3 Lessons My Father's Death Taught Me About Life

What I learned from fellow travelers on a terminal cancer floor

It was the summer that my father died.

For the previous year, my funny, devoted, mischievous dad had been struggling with oral cancer. Determined to survive, he tried every route possible but by June it was clear to everyone but him that he was not going to win the fight. When he entered the hospital, we knew we would not be taking him home. My mother, siblings and I began a very long vigil, taking shifts sitting with my dad.

If you've ever spent a lot of time on a terminal cancer floor, you know that you make friends fast with the family members of other patients. Those hours of boredom and waiting followed by events that snap by so quickly that you aren't sure what planet you are on—only one who has been there could know what that feels like. And it was these fellow travelers who taught me how to live.

Lesson #1: Life is change.

My first connection was with a guy I knew from high school. Peter was taking a break in the waiting room when I walked in one day. At first, I pretended I didn't recognize him because, to be honest, the guy I remembered from school was a mean, little creep. My father was in pain and dying and there were hundreds of daily decisions to be made and fights to be fought; the last thing I wanted to have to deal with was the high school bully.

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But when Peter recognized me, he came over to say hi. As we chatted, I was amazed to discover not the tormenter of years past, but a thoughtful, caring man who also was struggling to say goodbye too soon to a beloved father. Over the next few days, we met in the hallways and kept each other up to date on our respective fathers' progress. Peter would bring me tea or help me find a seat when events overwhelmed me. I looked forward to sharing time with him. Then one morning, I showed up and Peter's father's room was empty. Swept clean as if no grief or pain had ever happened there. I never saw Peter again.

Lesson #2: Connection is everything.

My next acquaintances were the aunt and uncle of the woman in the room next to my father's. All of 30 years old, their niece had just been married, only to be diagnosed weeks later with an aggressive form of bladder cancer. The family hunkered down in a waiting game, like mine. The difference was my father had lived a full, long life. He had danced at all his children's weddings, met all his grandchildren and loved my mother for 50 years. This woman and her new husband would never experience any of that.

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Sitting with my father during a long afternoon, I felt that something had happened. I can best describe it as a change in the atmosphere, a shift in the wind. I went into the hallway and found a crowd around the young wife's room. She had just died. The family members embraced each other and sobbed quietly.

That's when I witnessed a miraculous thing: When the young husband came out of the room, he was not crying; he did not reach out for support. Instead, he went to each member of the crowd, held them lightly by the arms and asked, "Are you alright?" Although his world had just been shattered—and I am sure he fell apart later—he still had the fortitude and empathy to see how everyone else was doing. "Are you alright?" He was saying, in effect, we're going to get through this, and together, we're going to go on.

Lesson #3: The best way to honor those who have gone before us is to live a good life.

When my father could no longer speak, he wrote copious notes. Not a lot of them made much sense but one day, I caught him staring at me. Then he scribbled a note to me that I'll cherish forever. It said simply, "Don't be sad. I love you."

Don't be sad, I love you. How could I be in the world without my father's jokes and his fierce, protective love? No matter how hard we argued and fought, I always knew that he was in my corner. When I chose to leave a well-paying, glamorous job for the insecure, decidedly low-paying world of a freelance writer, my father said one thing to me: "I believe in you." How many children have received such a gift from their parents? What was I supposed to do without my no. 1 cheerleader? But then I remembered that incredible young husband and I knew what I would do: I would go on.

In the hard days that followed, after my own father's room was swept clean, I remembered Peter's kindness, the aunt and uncle's devotion, and that young husband's selflessness, and I tried to emulate them the best I could. My family and I wrapped ourselves in my father's love, asked each other, "Are you alright?"—and together, we went on.

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