I remember the day vividly. February 7th 2004. My brother came to town and in order to avoid any family drama I decided to spend the day with my good friend Steven (heck he’s been more of a brother to me than this one was). My dad, looking as worse as I ever seen him since his diagnosis, was sitting propped up on a chair. My brother was sitting next to him trying to reconnect with my father talking about his new son and how he was trying to turn his life around. I didn’t want to hear the bullshit any longer so I made my way for the door. Kissed my mom good bye and turned to my dad to say “see you later”. He picked his head up, and I saw for the first time as the light his is eye, someone who really didn’t remind me of my dad. I couldn’t explain it then. He took a breath and said “Be Careful and behave”. I hit the door and went on my way to meet Steve. Little did I know those would be the last words my father would ever speak to me.
Sitting on the train I thought about how quickly things changed over a 6 month span. My dad, a former NYC K-9 Police Officer and now current NYC EMT-D had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Doctors believed that the cancer was brought on and aggravated from the two weeks by father spent working in ground zero after the 9/11 terror attacks. Honestly, at the time, I didn’t care how he got it, I just knew he had it. I saw my father as strong 300+LB man, wither away to 190 lbs in six months. From his recovery after the surgery when the cancer was discovered, from our trips to Chemo, and just spending time at home, my dad, in his own way was telling me he was dying.
Every time he said this, my reaction was the same. “No you’re not. You’re not going anywhere. You’re not allowed!” I said, trying to get a smile out of him. Sometimes it worked. Other times, he just put his head down and said “yeah”. I didn’t believe it to be honest with you. My dad was a superhero to me. Indestructible. A fighter.
“See you in a few dad.” I was getting ready to step out of the hospital room he was in and the doctor and a few nurses walked in. They were prepping my dad I order to take him to the ICU unit. I remember seeing the look on my dad’s eyes before I walked out of the room. It was a panicked, scared look as if he was telling me not to leave him. My dad really couldn’t speak due to a tube in his mouth that was helping get air into his lungs. I waited in the hallway where my mother, my brother, my dad’s aunt and some members of the FDNY were gathered. My father was brought in because the cancer he had stopped his heart. Paramedics were able to revive him and rush him to the hospital. I wasn’t home when it happened; I was with my Steven when I got the call. We were at the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. I rushed over with my girlfriend whom has since left to go back home. I told her to go as there’s not much to do.
A few minutes the doctor comes, walks by mom and my dad’s aunt and asks me and my brother “Do you want us to do all we can to save your father?” What kind of stupid question is that I thought?
“Yes of course.” I replied. The doctor nodded and went back to work.
I guess I must have been oblivious because one of the female FDNY members put her hands on my shoulders and whispered into my ear, “You do know why he asked you that right?”
Almost immediately, it hit me. I looked up into the room and I can see the doctor sitting in top of my father working on compressions to get his heart started again. The look on my face must have said something because everyone else in my family looked in the room. My mother immediately started crying. My dad’s aunt trying her best to console her, fighting back tears of her own. My brother and I still trying to digest everything. I didn’t even notice the doctor walk back out.
He looked directly at me and said “I’m sorry…”
I couldn’t hear the rest. I was immediately doubled over as if someone punched me in the gut. I was gasping for breath. Everything around me felt distant and small. I was trying to breathe and cry at the same time. My mom was yelling, calling my dad’s name while my dad’s aunt held her tight. My brother leaned his head back against the wall and sobbed. I gathered myself and walked into the room where my dad was.
I went towards him and saw my dad lying there. His eyes still open as if he was looking at me. I quickly realized that it wasn’t my dad, but death staring at me. It’s an image that still gives me nightmares and still haunts me to this very day. The way my dad’s head was tilted to the side, as if he was looking right at me with was was left of a breathing tube still protruding from his mouth. In that moment I realized that death had won. Death always wins it seems, and this time it took my dad and my superhero.
It also hit me that the news was true. My dad was gone. I kissed his forehead and walked out. I was the last person to see my dad alive and the first person to see him gone. If I would have known, I would have picked something clever to say to him for the last time besides “I’ll see you later”.
I looked at my watch at realized it was now Sunday February 8th, 2004. 2:15 AM. This would go on to be a day I will never forget and that will be with my for the rest of my days.
