It was a gut-wrenching decision for me to make.
My good friend Chris listened patiently on the phone; I had called him when my father was released from the hospital and into hospice. For some time I’d been agonizing over writing a eulogy for my father. The thought of it haunted me every day. I remember our conversation clearly.
“I can’t do it, Chris,” I told him. “I mean, I want to write it now while I can, while I can still think clearly. But if I do, it’ll be like I’ve tipped the scales somehow, like I’ve given up. I’ll never do that to him.”
There was a long pause until my dear friend said simply, “I know you. You’ll know when the time’s right. You’ll figure it out.”
You’ll figure it out.
Life had come full circle. I knew writing my father’s eulogy would be a transcending and sacred moment, but the feeling that I needed to do it at the proper time overwhelmed me. I believed strongly that my psyche would be plugged into the universe, into all powers unseen. I believed that somehow I’d have a hand in dealing his fate.
My father battled out from the hospital not once but twice. He battled out from hospice, for God’s sake. His war became something of myth to me. This beast of a disease – pancreatic cancer – tore at him with teeth and claws, and while my father staggered from his wounds, he never gave an inch. His sword still sliced the air. He suffered so much, yet fought with a will I never knew could exist in any human being.
I shared Father’s Day with him. We went to a restaurant; he sat across from me. By then chemotherapy was no longer viable. His body could not tolerate it. Inner fortitude was now his only medicine. An oxygen tank clanged against the table; my father constantly poked at the tubes in his nose. He didn’t eat much of his pasta. He didn’t eat much of anything. But there was one part of the meal he really enjoyed. I ordered my father an espresso. I made sure to have a double shot of black Sambuca added to it. My mother complained, but I didn’t listen, nor did I care. My dad was going to have his drink come hell or high water.
There was one thing about our lunch that I’ll never forget. It actually happened after I dropped my parents home. My wife commented that my dad’s shoulders had become so thin, so frail. The funny thing was that I never noticed. Not once.
All I saw was how much bigger he’d become in my eyes.
It was my last Father’s Day with him.
Near the end, his body systematically shut down. It started with his hands. The very hands he’d made his living from, the very hands he’d used to help so many people over the course of his life, now betrayed him. He couldn’t hold anything in his grip; cups would slip from his fingers. It was so difficult to watch. He could barely walk on his own. Each breath of air was a battle within itself. My father was admitted into the hospital a third time.
All through my father’s battle with pancreatic cancer, our rally cry had been never drop the ball. I said it to him all the time. I wrote it on his hospital room’s blackboard in bold letters; the nurses knew better than to erase it. I still had my New Orleans Saints jersey hanging in his house. I did everything in my power to let my father know that he wasn’t alone in his fight. I channeled so much of my own positive energy into him. But there was one odd thing: my father never spoke our rally cry. I was the one always telling him never drop the ball. He simply listened.
It was a Saturday, and I arrived at the hospital as usual. About a week before, my father lost his ability to speak. He said some words, but they were incoherent ramblings. He often stared at a distant point on the wall. I made my way to his room, but this time, something was different. Horribly different. As I walked the hallway, I heard someone crying out in pain. I lost all sense of time; reality blurred. Oh God oh God oh God, my mind raced, please, don’t let that be him. But I already knew.
I entered the room to find my father moaning in anguish. His hands clawed the sheets. My blood froze.
Then a miracle occurred.
My father saw me, pulled himself from the bed, clutched my arm and said, “I’m giving you the ball now. You run with it.”
It seemed a scene scripted for a movie and even then, I might have had trouble believing it. I’m sure most people would as well. But it did happen.
They were the last full sentences he would speak to me.
My father never dropped the ball. He never dropped the ball. In his mind, he was running for that touchdown. Somehow, even in the end, my father had the strength and awareness to hand me the ball.
He scored. He found a way.
He figured it out.
And I realized all at once he had passed me the torch…
I then prayed to the Lord to take my father. He had nothing left to prove; the man was a champion’s champion. But I still had one thing left to do. I recalled my dear friend’s words and four days later, in the dying light of dusk and summer, I wrote my father’s eulogy.
When I finished, I honored him with a shot of his favorite drink, Johnnie Walker Black. Then for the first time since he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I sobbed.
I woke the next morning, Thursday June 28, 2007, and laid in bed for nearly an hour. I visualized my father in my mind’s eye. He was there, vivid, young. Whole. Healthy. As I’ve always known my father. As he will always be. He was walking the beach, gazing across the sea he so dearly loved. The sunshine was brilliant. My father was smiling. Yes, he’d scored that touchdown. And I know with every fiber of my being that I had made a connection with him that morning – I plugged into the universe as I knew I would – for not long thereafter, I received a call from the hospital that my father had passed.
I did not witness his death. On the contrary, I witnessed the miracle of his rebirth. For though his body faltered, his soul grew larger and larger.
I buried my father in my New Orleans Saints jersey. The very one I hung proudly in his house. My mother said in disbelief, “But he’s a Giants fan.”
I shook my head. “Yes, but he’s my Saint now.”
He filled that jersey like I never could. Talk about plugging into the universe: the Giants won the Super Bowl the year my father passed on. The following off-season, the Giants traded one of his favorite players, Jeremy Shockey, to the Saints. And as I’ve always held steadfast to my faith, the Saints won the Super Bowl the very next year. I flew to New Orleans to watch the game that weekend, proudly wearing a new authentic team jersey. As I celebrated our miracle championship amidst thousands of fellow Saints fans, I could feel my father watching me – and I knew he didn’t mind wearing my Saints jersey at all.
But what of my father’s identity, you may be wondering. What of the notion I believed he led some kind of superhero double life? Did I indeed ever learn the truth? I’d like to share with you my answer from a passage straight from my father’s eulogy:
“And so it came to my suspicions. After thirty-six years, I had to learn the truth. Two days after my father had given me the ball, I spent the morning in his room. I waited for the nurses to leave. I drew the curtain closed. And then, using the inner voice I always had, I looked under his bed…
There lay a dusty pair of boots. Across them, neatly folded, pitted with welding burn holes, a red cape. I took them gently from under the bed, and the sweet comforting smell of grease and diesel fuel and long, backbreaking hours of labor filled my nose. I hugged them close, leaned and kissed my father upon the head. Carefully, I placed them in a bag and hid them where not even my wife could find them. And they’ll stay hidden, until I have my own children, until I’m man enough to fill those boots and cape, until my kids know of the superhero their grandpa was, and until Superman can fly again.”
(Part Six: Dusk and Summer soon to come)