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.
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.
In 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.
Long-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.
Wow I can’t believe it’s been a year since I launched I’m Not Grandpa—well sort of. My first post, the Introduction, went live September 26th 2014 followed by a second post about a week later. Unsure of the tone and voice and being deep into a high-risk pregnancy I put blogging on hold until after the baby was born because my mind was elsewhere.
Cataloging experiences between naps and diaper changes I started writing at the end of February. Memories of Esther’s pregnancy, our first days as parents, and unsolicited advice from all directions poured from me like poop out of a diaper.
With three posts in the can and halfway through a fourth I publishedmysecond first post (the first two werewarmups) and asked friends to check out I’m Not Grandpa when the fourth post went live. Imagine my surprise when parents said they could relate to it.
Fatherhood and blogging are new experiences, I’ve enjoyed both, but I’m still learning. I made a list of my favorite posts. Click on the links below to check them out.
Esther’s Pregnancy—Nine Months in a Few Paragraphs — This is the most popular and shared post. Published by The Good Men Project, I wrote about my surviving the wife’s pregnancy. Written strictly from the male point of view, more than a few friends told me how relatable it was.
What’s in a Name? — You found out your having a baby? Congratulations! What a tremendous feeling, until you realize you have to agree on a name. It’s not as easy as you think. Men and women have different concepts of what makes a good name. This is my favorite post. If you are debating baby names this post is a must read.
For Dad — I wrote this the day before my Dad’s 89th birthday as a birthday gift (he hated receiving Christmas, Father’s Day and Birthday Gifts). Written from the perspective of a newly-minted Dad, he made it look easy. At the time none of us knew he was suffering from pancreatic cancer. He passed away three months later. This post was the frame work for his eulogy.
One and Done — I was 50-years old when Cristian was born meaning he’s probably going to be an only child. I wrote about my concerns. The response I received from single-children parents was overwhelming.
Déjà vu All Over Again — After Dad passed away we moved in with Mom to help out. Moving back home is difficult under any circumstances—doing it with your wife, baby, and diaper-clad dog is a sitcom in the making. We miss you Chico. Settling in I experienced Déjà vu. Mom and Dad moved into the same house with two young children 50-years earlier. This post shows a few changes in the years between both sets of Priegue parents moving into the same Cape Cod House in Queens.
Baby 2.0 – Your Survival Guide — My intervention post to any parent thinking it gets easier after your child’s first birthday. Published by The Good Men Project this survival guide lets you know what to expect. Don’t worry you can join a support group—they meet at most local bars.
Preface – This is a personal post. It’s long and doesn’t quite fit the theme of this blog. Some of the content appeared in previous posts. It’s a very touching story about someone who meant so much to me.
These past weeks were rough — after three months of fighting Dad passed away due to pneumonia related to Pancreatic Cancer. I’ve written about him, here and here and am comforted by the fact he died in his sleep of pneumonia before the cancer got him.
Dad had been in out of hospitals over the past ten years. His procedures included a pericardial stripping , hip replacement, and a gall bladder removal — complications put him in the ICU for two weeks after he developed sepsis
When a doctor explained the details of a lung biopsy needed because of years of abestos exposure on job sites, the doctor stressed the recovery period would be painful. He then asked Dad when he wanted to schedule the procedure, Dad’s reply was classic. “Can we do it now?”
My father was no stranger to death, his older brothers Manuel and Francisco died serving in the Spanish Civil War when he was a child. His father passed shortly afterward of a broken heart. He spent many years on merchant ships and freighters surviving two shipwrecks — he was one of only three who survived the second one. Dad cheated death so many times, I wondered, how many lives does he have?
The past few weeks are a blur of funeral arrangements, phone calls and memories. Some knew him as the man who installed a door or helped them put a new roof on their house. Others knew him for the backyard barbeques he hosted and the huge spreads of grilled meat and sardines, homemade wine and sangria—but many knew little about him.
Jose Priegue was born the youngest of five children in 1926, in El Freijo, a small village in rural Spain. Like his brothers he learned a trade, carpentry, at a young age, out of necessity. Building and selling rowboats brought in money helping feed and clothe the family of seven. Home Depot didn’t exist in the 1930’s so Dad and his brothers cut down trees and dragged them home for the wood needed before going to school.
