August 31st, 2011. Today would have been my Dad’s 65th birthday. Time to celebrate what has become the official end of “work” and the beginning of the golden years. Truth be told though, were he still alive I think this would be a day just like any other to him.
It’s been fourteen years since he passed away. Initially, I thought about writing this little memorial to him next October but thought it kind of silly to be celebrating life on the anniversary of his death. So instead I decided it’s better to do so now instead on what would have been a milestone birthday. And besides, I think he’d probably want it that way any how so here goes.
Where to begin?
There are so many things I remember about my Dad. He was a tough guy. A south paw that everyone else in my family respected. A hard ass at times. Someone you didn’t want to get into a scuffle with.
But beneath all the tough guy exterior, Dad also liked to have fun too. Some of my best memories from childhood were of him taking our family on long camping trips with my other relatives every summer.
I’ve heard more then one person say that having all of us crazy “Wood’s” in one place was a sure sign of the apocalypse. But there was no fire or brimstone raining down. No, all we did was play cards, fish, pitch quoits and sit by the campfire.
But of all the times we shared together there are three moments I remember most about my father that I’d like to share with you:
1. The Stop and Think Moment
2. The Drifting Apart Moment
3. The Prodigal Son Moment
The Stop and Think Moment is the one I’ll remember most of all. It began during a rain storm in summer when there was nothing else to do and nowhere to go.
It was late afternoon and I had just come in from playing football outside just prior to the rain. I was upset at having gotten into a fight with one of the neighborhood kids (over what I can’t remember). Dad was sitting alone at the kitchen table drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette.
Our home didn’t have central air conditioning so to keep cool we’d usually keep the windows open just enough to let the breeze in while keeping the water out. We’d also use big portable fans to help vent the kitchen. The smell of the hot asphalt street outside cooling down from the steady stream of rain would fill the room and also allow for the escape of the second-hand smoke.
It was on this occasion that Dad asked his disgruntled son what happened. “So and So threw the ball at my head” or something similar to that I said. And for the next fifteen minutes Dad gave me a lecture on the football, friendship and life. “Stop and Think…”, he’d say. “Did you do anything to bring on this situation?”.
Inevitably, there would have been something I had done to put some of the blame on myself. I’d usually start with a “but…but” and he’d always continue on. Telling me to just “Stop and Think” for a minute.
Stop and think. Do you think that person who thinks he’s so tough and treats you bad is your friend? He couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag. (I still laugh to this day about that one).
There were plenty of other “stop and thinks” over the course of the conversation but the one I remember most was the last one he told me:
“Stop and think. Do you know how much your Mother and I love you guys? (referring to me and my siblings).
Those three words stuck with me and eventually I was able to settle down and actually start to think about what had happened. By the time our conversation was over it seemed like my brain was exhausted but I felt better for it.
On certain days now, when the weather is grey and rainy, I’ll sit at my table staring out the window and think of that day in the kitchen. I never forgot “Stop and Think”. Someday I’ll probably write a book about it and dedicate it to him.
The Drifting Apart moment came during the separation and eventual divorce of my parents in the mid 1980’s. By then, alcohol (which has always been the Achilles heel in my family) had estranged me from my father. We spoke many times over the years on the phone and in person but rarely when beer hadn’t influenced him in some way to make conversations short.
My brother and sister would see and talk to him way more frequently then me. They were able to see past the alcohol. I couldn’t. Soon I was off to college and living on my own and the phone calls became less and less frequent. Years would go by where we didn’t speak at all and were lost to each other.
I eventually heard that he had remarried but the next time I would actually see him for any extended length of time would be at my own wedding in 1995. Strangely, it was a bit awkward at first but I remember it being one of the best times of my life. For, in addition to me getting married to the woman I love, it was the first time in years we all got to take pictures as a “family” again.
It’s not that I didn’t love him or anything like that. On the contrary, the love I had for my Dad never changed. The separation was just a result of our going our separate ways and me not being able to deal with him in that condition. Especially when it got to the point where nothing was ever going to change.
The Prodigal Son Moment
I’ll never forget it. It was mid 1996 when I got a call from my Aunt telling me my father was in the hospital. They had found a mass in his colon and were operating on it. The doctors had thought they had caught it in time. And it appeared so. They had instructed him he needed to give up drinking and smoking if he wanted any chance of fully recovering and he agreed to it.
The next 15 months were spent reconnecting with my Dad.Ironically, the one thing I remember most is going to the bar with him and my brother for the first time (myself now also a legal drinker) and watching him play the poker machines and drink non alcoholic beer.
One might assume that a bar would be the LAST place I’d want to take my father to all things considered. And truth be told I really didn’t want to go into the Lion’s Den either. But he was adamant about taking his sons to the bar with him. Maybe it was some kind of rite of passage that made him this way. Or maybe it was to prove to me that he finally had control over his problem. In any event, and after everything he had gone through with his cancer treatment, he wouldn’t take “No” for an answer. So off we went.
Sadly, his condition continued to worsen until he was finally hospitalized in August of 1997. A man who had just celebrated his 51st birthday was now lying in a hospital bed with tubes sticking out of him and morphine running through his veins.
I visited him almost every chance I could in between my full-time job and duties at home. Some nights we would have conversations when he felt up to it. I longed to have another Stop and Think session but at that point I was willing to take whatever I could get.
Then there was the moment I had as October rolled around and his condition deteriorated. I remember sitting at his bedside while he was going in and out of consciousness, closing my eyes and asking God that if he was going to take him, to please not take him on my birthday. Any day but on the 5th. It was selfish. But at that time I just couldn’t bear the thought of having my date of birth coincide with the day he died. Looking back now, it wouldn’t have even mattered.
Yet someone on high must have heard me because I was able to spend my 28th birthday with him. The best gift I ever received. And over the next ten days it seemed like he was actually coming around a bit. There was reason to hope even though the doctors had all told us he was the sickest person in the entire hospital.
October 17th – 10PM. It was just me in the darkened hospital room along with my stepmother. My brother and sister weren’t there. The single light over the bed and digital displays on morphine pumps and heparin drips were the only illumination.
Now I’m no expert on theology but I do believe souls can feel when another soul moves on. For as he began to gasp for breath I could tell the end was near.
At that moment I literally felt the temperature dramatically drop in the room. So much so that I began to shiver. And I’ll go to my own grave feeling this way but I swear, at that very moment, I had this overwhelming feeling that someone (or something) was coming for him.
I remember we told him we loved him and although his eyes seemed to be fixated somewhere else he was able to say that he loved us back. And that was when my father uttered the last word he’d ever speak:
Tears streamed down my face. A man who never so much as went to church and who, to my knowledge at least, never said a prayer or even read the bible. The last word he ever spoke on this Earth was “God”.
What did he see?
The distance between us and everything that happened in the past was gone. All that mattered was that he was my Dad, and I was there with him at the end.
I sometimes wonder if I would change anything if I was given another chance. I mean, would things have turned out any differently? Probably not.
Cancer has done horrible things to my family. Things I hope no one ever has to go through. But in some odd way, with all the pain and suffering that it brings, there’s one thing I have to actually be grateful to it for.
Without cancer, I probably never would have gotten my father back.
Happy Birthday Dad.