The happiest years of my life began when I found out we were pregnant with Riley. Following that joy came the apparent end of the world, in the form of a global pandemic, which you can read about in my previous post where I described the experience of giving birth, right as the world entered a state of lockdown. However, this post is about how much joy Riley has brought to me over the past two years.
I was finally a dad, and I could not have been happier about it; for as long as I can remember, I have always loved teaching, and being a dad is the ultimate opportunity to share knowledge. I loved being part of every moment, waking up for feedings with Rachel so she would not be alone, taking turns changing her throughout the night, making snacks and watching movies together, all with Riley next to us in her bassinet. We celebrated our first mothers day together, followed closely by my first fathers day, where we spent time at the strawberry field and then with our dads at the lake. The pride and joy in my dad’s voice when he wished me a happy fathers day for the first time will be ingrained in my heart forever.
As the summer rolled on, we made a concerted effort to be outside more and take bike rides together, with Riley strapped into her little seat on the back of my bike. We cherished every moment of every day and spent each one with the people we love. As summer turned to fall, we made sure to continue our outdoor adventures with Riley, enjoying the changing colours of the leaves and having fun in the pumpkin patch (which Mowgli loved as well).
Days went by, and as we neared my birthday in December, I began to feel unwell. So I went to the hospital and was admitted to Sunnybrook with a severe case of Pneumonia. Each day, Rachel and my mom took turns visiting me as fluid was drained around my collapsed lung. Feeling alone and helpless, Rachel wept at night taking care of our first-born daughter by herself; I felt guilty and heartbroken that I could not be there to help in one of the most challenging stages of little Riley’s life. Putting her to sleep was always an ordeal; after holding her and rocking her back and forth for nearly 40 minutes to get her ready for sleep, she would inevitably end up vomiting in and around her crib.
As soon as I got out of the hospital, I focused on building my strength back up so I could make up for that lost time. We went on walks together, and I practiced going up and down the stairs to help me on my road to recovery. Whenever I had the energy to do so, I put Riley to sleep so I could give Rach a much-needed reprieve. Weeks turned to months as my recovery rolled on, where we took advantage of our time in lockdown. We continued to enjoy our time together, celebrating the fact that we were all healthy again and happy to be in our new home; there was nothing more we could ask for that could make it any better.
Winter turned to spring, and we started fun DIY projects around the house; together as a family, Rach and I worked together, falling even more in love, laughing and learning as we always did, while Riley watched, soaking in all the love.
Spring soon turned to summer, and with the change of seasons came the devastating news about my dad and his cancer coming out of remission. He came to live with us for a while, making the best of it by spending time with Riley, cooking together, going to car shows, taking leisurely strolls together, and working on my car. As the summer sun persisted and the weather got nicer, his desire to be lakeside at the cottage grew. It was not long before he was living up north full time, only coming into the city to spend the night with us before Rach or I drove him to his treatment the next day, returning to the lake as soon as he could.
As the cancer grew and the chemo did its work, we witnessed a change in Dad’s physical form, yet his heart and mind never faltered, remaining optimistic until the very end. He continued to share his wisdom and love with me, teaching me many valuable life lessons and reiterating how important it is to “never stop loving”. (I know you may be asking yourself “how is this part of the happiest years of your life?” And I promise, I’m getting there.)
Towards the end of the summer, Rach and I organized a surprise car show/fundraiser for dad and for cancer research. Part of the special surprise here was that I finally got the chance to debut the movie I had spent months creating for Dad. I spent countless hours curating old home videos, interviewing him about his life, and piecing together long-forgotten memories of our lives together. The final result was more than anything I could have hoped for, but the real impact came from the reactions of everyone in attendance, especially my Dad; there wasn’t a dry eye in the lot and the look of surprise on his face when he realized that the movie playing on the big screen wasn’t just another drive-in flick, but a montage of HIS life, a collection of those happy times with family and friends, HIS story was playing on that screen. As he made that connection and recognized it was his life being depicted on that big screen, tears of joy rolled down his face, bringing me more joy than I could have ever imagined; those happy tears were all I needed, and as the movie played on, I got them in spades.
It was undoubtedly the most memorable car show either of us had ever attended, and we had been to quite a few).
