Today marks two months since my Dad died. Everyone in his immediate orbit seems to be carrying on ok. The way he went out helped, I think.
He died early in the morning of February 16, 2023. My Mom was acutely worried the night before when she heard him make distinctive gurgling sounds. She’d been warned those noises were possible, given his condition. They’re known to signal sharp diminishment in breathing. She contacted a hospice nurse who came out to the house and administered medication to curtail the gurgles. The nurse said the end was probably near. My Mom checked on him twice in the middle of that night. He seemed ok, she said, but when she went back one more time she found him to be unresponsive.
A few months before, around Christmastime, it was apparent my Dad had some kind of physical problem. He couldn’t get out of bed, out of the chair, off the toilet without a struggle. He’d taken a few spills onto the floor and tried to write them off. He wanted no part of an assistive device. A cane. A walker. No thanks.
A routine doctor’s visit that included a probe of the unsteadiness produced a “he’s-just-getting-old” diagnosis.
On January 8, my Mom was overmatched by the difficulty of a series of repeat episodes at home involving my Dad’s inability to get to his feet. She called 9-1-1. At the hospital, after a battery of tests, they were told cancer had invaded several vital organs. The pancreas. Liver. Lungs. Stomach. It was beyond treatable.
It took a few weeks to sort out, but my Dad was much happier and more comfortable when he was taken back home on the 27th of January. A hospital bed was set up in the den. My Mom got support four hours each morning from a home health care worker. Both my Mom and Dad especially enjoyed the company, personality and work ethic of the young woman who came on weekdays.
The hospice program they signed up for included occasional visits from a nurse and round-the-clock informational support on end-of-life matters.
My Dad lasted just three weeks at home. He slept a lot. He ate almost nothing of substance. He didn’t get out of bed. But he had lots of valuable waking hours with visitors. He was funny. He had full recall on stories of good times gone by. He smiled. He asked questions. His voice weakened and he’d occasionally ask for sips of water. He would raise his shoulders a bit when new visitors would walk into the room as if to signal his readiness for a new conversation. He shook my hand as always. He asked me what time my return flight was as if he were planning to take me to the airport like he always would.
He got most animated and excited when my nieces and nephews came out. They were there a lot over those three weeks, He was crazy about them and them about him.
I don’t really know what was going on in his head after he got the dire diagnosis. He said with emphasis to me a couple of times that he was 87.
I’m 87!, he said.
My Mom said my Dad didn’t broach the specific subject of death with her as time wound down. She said all matters related to the subject had already been discussed as far as were necessary at an earlier time. When death wasn’t imminent.
As he lay there over that three week stretch at home, he claimed not to be in pain. That’s kind of hard to believe. But that’s what he said on repeated efforts to learn how he was feeling. I saw him rub his head intensely a few times. He finally acknowledged a headache one evening while I was there. He’d kick his feet a bit. He groaned when he was moved onto his side.
I was most curious to know what it must feel like to know the clock is ticking with such certainty. Does it cause rattling mental images or fear? Did he feel depressed? Was he at all in denial? Was he pulling closer to his faith? I asked general, kind of peripheral questions on the matter but he graciously seemed to manage it all day-by-day with polite head-of-household demeanor. He only got slightly agitated when efforts to meet his potential needs exceeded his strength to keep saying “I’m fine, I’m good.”
A week after he died, a wake was held at the local funeral home. Several photo collages on poster boards showing my Dad with friends, family and co-workers were erected on easels in the large parlor. My sister-in-law, nieces and Mom had sorted through boxes of snapshots a few days before to create the visuals. It was a nice touch. My cousin’s ex-wife sent a large cloth canvas with a picture of my Dad’s face on it. It was a surprise gesture and bolstered the room’s upbeat atmosphere.
Lots of people showed up during the three-hour visitation. The immediate family stood on one end of the big space near the double-compartment urn containing my Dad’s remains. We greeted the long line of visitors. As one of the sons of the man being honored/remembered/celebrated that night, it was a powerful event. It’s a tradition I’m not sure I appreciated until I saw it from that angle. I learned for sure that a guest’s effort to appear at such a gathering means a whole lot to the people connected to the deceased. Even if it’s just a handshake – or a simple set of words exchanged – I found it really uplifting to be approached by so many people who came to honor my Dad.
The next day, there was a funeral mass at the Catholic church we grew up attending. It was led by a couple of priests who are friends with my brother Tim. My Dad was a dedicated mass-goer. The primary celebrant noted correctly the exact location we’d sit in regularly as a family.
After mass, my Mom invited everybody to lunch at Maggiano’s in Schaumburg. We had a private room. I sat at a table filled with my high school pals. The food was excellent. The meal capped a two-day celebration that went off without a hitch, without controversy or unexpected drama. My Mom (age 80) had planned and pulled off (with unobtrusive, smart and professional support from the funeral home staff) a two-day tribute to her husband that I think everyone walked away from feeling good about. We’d learn later that a few attendees of the wake and/or funeral caught Covid in the immediate aftermath. That would be a logical outcome given the concentration of people gathered indoors. Fortunately, there were no additional funerals as a result.
