I was sitting at my desk in the back of the newsroom at the Pacific Daily News, in a 10-story tower in the capital city of Agana that is notable only because it was the only 10-story building in Guam, when the phone rang. It was my brother Charlie. It was one of those calls that, even years and years later, you never forget.
Dad was sick. He was, as became apparent quickly in our conversation, really sick. I remember asking Charlie something like, “Whaddya mean, he’s sick? Like, how sick?”
“Can you get home?” he asked.
I’d been living and working in Guam for more than a year, and had spent a year in Hawaii before that. I’m not even sure now, looking back, that I went home to Delaware the last summer I was in school in Arizona. So it had been awhile since I’d seen Dad.
I told my boss at the PDN that I had to go, somehow scraped together airfare, flew the 8+ hours to Honolulu, the 5+ from there to San Francisco and the five or so from the West Coast to Philadelphia. A couple of my siblings picked me up and drove me down to a hospital where the whole family had gathered — Charlie from Hawaii, my brother Jim from Korea as I remember it, Brother Bob from Washington, my sister, my younger brothers from all points, even Mom, who mostly was estranged from the rest of the family. The impromptu reunion was, as things often are when tragedy and family collide, awful and wonderful, wrenching and hilarious, unbearably sad and strangely life-affirming.
I think of that time now as I pass yet another birthday and another heart-aversary, as I creep ever closer to the age my dad was when he passed away. It’s a little maudlin, I know. (Downer much? Damn these birthdays.) The fact is, that time has been an undeniable life-nudge for me. Thirty-some years later, it’s still nudging.
My dad was a smoker, a heavy smoker, for all of his life. He was a meat-and-potatoes, second helpings kind of guy. On top of that, other than keeping the car running or maybe building something around the house, his idea of exercise was a walk on the golf course a few times each summer. That’s how he lived. That’s how all dads that I knew lived back then.
Still, if he ever was sick when I was growing up, I don’t remember it. In my mind, Dad was — I remember him, still, this way — damn near indestructible.
(A lasting memory of my father: Getting off the bus after my first cross-country trip from Phoenix — Hell is a ride from Phoenix to Delaware on a Greyhound — and falling, utterly exhausted and eternally thankful, into Dad’s all-enveloping embrace.)
Still, while I was away in the Pacific, all those Crisco-laden dinners and potato chips and kipper snacks — and the 2+ packs of cigarettes a day — finally did their deed. With most of his family scattered, cancer came calling for Dad. It came hard.
Seeing my father in that hospital room for the first time in years, lying there, unable to speak, was a knee-buckling sucker punch. He was tall and lean as a young man (^), my dad, but by middle age, he was a thick 225 pounds, easy. He carried every bit of it in front of him, too. When Dad walked your way, you knew he was coming. In that hospital, years later, he weighed 170. Maybe less.
I spent about a week in Delaware with my family that winter, reliving the good times, ignoring the bad ones, telling stories, drinking, laughing and teasing. We talked about Dad. We worried, of course. We spent as much time with him as the doctors would allow.
Then, after the most emotionally roiling time of my life, I had to leave, to get back to my life. Sitting next to his bed, I said goodbye to Dad, thinking that, maybe, this wasn’t the last time I’d see him.
A few weeks later, at my desk in the PDN newsroom, Charlie called again. The conversation was short. I went back to work.
Dad was 61 when he died. Sixty-one. I was angry about that for so long. I still am. As unhealthy as he lived, dying at 61 seems just so absurdly unfair for anyone, let alone a man who worked so hard to bring up seven kids. I mean, 61 was way short of an average life span, even back then. It’s years shy of retirement, of social security. Dad never made it to his golden years.
Maudlin as it may be, that’s been with me for the past three decades.
I live a much healthier life than Dad ever lived (despite all my 4-for-$4s). I see doctors regularly, and have for years. I’ve never been over 170 pounds. I’ve had my heart fixed, my cholesterol knocked down with drugs, I exercise regularly and I’ve never smoked much of anything since a few cigarettes in the woodshed — an actual room off our garage where we kept wood for the fireplaces — when I was 10 or 12.
But you never know, you know? You just never know.
We’re constantly reminded, all of us, of our frailty. Constantly. Sometimes, we recognize the reminders but, more often, they register only for a day or two, and then life rises up and you’re racing toward 40 or 50 or 61 or 65 or 70 and you just don’t have time for the details.
The way I look at it now is that Dad taught me, unwittingly, a lesson back then, more than three decades ago. It’s worth not forgetting. It’s worth that constant, maudlin nudge.
Enjoy now, as Mrs. D tells us. You just never know, Dad would have said.