Dad, my sister Tracy, and me, pre-other-kids
"Dad, what do you think love is?"
Dad and i are on our backs in the backyard, staring up at the Perseid meteor shower one August night in the mid-1980s. We spent a lot of time behind the house staring at the stars, either with the two telescopes Dad bought for us, or with our own eyes. The backyard made for optimum stargazing, as the house blocked the only street lights in town that messed with our view. On the other hand, the backyard faced north, and all the cool Messier objects and planets travel across the southern sky, so sometimes we sucked it up. But tonight, we're in back, facing east. And Dad's in one of those philosophical moods that gazing at Heaven (and possibly drinking a few beers, but hey) tended to trigger back then.
"Love is what happens when you care about someone so much, that you'd give your life for theirs."
I remember being surprised at how quickly he came up with that one. All the movies and songs i'd been absorbing treated love like a Great Mystery. I wanna know what love is. How will i know when it's love? Is this love? Maybe love is a battlefield, in which case that whole "giving your life for theirs" thing makes sense. So many artists seemed confused by the question, but apparently all they needed to do was ask my dad.
And why shouldn't they have? When i was a preteen my dad had all the answers. I asked him once why he didn't have to go to Mass with the rest of us; i knew it had something to do with the fact that Mom was raising us Catholic and he was raised Methodist, but he didn't drive the six miles to Stockbridge for worship either. "I'm a non-denominational believer," was his answer. This sounded like a pretty convenient excuse to sit at the local diner getting coffee with his pals while we sat, stood, and kneeled, but it still planted an organized-religion-questioning seed in my head that adult independence (and a similar desire to sleep in on Sundays) allowed to flower post-Confirmation. But as his penchant for breaking into "How Great Thou Art" whenever a particularly bright meteor blazed across the sky illustrated, his faith was deeper and more thoughtfully vetted than that of the most vocal, front-pew visible "pillars" of the community.
Do parents realize that when they impart wisdom on their young children, it stays with them forever? I hope not, because if i ever have kids that thought will surely paralyze my tongue. Regardless, that sentence - "Love is what happens when you care about someone so much, that you'd give your life for theirs" - has stayed with me my entire life, although i haven't always understood what it really entails. As a child i took it literally and assumed that if i ever feel compelled to throw my body in front of an oncoming train to save a young lady's life, i'd know it's true, bullet-stopping love.
As i entered adulthood and started dating, i got into relationships that let me see the idea of "giving your life for theirs" through the distorted lens of codependency, thinking that somehow, subjugating my own needs for that of the other would prove that i was willing to give my life to make them happy. Whether they were willing to do the same for me was irrelevant as long as i was fighting to have my sacrifice recognized. I'm fighting for you! Love me somehow!
Those movies and songs kept muddling the picture, too. Sure, Wesley was willing to sacrifice his life for Princess Buttercup, but what happens when "happily ever after" evolves into beer guts and postpartum fat rolls? Will Princess Buttercup still love Wesley when he passes out in front of the TV every night surrounded by Old Style cans with a lit cigarette dangling in his mouth? Rob Gordon figured it out when he got back together with Laura in High Fidelity, but for the longest time i couldn't stop thinking how hot the music journalist who interviewed him at Championship Vinyl was.
I know i'm not the only one who's ever confused drama for romance, dreams with reality. We all have heard some version of my dad's words to me, thinking that grand gestures and sweeping, epic romance are the only things capable of living up to such a bold definition of love. But.
I visited my parents on Labor Day. I had just come home from tour, during which i got the news that dad had landed back in the hospital, the price he's paid for a lifetime of those Old Styles and dangling smokes. His teeth rotted from radiation treatments 11 years prior, he finally had their decayed remains yanked to hopefully prevent yet another inflammation. As i walked through the door, Mom was walking Dad through a video tutorial on the new food processor she had purchased for him. He can barely talk these days, much less break into a hymn, but 11 years after the cancer surgery that initially took pieces of his jaw and tongue, Mom is able to decode his spittled, slurred speech with little effort (she has to speak up in order for him to hear her, however).
