In 1991,on the evening of March 25th, paramedics were strapping my Dad onto a rolling crash cart to move him to an ambulance. As the men carefully strapped him in for this 1,000 foot move from our family room to the ambulance, he muttered the final words of his young life, 'too tight.' I wasn't there, unfortunately, and don't know if they ended up loosening those straps to comfort him. Three hours later he was dead, another victim of the awful disease called Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis sclerosis, short for ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease. There is no cure.
Tight straps were the least of his concern at that time. He had been suffering for two years from bulbar onset, catching a sporadic case of this disease, with no family history of expecting this to occur. We were floored. Dad was going to die. I was there as a caregiver, watching his body atrophy into a state of uselessness, while his mind stayed completely intact, coherent and strong.
As a young man, and the oldest of six, I didn't know what the impact of losing a father would have on my life. He was 54, a year from early retirement, a winter home in Florida, and the joys of watching his six children get married, have children and do all the things you do when you've earned the opportunity to experience the later years of life. Sadly, he never got that chance.
I think about families today who are fatherless. Not always due to death, but men who neglect to be a part of a son's life, either by choice, anger, divorce, bitterness or other irrational means. It's a worse situation than what I experienced for youth who need the mentoring of a father. Will he ever come back, throw the ball around, do father and son things, integrate back into the family. It's a sad reflection on our society.
As a father today, I think about the manner in which my Dad would do something. I try to emulate his best characteristics, and try to polish up and perfect his weaker ones. For instance, he had little patience for home projects. Our sparce tool room with a hammer and four screwdrivers was a good indicator that if we were going to do something around the home, it would be done half-ass (a word I would never tell him). One month we nailed chair railing to a wall to spruce it up a bit. I made the runs to the lumber yard, Dad did the cutting and we carefully nailed each piece in place. We got within two feet of the edge of the wall to complete the project, ran out of wood, and Dad said 'good enough.' I looked at that gap every time I passed that wall laughing inside.
My Dad was a homebody. A big family room, comfortable floor pillows and a TV and he was et for the weekend. No big evenings out, parties, or activities were planned. However he was an amazing conversationalist. My siblings would bring their girlfriends and boyfriends by and he had an amazing knack to strike up cordial conversation, making these nervous acquantiances feel at home. I'm still working on perfecting that skill.
We made a family trip to St. Louis each Summer. Dad would carry all of us to the wood panel station wagon at midnight, throw a bunch of covers over us, and drive to a Super 8. We enjoyed the family traditions of Six Flags, the Arch, Grant's Farm, and Busch Stadium. I don't know how we did it. He made sure it was a special time for all eight of us. An avid Cardinal fan, he and I ended up at Busch Stadium together. I was running to the bathroom, slipped and landed on my head. A large knot started to swell. He examined it and said 'you'll be all right, Lou Brock's going to bat two more times. We're not leaving.'
Having 'tough' conversations with Dad was the most difficult part of our relationship. It got better with age but was something I struggled with. We both lacked the ability to show physical expression, empathy and openness. It wasn't 'tough love' but more simple uncomfortablness. I've perfected this challenge and can sit down with our sons and talk openly about life, girls, drugs, careers, gowring up and making good decisions. Sorry, Dad. I got you on that one.
I made my Dad proud twice that I can recall and live out those experiences in my life frequently. I won a public speaking content as a junior high student, brought home the big first place trophy, and saw a rate state of emotion. 'I can never be comfortable speaking in front of people. Congratulations. You have a gift.' I took two years off of high school and when I enrolled in college, he mentored me and gave me a lot of encouragement to make it through. As a failed high school student, I did it for him, wanting to make him proud to be his sixth child to graduate from college.
The things you wish you had are the worse. He's not met my family. We don't follow our ritual of going to Iowa Wrestling Tournaments. The Friday payday phone calls and the anticipation for the weekend don't happen. There is no more throwing the ball around in the yard. Or St. Louis visits, where ironically I now live. Something good has come out of this loss, thirty years and counting, it simply requires one to get through the anger, resentment and frustration and know that the straps have been loosened, and he's looking down, smiling, laughing, guiding in a spiritual way, as I carry on fatherless, with pride and conviction.