A Letter To My Son On His Fourth Birthday

The Birthday Boy

Happy Birthday Cristian, today you are four years old. You looked so happy when we put you on the school bus this morning. Mommy and I have a surprise for you, we planned a birthday party for you later today. You’re going to love the yummy cupcakes Mommy’s friend Angie made for you – they are so good that Mommy and I will probably have one too.

We have special memories of your very first birthday four years ago. We didn’t get much sleep because the nurses spent the night trying to induce Mommy.  Daddy kept making Facebook posts to keep everyone up to date. We knew then that you inherited your parent’s stubborn streak, and Mommy’s habit of making everyone wait for her. You’ll understand more about that when you get older.

Don’t worry son, Daddy has it under control.

You were born at 1:20 pm on a sunny Thursday afternoon. We were anxious to meet you and curious to see who you looked like. I remember you were crying and Mommy asked me to try and soothe you by talking to you. Since we hadn’t agreed on your name yet, Daddy put on his best Darth Vader voice and said, “Son, I am your father.” The nurses all laughed, but don’t worry, Daddy knows how to talk to you now.

Your first few days were a blur of feedings, diaper changes, and watching you sleep through bloodshot eyes. It took us a few days to establish a routine, but every time you smiled at us, you made us forget how tired we were.

A few weeks later, Mommy’s maternity leave was over and she had to go back to work. We spent a lot of time together as you gave Daddy a crash course in Stay at Home Dad 101.  Although no one admits it, there were a few concerned family members. To be honest, Daddy was a little worried, too.

Getting Cristian ready for our morning training run.

We had fun together, we watched Sid the Science Kid, discovered the Sprout Channel, and Daddy introduced you to Sesame Street. I took you everywhere, you rode along on Daddy’s training runs, we went to MyGym classes, and you helped Daddy deliver documents when he worked as a medical biller.

We are constantly amazed at how much you are learning and we love seeing your personality develop. Mommy and Daddy took turns chasing you around the playground and the Rockaway Beach Boardwalk.  We love how much your face lights up when we take you to the zoo or the aquarium, and were both happy, yet a little sad when you started daycare. You have to understand that when we look at you, we still see the spunky, chubby-cheeked little guy, who peed on the pediatrician during his first doctor’s appointment.

I know you don’t remember your grandfather, but you made quite an impression on him. He waited so long for a grandson, and you will never know the joy you brought that old man. The smile on his face the first time he met you is my favorite memory of him. You are also too young to comprehend that although you drive grandma crazy from time to time, having you around helps her cope with your grandpa’s loss.

You don’t understand this yet, but you are a little different than the other kids and may have a few rough years ahead of you as you learn to adjust to things. Watching you adjust will be rough on Mommy and Daddy too, but remember we love you very much and will be there for you. We may not give you everything you want, but we will always have your back.

Happy Birthday, Little Man!

Daddy, can we go for ice cream?
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Remembering The Man Who Made It Look Easy

Today is Father’s Day, I know this because for the past few weeks, my email accounts and social media feeds have been clogged with gift ideas for Dad, everything from Omaha Steaks, to tech toys, and an assortment of supplies from the Art of Shaving.  Thank you Mark Zuckerberg.

It’s my fourth Father’s Day as a dad, but my mind isn’t on the latest Cool Base baseball jersey or another pair of running shoes, it’s on my Dad.

Growing up my parents hosted a Father’s Day cookout in their backyard that was both simple and excessive – especially after joining Costco.  Year after year my Mom and Dad produced elaborated spreads of all sorts of mouth-watering grilled foods, sardines and shrimp, Italian sausages, pork chops, and steaks, paired with beer, or pitchers of homemade wine and sangria.

This family tradition wasn’t always elaborate — it grew over the years.  I remember the four of us sitting at a picnic table in the yard. Dad grilled our meal on a stone barbeque grill he built with my uncle.  As the family grew to include daughters-in law, grandchildren and others, so did the menu.  Besides the food, I remember another thing about Father’s Day, he never used the gifts we gave him.  He always put them into a draw or the back of the closet, never to be seen again.

Sadly, I never enjoyed this event as a father, we spent my First Father’s Day in a nursing home as Dad battled Pancreatic Cancer during his last days.