On their recent trip to Madison for a consultation with the doctor who may be able to reconstruct his jaw after the latest round of cancer is removed, Dad collapsed once again. This time, he fell asleep waiting for the delayed appointment and, upon notification that The Doctor Will See You Now, he didn't wake up. His carotid arteries were clogged, we were told, and his blood wasn't oxygenating properly. Why he collapsed was up for debate because he showed no evidence of a stroke or heart attack--he just stopped breathing. He was whisked to the Emergency Room, then to the ICU, where he then lay in critical condition hooked up to machines while i drove to Madison, my mother's sobs still fresh in my ear from the phone call alerting me to his condition.
Not long after he was moved to the ICU, the family members (we all were there) were allowed in to see him. Mom and i went in first. This giant in my life, this man who i so often assigned responsibility for nearly everything i am today, had never looked so small. He was contorted and bent in the pose where i imagine he had been sedated after unconsciously struggling with his breathing tube and miscellaneous needles and instruments. He looked less like my dad and more like a grotesque cyborg approximation of the man who started me down the path to unrepentant geekery by taking me to see Star Wars when i was three. But it was my dad all the same, and i knew that i would not leave his side until i knew that he still had brain activity. That he was still my father.
When they revived him, we had no idea what the damage may have been to his brain; our debate over the question of DNR or No DNR was resolved by deciding that we needed to table the question until we knew whether or not he was braindead. Within five minutes we had arrived at this decision and walked back into the ICU to see Dad waking and struggling once again with his breathing tube. Mom leaned in close and asked him, "do you see me?" He nodded in recognition. She took his hand and he squeezed it with all the limited strength he could muster.
My little brother called me last night with an update. Mom had "conned" (his word) an intern into telling her that they detected a weakness in his heart as a result of his collapse. They labeled it "stress-induced cardiomyopathy," or "Broken Heart Syndrome," which is really just too poetic for me to try working into this without it sounding like Comp 101. He and Mom were at the end of their collective rope with the doctors' lack of communication--they would tell Mom that they were going to do a test, then ignore her for hours on end until she tracked them down to pull more information out of them. He was determined to go in and "raise hell" because seeing her frustration and stress had put him in the mood to lay down some serious smack on the doctors that were stringing her along while tending to our dad.
Here's what love is to me, now--the real, messy, dirty, honest, till-death-do-us-part kind of love that we all claim to be searching for but rarely grasp what it entails:
Love is a woman who, when her husband has used up his body and had parts of his face cut out, re-learns how to understand his speech so she can still talk to him.
Love is a family who sees their patriarch at his very worst--barely covered by a hospital gown, plugged in to machines keeping him alive, and won't leave until they know he's on his way back.
Love is a son who used to get into screaming matches with his mom while he grew up, but now is so enraged by the thought of her being mistreated that he'll jump into a fight guns blazing to stand up for her (and believe me, my brother and mom could get into it way back when).
That's the real shit, y'all. Messy, painful, and unconditional...and willing to give of ourselves.
Giving your life for someone else's can mean all those things that i thought it meant; i wasn't necessarily wrong. Those examples i cited are all different versions of love, and that's why so many people struggle with the answer to that question i asked Dad under the meteors so many years ago. The answer Dad gave me is absolutely the correct one; it's just what you make of it where people get lost, lost among the dramatic plot twists and Manic Pixie Dream Girls.
If i can take one positive from everything that's happened to Dad in the last 11 years, and the last two months in particular, it's that my family--especially my parents--have taught me more about love in the last 60 days than a lifetime of songs or movies ever taught me.
I like to think that i'm on my way to having that level of long-term, permanent, unconditional, unflinchingly ugly, beautiful love, and if it ever results in a child that asks me, "Dad, what do you think love is?", i think i'll tell that child exactly what my dad told me, and hope that it doesn't take my failing health for him or her to figure out what that answer can mean.