By Brett Kaselouskas
I had practiced the song over and over and over again, yet I was still afraid I would forget the words. Standing alone in the dark wings of the stage, my sweaty hands gripping the microphone, I repeatedly sang the first line in my head, “He said I was in my early forties, with a lot of life before me, when a moment came that stopped me on a dime.” I couldn’t let him down.
Sudden applause snapped me out of my lyrical fog and I knew it was time. “Next we have Brett Kaselouskas singing ‘Live Like You Were Dying.’” Those words rang loudly through the middle school auditorium, eliminating any chance I had of changing my mind. I slowly walked toward the center of the stage. Looking into the crowd, the beaming spotlight hurt my eyes, but I could still see him. I saw his head, bald from the chemo, and it reminded me why I had to sing this song. It was his favorite.
As far back as I could remember he played country music, in the car, around the house, even in his headphones while he mowed the lawn. For years I didn’t even know that another genre existed. Standing in the checkout line at Walmart, I held his copy of Tim McGraw’s new album. It didn’t occur to me at the time that the reason Dad liked it so much was because Tim was singing about him. “I spent most of the next days, looking at the x-rays, talkin’ ‘bout’ the options, and talkin’ bout’ sweet time.” That song was his song.
The applause quieted just as the piano began to play. I looked down to turn the microphone on, watched its small light switch from red to green, and swallowed my nerves. My voice shook as I sang the first verse. I tried to disconnect myself from the lyrics so that my eyes wouldn’t fill with tears. It didn’t work. Instead the lyrics ignited memories. “And all of a sudden goin’ fishin’ wasn’t such an imposition, and I went three times that year I lost my dad.” I saw pictures of him and me in my mind, pictures of us wearing matching hats at my first Red Sox game and of him deep sea fishing, holding up my fish because I was too afraid.
Dad was diagnosed with Lymphoma on a day I should have been at school, but I just couldn’t go. I stayed with my grandparents while he was in surgery, and held my breath each time the phone rang, waiting to hear what the doctor had said. “It was just the neighbor,” Grammy would say. “Why don’t you watch a movie?” I was watching Finding Nemo when the call finally came. He had cancer. Grammy tried to tell me in the gentlest way possible, but there’s no gentle way to say that word. I hate that word.
Weeks earlier, Mrs. Noonan had looked confused during my audition. It may have been because I wanted to sing a country song, or because she didn’t know seventh graders listened to Tim McGraw. But mostly I think she was confused as to why a twelve-year-old boy chose to sing a song about a forty-something man with cancer. “Why did you pick that song?” she asked. I chose not to tell her. I wasn’t ready. “I just like Tim McGraw,” I said. It seemed like reason enough to me.
On stage that night I became more comfortable as the song continued, and soon didn’t feel nervous at all. Instead, I felt proud to be singing a song for my dad, even if no one else knew it was for him. “I was finally the husband, that most of the time I wasn’t, and I became a friend a friend would like to have.” Even through treatment, he was still a husband, a friend, and a father – a great one. Sitting at the kitchen table covered in bits of eraser, I was doing math homework when Dad rushed through the door. He tried reaching the bathroom before getting sick. Treatment made him so sick. “How was your day?” he would ask as soon as he felt better. I knew he had more important things to think about than my day, but he knew how important it was that he asked. He was still Dad. The cancer made him weak, but in my eyes he was stronger than ever. Singing Tim’s words was my chance to tell the world just how strong he was.
I looked at him sitting in the second row as I sang the last line. “And he said someday I hope you get the chance, to live like you were dying.” He smiled back at me, and Mrs. Noonan finally understood why I had really chosen that song. I was barely off the stage when she tearfully approached me. “That was beautiful, I’m sure he loved it,” she said. I knew he did.
Backstage I walked past rooms full of other students waiting to perform. Some holding objects to juggle with, others making sure their dance shoes were tied just right. All I could think about was getting to hug my dad. For me, the talent show wasn’t about showing off my talents; it was about showing off his. His talent of remaining strong, of turning his disease into his motivation. He never let his diagnosis stop him. He was going to beat this thing, and in the meantime, he lived like he was dying.
Only a few steps from the car, I felt someone touch my shoulder. I turned around to find an older woman I had never met before. She had a bandana where her hair should have been. “I couldn’t let you leave without telling you this,” she began. “I am fighting cancer myself and struggle to keep a positive attitude. Your performance inspired me to start living my life again. So thank you.” I was speechless. My dad’s song was her song too. Standing in an empty parking space, the woman hugged me tightly as the line of traffic continued moving past us. “Thank you,” she whispered in my ear. “No, thank you,” I said back. Without even giving her name, that woman taught me just how powerful a song can be.