When I was 19 years old, my father began to die. I was at a Carr Hall dorm party at the University of Illinois when I received a phone call from Mom, who told me that doctors had found a "spot" on Dad's lung and were going to remove it. "It," I later learned, was Dad's left lung. What a kick in the chops to a man who had been happily sober less than two presidential terms and was enjoying another shot at life.
Dad had his downsides -- he smoked too much, drove too fast, and were it not for Mom, he would have given away far too much of his family's earnings and possibly drank himself to death. But I adored him, and he adored me. He simply loved kids and they loved him back. A couple of neighborhood children came to "Mr. B." when their teeth were wiggly and they wanted them pulled, and a couple more -- who had grown up and left home -- rang our doorbell when they were in town to say hi to him.
After surgery, Dad recovered at home in his easy chair, until the day he stood in our vestibule, donned his fedora and headed out the door, back to work as a tool sales rep. A few months later, I was home from college on spring break when Dad walked in at about 3 p.m. and removed his fedora with trembling hands. An alarm sounded, as Dad wasn't the trembling type.
Moments ago, he said, he had been driving on the highway when a truck clipped off his side-view mirror. Dad had lightening-fast reflexes that had saved him from countless driving accidents, some of which he nearly caused with his Indy-500 driving style. Yet that day he never saw the vehicle to his left side. His peripheral vision had vanished. The cancer had spread to his brain.
This time, the surgeon opened his skull with an electronic cookie cutter of sorts and removed what he could. But the disease was out of the gate, the gowned surgeon told my Mom, my older brother Mark and me post-op, and it was only a matter of time. How much time? Mom asked. Maybe two weeks. Perhaps two months.
With his head wound in layers of white gauze, Dad returned to the tidy home in which he had raised a son and daughter in an era in which a tool salesman's salary such as his supported an entire family, and bought a four-bedroom house in a new suburb, sprouting from the cornfields northwest of Chicago. He walked through the front door, then perched on the living room couch under a large mounted photo of his two smiling children, a Christmas gift that elicited tears two years prior.
"Get a black Sharpie and a golf ball," he instructed me, so I did.
"Write 'Titleist' right here," he said, dragging a finger across his forehead and sitting tall on the edge of the couch.
I held the golf ball in my left hand while I copied the distinctive scroll with my right, Dad and me laughing while Mom wept 15 feet away, around the corner in the kitchen. Days later, in the utility room doing laundry, Mom slipped me a note: "I like your spirit, I like your soul, with your sense of humor, we'll get through this whole."
A few weeks before he died, I stayed up late with Dad, whose living area was now constricted to the living room, or dying room as it were. Only we were awake, me -- sitting on our beagle Patches' favorite armchair -- and Dad -- lying on the couch in the room that had become his life's physical parameters. It had been close to a year since I turned his head into a giant Titleist golf ball and close to a year since he'd left the house for purposes other than doctors' appointments. Despite the morphine shots we all learned to give him around the clock, his pain was unrelenting, so bad that he asked a friend with diabetes for insulin and a family member to buy a gun. He wanted out.
That night as we talked, his mind combed through his 55 years of life and snagged. He told me that he regretted his decision, 25 years ago, to quit professional golf, suggesting that he had missed his true calling in life.
"If you did that, you wouldn't have met Mom and had Mark and me," I commented.
"That's the nicest thing anyone could have said," he told me through his tears.
Dad hadn't heard the self centeredness of my teenaged comment. In fact, he heard the opposite -- that the path he took, despite the sorrow and pain he was feeling that moment, had meaning. He hadn't failed. In fact, he had scored a hole in one.
(This post appeared previously on Open Salon.)