Daddy was a one-in-a-million kind of man. I don’t say that because I am biased (which I am). It’s the truth. He didn’t hoard his love. I watched a sea of people flow through his wake and I was approached time and again by people who told me about how my Dad made them a better person, how he made sure they stayed on the straight and narrow, how they appreciated what he did for them. If he saw a kid who needed love he made sure that he was there for them no matter what. I get that. I am living proof of Dad’s love.
I was a lucky lucky lucky kid. I grew up in a two parent home where I felt safe and loved. We were not rich by real-world standards, but I never realized that. We had everything that we needed. We had each other. He married Ma, adopted me and blessed both our lives by being the most amazing role model a kid could ever ask for. He taught me how to change the oil in my car, how to fix things and instilled in me the importance of being independent and capable. He worked hard to provide a wonderful life for our family.
Dad loved telling stories to the nurses about me. More than one time I was told by a caregiver that they had heard about my infamous fist fight in the parking lot of the old IGA in Oak Hill. I fought a girl and then I tried to go after her friend who had stayed in the car. In the middle of my fury I looked over and in the adjacent parking lot I saw Dad’s truck and knew he was there and that I would have some explaining to do. When I got home, I pushed my driver’s license across the bar to where he sat (a routine punishment for my regular follies). He pushed it back and said, “I only stayed there to make sure that it was a fair fight, but my God Michelle, you have a temper.” He told my war stories – the ones where I took off my skirt and beat the hell out of a fellow fourth-grader who picked on girls. Or the one where I threw a rock at a boy who antagonized me and broke the chapel window (to which Father Maguire told me he would leave the crack there to remind me what a heathen I was). My God, I WAS a heathen. But Daddy took it all in stride.
My Dad “raised” a bunch of kids. I can remember growing up with a house full of teenaged boys. Dad watched out for them, made sure they stayed out of “real” trouble. He called them the Carlisle Crunch Bunch. I can remember when the Burgess Boys had killed a snake (the one thing my Dad was terrified of) and coiled it up on the back porch. He screamed, the boys laughed and when the funny had died down it was realized a live snake had coiled around the dead one – oh the chaos, screams and peals of laughter. Every Christmas he played Santa for a multitude of kids. I can remember being in our poop-brown Ford Pinto and heading to Oak Hill to deliver presents – Dad was dressed as Santa, Ma was in the passenger’s seat and I was hanging out in the back (excited that Santa was driving us to Uncle Freddy’s house). As we started up Whipple Hill in the snow, the car started to slide and then went off the road. We were stuck. People started filing out of their houses and soon there were shouts of “Santa needs a hand!” And we were being pushed back onto the road by men laughing and thinking it was funny. Ma handed him a box of candy canes out the window and Daddy passed them out to a handful of kids that had made their way into the yard, snow boots on and in their jammies. My parents did Christmas up right.
Dad LOVED basketball. He loved OHHS Red Devil Basketball, to be exact. He played when he was in high school and he carried that love of the competition throughout his life – playing adult league bball as well as taking us kids in the back of the old grey Ford Ranger to games both near and far, in ALL types of weather.
This picture right here tickles the crap out of me. Dad in his Carlisle BBall uniform. I have the uniform and I have that trophy he is holding. I want to make a shadowbox of this picture, his jersey and trophy. Homage to the man, the myth, the legend. He and Mr. Rittenhouse traveled to hundreds of games together. Dad was in the OHHS paper when he made his 100th consecutive football game. Like I said, he loved OHHS.
I get my love of traveling and seeing places with “brown signs” from my Daddy. He loved to visit old civil war sites and museums and aquariums. We were always stopping on our way “to vacation” to check out some historical place that touted a brown sign on the side of the road. He made me a curious traveler. I now like when my journeys have purpose.
One time, on a visit to Florida, we ended up making our way down the Keys all the way to Key West. It was the weekend, we were walking on the beach and I found a conch shell. I hid it in the trunk. Eventually I fessed up to having it there and Dad sent me promptly to get it and take it to the hippies in the VW van who were cooking chowder (because the conch was still in its shell). I opened the trunk to our old Granada, laid the keys on the floor, took the conch out and looked at it sadly. I closed the trunk and walked over to the hippies and begrudgingly gave them my prized sea-possession (I hid away a sea urchin too – dear God it was aromatic after a hot ride in the trunk, but that’s another story). Anywho – Dad asked if I had done what I was told. “Yeah.” Then he asked, “Where are the keys?” Ummm…in my mournful removal of the conch from the trunk, I had laid them inside the trunk and then forgot to take them as I closed the lid…. Ugh. Because it was a Sunday, there were no locksmith available and one had to be called from a couple of islands away. Dad was SO mad. He told me “I am going for a walk, do not follow me, it would not be beneficial for you.” So I sat on a blanket, watching him walk up and down the beach while talking to himself for the next couple of hours until the locksmith arrived…
That was the same trip Daddy thought it would be cool to hop to the Bahamas…
We were in the airport in West Palm Beach. Dad was evaluating our best options for hopping a flight to the Bahamas, which airport to fly into, etc. A man walked up to Dad and asked our destination and he replied “somewhere in the Bahamas”, he then asked how many of us – “3”. The man looked at me for a few moments and then back to Dad and made him an offer he could not resist. The man was a pilot and was flying to Freeport. He needed a full manifest, for whatever reason. He only had two passenger seats open but that was ok, he had options. As my parents boarded the plane the pilot looked at me and asked “Ever flew a plane?” Whaaa? I was allowed to sit in the cockpit with the pilot, headset on and became instantly fascinated with the buttons, gadgets and clouds flying past the window. He asked if I would like to take control of the flight and for a brief few seconds I did. What an adventure! How amazing! All because Dad thought the Bahamas sounded like a good idea at spur of a moment.