I reached for my cell phone and called my girlfriend first. I don’t remember if I broke down when I told her the news. I was just happy she got to see him one last time. I made a few other calls from the hospital. Called some friends and family. I’m pretty sure I called Steven to give him a heads up as well, but I honestly don’t remember if I did. I also called my job to let them know I wouldn’t be coming in for a bit.
I remember arriving at our apartment. I remembered us being offered a ride by someone in the FDNY, but the ride home was a blur.
It felt weird being in the apartment where only a few hours ago my dad was in. Knowing that he wouldn’t set foot in there again was just too much to bear. I remember jumping in the shower, just to have a moment to myself. As the water washed over me I couldn’t help but see that image of my father’s lifeless body. Eyes open but the light in them was gone. I cried a bit more.
I started thinking of all the things I wouldn’t be able to do with him. Playing baseball, watching sports, hearing his laugh, or his voice. Even now, it’s those last two things I miss the most.
I walked into the living room and my mom was on the couch. I really haven’t said anything to her since my dad passed. I really didn’t know what to say. She cried on my shoulder as I hugged her. I just told her I loved her while she kept repeating “he’s gone” over and over again. She looked at me after a few moments and told me that “He’s in a better place”.
I went back into my room and sat on my bed. Couldn’t really sleep that night. So many thoughts filled my mind. Maybe it was a bit selfish of me, but one of my thoughts were “what would happened to me without my dad?”
I ran though the events of the day. How my brother just got home to visit my dad that dad. How I just wanted nothing more to be away from the house (I didn’t really get along with my siblings) and I had plans to meet my friend Steven that Saturday. I said bye to my dad and everyone else. My dad looked up at me and said “Be careful and behave”. With those words I went out. It was when I was in the city with Steven when I got the call to rush to the hospital.
It’s funny how quickly things change. One minute all is right in the world and my dad is alive, and the next, I have to get ready for his funeral.
Ever since his death there are times where I swear I see him. I would walk around and see someone that looks just like him. I would try not to stare but it’s hard. Either they have his mustache, or his glasses, or even his mannerisms. I could swear that it’s him. At times I wonder if it really is him. Just stopping by to take a look at me to make sure I was ok.
What creeps me out even more is when I hear his voice. That booming voice I miss and yearn to hear again. I would hear “Charley!” and it would stop me dead in my tracks no matter what I was doing. I would freeze up, and look around and make sure.
I always thought about what I would do or say if I had more time. I was, maybe still am pissed off that we never said good bye. Or that he couldn’t talk at the hospital for that matter.
The last words I ever heard my father speak to me was “be careful”. Guess that’s my motto now. Those word, insignificant then, carry so much weight all these years later.
“Be careful and behave.” Sometimes I wonder if he had to do it over again, would he have picked something else to say as his last words to me? For that matter, if I would have know that the last time I would see my dad was on that hospital bed, I would have picked something cleaver to say besides “I’ll see you in a few”.
My dad died early Sunday morning. The wake was scheduled on Tuesday and the burial that Wednesday.
I wouldn’t say I was in denial, but maybe more of a daze. How does one act or supposed to act when they lose a parent or hero?
The Monday after my father’s death, I went to get a haircut. Not that I needed one, but I just needed to be somewhere that reminded me of my dad. My instinct automatically took me there. It was a place my father and I frequented for over 10 years.
I walked in, said my hellos to the barbers, and sat down waiting for my turn. I stared into the air, blanked faced, when Sal (The head barber who always did my dad’s hair) interrupted my thoughts and asked how my father was doing. They had known my father was ill. Even though he was sick, filled with chemo and radiation, he still went to the barbers shop. Even sick, knowing his fate he was still trying to look his best.
I looked at Sal, and just simply shook my head. It must have been the look on my face, because he immediately dropped his hands and asked for confirmation.
“He died?” I just nodded again. Sal looked around for a moment. The silent was broken when the Joe, the other barber in the shop asked “When?”
I looked at my phone to see how many days had passed. To my surprise my phone confirmed my worst fears. “Only yesterday.”
The world is a cruel place at times. It doesn’t seem fair when you lose someone, yet the world doesn’t stop. I always thought of the irony.
My father, only gone for a day, yet the world still went about its business. Even I was trying do go about my day as usual.