Born in 1935 and raised by a single mother on 23rd Place between Leavitt and Oakley in Chicago, my Dad attended St. Ignatius High School and then DePaul University.
He met my Mom outside a bar in Browns Lake, Wisconsin in 1962 thanks to an introduction facilitated by his friend Jack. My Mom and Dad married in ‘65 and moved to the Chicago burbs after starting their family in ‘66.
Early childhood memories include my Dad on the roof of our house trying to reposition the TV antenna toward Rockford so we could pull in the Bears broadcast blacked out in the Chicago market. He would later purchase a towering TV antenna on a pole that could be rotated from the ground.
Back then, heavyweight title fights were on free television. We’d get excited for weeks in the runup to a big title bout on a Friday or Saturday night (I can’t remember which). My Mom would get the popcorn popper going and my Dad would encourage me to score the fight at home. 10-9 for a round won. 10-8 if there was a knockdown. We’d both keep score and then compare our cards to the ones kept by the three judges ringside. My Dad took me to the Golden Gloves competition at the International Amphitheatre year after year. Boxing was big and he taught me to love the sport. All sports, really. He grew up loving all of Chicago’s teams. He attended lots of games with his brothers. And he would go on to do that with my brothers and I. He said it was just fine to like and support both the Cubs and White Sox at the same time. That was a philosophy that ran contrary to the conventional given jealousy and inferiority complex issues that prompted most Chicagoans to like one baseball team and hate the other. Lines were often drawn by which side of the city you grew up on. North Side or South Side.
After exiting a game at the Chicago Stadium – or Wrigley – or Comiskey – my Dad would flash savvy shortcut know-how. If it was a school night, we’d go straight home and he knew the quickest path when traffic was jammed up. He knew Chicago’s street grid system well and he liked to steer the car away from the backups into visually interesting sidestreet paths.
He knew all the good hot dog joints, so before a game, we’d often stop for a red hot en route if there was time.
While he didn’t raise his family in the city, he knew it well and loved taking us there. That passion for the greatness of city life was something he passed on for sure. Unwittingly, perhaps.
At home, in Arlington Heights, he presided over an early morning ritual seven days a week. He’d bring in bundles of the Daily Herald newspaper dropped at the front of the house and prepare them for delivery. My brothers and I had routes that would grow to cover a big chunk of the neighborhood. By the time we got out of bed, the papers were already rubber-banded and ready to go.
At night, my Dad would walk in the door with a stack of newspapers left behind on the commuter train. The Trib, the Sun-Times, the Daily News. He was actually really excited when the new and short-lived sports daily The National started publication. If it wasn’t laying around on the train, he’d buy it.
His enthusiasm for the daily newspaper (Holding it. Reading it. Discussing it.) quickly and without question became something I learned to enjoy because of him.
He may not love me telling this particular anecdote, but in the morning he would take a section of the newspaper into the bathroom with him. He would linger in there for up to 10, 15 minutes sometimes.
He drank coffee black. He liked every possible kind of food. He automatically voiced praise for whatever my Mom cooked and served almost even before he tasted it.
We didn’t like the same music but he agreed to take me and a couple pals to my first rock show. August 22, 1981. Def Leppard and Ozzy Osbourne at the Poplar Creek Music Theatre. Ozzy was a little unhinged that night which made it uncomfortable for both of us – but he remained mostly stoic throughout that evening.
I can’t pinpoint the time frame but there was a period parallel to his interest in Bill O’Reilly’s nightly cable TV program – and then soon after 9-11 – when our politics clashed badly. We had a few face-to-face debates that grew testy. I think we both realized we’d be unable to have constructive discourse on certain topics so we took them off the table. He did a better job of navigating potential minefields than I did. The bottom line is we kept our mutual interest in sports and inquiries about our respective basic life missions at the center of our relationship.
The grieving process that people talk about after losing a family member I think references in part the analysis or assessment of where the survivor’s thoughts are after such a permanent loss. Are their regrets? Are there moments in the history of the long relationship you’d want back? Was there proper appreciation, respect, love expressed? Yes and no. Maybe. I’m not sure. The time we had with him at his house over a three week stretch with his fate sealed seemed to allow for a better setup to where we’re at now. He made it that way, despite his weakened state. He mustered strength for everyone who walked in the room. It was important. To me. To the whole family including my Mom. Hopefully and seemingly, it was important to him, too.
I’ll miss him. I’m thinking about him a lot. When Toews played his last game in a Blackhawks sweater a few nights ago, I thought of my Dad and the simple, nice things we would have had to say about that situation.
One piece of guidance that came from a note of sympathy has stuck out as helpful in recent weeks. My pal Guz’s Dad John said bluntly: “I know it is hard to take but remember you had him for a long time. His job was done here.”