On the golf range, it felt as if Dad and I were getting away with something, as if we were keeping the cancer at bay one whack at a time.
updated 6/21/2009 1:21:06 PM ET 2009-06-21T17:21:06

Last spring, after a lifetime of racking up athletic consolation prizes such as the Team Spirit Award, I finally discovered a sport I enjoy: golf. My dad has always been an avid player, but I ended up on the course by accident, when I promised to let him teach me the game. It was safer and more fun than talking about his new diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

The aggressiveness of the disease sent us all — my parents, my brother, my sister-in-law and me — down a dark rabbit hole to Cancerland, where worst-case scenarios beckoned like carnival barkers and grief and hope undulated like a Tilt-A-Whirl. I’m a worrier on the best of days, and now I couldn’t sit still or sleep without imagining the future minus my father. He is, after all, irreplaceable: kind, reliable, occasionally short-tempered; a devout believer in social justice, Jesuit education and baseball; someone who balances good humor with Irish gloom; a man whose car is always washed, whose desk is always tidy and whose shoes are always shined; a generous mentor, a steady friend and a loving husband and dad. The specter of his absence elbowed out everything in its path. He had a job he had worked hard for. He and my mom were looking forward to a trip to Hawaii. He was only 59 years old. It was too soon to be talking about tumors.

As my mind churned over what-ifs — What if the surgery goes wrong? What if the chemo doesn’t work? — I tried to live by the advice of a seasoned oncology nurse: “Keep your head where your feet are.” Unfortunately, staying in the moment has never been my forte.

During his first stay in the hospital, Dad told us he got through the long nights following his surgery by playing famous golf courses in his head, shot by shot. It seemed unfair that the year he had joined one of the more beautiful clubs in New Jersey, he wouldn’t even be able to shoulder a bag. So I announced I wanted him to teach me the game. On weekends when Dad had enough energy, we’d drive to the range, pull an Adirondack chair close to the tees and proceed with the lesson. The plan allowed him to combine two of his favorite things: dispensing wisdom using as many sports metaphors as possible and kibitzing with the staff and other members of the club.

I had thought our time together would consist of me whacking balls while Dad critiqued my form, followed by a break for hot dogs. I’d forgotten whom I was dealing with. My father arrived at our first lesson having formulated a curriculum, including but not limited to drills, golf philosophy, golf history and golf strategy. He’d even gathered ancillary reading for me, such as golf magazines and classics by Ben Hogan. On the days he didn’t feel well, we’d watch tournaments on the Golf Channel.

Our lessons would not be a diversionary tactic, he decided: I was actually going to learn to play. I didn’t protest; it was infinitely easier to chat about birdies and bogeys than the various types of cancer cells and their degree of deadliness.

My dad’s lessons were comprehensive: how to grip the club, how to line up a shot, how to stand, where to put your weight, how to turn your hips, how to bring your arms back, how to keep your head down, how to do it all in reverse and not forget to follow through, how to let the club do the work, how to use the strength of your core, how to relax, why not to sway, how to stay coiled, how to keep your eye on the ball, how not to lift your head until you’ve swung through. Oh, and how to do all of this at the same time, every time, until you’ve hit about 100 balls.

And yet instead of getting frustrated, I got hooked. My dad was a gentle and earnest teacher; I felt terrible that I wasn’t always able to execute what he so clearly wanted to do himself. He looked small to me, sitting in the big white chair wearing a baseball hat to protect his now bald head. The rare times he got up to demonstrate a swing, I worried. “Don’t bust a gut!” I’d say, thinking of all those stitches, as he hunched over my short club. “Damn!” he’d mutter when his shots went awry. “Not bad,” he’d say with a grin when they didn’t.

‘Everyone is struggling with something’
I practiced and studied, but I couldn’t keep my head down. The second I heard the clubface hit the ball, I’d look up to see where it went. “I’ll watch; you just follow through,” my dad promised. But I couldn’t resist. I was still having trouble keeping my head where my feet were. My mind raced to the next few months of my dad’s treatment, to my someday wedding. (Where would my father be?) I gripped my clubs lightly but held tight to memories of him teaching me other things: how to ride a bike, how to field a grounder, how to edit a story, how to interview for a job, how to tell a joke, how to take a leap of faith. If I couldn’t even learn this golf swing, how would I be able to remember everything else?

Despite all this anxiety, I had fun. My swing slowly improved, and I loved sharing sunny afternoons with my dad. We’d always had common interests — a passion for reading, the same taste in movies and a fondness for bad puns. But athletics were my brother’s territory, and my parents and I would happily and proudly cheer from the sidelines. On the range, I discovered that being in the game was even more of a thrill.

Plus, it felt as if Dad and I were getting away with something, as if we were keeping the cancer at bay one whack at a time. We rarely discussed life-and-death things. We covered the everyday: politics, the Yankees, books. We scouted golf outlets for sales and picked out my golf wardrobe. (“You wear too much black.”)

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Every so often in the car on the way back from the club, he’d start to thank me for being there with him and I’d cut him off. “Where else would I be?” I’d say, fiddling with the air conditioner vents, which I knew would annoy him. I was in some way ashamed that he was thanking me, meanwhile I couldn’t come close to articulating how grateful I was to be his daughter.

“You know, it’s funny,” he said one day when we were sitting at a table overlooking the 18th green. “Everyone keeps telling me that cancer makes you appreciate the little things. But I have always appreciated those things. What cancer really does is make you more aware that almost everyone is struggling with something.” I wanted to tell him how proud I was to know a man like him, but he didn’t pause before pointing out another golfer: “Now look at how that lady there sank that putt. See how she was steady and even, like a clock? Now watch this guy….”

It’s moments like that when cancer surprises me. It took me most of the summer to realize that you could live with cancer, not just die from it.

Around Labor Day, my father told me that I was ready to play the course. We chose a day in October, when he would be well enough to take a cart out, if not actually play. I recruited my mother and Ashley, my college roommate and golfer extraordinaire. Our foursome was set.

The day was crisp and bright. Still, I was worried when Dad decided to play and teed off on the first hole. He swung strong — and ended up with a par. “How do you like that?” he said, smiling.

For once, my mind stopped whirring. The course was challenging, so you had to hit your ball accurately or you’d be (sometimes literally) lost in the woods. I concentrated on shot after shot, and the holes sped by. I could tell my father was excited to be out there. As we approached the last green, I felt as if I’d woken up from a deep, pure sleep. Suddenly, I had room in my head for a little bit of hope.

My father’s battle with cancer is not over; 14 months after his diagnosis, we still don’t know what the future will bring. “Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it,” he says. I can’t tell you that I don’t worry about what “whatever” will be. But when I feel overwhelmed by what-ifs, I think back to our time together on the golf course and remind myself to keep my head down, swing and trust that the ball will land where I want it to.

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