My Dad was a craftsman, one of a lost generation of finish carpenters.  He was brought in to add a special touch to the corner offices and corporate boardrooms for Wall Street investment houses and Fortune 500 companies, and sometimes the homes of their top executives. I remember him being sent to work to in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, or San Francisco for a week of two.  Although he hated being away, it was the best way he knew to provide for his wife and family.

As a kid, I remember he had already left for work before my brother Bob and I had gotten up for school.  After work, he was always working around the house, or planning the next home improvement.  When Mom asked if he could put a stove next to the playroom Bob and I had in the basement.  He built her a kitchen, so she could keep an eye on us as she prepared dinner.

Now that I’m a father one thought keeps coming back to me, he made it look easier than I do.  He worked full time, raised two sons, and maintained a house without breaking a sweat. Working full time and sharing the parenting duties of one three-year old and takes up most of my time and energy.  These days I barely get to sit at a keyboard and write.

A few months ago, Cristian and I were out walking through the neighborhood when we saw Mrs. D.  She’s known me since I was a little older than Cristian is now.  I grew up playing with her kids.  After catching up on her kids and grandkids, we talked about Dad.  I remember telling her, “I don’t know how he was able to do it, he made parenting look so easy. He raised two sons, I have my hands full with one.”

Shaking her head, she smiled and said, “Don’t be so hard on yourself, you’re doing more than you think.  You grew up in a different time and things are different now.”  She nodded at Cristian saying, “When you were his age, parents had defined roles and one paycheck supported a family.  Nowadays both parents have to work and need to share the parenting responsibilities.”

Mrs. D gave me a lot to think about.  I kept returning to the advice a friend gave me when my better half was pregnant.  He said, “Do what your parents did and fill in what’s missing.”  That’s a tall order.

Dad wasn’t a big speech guy—his actions spoke more clearly than his words did.  If he made a promise, he kept it.  He was an old-school father—he didn’t tolerate tantrums—he ignored them.  He seemed aloof when my brother Bob and I argued back and forth, but he wasn’t.  He was letting work things out on our own.

Another lesson he taught took me years to figure out. It drove us nuts when Dad ignored the polo shirts, cologne, and power tools.  He used to tell us, “Don’t waste your money on gifts, I don’t need anything.”  I thought he was being proud, but he wasn’t.  For him spending the day with his children and grandchildren was the gift he wanted most.

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Remembering Dad A Year Later

Dad in mid conversation, probably talking politics.
Dad in mid conversation, probably talking politics.

A year ago today my Dad passed away and I’ve spent the past week with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.  Whether it was driving past the nursing home where he spent his last days on the way to the baby’s My Gym Class or seeing images of him in a slide show at my niece’s Sweet 16 Party last weekend.  Last Friday night’s torrential rain awakened more memories than expected.

I remember a painful conversation with Mom as I drove her home from the nursing home in a heavy rain. I told her the doctor said Dad developed pneumonia, and probably wouldn’t make it through the weekend. That was the best case scenario—the worst case scenario was he wouldn’t make it through the night.  You would have thought a diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer and three months of doctors and hospitals would have prepared us for this—it didn’t.

When my phone rang at 6am the next morning, Esther and I knew it was bad news.  How many early-morning calls are good news?  I felt numb calling Mom, my brother Bob and various aunts and uncles, informing them of Dad’s passing as I walked Chico.  The conversations were short and quick, the numbness stayed with me a few months.

We spent the weekend after Dad’s passing decluttering Mom’s house, devouring cold cut platters, and reliving memories.  I’ve always been amazed how people achieve saint-like status simply by dying.  I’ve written about my Dad several times he was a good man with many wonderful traits—but he was no saint.  We lightened the mood, spending parts of the weekend reliving stories of our favorite meltdowns or Mom and Dad bickering like George Costanza’s parents on Seinfeld.  Fifty plus years of marriage will do that.

Dad with my Maternal Grandfather in Puerto Rico in 1980
Dad with my Maternal Grandfather in Puerto Rico in 1980

A lot’s changed in the past year, Esther, Cristian and I moved in with Mom to help out with the house and dealing with losing Dad.  Esther and I do much of the former, Cristian handles the latter.  The numbness is gone—it’s been replaced with sadness and regret.

