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Sometimes cancer is the greatest teacher of a father’s love

Every time my cell phone rings these days, I cringe, especially if I see that it’s my sister calling from Nashville. I was on my way home from work Friday, March 28 — it seems like ages ago — when she called my cell phone that first time, her voice shaking.
She didn’t have to tell me. The bone marrow biopsy was positive. My father had cancer.
Mom and dad still live in Macon, Ga., where I grew up. I called them when I got home, trying hard to hide my sadness and profound disappointment. One doctor had initially suspected that it was cancer — multiple myeloma — that had damaged my father’s kidneys, making him feel sluggish and sick in the past two months. But after more tests and another doctor’s opinion, I thought they had ruled the cancer out. At age 58, dad just didn’t fit the profile for multiple myeloma victims. Most multiple myeloma patients are in their 70s.

But statistics don’t mean much to you when your dad is the exception to the rule.

I’m no oncologist, but I know that multiple myeloma is a type of blood cancer. Basically, at least one plasma cell has gone haywire and is replicating itself like crazy. This causes a traffic jam in the bone marrow, and it interferes with the processes of building new cells and destroying old ones, to the point that the bones start developing holes and dumping junk into the bloodstream. It overloads the kidneys and keeps them from filtering blood. It was kidney problems that first alerted doctors to my dad’s condition.

In the days that followed I expected to question God more than I did. I haven’t found myself looking heavenward and asking “Why? Why us?” It’s because of my heritage — the part I owe to my father. I’m half Norwegian (hence the funny last name) and our people can be a bleak, pessimistic lot. Before this happened, I would ask God “Why not me?” What had my family done to avoid the suffering I saw around me?

But this attitude did little to ease the sadness. In those early days, it was only my father’s optimism that kept me going. He actually sounded upbeat on the phone after he found out, already psyching himself up for the treatments — four solid days of slow-dose chemotherapy each month for the next six months. Then doctors may schedule him for an ingenious process in which they’ll extract stem cells from his bone marrow and grow a “new batch.” Dad works with computers, so here’s how we explain it: the doctors will format his hard drive and reinstall the operating software.

My family has been overwhelmed by support from brothers and sisters in Christ. Cards flowed into my parents’ mailbox from friends, relatives, even the kindergartners at my fiancee’s home church in Altus, Okla. Church members in Macon have mowed our yard. I’ve gotten prayers and encouraging e-mails from missionaries around the world. It grieves me to think of people who have to endure such hardships without God, without such a family.

We’ve become aware of a lot of other blessings as well, including dad’s insurance and more than a year of sick leave he had saved up. Finances have not been a concern.

We also praise God for early detection. A routine kidney test — a follow-up to a previous appointment — brought all this to light. I’m so appreciative that my dad has made time to see his doctor regularly. Too many men don’t do that, and the diagnoses come too late. For men who have families that depend on them — men who have grandchildren yet to be born who deserve to meet their living heritage — it’s irresponsible and disrespectful to God’s creation not to see a physician routinely. That’s a new opinion I’ve adopted.

At first, the thought of losing dad gave me a sense of panic. “There’s still so much I don’t know. What happens when my car needs major service?” (Dad’s the only one who keeps up with our cars’ service records.) But after some reflection, I think that if I lost my father, the bigger regret would be the things I never told him, not the other way around.

Dad was there for every major event of my life — from choral performances to graduations. Every week he would drive me across town to pick up the new comic books before the gas stations got them. I remember him combing through rows and rows of Star Wars action figures to find the elusive FX-7 and IG-88.

Dad encouraged me to do something I loved, not to look for a job based on a dollar value. He saw writing talent in me and encouraged me to pursue it, to set high goals, but to keep God first. While in college, I griped because the only advice he’d give me about women was “When it’s meant to be, you’ll know.” He was right.

From an early age I wanted to “conquer the world,” but I never saw such lofty goals in my father, and I viewed it as a weakness. He had a good job, but no one would ever give him a Nobel Prize for it. He was just a computer guy, like a million other computer guys the world over. How can you love that?

Only now am I beginning to see that my father was doing what he loved all along. More than anything else, dad loved being a dad. The love he had for me and my sister was given without reservation or condition. There was never anything so important in his life that he wouldn’t drop it in an instant if we needed him. We never had reason to doubt his love for us.

I only saw my father cry once, just barely. It was the Sunday when he was appointed elder at the Southside church of Christ in Macon. He stood in front of the congregation in full awareness of God’s grace and his own unworthiness, and I heard his voice crack.

More tears are ahead as we face the coming months — the fatigue induced by chemo, the infections that accompany a compromised immune system, the hair loss (dad was so proud that he had kept a full head of the stuff while most of his friends had gone bald).

These days I find that I am increasingly reliant on my heavenly father. Actually, I’m just beginning to realize how reliant I’ve been on Him all along. And as I grow older I become increasingly aware of how much my own understanding of God’s love is modeled on the love my father showed me.

CONTACT ERIK TRYGGESTAD at [email protected]

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