Why is it that life’s most precious gifts are most cherished after the moment has long passed ? Those beautiful occasions forever embossed on your brain, reinforced with photographs and accompanying letters. The fleeting winks you must absorb and live with ferocious fanaticism lest they never come again. And by the same token the tragedies you have witnessed and the mistakes you have made seem to tear at your insides for eternity, challenging your self-esteem, value to society and determination to start each day anew. Snap shots of time that can’t be re-lived yet they play over in your mind like some relentless curse or reoccurring dream that won’t shake. It is all a part of the live and learn process I guess….but sometimes while we are living we are struck with a brief case of amnesia about what we have already learned and the moment passes leaving us with desire, regret, sorrow and a yearning to go back.
My father had fought prostate cancer for some 7 years or so. Hormone treatments and frequent trips to Slone Kettering Cancer Center in NYC seemed to be keeping things at bay. He had an incredible passion for life….always, even before the cancer. This made it difficult to get inside his head about what his own sense of finality was. Pop always lived each day like it was his last. And conversations of death didn’t happen, at least between us. By 2005 his condition was changing or one could say in retrospect, getting progressively worse. My Dad and Stepmom had just sunk some retirement money into a two bedroom condo in Bradenton, FL. They both were golfing as much as the weather would permit both up North and in Florida, though it was not uncommon to hear a story about Dad on the golf course in December, 35 degrees out and a thin cover of snow on the ground…..he played those rounds solo. He was talking about buying a bass boat and I was excited about that.
That whole winter season down south was miserable for both of them. The majority of time spent making 3 hour round trip treks to Tampa to another cancer treatment center….he was determined to stay in the warm weather even though returning North and resuming visits to Sloan may have been the wiser choice. The first year in their new digs was not enjoyable and best be forgotten.
Thanksgiving came around and I packed up my family for the trek to visit Dad at his house, the town where I grew up, in the Hudson Valley. I had recently written him a letter pouring out some emotions. Stuff that he probably didn’t want to think about……you know death and dying shit….how much I admired him and valued him as a role model well maybe he wasn’t the best role model but he had heart and charisma…..mushy, mushy, ,mushy stuff. He and I never got mushy with each other. It was only but 10 years or so that we started giving hugs when getting together or parting ways. He used to hug me all the time when I was a kid….why did that stop for so long….I wish it hadn’t. Well, I never got his take on the letter I wrote him. No phone call, no letter back….nothin’. So, I was curious as to whether he received it or not. I went snooping around up at his dresser but found nothing. I didn’t bring it up.
He was excited about having us up for Thanksgiving. He was an incredible cook with unabashed style and creativity. He cooked what he wanted to eat and it was most of the time excellent. His knees were bad from all the years of high intensity sports…basketball, tennis, badminton etc… plus he was a big guy at 220 lbs. and bad knees run in the family. In general his faculties were in disrepair from the past months of treatment and I knew he would need help pulling off this dinner. He was intense, barking out orders, making a huge mess in his kitchen but mostly in great spirits…probably drinking a few beers too. My stepmother was always the one to take the brunt of his incessant demands…..even long before his illness. She oh so lovingly obliged most all of his needs, occasionally replying with wit and mild sarcasm but always a genuine smile encouraging challenging him to fend for himself because he was a big boy now. Man….sometimes I’d be in the house, unbeknownst to him and I’d here him bellow from upstairs, SUE !…..she’d be outside or something. I would here crashing around up there and then he’d be down in the kitchen with a towel wrapped around himself, all red in the face and scowling, shocked by my presence. I’d say smirkingly, “whatdaya looking for Pop”…….he wouldn’t tell but it was his freaking jockstrap, cause it was Thursday night…..tennis night. I thought that shit was the most hilarious reoccurring comedy that took place it that house….and I’d razz him about it every time.
