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Time spent with Dad was greatest gift of all

My all-time favorite tradition will always be Christmas tree shopping with my Dad. I don't remember exactly how it started that we got to do this without other family members, but I was about 12, and my family couldn't agree on the right tree, so we compromised by getting two wrong trees in a row -- neither of which would stand up. After that, the tree choosing became a father-daughter adventure.

Dad was a blast to be around, and everybody enjoyed him. We were always very close, and I cherished our annual tradition, because it was the only day I got to spend entirely alone with him. Those December days together -- walking, talking, laughing -- were precious.

I learned from watching Dad that it is a much better life if you look at everything thrown your way in a positive light. Why not? Life is short. He knew this, and he wasn't about to waste time.

One year, we immediately saw what, for us, was the perfect tree. We looked at each other knowingly and shook our heads, "Nope." Not that one. We didn't want our excursion to end so soon.

After I went away to college, the tree we chose would be tied on top of the car for the remainder of the day, while we would catch up at some little pub.

At one such place, way out in the middle of nowhere, my father and I took on locals in a pool tournament, and won. After a few hours at this place, one of the men -- who was still wearing a fluorescent orange snowmobile suit -- said to me, "Honey, you're cuter than a speckled puppy in a little red wagon. But I still like your Dad better!" And I laughed. I knew what he meant.

Dad's easygoing manner, his zest for life -- it was refreshing for everyone he met, not just for me.

The day my father was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer was the worst day of my life. My brother and I looked at each other, stunned, as the doctor patted Dad on the shoulder.

But what I remember most is later that night, when my Dad offered to ride along with me as I ran a quick errand. In the car, he said, "What a great day!"

I searched his eyes as mine filled with tears, wondering if the cancer had traveled to his brain. Didn't he get it? Didn't he hear the doctors? He looked at me, realizing that it had been a most dreadful day for me. And he replied, "Oh, well. There was that." That, of course, being his death sentence.

But what he had meant, in my Dad's most beautiful way of looking at the world, was "Yes. It was a beautiful day." He had seen two of his kids, played with his grandchildren, had dinner at a favorite little restaurant with people he loved. He had lived. And yes, for him, it was a great day. Even while faced with death, he was teaching me how to love life.

After my Dad died, a friend gave me a tree to plant in his memory. This October's storm left it looking like it could never survive. But it has been revived. It is strong and alive and full of promise. It makes me smile.

My favorite tradition died along with my Dad. But the love of life, the admiration for trees and the realization that life is short and you had better make it good, those are lessons I got from our days alone together all those Decembers. That part of the tradition needs to live.

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