He loves NASCAR.
He loves classical music.
He loves mustard on his eggs.
But, most of all, he just loves.
I know this does not brush the surface of who this man is—the man I call Daddy—but it is a start. He is one of fourteen children—he understands what sharing is. He stood up to his father at age thirteen to protect his mother—he understands consequences. He stopped drinking when my mother was pregnant with me—he understands parenting by example. He was a welder by profession, which means he knows the meaning of HOT AS HELL—he understands sacrificing to provide for his family. He and my mother once borrowed money from one of her sisters to help get them back on their feet. He says he never wants to have to do that again. He and my mother opened their home to people in need in order to help them get back on their feet—he understands giving back.
Boy, oh, boy, can he tell a story! And, oh, my, does he have stories to tell! You should stick around—they are even better the second time! He can tell you what is wrong with your car. He has a green thumb—make that one-and-a-half green thumbs. He is a good neighbor—he will lend you that thing…whatever it is. He loves good food. He loves bad food. If you are a bad cook, he will eat it anyway—he would never want to hurt your feelings. When you come to his home, he never wants you to be hungry or cold. He will offer you everything he has if he thinks it will help you out. This is his gift of sharing.
He loves a woman named Brenda that he calls “Brender” when he has had enough. He is loved by Brenda more than she herself sometimes realizes. He loves a “little girl” that is not so little anymore, and I think—no, I know—that he hung the moon. He loves a dog named Gizmo that he calls “son.” My hairy little brother loves my daddy unconditionally and is by his side constantly. Daddy loves a little girl he calls “Dust Bunny.” Gretchen the “dust bunny” loves her Pop…for what she calls his “kind and gentle heart.”
And there it is. That is the thing. That is why we all love him. You cannot help but love my Daddy. His laughter is contagious, and his heart is…kind and gentle. He sees people as they are, but hopes better of them. He will give you a boost up and help you on the way back down if you fall. He laughs. He bites his tongue when others would lash out. My Daddy picks his battles.
But sometimes the battle picks you, and if you are picked…you do not back down. My Daddy is strong. This week we hold hands and cry as we face the battle ahead. As we sit on the sofa, the sun shines brightly through the window and casts long winter shadows across the living room floor. We watch the shadows creep across the floor as the afternoon passes, Daddy waiting for the pain to pass—and we cry. It is not much of a room for planning a battle—no troops to be deployed, just hands to be held, words of love to be said. The battle will not end today—not tomorrow, either—but when it ends, it will be on Daddy’s terms, we will not give up.
My Daddy has liver cancer that is non-responsive to treatment, and he has made the brave choice to face the time he has left on his own terms, not the terms of the “healing” that cancer treatment promises, and the pain and harm that the “healing” brings. He has chosen to not seek further treatment—and we cry. He is so strong. He is worried about not seeing his granddaughter, his little “dust bunny,” grow up. He is worried about leaving us all behind—and we cry.
Even today, he still calls me “little girl.” Every day of my life he has said, “I love you, little girl.” But today it comes with a little quiver in his voice and a longer hug than usual. I’m still his little girl. I will always be his little girl, which means I am lucky enough to understand what it feels like to be loved…because he loves. Knowing my Daddy’s love as a child meant that I was safe. Knowing his love as an adult means I know how to be strong and to love others. And I cry.
The evils of cancer have not come at us suddenly, but as we hold our breath, time seems to speed up. I have taken the chance to say the things that should not be left unsaid. I have had the chance to look—to really look—at the man my Daddy is, at the parent he is, and at how I am the person I am because of him. The words come…over and over I tell him every chance I get how much I love him…but I don’t think I could ever express how full my heart is. It overflows with images, my thoughts, my memories, my fear of losing him, and my love for him—for the man that now has tears in his eyes. This weight on my heart of what I want to say to him…could I ever say it all? My Daddy means the world to me. He has taken being a parent as a commission, and I have become a person he is proud of. And I know my Daddy is proud of me, because he does not let the important words go unsaid—he has told me my whole life that he is proud of me. I count that as the highest honor in this life. He is my example of love—a love that is in my eyes—a lot like how God must love us, because my Daddy does not attach conditions to his love for me or anyone…he just loves. And I cry knowing how much my Daddy means to not just me but to so many other people.
He is Phillip Stephens.
He is strong.
He loves sweets and midnight snacks.
He sings funny little songs about anything and everything…like sandwiches or flip-flops.
He hangs things on his ears to make you laugh when you are sad.
He watches late-night TV.
He makes funny faces at my mother when she is upset.
He grows fabulous tomatoes.
He knows how to fix stuff.
He sings jingles.
He is a son.
He gives movies 1½ thumbs up.
He does not have a middle name.
He loves seafood and hot sauce.
He says “ask your momma.”
He likes the color green.
He is a friend.
He built our home.
He is thankful.
He knows more uses for duct tape and bread ties than NASA does.
He is a Brother.
He always has a snack with him.
He watches westerns.
He keeps marshmallows on his nightstand.
He has a story.
He is a Husband.
He has never met a hushpuppy he doesn’t like.
He gives nicknames to almost everyone.
He says “okay, you can keep it” when you bring a dog home.
He could grow a houseplant jungle with his green thumb.
He can never remember Robert De Niro’s name.
He likes to sit in the shade.
He is tacky.
He is giving.
He tries to dance.
He cannot dance.
He is Sonny.
He listens to rain on the roof.
He likes beets.
He laughs to defuse conflict.
He laughs because it is funny.
He is an uncle.
He has a nickel taped to the door frame so that we will never be broke.
He is Catfish.
He is the Frito Bandito.
He can wiggle his ears.
He calls everybody “neighbor.”
He likes to take the long way home.
He will not cross his eyes.
He loves hummingbirds.
He is a good judge of character.
He is proud of you.
He always tells you he is proud of you.
He loves “Brender.”
He is Uncle Sonny.
He is Gizmo’s Man.
He is Pop.
He is Dust Bunny.
He is Daddy.
He is so many things to so many people.
He is a fighter.
He loves us.
He is loved.
I am so unsure of what the battle ahead holds…but I will hold his hand and tell him I love him and that we won’t give up. I will know that I am loved…that I am strong. I know this because the man that puts mustard on his eggs told me so. And I believe he always means it. He loves.
I hope that he knows how much he too is loved by this little girl. I LOVE YOU, DADDY!
Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28