Years After His Death, The Holidays Are Still Hard Without My Father-in-Law
One cold December, when I was 7 months pregnant with my first daughter, my husband and I found out that my father-in-law had cancer.
Amongst the holly jollying and jingle bell rocking, I remember hearing words and phrases like “kidney” and “spreading” and “a few months left”. But I couldn’t make sense of it. My first close-up experience with cancer, and it felt completely surreal.
We all walked around in a fog, unsure of what had hit us, stumbling over what to say to each other. My husband’s family wasn’t the type to say what was on their minds. They preferred to keep their thoughts bottled up while wringing their hands and smiling sadly at each other.
So I kept my emotions to myself—only allowing myself to come undone when I watched my husband crumple onto my lap in tears. We would hold each other and cry. He would rub my very pregnant stomach and silently reflect on his relationship with his father as he was about to come one himself.
After two long years of medications and tests and hope and worry, my husband’s Dad ended up in the hospital. It was June. And the cancer was now in his brain.
We went to visit him with our then 16-month old daughter on Father’s Day. It was the first time I’d seen him since he started going downhill rapidly. He no longer really looked like the father-in-law I knew. His face and legs had deflated. His body was swollen. It shocked me at first. So I stood back—uncomfortable with the inevitable outcome of death. Feeling awkward about getting close to a man who felt like a stranger to me. His voice was no longer light and warm, but tired and slow. He didn’t smile when he looked into our eyes anymore.
But then I happened to look at his face, just as he looked up at my daughter.
And I saw him. At that moment, I saw Peter again.
His face transformed. His eyes lit up. He smiled broadly. And he spoke to her in his grandpa voice. That voice she knew and recognized well—already in her short little life. That voice I remembered.
He got tired and asked us if we would mind cutting the visit short. Before we left, I brought my daughter up close to him. She wanted to stay in my arms, but we stood right next to him to say our goodbyes. That’s when Peter looked up, his eyes focused on her face.
“Thank you, Heather.” He said. His lip trembled a moment before he continued. “For Anna.”
I nodded. Words stuck in my throat.
And then he said something that made me overwhelmingly sad, but strangely content at the same time. This time he looked right into my eyes.
“I’ll be there at Christmas, you know. You may not be able to see me. But I’ll be there.”
I nodded at him again, this time breaking down, choking on the words I wanted to say. My emotions stopped me from telling him what I wanted him to know. This was possibly my only chance to let him know that I knew he would be there. That he would always be with us. And I couldn’t say it.
I wanted him to know that his son and I had made a promise that Anna would never grow up not knowing who her Grandpa was. She would know that he loved pirate stories—Treasure Island, in particular. She would know that he told extremely corny jokes. That his laugh was very loud when he was very happy.
She would know that he was a teacher at one point in his life. That he was one of those types of people that everyone loved because he took the time to get to know you.
She would know that he was an excellent father to her Daddy. And a really great father-in-law. But most importantly, she would know that his face lit up whenever she entered the room. She would know he adored her. She would know that according to him, she was the most amazing little girl ever. And that all he ever wanted was to live long enough to watch her run around and kick a ball.
I couldn’t say it. But I hope he felt it when I squeezed his hand gently.
I hope he knows.