This incident occurred 25 years ago, and every Christmas since then, I’ve been reminded of it.

I jerked awake. Fruitcake! I woke up my husband. He was a much better sport about being woken at 2 in the morning than I would have been; instead of fussing, he simply asked what was wrong. I told him that we needed to get a fruitcake. He just looked at me and then reminded me that I didn’t like fruitcake and neither did he. But when I explained that it was for my father, he understood.

That afternoon, my parents had arrived from Missouri to spend Christmas with my husband, son, baby daughter, and I in our Texas home. Their arrival had been a shock. Not because we weren’t expecting them. What we weren’t expecting was my father’s appearance.

Dad had been diagnosed with cancer at the end of September. My mom and he had been at our house for Thanksgiving; he’d had several rounds of chemo, but his spirits were great and he’d looked fine. Less than a month later, though, that wasn’t the case. When the doorbell had rung that afternoon, and I opened the door, I almost didn’t recognize my own father. Both he and my mom had been telling us for weeks that he was doing great, but that obviously wasn’t true.

His face was gaunt and his eyes hollow-looking. His once-dark brown skin was gray, and his thick, wavy black hair had been replaced with sparse gray hair that looked dry and coarse.

I remember telling myself to keep smiling as I got Dad and Mom inside and settled, my son chattering at them nonstop the entire time. Mom immediately picked up my 9-month-old daughter from her blanket on the living room floor, and I went to the bedroom to call my husband, who was at work. I started crying as soon as he picked up the phone and told him that if he could, I wanted him to come home.

He didn’t ask any questions. He was walking in the house 10 minutes later.

Twelve hours later, when I told him my dad loved fruitcake, he again didn’t ask any questions.

He immediately got up and began getting dressed. I asked him where he was going, and when he said he was going to go to the 24-hour Walgreens to see if they had fruitcake, I assured him it could wait until morning. I apologized for waking him up, and he assured me it was okay, that he understood and that he wanted to have it already there when Dad got up the next morning.

Maybe it was because it was 2 a.m. and we weren’t thinking clearly, but neither of us thought to call Walgreens to see if they had any fruitcake. Instead, my husband finished getting dressed, slipped out of the house, and went in search of something neither of us could stand.

Well over an hour later, he returned, triumphantly holding a round tin. Walgreens had been sold out (both of us were shocked by that — that many people like fruitcake?), so he’d gone to several Circle K convenience stores until he found one that had what he was looking for. He put the fruitcake on the kitchen counter, and we both went back to bed.

We had planned to sleep in a bit the next morning, but my son and daughter were up bright and early as usual. Even though they were fairly quiet, my parents heard them, and they joined the four of us. We chatted while I fixed coffee and my husband fried bacon and eggs; I nudged him and pointed with my eyes to the round red and white tin on the counter. He’d done the work; I wanted him to have the honor of offering my dad fruitcake, and he did.

The look on my dad’s face was priceless. He was surprised we’d thought of it since, as he said, he knew the rest of us “turned up our noses” at it, and he was obviously very touched that we’d bought it for him. He said that a small piece would be the perfect start to breakfast.

A few minutes later, we were all sitting at the table together. I looked around. My mother, who had tried so hard to shield me from how sick my father was. My son, who absolutely adored his grandfather and was as excited about him being there as he was about Santa arriving in 2 more days. My daughter, who I knew with certainty would have no real memories of her own of the grandfather who cherished her.

My focus, though, was on 2 men — one at the head of the table, the other to his right.

My dad. The man who had always been my hero. The man who patiently and lovingly encouraged me to try new things, who taught me to play poker and cribbage and all sorts of games and never “played down” to me. The man who I could write pages and pages about and never get it all said. The man who throughout my life gave the me the best gift of all — his love.

My husband. The man who was a fantastic father to our children. The man who respected and revered my father. The man who got up without complaint at 2 in the morning to drive around town looking for a fruitcake. The man of few words who gave my hero the best gift of all — his love.

We never again bought a fruitcake. But every December, when I see my first fruitcake of the season, I’m taken back to that day. It wasn’t the fruitcake that mattered at all . . . it was the gift of love.

I so wish I could have told this story much better — its main characters deserve that. I’ve never shared this story before, and it was harder to do than I thought it would be. Thank you for letting me share it with you.