In 1946 he was twenty years old. Spain’s economy was still recovering from the Spanish Civil War and Europe’s was recovering from World War II, so he joined the Merchant Marine. When he left home my grandmother told him, “Go find a better life for yourself, but remember if things don’t work out, you always have a home to come back to.”
So he went, travelling the world, he collected experiences. He told those stories after Christmas dinner and many summer barbeques. Usually after a few too many glasses of wine or with a glass of cognac in his hand. Bob and I didn’t fully appreciate stories of his many trips through the Panama Canal, or time spent in Pre-Castro Havana or arriving in Argentina a few days after Juan Peron was overthrown until we were older and had a few of our own life experiences.
After ten years of sailing on freighters Dad settled in Camden New Jersey where he caught a break. A friend named Viña needed people for a project he was working on — The New Jersey Turnpike. Viña found him, and others like him offering jobs and giving a few a place to live, but there was a condition.
Dad and the others were what would be referred to today as undocumented aliens. Viña had a work visa and wasn’t going to jeopardize his status. His condition was this…if immigration officials came looking for any of them, he wouldn’t hide them, he would give them up.
One night there was a knock on the door and Dad and two others were taken away. That night, having a pay stubs and a bank book in his pocket saved him from getting deported. He insisted every employer withhold taxes from his paycheck, although he wasn’t a citizen, he enjoyed the benefits of this country and felt it was the right thing to do. On that night it made a difference, the immigration agent realized this was a hard-working guy who needed a break, and let him go.
For years he told us stories, Dad loved a good story, about working on the Jersey Turnpike but he never told us what he did. Years later Bob and I took Dad to DC for a weekend trip so Bob asked him. He helped build the concrete forms for 23 bridges. I could see that, he was like a mountain goat, totally fearless when it came to heights.
Dad never forgot Viña’s kindness — in fact he paid it forward. During his wake an older gentleman named Serafin came to pay his respects. Walking up to Bob and me he told us, “I owe your father a tremendous debt. When I came to this country he was the first person who helped me out. He found me a job and got me into the union. I saved my money and was able to start my own company. My grandson started working for us last week.”
Growing up our home was a popular stop for newly arrived Gallegos. Dad was from Galicia, the region in Northwest Spain sharing a border with Portugal. Those from Galicia are known as Gallegos. Of all the stories I’ve heard over the past weeks, Serafin’s touched me most because this was part of Dad’s legacy. Over the years he made many phone calls vouching for carpenters, plumbers and electricians with employers and union reps while Mom served them a home-cooked meal.
From Camden he moved to Spanish Harlem, it wasn’t his first choice — it was out of necessity. He quickly found out Spanish Harlem was a safe haven because immigration officers were afraid to go up there.
Expatriates usually find others from their part of the world. In Spanish Harlem Dad met another Gallego named Raimundo, who is an important person to our family. Raimundo is Bob’s Godfather, and when he married, Dad was invited to the wedding. At the reception a charming bridesmade, captured his attention, but there were two problems. First, she was with a date, and second he was not very confident speaking to women.
A few weeks later, when she and her boyfriend broke up, Raymundo called him up and told him, “I know you like her and the boyfriend is out of the picture. If you’re still interested, this is your chance, get a move on.” To make a long story short, Bob and I call this charming bridesmaid, Mom.
Mom and Dad married in 1959 and moved to Brooklyn. After starting a family Mom and Dad moved to Queens. He built the house Bob and I grew up in and where Mom still lives in 14 months of weekends and vacations assisted by a crew of skilled Gallegos. Serafin and my Tio Francisco did most of the brickwork and half the roof.
Working hard to provide for his family, he worked overtime, and worked many side jobs rarely taking a vacation. We weren’t like the other families who went to Lake George or Disney every year, Dad saved his vacation time. When we took a vacation he made them count, taking 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 in 1970 so my memories consist of 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.
Besides vacations, he had a family to raise. This was before parenting books, websites or blogs. He was old school, he was our father, not our best friend. He didn’t give us everything we asked for, but we lacked for nothing. He taught me that actions are more important than words. Anyone can make a flowery speech, he backed it up.
I remember how proud he was when Bob joined the Navy and making him promise not to get a tattoo before he left for basic training. Years later when Bob and his wife Alicia were building their dream home, he insisted on installing the kitchen cabinets. He didn’t trust anyone else to do it.