My parents were not partiers, by any means. But occasionally they would step out on the town for a reunion or a New Year’s Eve party. I can remember being a little kid and they came home from a reunion. Dad was sick. OMG sick. On one trip to the bathroom he informed me that he was sick from the onion dip at the party. What he neglected to tell me was that the “onion dip” was really an onion in a Bloody Mary. Ha!
My Dad could tell you random facts about everything. He would remember tidbits of things he had read or had seen on the TV. Sometimes they were spot on, sometimes they were awesomely wrong. He was our own personal Cliff Claven.
I am going to miss our talks, his random bits of advice. His ability to help out during difficult times. I am going to miss his wit – like the time he called and left a voicemail wishing me Happy Rosh Hashanah!
He was the male role model for my children. He went to all the games, graduations, art shows, concert choirs, birthday parties…you name it, he was there. He offered advice and made his presence felt. He was their ally when they found themselves in trouble with me.
He was Pawpaw.
The one thing that I regret in my life was that I was not more present for Ma in her last months. Work consumed me (coupled with an asshole boss that cared more for himself than those who worked for him). When I was leaving WV after her funeral, Dad simply said “I don’t know what I am going to do.” It sat hard on my heart for the trip back to NYC. When I arrived back home my rental agreement renewal was in the mailbox. It was as if to answer the question that lingered on the edge of my mind – I gave my three weeks notice at work and never regreted it. I moved home to be close to Dad and to make sure that he realized that he was not alone. In 2012 I was fortunate enough to have the love of a man who said “Don’t worry about finding a job, go take care of your Dad.” Little did we know that would be a ten month long process that involved open heart surgery, multiple visits to various VA hospitals up and down the east coast and nine months in two nursing homes. I was there every step of the way. I know his medical history by heart. I studied his medications, fought with slow acting doctors and was his medical advocate.
He would tell me during those months “I tell myself: Never quit. Never give up on yourself.” He would write it over and over again on pads of paper. It was his mantra. And after a brilliant doctor prescribed him Ritalin for his hypoxia, he was able to go through occupational rehab and go home. For eight of those ten months I was told on an almost daily basis to prepare myself, that he would probably not make it. But Dad was a Polack (I say with utter affection), stubborn and refusing to meet death under no other circumstances than the ones he would set for himself. He was having none of their nonsense. He eventually went home, worked for a brief stint in a machine shop and walked the rail-trail in Oak Hill as often as he could. Three years. Three miraculous years we were blessed with. He was a little different after the surgery and nursing home but he was still Daddy. He was my little miracle. He never gave up on himself and neither did I.
Daddy rarely smiled for pictures but we know he was smiling on the inside… Ha Ha Ha
Dad was a firm believer that we all had 1% alien in our blood. He believed that all things are possible – even extraterrestrial life. He once told me:
“Look at Alf and Chewbacca – they look a lot like Sasquatch – see, aliens are possible.”
“Um, Dad – those are all fictional beings.”
I felt like taking care of Daddy was my responsibility. I never looked at it as a burden because it was not a burden. It was the most natural thing to do. When we knew that he only had days left, I would not hear of moving him to a hospice “facility” (no matter how much more comfortable that would have made others feel). He came to my home and we were helped by hospice. He was there two nights and I might have slept a few hours, if any. On the second night I sat next to his bed, talked to him and held his hand through the night. I fought it when it started to happen. I wanted to fight it. I wanted him to fight it. Then I realized that was not what we were there for. Then I took his hand and told him it was ok, that we loved him and to tell Ma I love her. He was comfortable and asleep when he passed, the pain was gone, the struggle was over.
Then came the daunting task of going through his home and determining which of his possessions would go with whom. It felt invasive. It felt wrong. But in the middle of that heartache there were brilliant moments of nostalgia. Love letters from when he was in the military, pictures of all kinds, mementos he had kept for whatever reason. Things that had been part of his life, that had personal meaning for him and which offered personal memories to those he left behind. We still have a ways to go before the particulars are sorted out. We still have a funeral mass to plan, a house to sell, a truck to move.
What an amazing man. How blessed was I? I was fortunate to have him in my life.
This is how I will remember him. With his wit, his charm and all of his love. My God I am going to miss him….