I don't need that big white wedding. I just want my dad there.
"Cancer" is one of those words that always sounds scary, but never feels real until someone you love is personally diagnosed. My dad slipped that word into conversation while my family sat at a Mexican restaurant in my hometown, eating guacamole and sipping on margaritas.
Even though I thought something was up — my parents had been oddly quiet for several weeks — the confirmation was still hard to swallow.
For the last two years, my dad has had six surgeries, and we just found out earlier this week he has to have another.
His appendix burst, revealing colon cancer. Part of his colon was removed to stop the progression. The incision developed a hernia. The hernia was removed. The surgery made his heart rate irregular, so he needed a valve added to regulate it. And now, the hernia surgery failed, partly due to a bad doctor and partly because he's overweight.
Though I count my blessings every single day that he's officially cancer-free, the aftermath of such intense procedures has left him physically weak and emotionally defeated.
But if anything good can come out of all this stress on my family and the pain my dad has suffered, it's what the experience has taught me about love.
(Or rather, how it's completely shifted what I once thought was important and what I value now — on the other side of the trauma, bravely holding my dad's hand and reminding him to breathe through the fear of another surgery.)
In more ways than I could ever count, here's how my father surviving cancer has transformed my thoughts and beliefs on love:
1. My wedding will mean nothing if my dad isn't there to walk me down the aisle.
As a child, I would prance around in my dress-up clothes and march down the imaginary aisle of my living room to marry my dad.
Through those bright and eager eyes as a five-year-old, my dad was everything that a so-called Prince Charming should be. And now, as I've watched him never give up and never back down from any health fight (no matter how scared he was), he embodies so much more of what I want in a future partner.
But the big dress? The $80 per plate meal? A gala affair with 200 people? I'll pass on that as long as my father can be my escort down the courthouse or Vegas chapel aisle. (And on the DL, we're scheming our father-daughter dance to be epic.)
2. I want to always stick by my vows, no matter what.
Through the hospital stays and the ups and downs, I've talked to my mom (or I've been sitting next to her) in the waiting room. She puts on this heroic face and she'll repeat "I'm fine!" to the point that I almost believe her.
But there is truly no place in the world she'd ever be, than by my dad's side.
The beautiful thing is that he would do the same if the roles were reversed. I asked her once how she stayed so strong (as I'm often the one who has to excuse myself to the bathroom to cry), and she said, "I meant in sickness and in health, this is just the sickness. It won't last forever. Health is on its way."
I used to envision my future husband as this valiant, charming, charismatic person who stole my breath away, but now, I'm much more attracted to someone who's committed and sincere — who isn't only afraid to say what he means, but will stick to it, too.
3. I know now laughter is the answer to (most) problems.
There's nothing funny about hearing that your dad has to have surgery again, but what amazes me is how he can still make jokes. He's always been a prankster who picks on me (in a loving way), and even though he's facing more recovery and a longer road to being back to his bike-riding, kayaking ways, he makes an effort to keep it light.
When I'm visiting home and sitting in another room, I often hear my parents' laughter fill the rest of the house, and in those moments, I close my eyes and I say a prayer that my children will one day feel the same peace in that sound that I always have. If you can laugh together, you can love together, for life.
4. I won't date someone who doesn't put their health first.
Colon cancer runs in our family, and my grandfather passed away from it, so to hear my dad had Stage-1... was scary. We knew he was high-risk, but my dad also smoked for most of his life.
He was a fire captain for 25 years, and his body took the toll from the physically demanding job responsibilities. He's always stayed active — hiking, bike riding, swimming, boating, and encouraging me to try any and every adventure with him that we dared to do.
My family raised me on healthy dinners, and though I wanted ice cream and sugary cereal every single day, it was more of a treat than a standard pantry item. As an adult, I exercise almost every day and maintain a clean diet (minus the occasional wine and margarita, of course).
I never considered just how important someone's health was to me when seeking a potential partner, but now, I'm immediately turned off by someone who doesn't make an effort to take care of themselves. You only have one body, and I only want one marriage, so I want my hubby to make it a priority to live as long as I do.
5. I want a family more than ever.
When my dad went for that surgery, and my mom and I held our breaths in the room nearby, I remember the prayer that I repeated until he was out and safe: "Please let him meet my children. Please let him be a grandfather. Please let him be around."
It's a selfish request, sure, but I want my kids to know their incredible grandpa. And though I've always wanted children, knowing that time is really this precious, obsolete thing that seems endless — but is actually rather short — has made me realize that family comes first to me.
I want (and have) a great career, strong friendships, a crowded passport, and all the things any 26-year-old could dream of. But I look forward to that house with that yard, with those kids and that loving husband, more than I look forward to seeing my name on the cover of a novel.
6. I want someone who gives me tough love.
Before the doctor can perform what we hope will be the last surgery, my dad has to drop 40 pounds. It will be no easy task, especially since he isn't exactly mobile these days, but without shedding the weight the surgery is too high-risk to perform.
Automatically, my mom and I went into planning mode, talking about recipes, brainstorming how we could come up with exercises he could do, and ways to keep him motivated. My dad, on the other hand, expressed his worry that he couldn't do it.
And the response from my mom and I? A really hard talk on why he doesn't have a choice and that we can all support his get-fit efforts, but he has to put in the work to make it happen.
While someone who's sensitive and affectionate is great (and we all need that sometimes), a person who really loves you is willing to give you the tough love that you need to make yourself a better person. Whoever I end up with should be my biggest fan ... and my toughest coach, too.
7. I know love doesn't conquer all, but it's the keeper of hope.
If my family's love was enough to heal my dad, he'd be running marathons every weekend by now. There are never enough prayers or warm thoughts, hugs, text messages, or voicemails I could send to my dad. And there is also no way for me to help him get better.
But even though I'm in New York and he's down in North Carolina, I know that my love is making him stronger. Braver. Calmer. And it's giving him hope.
If he needs a reason to fight when the going — and the pain — becomes intolerable, he can think of me, his daughter that still has so many things to share with him. And of course, the love of his life, who doesn't miss an appointment, a scan, or a consultation, no matter what's going on.
Love can't cure cancer, but it sure does make you hope for, and believe in, something outside of yourself. I'm full of gratitude that I still get to tell my dad that I love him every day.
So, thank you for teaching me, time and time again, just what love means, what it takes, and why I know with complete certainty it's worth the wait.
Lindsay Tigar is a 26-year-old single writer, editor, and blogger living in New York City. She started her popular dating blog, Confessions of a Love Addict, after one too many terrible dates with tall, emotionally unavailable men (her personal weakness) and is now developing a book about it, represented by the James Fitzgerald Agency.