A Father's Value (For My Dad)
edited: Thursday, January 05, 2006
By J Michael Kearney
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Tuesday, February 26, 2002
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I was lucky...not only did my father teach, by example, how to live, he also taught me how to die.
This will be the fifth straight Father's Day that I won't see my Dad. He died in November of 1997.
I think of him all the time - I miss him every day.
When I think of my Dad, I try to remember and miss myself - my twenty-four, or seventeen, or eleven year old self.
The "me" that is just as gone as my Dad.
"Don't say thank you, say 'I love you,'" he always said. I try to remember things like that now.
His Navy buddies called "Fireball,"...firefighters who knew him, called him "Mad Dog,"...his family just called him "Jidge" - short for Junior.
For most of my life, I could count on him for anything...advice, a helping hand, a ride, or anything else, at any time of the day or night.
I was lucky to have had him around for the first four decades of my life. That's over thirty years longer than two of my best friends had with their father's. Besides, I know that no amount of time has been promised to any of us.
The expectancy of age is an illusion based on the complacency that comes with the stacking of one day on top of the next.
Like both my parents, I was raised on Staten Island...the fifth and "forgotten borough" of New York City. It was a predominantly blue collar borough at the time, home to an army of cops, construction workers, tradesmen and firefighters.
My Dad was a fireman. He took the Civil Service Exam right after two tours in the Navy ('43 - '51)...He met and married my Mom in '52 and was appointed to the FDNY (New York City's Fire Dept) shortly after their marriage.
He was assigned to Engine 201 in Brooklyn, where he stayed for almost eight years until he made Lieutenant in 1960.
Growing up, I remember my Dad coming home with red eyes, a raspy voice and the smell of smoke in his hair - a lot.
I never understood why it took a couple of days and many showers to rid himself of the remnants of that smell.
Firefighters didn't wear air masks back then...hell, most of them didn't even wear gloves!
My Dad was the disciplinarian of our home and my Mom's threat of, "Wait til your father gets home," wasn't an idle one.
When my Dad came home, he was usually tired and quick to anger - he meted out discipline at the end of a strap and my brother Jim and I seemed to get into enough trouble to wear out a strap or two pretty regularly.
Many of the kids I grew up with had fathers who were cops or firemen. I could usually pick out the firemen...they were, as my Mom called them, "grown kids."
For most of my youth, I assumed every kid had a father like that. I couldn't imagine anything else. Before we made it to the fourth grade, two of my friends had already lost their Dads.
Steve O's father was a cop who died of pneumonia after being hospitalized with a hernia. In those days they didn't get patients up and moving as quick as they do now and fluid often built up in the lungs.
Genie (Eugene) B's Dad was a fireman who died on a rooftop in Harlem where his heart gave out.
I was blessed by my father's good fortune. He was able to dodge disasters and run between the rain drops.
Our closest call came in 1958. Jimmy and I were too young to understand, when a uniformed fireman appeared at the front door, spoke with my Mom and she burst into tears weeping on the living room floor.
Later, I'd read stories about the Luckenback Pier Factory fire in Brooklyn which claimed scores of lives, most of them people who were hit with flying glass when the pier (which stored munitions) caught fire and eventually exploded. The blast trapped the crews of Engine 201 and Ladder 114 beneath the rubble. It took nearly twelve hours to get them all out.
After that my Dad studied...and studied...and studied. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1960, Captain in 1965 and Battalion Chief in 1970. He eventually spent 38 years in the FDNY, retiring in 1990 as the Asst Borough Commander of Manhattan.
During those years he and my Mom created a wonderful home, raised four sons and reclaimed a Northern Pennsylvania farm that had fallen into disrepair.
A few years before my Dad retired, my Mom was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. She underwent treatment and begged Jidge to get a check-up. Whenever one of them got sick, the other usually came down with the same or a similar ailment.
My Dad yessed her all the way into his retirement without ever getting a full check-up. He claimed that he didn't even let the Navy doctors give him the D.R.E. (Digital Rectal Exam) prostate check during their physical.
Ignoring his wife's promptings proved a big mistake. Less than a year after he retired Dad was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. He was fortunate again, getting about six years where some experimental treatments kept the disease at bay.
Finally, one of the medications had an effect on his heart and by the Spring of '97 his lungs began to fill with fluid - the beginnings of congestive heart failure.
It took six months for it to run its course. My Mom was beside him every minute of it, bringing Hospice in during the last month so that he could die at home.
Jim and I, the only two of his sons who took up his old profession, as well as Tom (an English teacher) and Chris (an IT pro) came by as often as we could...a few times a week.
When I was a kid, I always dreamed of doing something great for my Depression Era Dad...it took me til those last few months to realize that that wasn't going to happen.
It was a helpless, hopeless sort of feeling. I never felt more disappointed in myself, but my Dad reached out to us, to make sure that WE were OK with this.
Not once did he ever express fear, or self pity, or even pain to any of us. A day before he died, he said to me, "I could never hold a candle to you."
I looked at him and wondered how I could have come from someone like him. When I cried that night, I cried for my generation...grown soft on over-indulgence and the prosperity our parent's generation provided. Could we have sacrificed to survive the Depression?...To win that war?....Will we have the strength and integrity to accept life and death, each without complaint?
The next night I stood at the foot of his bed and hung my head. He was sleeping. I wanted to say thanks but I didn't know how to say something like that, now that it meant so little.
I stood their for awhile breathing along with his rhythm.
Finally, I raised my head and said, "Dad, all I've ever had and all I'll ever have, I owe to you."
His eyes fluttered open but they didn't seem to focus. If he heard at all, he didn't answer.
A few minutes later, my Mom came into the room. She'd been a nurse most of her life. "I think he's close," she said. "When I tried to give him some apple sauce earlier, he couldn't find my hand with his - I don't think he can see anymore."
I looked at this shell of the man who raised me. I'm sure he crawled down literally thousands of pitch black hallways in his day. Now Jim and I crawl down them.
I wondered what this was like for Jidge. That last hallway and into the black.
He died a few hours later, on election day morning. I don't have many regrets, except of course, that I'd liked to have had him around and healthy a while longer.
If there's another, it's that I wished I hadn't tried to thank him that night...I simply should've said, "I love you Dad!"