Seven years sounds like a long time. It’s nearly as long as anything I have ever done, and longer than many of the most important periods in my life so far… I was a graduate student for two years, have been married for two years and four months, spent four years on my undergraduate degree. I’ve lived in my current home for four and a half years. I held a single job for five years and nine months.
I knew my father-in-law for seven years.
I met my husband through a happy accident, a funny little twist of fate that relied heavily on the independent spirit that runs strong in his family. Father and son started a small computer business together and one ordinary day when the father was too busy to see every client himself, he sent his son in his stead. The rest, as they say, is history.
I “met the parents” a relatively short time later, but it took some time for me to get comfortable around my future in-laws. My father-in-law was a not a frightening or intimidating person by any means, but he was smart and decisive, never afraid to speak his mind. When he spoke to me, I always knew that he was listening intently and weighing my words, actually engaging me in discussion rather than idly asking how my day was. I never wanted to say the wrong thing! He loved his family fiercely, and I got the impression that he wanted to be quite sure I belonged with them before he welcomed me into their tight-knit group. For people used to residing thousands of miles away from the nearest relatives, going from a clan of four to a clan of five was a big deal, and he was the Chief.
When I was eventually invited to attend the most sacred of family traditions, the Christmas Eve karaoke extravaganza, I was both flattered and terrified. I don’t sing, and for good reason. It was my father-in-law, so fearless himself, who rescued me when, in spite of my repeated and desperate protests, I found myself in tears as several members of the assembled group tried to force me in front of the microphone. He might not have shared my embarrassment, but he empathized and helped me, and that’s when I knew he had decided I could stick around.
Four years into the relationship with his son and shortly after we bought a house together, my father-in-law got sick. He had been battling what everyone assumed was the flu for about a week when the situation became dire enough to require emergency assistance. At the hospital, a battery of tests revealed the impossible truth: he had leukemia. Our Chief, the strongest, smartest, bravest, most central member of the Gray family, faced an invisible enemy that had caught everyone unawares. We were floored.
For three years, there were endless medical treatments. Chemotherapy, followed by rest and pills, followed by testing, followed by more chemotherapy – the hospital became an unwelcome additional home for both of my in-laws. He was tired; I’m sure he was tired of it; and there were occasional setbacks in his treatment. But from the outside, as a spectator, it was rare to see that. My father-in-law soldiered on as convincingly as any Academy Award winner, still running his computer business and winning over new friends with his friendly, capable demeanor. When we visited, he was always ready to welcome us with some delicious meal he had spent hours preparing.
The doctors mentioned bone marrow transplants and a word we were all a bit afraid of speaking in case we jinxed it: a cure. When his children volunteered their marrow for testing, the incredible results showed that they were both good matches. Delay after delay set the process back and my in-laws spent a pricey, wasted few months in a rented apartment near the transplant hospital. Still, when my husband and I finally got married my father-in-law gave a cheery speech about how the best part of having children is the opportunity to use them for spare parts later, and had the crowd roaring with laughter. The Chief drove my bridal party to our hairstyling appointments on the morning of the wedding in his newest toy, a decked out RV in which he planned to travel the country after his treatment wrapped up.
A few months after that beautiful day, we got the green light on the bone marrow transplant again. We spent Christmas that year mentally preparing, with my sister-in-law making everyone matching tie-dyed “Team Gray” shirts that we wore joyfully out to dinner, smiling at the funny looks from the other patrons. My father-in-law gifted my husband and me Scottish titles and land (one square foot each), as a nod to our nerdy fascination with Renaissance festivals and fantasy stories, while we returned the favor with a Tolkien-esque map of the Gray Kingdom showing the Castle (house), Great Garage, Dread Swamp (a duck pond on the property), etc.
Finally, the big day arrived. My selfless, wonderful husband donated the marrow and my intrepid father-in-law, ever the overachiever, was up visiting at his son’s bedside before the afternoon was out. Invincible, I thought to myself. These men can right the world through sheer force of will.
We were well aware of the risks, but the first several weeks seemed to pass so quickly and smoothly. We soon found ourselves together at a car dealership, taking the Chief’s dream ride out for a test drive. He pretended he wanted to think about it for a few days, but we all knew that the car would be in his driveway soon. He was defeating leukemia, and he deserved a treat. The car arrived shortly and soon after, a custom license plate declaring it “JOHNSS.”
Three months after that, the doctors declared the cancer beaten. His bloodwork showed none remaining in his system. And then, two weeks later, my husband received an alarming phone call. His dad had been having trouble breathing and had been rushed to the emergency room. When another call came in the middle of the night that he’d been admitted to the ICU, we got out of bed and into the car. Team Gray was in trouble, and we were the reinforcements. For eleven days the five of us sat together, pooling our collective will into healing the Chief.
Chief, of course, thought the four of us were ridiculous for “wasting” so much time sitting in the hospital, and he let us know it. We told him, when he drifted back to consciousness after a couple of days asleep, that we got up each morning, came to be with him, went home to go to bed, and did it all over again the next day, and he scoffed, “That’s not much of a life, is it?” On days when he was having trouble speaking, he was always pointing to the phrase on his communication card that said, “Go home.”
Still, he hugged us all tightly when we had to leave to sleep or shower. Once, on our way out the door after the others had said goodnight, I thought he was drifting off to sleep and so I quietly collected my things without touching him, for fear of waking him. He noticed and called me back to complete the round of hugs. I’m not a religious person, but I have never prayed so much in my life for a higher power to intervene, to keep this family together.
And then, on the twelfth day, there was another early morning phone call. If it were her father, said the kindly nurse, she would want to be there. So we went, and we all held hands and we cried and, too soon, we had to say goodbye.
Time is a tricky and sometimes frustrating thing. When you want it to go by quickly, it can seem to slow beyond reason, leaving you to note every passing second as it ticks laboriously by. When you wish it would just stop, whether to prolong something good or prevent something bad, it seems to fly away before you can even get a solid grasp on it. Perhaps the most baffling of all is time played back in memory… when you want to remember, and sometimes when you want to forget, past times can seem to waver and twist, confusing the details and sometimes making you question what you saw.
I see Chief now in flickers… remember the joy he took in leading his family on adventures, catch glimpses of his mischievous grin in the face of his son, witness the astounding impact his life had on his friends and family alike. I mourn for the years we won’t get to share with him, the events he will only be present for “in spirit,” and I miss him. But I am grateful that I had the chance to join his family while he was here to lead it.
I knew my father-in-law for seven years. It was not nearly long enough.