My father-in-law died. I suppose technically he’s my “father-in-law to be” but neither title really does him justice. He treated me like family, he is one of the greatest men I’ve ever known, and I’m shocked that he’s gone.
We received the call Wednesday night. Cassie and I were watching a movie when her little sister called. I only heard one side of the conversation, but all I had to overhear was the word “hospital” and I started putting on my coat.
A lot of things go through your mind when you’re en route to the hospital to meet a loved one. You fear the worst, hope for the best, and tell yourself that this can’t be happening. Then you drive a little faster.
A security guard meets you at the front gate, and whistles at you when you try to plow through without letting him open it first. You fumble with the window while Cassie chokes out a faint “My dad’s in the ER.”
You’ve arrived, but there’s nothing you can do. He’s already gone, and your brain can’t understand what was just said to you. “He really liked you, Shaun.”
Liked me? As in past tense? Are you kidding me?
The family arrives in waves. We all cling to one another, still unable to believe what we’re here for. We’re paraded down the corridor to a room where you find the shell of a man you loved, wrapped in a white sheet, one unseeing eye still slightly open.
You cry, and cry, and cry. People take turns being hugged and hugging you. Someone hands you a tissue. You’re rejecting the reality of the situation when Cassie says “I just had a horrible thought.” Someone asks “What?” but she says it’s too selfish. She looks at me and I’m certain she’s thinking the same thing I am:
He won’t be giving the bride away at our wedding.
You try to find out how it happened. He was fine and then gone, no previous health issues. You realize he was barely 59, and as his siblings arrive you can tell they think it’s just not fair.
A staff person bothers his wife for insurance information. He goes on to ask her who will pick up the body. You imagine yourself strangling the kid as he mutters an emotionless “Sorry for your loss” before leaving with his clipboard.
When you finally leave, you barely sleep. The days blur together as everything happens quickly. Meet at the funeral home to discuss preparations. Write an obituary. Select a casket. Meet the pastor. Drive Cassie wherever she needs you to. Press your clothes. Tie your tie. Attend two days of viewing. Remember to eat something. “Thanks for coming, Thanks for being here, Thanks for everything.” Operate on two hours of sleep. Sit anxiously in traffic on the way to the funeral. Sit in the first row. Hold his wife’s hand as she weeps. Let the tears flow during the eulogy. Honor his passing with kind words by friends and family. Carry his casket.
Writing all of this hurts. The more I write, the more I want to delete. It’s just not right to focus so much on Steve’s death. I’m going to write now about Steve’s life, how I knew him, and how we came to love each other.
The first time I met Steve I was really nervous. I was dating his daughter, and all that I knew about him was that he was a powerful and successful businessman. I imagined that all he knew about me was that Cassie met me on the internet. I was terrified that he might not like me.
We met for lunch at an Italian restaurant. Steve and his wife Ellie were already there, sitting in the booth. I’m sure that I was on my best behavior, and I tried my best to make a good first impression, but I cannot recall what we talked about.
The one stupid detail that I do remember about our first meeting was what I ate. I chose a pasta dish: baked manicotti — not because I particularly liked or wanted manicotti, but because it was one of the less expensive items on the menu. The fact that I was concerned about cost shows just how little I knew about Steve back then.
I’d quickly come to learn how generous he was. Steve didn’t care about the price of my dinner. He didn’t care if I ordered a coke, or a beer, or a fine wine. He just wanted to please people with food. Steve would take us out to dinner often, and whenever we went out there was no question who was covering the bill.
Sometimes when we were waiting for a table, he’d walk away for a minute and then come back holding two beers. He never asked if I wanted one, he just assumed that I did and would hand it to me with a big grin on his face.
Whenever there were leftovers he never kept them for himself, and since he always over-ordered he was constantly sending us home with lunch and dinner for the following day. But his generosity was not limited to sharing meals.
When I met him at the casino, he’d give me cash to gamble with. When I found a nice pair of shoes, he’d offer to buy them for me. After I mentioned that I was maybe, possibly, thinking about getting flat screen TV for our new apartment, he showed up at our door with one in his backseat. There really was no limit on how much he was willing to give.
One thing greater than his generosity was his sense of humor. He was a born entertainer, always sharing new jokes and clever one-liners. It’s impossible to fully convey just how hilarious Steve was.
I’ll never forget the time that we bought him a special pillow that he wanted for his birthday. It was twice as long as a normal pillow, and after he took it out of the bag he excitedly balanced it on his head and announced “In honor of my birthday, I will re-enact for you the story of my birth.” Steve folded the pillow around his head, and then made a “HNNNGGGH!” sound while he proceeded to push his face through the pillow as if it were a birth canal.
As time went on, I was confident that Steve liked me. It wasn’t until after Cassie was diagnosed with cancer that I understood that he loved me.
During the first few weeks following her diagnosis, I was spending every waking hour at the hospital with her. Steve stopped by one afternoon and surprised us with carryout. He had gone to the same Italian restaurant where I first met him, and gotten Cassie her favorite chicken pesto pasta. For me, he brought baked manicotti.
I wish that I had shown some ounce of acknowledgement that he had remembered, but all I did was smile and say thanks. After we finished eating, Steve collected his things getting ready to leave. He reminded me to get some sleep, and I motioned to shake his hand goodbye like we always had before. He pulled me in for a hug, and I understood how grateful he was that I could be there for Cassie in this time of need.
The final memory that I want to share is the hardest to write about. Just this past December, I decided that I was ready to make things official, and that I was going to ask Cassie to marry me. I planned on calling Steve to ask for her hand.
The nervousness that I felt on the first day that I met him returned with a vengeance. I put it off a few times, but finally called him the day after he turned 59. I remember seeing his name on my cell phone’s display as the phone dialed and telling myself that this was it.
Steve answered with a friendly “Hi Shaun.”
“Hi Steve how are you?”
“Good and you?”
“Fine thanks. — I wanted to wish you a happy belated birthday.”
“Oh thank you! That’s cool. I got a lot of calls this year.”
“Yeah? How nice. — I do have something else to ask you.”
“I wanted you to know that this Christmas, I plan on asking Cassie to marry me.”
Without hesitation, Steve said “That’s GREAT news! How wonderful! I’m sure she’ll be so excited!”
“I think so too.”
I had rehearsed what I wanted to say, so I talked over him a little bit at this point.
“After five years, I’m finally ready to make it official. And I want to tell you that I’m really excited for you to be my father-in-law.”
“You’re a great guy and I couldn’t be happier for you both.”
I told him to keep it under his hat until Christmas, but he couldn’t fight off his excitement. I know that Steve told a few people that he knew could hold their tongue: His wife Ellie, and his son Max.
Now that he’s passed, I feel disappointed. I’m disappointed that he won’t be at the wedding, and that I never got to call him Dad. Steve was such a great man, who was larger than life. So much larger than life that he seemed immune to death.
In spite of my disappointment, I’m so happy that he knew my intentions. If I had waited any longer, I would not have gotten the chance to have that conversation with him. It warms my heart knowing that he was excited for us, and accepting of me. Through all of the sadness, knowing that Steve loved me too kept my head held high as he was laid to rest.
I love you and I’ll miss you, Dad.
December 14, 1952 — January 25, 2012
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