My father-in-law was a great man. Easy going yet disciplined. He worked hard for his family and partied even harder. He told crude jokes and stole cookies before dinner. It used to drive my mother-in-law insane. He ate pickles with cream cheese and did so without restraint or apology. He loved his grand daughters and his dogs.
I remember the first time I met him. My husband (then boyfriend) and I walked into the warm garage. A TV mounted on the far wall was showing replays from last night’s baseball game. I was wearing the leather jacket my husband had given me for the motorcycle run we’d be taking that weekend. I was never one for leather, but I fell in love with the beautiful purple stitching and craftsmanship of the Harley Davidson jacket.
My father-in-law didn’t hear us come in. He was staring down at an auto magazine and snacking on Saltine crackers and jelly. My husband placed his hand on his father’s back and he looked up at us.
His father turned slightly in his chair and then completely rotated to face us, once he realized his son wasn’t alone.
“Well, hello there,” his father used an innocently flirtatious tone. “Who’s this pretty lady?”
He reached his hand out to grab mine. His fingernails were yellowed from nicotine and sun spots kissed the tops of his skin, scattered among the brown freckles. I reached out and placed my hand in his. It was warm - warmer than the garage. And surprisingly soft. It felt comfortable and familiar. He brought my hand to his lips and gently kissed it. His lips were dry and rough.
“My name is Sarah,” I said through a smile.
“Did you know that real women don’t wear anything underneath their leather jackets?” He asked me so seriously and casually that I almost didn’t realize what he had said. It finally registered after my husband responded with an excited, “Dad! Don’t be rude.”
I was surprisingly unoffended. This man reminded me a lot of my grandfather. His honesty was refreshing.
“I think this pretty lady can take a joke,” he said as he winked at me, releasing my hand. I hadn’t noticed he’d been holding it this whole time.
From that day forward, whenever I visited my husband’s home, I’d find his father sitting in that same spot. The snack that sat beside him was always different. As was the magazine. But his greeting was always the same. A big smile and a naughty comment. I grew to expect it.
I didn’t know much about my father-in-law’s past and never really asked. Over the years I would learn that he was adopted - left at a train station as a baby, an ad was placed in the local paper and he was placed into a loving home a few weeks later. He loved boats and the ocean. His career spanned 45 years. A dedicated fireman and truck driver, he went by the name “Red”. He was an esteemed member of the local community and respected by everyone who knew him. He used to help young boys become firemen, encouraging them to join the volunteer program. “Make something of yourself”, he’d say, “Become part of something that really matters.” Who could refute that logic?
It wasn’t until my husband and I were married and I was pregnant with my second daughter, that something in my father-in-law began to change. We’d still visit his house weekly. Dropping off groceries, coming for Sunday dinners, and to watch the occasional baseball game. I’d still find him in his favorite chair in the garage, but something was different. There was no snack beside him on the workbench. “No snack today?”, I’d ask. He’d shake his head. “Not hungry.”
I’d help my mother-in-law set the table, place the warm dishes on the trivets, and fold the pale pink napkins. Everything would be ready, except my father-in-law hadn’t come in from the garage yet. “Where is that man?”, she’d say, anxious that dinner was getting cold. He was on his way, but frequent stops on the stairs to catch his breath caused a slow down in his arrival. He would often complain of pain in his chest.
This went on for some time before we convinced him to see a mesothelioma specialist. A friend of mine had told me about her own father. A firefighter in the city for years, he began losing weight, coughing, and experiencing shortness of breath. They brought him to countless doctors before they discovered he had mesothelioma - an all too common cancer caused by exposure to asbestos. None of us had realized that firefighters are at high risk for asbestos exposure. The protective gear the firemen wore years ago was actually made using asbestos and asbestos fibers often become airborne during a fire. Many of these men sacrificed their lives to save others.
It was confirmed that my father-in-law did in fact have mesothelioma. His diagnoses came 4 short months before his death. I was proud to know this man who fathered my husband. I see so much of him in the things my husband says, the way he raises our babies, and his dedication to work and family. We honor my father-in-law each year by visiting the Florida Keys. That was where my father-in-law was happiest and its where we spread his ashes.
There will always be a void in my life and the live’s of my daughters now that he’s gone. But I am thankful for the time we spent together. And even more thankful for the fact that his spirit lives on through my husband.