicated of life’s rhythms like a champ.
Thank you Pop. I love you to bits, and yes, in case you are wondering, you were and still are the best dad a kid could ever hope for.
After all, because of you, I, am the Queen of the Double Dutch.
I’m looking over a four-leaf clover
That I overlooked before.
One leaf is sunshine, the second is rain,
Third is the roses that grow in the lane.
No need explaining, the one remaining
Is somebody I adore.
I’m looking over a four-leaf clover
That I overlooked before.