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.
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.
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.