A month or so later, Dad decided to put his faith in a clinic in Germany, so he packed up and spent six weeks at the said clinic. Sadly, by the time he returned home, his condition had worsened to such a degree that he likely only had weeks to live; still, even with the end in sight, he remained an eternal optimist. From the day he returned from Germany until the moment he passed on December 21st, 2021, I spent every waking (and sleeping) moment of every single day by his side. We played his favourite game (backgammon); I brought him endless soups; we spent hours talking about the most beautiful aspects of life while also discussing some of the saddest and most challenging parts as well (there can be no light without darkness); we held hands, laughed together, cried together, and shared tears in both. We were able to spend time together that most people either take for granted or never have the opportunity to do. I am so grateful for the relationship I had with my Dad, and I am so thankful that I used those final days to strengthen and galvanize our everlasting bond. The relationship we nourished over the years persisted through stormy weather and clear skies alike, resulting in a bond that could not be questioned by anyone who knew us.
As Dad neared the end of his journey through this life, I asked him if there was a message he would want to pass on to his grandchildren. Without hesitation, he simply stated three words to me that defined how he lived; he told me to “never stop loving”, and I knew that was his secret to life because that is truly how he lived. Dad loved furiously and with all of his heart, even to people who didn’t reciprocate it, and I never understood it until now. So, as sad as that short story was, it was still part of the happiest years of my life. The beauty and heartbreak of the time I got to spend with my Dad before his passing has left an indelible mark on my soul and has given me a new appreciation for our special relationship, which I will cherish eternally. I am so grateful that before his passing, Rachel and I were able to share the news that we were pregnant and expecting our second child; I will never forget the smile on his face when we told him.
After dad passed, I started having some severe migraines, so severe that I was told to go to the hospital. Once in hospital, they did an MRI and found a tumour pushing on the right side of my brain. They performed emergency surgery to excise the tumour, but the questions of where it came from and why it was there were yet to be answered. As pathology reports came in, experts concluded that the tumour stemmed from a rare type of sarcoma in my chest. My dad lost his battle with cancer the week before my 33rd birthday, and while I was still grieving his loss, I had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. (you may once again find yourself asking that question, but I assure you, there is a silver lining here). I tried to digest this news while at the same time, processing the loss of one of the most influential people in my life. My grief had no bounds; the next few weeks were fraught with tears. Tears of sadness, tears of fear as my life was now uncertain, and then tears for all the time I would never get to experience because of my diagnosis.
But through all of those solemn tears, there were also tears of joy! I was going to be the father of two beautiful girls, and again, I couldn’t have been happier with the news. As painful and as difficult of a time I’m having now, going through chemo and radiation, I try to focus on the fact that I am a dad and I have a legacy; I get to nourish these little humans with all the joy and love that I experienced growing up. Alongside the multitude of beautiful things to come from these past few years, there are still more silver linings! With my diagnosis, I learned about the true meaning of family as relationships strengthened around me. The bonds between me and my siblings have only grown stronger and the relationships between both me and my mom and between my mom and Rachel have flourished. But most importantly the bond between me and Ryan (Rachel’s older brother) has taken on new life as he has undoubtedly served as one of the most compassionate and empathetic people in my life, always there to lend an ear to talk to for good times or bad. I would never know this sort of kinship to be possible if it were not for the struggles and challenges I am living through now. Through my diagnosis, we have all grown closer to one another and become more compassionate people overall. As sad of a reason it is, I am still grateful because if I have learned anything through this, it is that the world needs more compassion.
The joy it brings me to watch Riley move around the house, explore nature and become a little human who will represent me in this world is unfathomable and indescribable. Her life and the new life we are about to bring into this world give me the strength and courage to keep fighting with every ounce of energy I have and to continue bearing this impossible weight. Of course, I am scared that I won’t be around for long enough to see them grow up, get married, and have children of their own, but I remain steadfast in the face of fear, finding strength and joy in the knowledge that they will be loved, they will know who I am, and that their actions in life will be both a reflection and extension of me. So at the end of the day, my story of the happiest years of my life may seem littered with tragedy, but there would be no light without darkness. And for as many heartbeats as I have left, I will love unconditionally, I will enjoy every moment no matter how painful or difficult. I will find the silver lining and give purpose to my days. I will take pride in myself and in my daughters, and as long as I have the strength, I will be there to lift them up and hug them tight.