By Liisa Ogburn
Sometimes family relationships deepen in unexpected ways; all you have to do is open the door.
I was given less than an hour’s notice before my father-in-law’s blue Volvo station wagon pulled into our driveway. He opened the front door with his own key, rolling the familiar forest green suitcase behind him.
I had been out picking the kids up from school when my husband Gregg had called. His father’s test results had come back.
“Honey, it’s serious,” he said. “Cancer. Probably advanced. I’d like him to move in with us during treatment so we can keep an eye on him.
“O.K.,” I said, my voice catching.
“Thanks,” he said. “I appreciate it.”
Before the news could set in, he had hung up.
As a mother especially, when you learn of a prognosis like that, the adrenaline spikes. The first instinct is to rush in and do whatever you can to fix the problem. In this case, our hands were tied. The best we could do was open our door.
A few days later he arrived. I called the kids in from the backyard. “Pop’s here. Come say hello.”
They’re good kids—13, 11, and 9—affectionate and kind. Like us, they were worried. “Hey Pop,” they came in. “How are you doing?”
“I can’t complain,” he answered, shuffling in. He was unsteady and pale.
We settled him into the bedroom downstairs. He had lost over twenty pounds the last few months, and suddenly looked much older. Our son Aidan had made a heart out of Hershey kisses on the dresser next to a welcome sign drawn by his younger sisters.
“Pop, you think your stomach can take some chicken and dumplings?” I asked. He was the one who taught me how to make homemade dumplings years ago when the kids were younger and picky eaters.
“Sure,” he responded. “Whatever you have. I don’t want to be any trouble.
“No trouble at all, Pop,” I said.
Years before, when I first met Gregg, we were poor and waiting tables at a little Polish restaurant in the small university town we had both done our undergraduate work in. Gregg was steadily taking the classes required to apply to medical school while I was trying to get into graduate school. We met at an Elvis party after work one night. Gregg thought I was another one of the Polish workers brought over to staff the restaurant and was genuinely surprised when I spoke English. I suppose I did look a bit odd. I had just returned from two years of teaching English in a small international folk school in the northern woods of Finland. Most of my clothing was self-knitted or second hand. I spoke English slowly and without my old Southern accent, something I’d had to lose so my students could understand me.
We ended up speaking for hours until the party ended, and continued the conversation until the morning at his place. He made me an omelet, and strummed John Prine. And while he made me hide in the closet when his sister showed up unexpectedly (something we still joke about), I loved him hard and immediately.
Now, over twenty years later, we seemed a far way from those early and carefree-by-comparison days. Between jobs and three kids, our extended family, church, neighborhood and civic responsibilities, we often felt overstretched and tired. The idea of having another person in the house to worry about seemed daunting.
But this was Pop. Until recently, though in retirement, we hadn’t seen him slow down at all. When we visited, he could often be found out in his garage, restoring furniture, turning bowls on his lathe, or giving free haircuts to friends.
But now, he just felt “lazy,” he said. “Too tired to do much of anything.”
Lazy? That’s the last way anyone would describe him. We were worried.
His first week living with us brought tests, biopsies, blood draws, the staging of the cancer and getting a port put in. Chemo started immediately and we closed our doors to visitors to prevent outside infections.
I cancelled several family commitments, stocked up on hand sanitizer and looked up recipes for chemo patients. Gregg coordinated blood draws, tests, prescriptions and health insurance. I set up a Caring Bridge website and penciled Pop’s treatment schedule into our fall and winter calendars.
Family priorities were reset. I caught a new glimpse of my husband. I noticed that we were working as a team in a new way.
As the weeks turned into months, and we adjusted to our new configuration, we began to hear stories about Pop’s life that we had never heard before. His father was a milk deliveryman and on Saturdays, as a kid, Pop would ride along. At Fourth and Castle, they’d always stop at the Bakery to trade their cool, frothy milk for steaming apple streusels right out of the oven. We heard stories about Pop’s fifteen years as a Scout Master as well as his fifty years as a barber. He’d cut the hair of three generations of some local families. We saw clippings from his early days as a boxer.
With Pop in the house, I noticed that time began to feel different. When he felt well, we were grateful to have an extra pair of hands. Most importantly, whereas before our visits with Pop had often felt short and rushed, now, because he lived with us, they didn’t. He often poked his head out in the morning while we were getting ready, or called up the stairs when I was home writing. When the kids got home from school, he would sit down and have a snack with them and ask them about their day. In the evenings, he’d keep me company while I cooked. Often, after homework was done, one or another child could often be found on the foot of his bed talking with him. On nights he felt up to it, we’d all head out on a dog walk around the neighborhood.
Our biggest Christmas present came when his doctor told him the chemo was working. His cancer had been knocked back into remission. On December 31, he had his final treatment. Not many days later, he packed up his bag, rolled it out the front door and headed home.
The back room was suddenly quiet.
One day, my middle daughter said, “I miss Pop.”
“Me, too,” I answered. “Why don’t you call him up?”
She did. “Pop, when are you coming back up?”
“When do you want me to?” he asked.
“Can you make my spelling bee this Thursday?”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” he answered.
And he didn’t. He stayed on for the basketball game the next night. And then helped me get my son out the door for a church retreat the following morning.
Liisa Ogburn writes, produces documentary work and teaches at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. She is currently working on a documentary play on motherhood. Her work on motherhood can be seen here: http://www.howmotherhoodchangesus.com/.