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. He was a hard ass at times and someone you didn’t want to get into a scuffle with.
But beneath the 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. One that particularly stands out was when we spent nine days at Knoebels Amusement Park and Campground, where it did nothing but rain day and night for three days. My brother had been given the title, chamber maid, and had to dump the contents of a large bucket outside. To do this, my mother and father dressed him up in an oversized garbage bag. A make-shift rain coat, if you will. I still have photos of him dressed in his work clothes.
I’ve heard more than one person say that having all of us crazy “Woods” in one place during the summer was a sure sign of the apocalypse. But there was no fire or brimstone raining down. Hell, all we ever did was play cards, fish, pitch quoits and burn marshmallows as we sat by the campfire.
Of all the times my father and I shared together, there are three moments I’d like to share with you today:
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 probably remember most of all. It all began, curiously enough, during a rain storm in summer.
It was late afternoon and I had just come home from playing a neighborhood game of tackle football 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, wearing his usual white, cotton t-shirt, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette.
Our home didn’t have central air conditioning, so to keep cool during storms we’d open the windows 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 often fill the room and, thankfully also allow a respite from the second-hand smoke.
It was on this particular occasion that Dad saw his dejected son and asked him what was the matter.
“So and So threw the ball at my head,” I said, or something similar to that effect. And for the next fifteen minutes Dad gave me a lecture on 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 at least 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,” he’d say. “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.
On certain days now, when the weather is grey and rainy, I’ll sometimes 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. Sometimes months 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. It was a bit awkward at first but I remember it being one of the best times of my life.
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.
Which brings me to why I decided to write about my dad.
My father died 25 years ago today, October 17th, 1997. Whenever I think of this day I inevitably think of The Prodigal Son Moment.
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 thought they had caught it in time. They advised him to give up drinking and smoking if he wanted any chance of fully recovering and, surprisingly, 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 nurse a 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, kind of like working one a 1965 Ford Mustang in my uncle’s garage a block away. Maybe it was just to prove to me that he finally had control over his problem. Whatever the reason, 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 when it was just he and I, we would have long conversations. Although I selfishly longed to have another Stop and Think session, at that point I was willing to take whatever I could get.
When October rolled around, 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 I just couldn’t bear the thought of living out the rest of my days knowing that my father died on my birthday. 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’ve 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, 1997 – 10PM. It was just me in the darkened hospital room. My brother and sister weren’t there. My father’s wife had stepped out of the room for a moment. The single light over his bed softly illuminated the gray beard on his thin face, and the beeps from the saline drip and morphine pumps were the only thing that stirred the silence.
Now I’m no expert on theology but I do believe souls can feel when another soul moves on. For as he began gasping for breath, something inside me told me the end was near.
At that moment, I felt the temperature dramatically drop in the room. So much so that I began to shiver. It was like being in a warm room and stepping into a freezer. And I’ll go to my own grave feeling this way but I swear, at that moment, I had this overwhelming feeling that someone was coming for him.
I told him I loved him and, although his eyes seemed to be fixated somewhere else, he was able to say that he loved me back. And that was when my father uttered the last word he’d ever speak. One that I had never heard him say anytime before.
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 alcohol, 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.
25 years later I lament about so many things. Mostly of all the things I missed out on with him.
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.