I regret not asking him more about the Spanish side of my family tree, about his dad and his brothers.   I never met them—they all died too young.  I regret being a stubborn child who didn’t pay enough attention when he tried teaching me basic carpentry and household projects.  I regret not thanking him for all he gave me, did for me, and for not saying I love you.

Dad helping pop a champagne cork to celebrate my 14th Birthday.
Dad helping pop a champagne cork to celebrate my 14th Birthday.

These days many people are concerned with their legacy.  Once considered the domain of athletes and politicians it’s now a concern among many average people.  Maybe it’s a product of the age we live in.  I doubt Dad put any thought into his legacy, but he did leave one behind.

To the many carpenters, electricians and other skilled laborers, most from Galicia, the part of Spain he was from, Dad’s legacy was helping them with a well-placed phone call to an employer or union rep finding them a job or a union card shortly after arriving in this country.  To him it was paying forward the kindness extended to him by a friend named Viña many years before.

Before writing this piece I thought about Dad’s legacy.  Was it fulfilling the American Dream?  He arrived in this country in 1956 with little more than the clothes on his back, a few dollars in his pocket, and a trade—he was a skilled carpenter.  Over the next 60 years, he married, raised a family, built a home, saved a few dollars, and gave his children a better life than the one he knew as a child.

Although impressive it’s incomplete.  As a father he taught me more by his actions and examples than his words.  He and Mom were married for 56 years and sure they bickered a bit as they got older—show me an old married couple that doesn’t—but it was his genuine concern for her in his last days that touched me.  He insisted I keep him up to date her latest doctor’s appointments, making sure she was taken care of.

Ever the doting grandfather, he waited 88 years for his elusive grandson.  Seeing his hazel eyes light up whenever I brought Cristian to the nursing home was one of the few bright spots for me during his last days–but there were sad memories too.  I’ll never forget him playing with his nine-month old grandson saying, “You’re beautiful!  What a shame I won’t be able to see you grow up.”

Today we’ll honor Dad’s memory, with a memorial mass for him and Esther’s Mom Maria—she lost her fight with Pancreatic Cancer three years ago this week.  After paying respects at the cemetery, I’m firing up the grill, serving up sardines and other grilled meats along with wine and beer just like Dad would do on any Sunday afternoon in July.  I can’t think of a better way of keeping his memory alive.

 

Grandpa's Stone

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A 5K Run to Honor Lola’s Memory

Lola's children, Esther, Rose Marie and Bobby will be back in Prospect Park tomorrow morning to honor Mami's memory.
Lola’s children, Esther, Rose Marie and Bobby will be back in Prospect Park tomorrow morning to honor Mami’s memory.

Tomorrow morning Esther, Cristian and I are running a 5K race in Prospect Park, okay Cristian will be riding in his stroller while I push him, but he’ll be participating.  Although we are no strangers to 5K races or Prospect Park’s notorious hill tomorrow’s race isn’t about goal times or P.R.s—this one’s personal—we’ll be honoring Esther’s Mom’s memory.

10298777In 2013, Maria Hernandez, Lola to her friends, lost her battle with Pancreatic Cancer so for a third-straight year her three children will be participating in the PanCan Purple Stride 5K Run/Walk to honor her memory.

Pancreatic Cancer is a brutal disease with an extremely low survival rate.  Besides taking the lives of celebrities like Steve Jobs, Patrick Swayze and Luciano Pavarotti, it’s affected the lives of many non-celebrity families as well.   Last year my Dad was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer.  Dad was lucky, if you can say that for any cancer patient, he died of pneumonia before the cancer fully took hold, Lola wasn’t so fortunate.

17171717Long-distance runners are no strangers to pain—it’s who we are.  I’ve run a 60K race, just over nine four-mile loops in Central Park on a cranky knee.  Esther started a marathon on a badly-injured ankle that got worse with every step taken—both were minor twinges compared to Lola’s battle.  She fought a tough fight, the worse things got, the harder she fought, but no one beats Pancreatic Cancer.

Since tomorrow morning’s weather forecast calls for windy conditions with a chance of snow I’m expecting less than the fifty people who came out last year.  Cold weather does that, but Esther, Bobby, Rose Marie, Cristian and I will be there regardless of the conditions.  This ugly disease took Robert, Lucas, and Justin’s grandmother.  Cristian will never know his La La Maria because of it, it’s our biggest regret.

