To most people, the image of someone spitting on combat boots would not conjure up an image of what love looks like – but for me, it is a perfect picture of the meaning of the word.
My husband Dave was diagnosed with colon cancer at the age of 43. Our youngest child, Andrew was 12 and Dave was determined to fight. He went through surgery and a year of chemo and then “went on with his life.” However, in the fall of 1994 the cancer returned and Dave was given “three months to three years” to live.
Knowing Andrew would graduate in June, 1997, Dave set a goal, although not very realistic under the circumstances, to see Andrew graduate, 2½ years after Dave’s recurrence.
Dave qualified for clinical trials where treatments were being tested, and he chose that option. He continued to work, attended school concerts, soccer games, and participated in family gatherings, all while being connected to a machine that pumped poison into his chest through a device that had been surgically implanted.
In October 1996, Dave and his doctors decided it was time to stop any treatment. Dave left his job, went on hospice and began actively preparing to die. He wrote us letters, prepared a notebook laying out financial information, and the nuts and bolts of doing all the things he had been used to doing to maintain our home, etc. He began to prepare us for the time he would no longer physically be with us.
From the time he was two years old, Andrew had his sights set on becoming a pilot. When he was two, he looked up to the sky and announced that he was going to “drive an airplane.” Throughout his life, he wavered at times, announcing he would be a fireman or maybe a major league shortstop – but he always came back to wanting to fly.
At the end of his junior year, Andrew began the process of applying to service academies. He had good grades, was involved in community service and showed leadership in sports. We were aware that one of the first steps to being offered entrance to West Point or Annapolis or the Air Force Academy was a congressional nomination. Being an “ordinary” family with no political ties or connections to people who did have them, Andrews going to a service academy seemed like an unattainable dream. However, he went through the application process, sat through interviews and made sure he had a backup plan.
In January 1997, Andrew received a nomination letter to the United Air Force Academy. Watching Dave that night read and re-read the letter was so hard. He called friends and relatives to share Andrew’s exciting news. In between the calls, he would put his face in his hands and weep. He was so proud of Andrew, but he knew he would never experience this next part of Andrew’s life.
In April, although Dave’s health was rapidly deteriorating, we decided that I would travel with Andrew to Colorado Springs for orientation for new cadets. As part of the orientation, to prepare the young men and women for what they were going to face as they entered this new experience, they were given a pair of boots. Andrew’s were size 13, heavy, black, dull combat boots. The cadets were instructed to take them home and break them in, as they would be wearing the boots during the basic training when they returned to Colorado Springs in June. When we returned home, Andrew proudly showed his dad his boots and gave him the “Air Force Academy Dad” sweatshirt we had purchased for Dave while we were there.
Dave was gradually getting weaker and weaker, and visits by the hospice staff became more frequent. He could no longer drive. Going upstairs to our bedroom became impossible, so we ordered a hospital bed and had it set up in the family room. Having Dave “living” in the family room meant he was always the center of the activities going on in our home.
Although he couldn’t do things that took a lot of physical exertion, Dave knew there was something he could do. He could polish Andrew’s boots. The boots were dull and big and black. I would never have believed that they could possibly shine. But Dave started working on the boots. He didn’t have a lot of energy and had to rest for long periods of time, but whenever he was awake, Dave would sit and spit on the boots and polish, and spit and polish. He put every ounce of strength he had in those last weeks of his life into shining Andrew’s boots. Andrew would put them on and go running to break them in but when he returned Dave would start spitting and polishing and spitting and polishing. He knew he was never going to be an active part of Andrew’s college experience, or graduation or pilot training but there was something he could do. With everything he had, every ounce of strength he had, Dave made those boots shine.
Usually, when I meet someone for the first time and ask them to tell me about themselves, they tell me what they do. What we do, for most people, is how we define ourselves. For Dave, the things he had done, those things that defined him, his career, athletics, coaching, parenting, maintaining our home, even the cancer that took his life, gradually were no longer defined who he was. Even little things others take for granted – driving, spending time outdoors, taking a shower – were no longer possible. The one thing that did define him was love. He loved with every ounce of strength he had. He showed love in every way he could. He loved down to the last spit. I know I have experienced love all my life. Dave helped me understand what love is.
Dave did not see Andrew graduate high school. He died on June 2, 1997. Andrew graduated on June 15 and left for the Air Force Academy on June 25. We buried Dave in his Air Force Academy Dad sweatshirt and Andrew carried those shiny boots and an understanding of his dad’s amazing love when he left to start his training in Colorado Springs.
For me and my children, those shiny combat boots helped us, and continue to help us understand the true meaning of love.
~ Donna Oiland