My emphatic belief in this statement was solidified by the major life events that occurred beginning exactly two years ago on Valentine's Day.
Eric and I arrived in Pennsylvania, where I grew up and where we planned to stay awhile, on February 14, 2012. "We could work on the rivers there," I told him. We made this decision while still in New Zealand, where we lived in our camper van. It was a rather casual decision. No major stress was involved in making it, and there were no pros and cons lists made. Thus, Valentine's Day became more to us than a holiday of love -- it now doubles as our two-year "we-moved-to-Pennsylvania-for-good" anniversary. It may seem silly to acknowledge such an occasion, but I like reasons to celebrate.
But even still more significant than a holiday turned anniversary, February 14 is the eve of what would have been my father's 62nd birthday.
He turned 60 February 15, 2012, the day after Eric and I moved to Pennsylvania. We threw him a surprise party, which I planned via email from New Zealand with my identical twin sister, Tara, and my dad's sister, Rita. We spent the summer of 2012 rafting on the river together. I called him every Sunday and saw him most weekends and some weekday afternoons, when he would stop by the rafting outpost where I worked to not only visit me but to drink PBRs with the raft guides. He was a former raft guide himself. He brought me fresh eggs from his chickens. Eric and I had him over for potlucks with our friends. He planned to be my support at two races for which I was training in the fall, but he would never make it to those races.
On November 16, I found out that I was three weeks pregnant. Eric was kayaking in Nepal, and when I told him over Skype, we cried, laughed, stared at one another in disbelief and shock, but mostly, we couldn't stop smiling. This was the greatest surprise of all! We were not trying to get pregnant, but I knew our conception date. Let's just say I like to write about everything and anything in my journal! Anyway, I calculated that we conceived just 11 days after my father was first admitted to the hospital. This is when I began to see more clearly than ever that things happen for reasons.
Thus, as new life was growing within me, my father was slowly dying -- quite a paradox. My identical twin sister (did I mention I have an identical twin sister who is my best friend? lucky me!!!) had the privilege of telling him that I was pregnant. He was in a room in an ICU where pregnant women were not permitted. After 30 minutes, he finally understood what she was saying. He looked at me through the thick plexiglass and said, "Well that shit ass!" with a grin and softness in his eyes. This may not sound like a normal response, and I'll admit, it is not, but for my father, this was perfect. This was him. Gruff, sweet, sincere.
Throughout his hospital stay, we told him that I was pregnant. Sometimes his response was, "Well, ya already told me!" with slight irritation at the constant repeating of old news, and other times it was, "Well, why didn't anyone tell me!" with a tone of disbelief and hurt that a secret was kept. I showed him the ultrasound photo, and he felt the baby kick.
Hooked up to morphine during his final dying days, I told him that we would be naming the baby, whether boy or girl, A.J., after him. We had yet to determine the "A," and it certainly wasn't going to be Alan, his first name, loathed so much by him that even his best friends weren't sure what that "A" ever was. They knew him simply as A.J. But the "J" would be Jennings, whether boy or girl, after Waylon, his favorite country western artist, as well as mine.
He died just after midnight on June 1, when I was in my seventh month of pregnancy. I was due July 24, but, as fate would have it, Avie Jennings, our baby boy, arrived four weeks early, and exactly four weeks after my dad's death, on June 28. My dad was sick and dying for eight months, while I was glowingly, healthfully pregnant and ecstatic for the birth of our baby for eight months. I was at the same time the saddest and happiest I had ever been in my whole life.
His death was one of those bittersweet kinds, where he suffered for so long that it was a relief to have him let go and rest in peace. But still, I wake up some days, usually on Sundays, with a certainty that I will call him, he will answer, and we will meet for breakfast at his favorite diner. Instead I watch the slideshow that I made honoring his life as my dad (you can watch it below - make sure you have audio, because the music makes the show). Or I read the following poem that I wrote to him. The first paragraph may make you cry, but, PLEASE, bear with me, as the rest of it is meant to make you laugh, especially if you knew him.
My biggest fear as a child
Was one day you’d climb a tree
And God would take you from me.
A bittersweet tragedy,
Yet most people’s dreams,
To die doing what one loves,
Flown in haste to the heavens above.
Never did I picture it like this,
Eight months suffering, hospitalized, sick.
June 1st was your last day.
June 28th arrived our sweet A.J.
Avie Jennings is his name.
Do you know we named him after you?
Are you watching us
From beyond the blue?
In my dreams you’re healthy as can be,
Tan, bearded, shirtless, and strong.
Your gaze into my eyes tells me
You are indeed at peace.
Still, I scream inside,
Swearing your death just has to be wrong.
Longing to see your soft eyes
and smiling face,
Eventually, I’m told, these tears will fade.
For now, I take refuge
in remembering the life you made.
A hero, a legend,
the toughest and fastest, they say.
You taught us how to swim,
How to hold a football at age six.
You never missed a track meet,
The loudest to cheer me in first place.
When I was too far for you to come,
You were the first I’d call after every race.
Please know I took your training tips to heart.
To run hills, and to run them hard,
And to do so while wearing a weight vest.
Thank you for encouraging me to be my best.
My passion for white water is all your fault,
So how could you be mad
when I kayaked the falls?
Though not as mad as when I gave up meat!
You’ll be happy to know I only swam once!
And, in your honor, I’ll never be a vegetarian again! (as long as that cow’s grass-fed).
But the happiest news of all
is that you’re a grandpa.
He has your olive skin.
We’ll instill in him
what you displayed in your life –
Simplicity and hard work, how to be a friend.
We’ll tell him about
your deer hunting with Bobby,
and your stories as the “River Gazelle.”
Though we hope he doesn’t share
your allegiance to joints and PBR!
While I know I made you proud,
You worried that my head was in the clouds,
And that sometimes I could be too kind,
So please, dad, watch over me in a bind!
Besides, you needn’t fret, because Eric is here,
Caring for me and Avie,
Keeping us loved and safe.
I know you loved and respected him.
After all, he did get you through Heinzerling,
Cigarette still ablaze.
Jaser, you’re missed.
Dad, you are loved.
I’ll forever be your Brynny,
My sister, your Tara Lynn.
Brynn “Brynny” Cunningham
Written August 31, 2013