If you know anyone suffering or lost someone to Pancreatic Cancer or are interested in donating to a good cause click here.

This entry is being posted to both of my blogs North Queens Runner and I’m Not Grandpa.

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For Dad

Preface – This is one of my favorite posts.  I wrote this as a new father reflecting on childhood memories of my Dad.  I’m reposting it on what would have been his 90th birthday.

My Grandmother holding my Dad when he was 3-years old.
My Grandmother holding my Dad when he was 3-years old.

Becoming a father has made me a think a lot about my Dad. In my mind’s eye I relived memories of him seen through the eyes of a small child, teenager, and newly-minted Dad. He turns 89 tomorrow so I decided to write this post about him.

In his prime Dad was a small energetic man whose childhood was so much different than mine.  Born in 1926 the youngest of five children in El Freijo, a small town in rural Spain.  Since they were able to grow what they ate the family survived.

Dad and his older brothers Manuel and Francisco became carpenters out of necessity.  Building and selling rowboats enabled the family to buy food and other necessities to survive. Through this difficult time my grandmother Mama Maria fed as many hungry children from other families as she could.

In 1936 a Civil War broke out in Spain taking an estimated 500.000 lives, including both brothers, I was named after Francisco.  His father died a few years later, apparently of a broken heart.

Twenty years old with little opportunity or future in post-World War II Europe Dad joined the Merchant Marine. When he left my grandmother told him, go and try find a better life for yourself but remember if things don’t work out you always have a home to come back to.

My Brother Bob and I during our 1970 family vacation in Spain. I'm the little guy on the right.
My Brother Bob and I during our 1970 family vacation in Spain. I’m the little guy on the right.

In 1956, after ten years of travelling the world on merchant ships Dad settled in Camden New Jersey.  I remember the colorful stories of his experiences shared with family sitting around a table usually with a glass of wine or cognac after holiday dinners. It took a few years and some of our own life experiences until my brother Bob and I truly appreciated Dad’s stories of Pre-Castro Havana or arriving in Argentina the day after Juan Peron was overthrown.

Dad moved from Camden to Spanish Harlem, and then to Brooklyn where he married.  After starting a family Mom and Dad moved to Queens.  He built the house I grew up in and where he still lives in 14 months of weekends and vacations.

Working hard to provide for his family, he rarely took a vacation, but when he did he made them count.   We took us to Puerto Rico or Spain for six or eight weeks.  If you asked him he would say his favorite was taking us to Spain in 1970.

I was six-years old so most of my memories consist of my brother and I running through corn fields, feeding chickens, and riding in an oxcart El Carro de las Vacas with my aunts.  I also remember meeting my grandmother, Mama Maria and how much she spoiled us.  He always said bringing his kids to Spain so his mother could get to know them was the best gift he ever gave her.

Dad blowing with his three grandchildren getting ready to blow out a pre-birthday candle.
Dad blowing with his three grandchildren getting ready to blow out a pre-birthday candle.

Dad became a grandpa when my niece Katie was born, he waited 74 years.  Two years later a second granddaughter, Jenny was born.  Bob and I immediately noticed he was different as a grandfather than he was as a father.  This wasn’t our strict old-school father, he was a doting grandpa.  He adored his granddaughters spoiling them like our grandmother spoiled us but one thing was missing—a grandson.

Dad holding Cristian. He was the best gift I could have given him.
Dad holding Cristian. He was the best gift I could have given him.

Collecting thoughts for this post I realized we have more in common than I originally thought.  Besides being engaging storytellers, we are both the youngest child, share a sarcastic sense of humor and posses a stubborn streak.  Don’t believe me ask my Mom or Esther.  We also are the child who moved the family name forward another generation.

Dad doesn’t like receiving gifts, Christmas, Birthday, Father’s Day—his response is always the same.  Why did you have to get me that?  So last year on his birthday, I gave him a gift he could appreciate, I told him, the grandchild we were expecting was a boy.  Words weren’t necessary, the Kool-Aid grin on his face spoke volumes.

That memory is special but it’s no longer my most precious, it was replaced when I placed Cristian in his arms the first time.  Seeing his smiling face I truly understood how special a gift it was.

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