It’s been a year now and I still think about him.
The rulebook says Joe is my step-father but I don’t listen. Even though I only knew him for about six years, this is my dad.
He is my dad because he forgave me for my ineptitude with tools. It didn’t matter to him that I drove nails like a first-grader. Or that I couldn’t spot the difference between a 5/8 wrench and a 3/16.
He is my dad because he let me drive the purple ski boat one day, even though mom thought for sure I would drive it into a boathouse. Joe showed faith in me when I didn’t have faith in myself.
He is my dad because he reminded me how to treat mom, or any lady for that matter. No matter how tired he was, she came first. He got her the water, the extra piece of pie or a warmer coat. Because that’s what dads do for their wives, no matter how tough it might be.
Joe taught me to shun indolence and embrace service. He never stopped moving in his trademark suspenders, always creating, learning, thinking or helping. In the twilight of his life, nothing could stop him. There’s no doubt my dad could take Superman in a fair fight.
He didn’t talk too me much for most our time together, leaving me wondering if I measured up enough.
Dad almost always answered the phone when I called home.
“How’s Michael?” he would ask.
Joe would listen while I carried the bulk of the conversation. Then it usually ended with him saying, “let me give the phone to your mother.”
I still remember the day when they told me about the cancer, how serious it was. They were going to beat it, they promised. But somehow I knew.
The pain he endured over the next few years would make a grizzly bear cry. Not my dad. He didn’t want anybody to worry so he kept it to himself as long as he could. Until even he couldn’t bear it anymore. Because that’s what dads do.
In the end, I got the call.
If you want to say good-bye, you better come now, my mom said. It won’t be long.
As I drove the six hours home, I wondered what I would say to him. Was I worthy of his respect? I still wasn’t completely sure.
While I was there that week, I watched as the Hospice nurse came to the home for the first time, I was in the room when the doctor told him he he had two weeks to two months to live. Dad spent most of his time on the couch because he was too weak to get up anymore, the cancer reducing him to a shell of his former self.
Two days before I was to return to Oregon, he started eating again. He stood up, even taking short walks down the driveway again. Maybe my good-bye visit was premature.
Looking back, I wonder if his resurgence came so we could have that final drive one afternoon, just the two of us. He sat in the passenger seat and talked while I listened. He talked about his love for family, for me and what lay ahead. Joe told me things I wanted to hear for a long time.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of his death. But thanks to that last conversation during that sun-drenched afternoon, I know that he loves me.
Because that’s what dads do.