Tuesday, July 3, 2007

"A Life Changing Moment"

There are things that happen in a person's life that changes them forever. 10:45AM Eastern Daylight Time of July 3, 2007 will permanently be etched in my memory. It was the time that I saw my father transition to eternity and it changed the landscape of my universe. Nothing will be the same from this point forward.

Mothers and fathers are the constants in a person's life and even though I have lived 46 years 7 months and 24 days, it doesn't make it any easier that my father has died. I know that so many other people have lost their parents as children or due to tragic circumstances. I know how utterly blessed I am to have had my father with me until now. I know how blessed my father was to have lived for over 84 years.

My father led a full life that was mostly not so easy. He was the oldest of four children. There were two younger brothers and a younger sister. He was seven years old when The Great Depression hit and by the time he was twelve, his family was so poor that they needed him to quit school (in the sixth grade) and find work to help support the family. That was just what he did, too.

Work was how my father defined himself. Butcher, shopkeeper, salesman, bartender, banquet manager were among his jobs. Usually he wore two of those hats at the same time - one by day and one by night. Occasionally he had a day job and two part-time bartending jobs. He did this to provide for his family and make it so that his wife, my mother, would not have to work and could stay home and raise their children. I'm not sure how much my brother, sister and I appreciated this as we were growing up, but I can say with utmost certainty that we admired and appreciated it as adults looking back.

Dad's retirement wasn't a bed of roses either. Having so many jobs throughout is working life, he didn't have a pension to supplement his Social Security. He and Mom struggled sometimes... a lot of times. He started fighting with the Veteran's Administtration for more benefits. He was in the Navy during WWII and being on a destroyer (USS Thorn DD-647) exposed to asbestos for four years gave him asbestosis which eventally led to lung cancer. He also had a 22mm gun blow up in his face leaving him with shrapnel in his skull and eye. He fought the VA for years getting incremental increases in his disability benefits after he won each battle. Finally, less than a year ago, he got 100% disability benefits and a substantial increase in compensation. The extra money made a huge difference for Mom & Dad and they didn't have to worry so much about finances. Unfortunately, Dad did not really get to enjoy this financial peace of mind, because he was battling lung cancer. In only a few short months afterward, he has died. Now my mother will have to fight battle with the VA to obtain survivor benefits. And the financial worries pass to her.

My dad raised us to be strong, independent thinkers who would work hard if we needed to (although he always wished us easier lives than he had). He didn't want us to be afraid of anything or believe that were beneath anyone. He talked to everyone the same, whether they had a "higher station" in life or not. He always shot from the hip and encouraged us to "tell it like it is" no matter what "it" was.

Dad yelled a lot. In fact, he always yelled. But that didn't mean he was angry. It's just who he was. He yelled at everyone - friend, foe, people in authority, the old, the young, the guilty, the innocent. It was his communication style - sometimes hard to take, but consistent.

The big thing was that even though he yelled, he had a big heart. He would do whatever was in his power to help whoever needed help in any way. If you needed something fixed, Dad would fix it - even if it meant making it worse in the process. If you needed a ride, he'd drive. If you needed company he'd visit. If you needed some item and he had an extra one, he'd deliver it. If he didn't have it, he'd remember your need and pick it up while he was out. He'd remember what gum you chewed and buy you a pack (or a package of 10 packs). He'd accompany neighbors to the doctor, visit them in the hospital, attend their wakes and funerals. He was the "Mayor" of his block and everyone knew him. Dad could be counted on by his family, friends and neighbors.

All of these things and so much more that I cannot now put into words, were part of the man who was my father, my role model, my teacher, the thorn in my side, the man who told me I was as good as anyone else, that I could learn anything I wanted to and that I could be whatever I chose. He taught me to be skeptical sometimes, and cynical about government. He said that no law could replace or was more important than common sense.

I will miss our debates. I will miss the stories of his youth and my crazy ancestors. I will miss his guidance. I will even miss the yelling. And for sure, my universe will not be the same without him in it.

I love you, Daddy. Thank you for everything.