I lost my dad when I was a 17-year-old senior in high school. The director of the Indiana University Cancer Center succumbed to melanoma, a morbid bit of irony that makes people’s eyes widen. No, no one’s immune to cancer, not even a man who spent his professional life curing it.
We were told the cancer had moved to his lungs in November of 2008, and then to his brain in December of that same year. Despite knowing the survival rates of metastatic melanoma, I remained ignorantly confident in his survival until early February 2009, when I came home from school to find his new hospice nurse leaving our house. I didn’t have the luxury of naiveté after that.
My dad died at home on February 15th, early in the morning. I didn’t cry. Two strangers came to our house to remove him, and despite knowing I’d never see his physical body again, I didn’t cry. My best friend came over with a gallon of ice cream, and called reinforcements. My basement filled with my best girlfriends, and we slept together that night, sprawled across the couch and the floor. Still, I didn’t cry.
A few days after my father passed, my mom gave me a laptop bag. It had a thick strap and a solid, protective shell. It was printed in a blinding, colorful Vera Bradley pattern that was so popular at the time.
“Your dad bought this for you for Valentine’s Day. The store said it would be ready by then, but it wasn’t,” my mom told me.
I learned that in the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, my dad was continuously checking to see if the laptop case was in yet. He was in constant pain, unable to walk or shower on his own, and naturally he was concerned with my Valentine’s Day gift.
It didn’t arrive in time for the holiday, and he died the very next day. When I received that case days later, I cried.
That was almost eight years ago. After my dad died, I went away to college in Nashville, studied abroad in Sydney, Australia, moved to Chicago for a job, and recently relocated to Northern California. I’ve lived in shoebox dorm rooms, town homes, and studio apartments, and that colorful Vera Bradley laptop bag has been with me at every location.
Today I’m 26-years-old and writing this on a sleek, lightweight MacBook Air. I could fit four of these laptops into that old-school bag. In fact, I’m not sure the last time Apple has even created a laptop that could even fill half of that bag. Still, I can’t fathom getting rid of it.
My father knew his days were numbered, and he hoped it would be the final gift he could give me face-to-face. He was looking death in the eyes, and he was worried about giving me a computer bag. Can you imagine that? When I hear the phrase “unconditional love,” my mind only fills with that vibrant Vera Bradley pattern.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve realized that the gifts I received from my father go so far beyond the tangible. When my mother was pregnant with me and they were considering names, my dad wanted something that seemed “fitting for a potential Supreme Court Justice.” When I was in fourth grade, his face turned red with anger when I asked him if my substitute teacher was right when she said girls aren’t as good at math. In the almost eighteen years I got with him, he made me feel so supremely capable, worthy, encouraged, and loved. Those are the things that, at the end of the day, really matter. Those are the real gifts.
And yet I can promise you, I will never part with that tacky, oversized laptop bag.
I love you Dad, and thank you for my Valentine’s Day gift. I miss you every day.