So, the dinner went off okay, I helped out a bit but he caused a mini scene, embarrassing moment some slight uncomfortableness. He was demanding about the order of courses served and other silly shit like garnishing, temperature and spoon size for the soup. He was taking it out on my stepmom and it was pissing me off. It was a tough call because of his condition and all but I gently put him in his place and told him to quit it. Dinner was delicious and we had plenty of laughs too.
We were leaving that evening so I started the process of loading up the chariot with family of five weekend getaway luggage half the fucking house plus gifts from grandparents. We were having trouble with the car battery or alternator or something and I had just purchased this piece of shit battery charger that wasn’t working. I was all pent up with the emotions of the day, my panties were in a bunch and I started acting like my father. I am his son afterall. I was causing my own mini scene about not getting the car started. I’m out in the driveway and finally got the damn thing started and threw it into reverse almost running poor Dad over in his own driveway…wouldn’t have known it but for the rap of his fist on the side panel. He came limping around the passenger side of the car so I rolled down the window and blurted “what are you an idiot, you want to get run over?” He softly replied, with his own little battery charger in hand “thought you might want to try this one”. My heart sunk and I gulped out “thanks, I got it”. We left that evening after exchanging hugs.
By Monday Dad’s condition had drastically changed for the much worse. It was as if he expended every last bit of energy on that Thanksgiving dinner. Sue got him back down to Sloan for a three week stay…he was in rough shape. By the Friday before Christmas he was back up at Vassar Brothers Hospital with Docs somewhat baffled but working hard to keep a fever down. He had an infection that worked it’s way to his heart. So I made the trek again back to the homeland by myself this time.
I guess I caught him on a good day that Friday at Vassar Brothers because he was upright and hungry. He wanted Italian food from some local joint that he raved about in Poughkeepsie. I asked him what he felt like, that I’d be happy to go run for it. He said “I want a menu”…….did I hear that right as I glanced over at my stepmother. Normally I would have said “what are you freaking crazy”…It’s a red sauce Italian joint…just like ordering Chinese food….same menu every place you go. But I stifled it and said “sure Dad…I’ll go get one”. It was only 10 minutes down the road anyway and just the reminder of the comedian, crazy ass that my Dad was made it all the more worth it….all I could do was laugh and cry a little too.
I get the menu back to him and he ponders it for a few minutes then exclaims “Linguini with Clams…lets get some Linguini with Clams”. Okay, done. I felt like Linguini with Clams too. So I called the place, ordered our stuff and then called my brother to tell him to swing by the restaurant and pick up our order on his way over.
There we were, the four of us, enjoying our last meal together in that depressing hospital room with Dad in his Johnny. I hate those god damned things…..Johnies. No one should have to eat one of their last memorable meals in one, nor with someone in one, nor have visitors while wearing one….they’re stupid ! That was it. Although there was still a glimmer of hope that Dad would pull out of this mess because he had more zest for life than anyone I know and because he was a strong Ox I knew the end was near. That was the most memorable Linguini with Clams I will ever eat. Not because of the clams at all but because of that beautiful yet so sad occasion forever engraved on my brain of us all together mostly getting along and Pop exercising his true form with his crazy, yet honest demands.
He passed away a few weeks later on January 12th 2006. Not peacefully, not gracefully, not free of pain and discomfort and not quickly. It was a crappy way to go but he fought to the very bitter end. If you have a momentary lapse of compassion or memory and forget what you already have learned then you are only human. Pick yourself back up and try to do better the next time. I called my Dad an idiot and I’ll never forget that, yet I know it didn’t get him down because not much did get him down and it probably made him tickle inside because it reminded him of the way we got along when I was a teenager which wasn’t so bad at all anyways. And more importantly because I know I didn’t mean it and I’m sure he knew that I loved him unconditionally. There are no do overs, no replays, only todays and tomorrows ……… savor your Linguini with Clams moments and never deny yourself the innate right to love, cry, laugh, apologize and express your emotions openly, with fervor. I love you Dad ! R.I.P. 11/07/1939 – 1/12/2006