As for me, he had my back when I changed my major from business to photography. Before my senior year, one of my professors let me use his studio for a photoshoot. For a third-year student this was like hitting the lottery. I needed someone to help me bring props from home to the Manhattan studio, Dad, drove me in.
This trip was everything he hated. After work he liked to watch the evening news with a beer and unwind, but off we went. We headed to Manhattan on the Long Island Expressway in rush-hour traffic to the Midtown Tunnel. In those days there was no E-Z Pass so you had to throw quarters into a basket to get through the tollbooth.
I handed Dad ten quarters and he missed the basket. Rushing out of the car and scooping up quarters, amid the sounds of honking horns, and screaming motorists was rough. I could only imagine him venting to Mom when he got home.
Driving through the tunnel, he turned to me and said, “You picked a field I know nothing about, so I can’t help you. If you were a carpenter or electrician I could teach you and introduce you to others who could look out for you. Just remember this, if you need me for anything, I’m there and remember you always have a home with us.”
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.
As he got older Dad didn’t like receiving gifts, Christmas, Birthday, Father’s Day — his response was always the same. “Why are you wasting your money, I don’t need anything.” So last year on his birthday, I gave him a gift he could appreciate.
Taking him to a doctor’s appointment I told him, “Esther was having a boy — you’ve got your grandson.” Words weren’t necessary — the smile on his face is my second favorite memory of him. My most precious memory of him was putting Cristian in his arms so he could hold his grandson for the first time. His smiling face showed me how precious a gift it really was.
As you get older, things are taken away from you, that’s how life is. First your doctor may tell you to cut down on the red meat, or wine. Then you are no longer able to do tasks you were able to do when you were younger. Like fix a leak in the roof.
I remember when the roof leaked, Mom convinced Dad, who was in his late 70s to let Bob fix it. She reasoned, “he’ll come by on Sunday, bring the girls, we’ll barbeque and have fun.” Dad agreed — a little too quickly. So when Mom left to do some grocery shopping, Dad took out the ladder.
I arrived late but remember Dad sitting at the picnic table in the backyard. Mom was on one side and Bob on the other side reprimanding him. The mischievous look on his face said, “five minutes more and I would have gotten away with it.”
Then your friends and loved ones start passing away. Over the past ten years I’ve attended too many wakes and funeral masses. Some losses hit harder than others but none are easy.
Dad loved a good story so it’s only fitting his funeral gave us one we’ll be telling for years. Leaving the church the skies became cloudy and turned dark gray upon arriving at the cemetery. The light drizzle we felt upon getting out of our cars became a driving rain storm. A friend told me if it rains during a funeral, it’s God’s way of acknowledging receipt of a good man.
Huddled together under umbrellas we listened to the priest’s final prayers. Due to the slippery conditions it wasn’t safe for anyone to climb onto the platform and place roses onto the coffin. The family took turns tossing them towards the casket but they all fell in the mud. It was bittersweet but due to the circumstances understandable.
Mom sat with my Godmother in Bob’s car holding their roses during the rainstorm. Restricted to a walker, she was unable to make it through the mud to the gravesite. Looking at us upon returning to the car, we knew exactly what she wanted.
Turning to me Bob said, “Mom asked us to do this, so let’s do it right.” Taking their roses we marched through the heavy rain and mud without umbrellas. Climbing onto the platform we placed our roses on his casket and said our goodbyes to Dad.
Although I’m sad Dad is gone, I comforted that he’s gone home. Home to the parents he loved, home to the brothers whose lives were taken too soon, home to the sisters who doted on their baby brother. I’m sure he’s sharing wine and sardines and swapping stories with those who passed before him.
I remember arriving at my uncle’s home during vacations. After the hugs and kisses on both cheeks, like they do in Europe, Dad told his sisters, nieces and nephews, I missed you. We are going to have a great time but remember one thing, I won’t be here forever. There will be a day when I have to leave. When that day comes I don’t want to see any tears because we were lucky enough to share this time together. That is as apt an analogy for a six-week vacation as it is for 89 years of life.
First-time parents try doing everything for their baby—so they don’t miss any firsts. Just a head’s up, rolling and crawling is cute, diaper changes are overrated. Leaving Cristian with someone else was difficult, we started by taking—pardon the pun, baby steps.
We started small. First each godparent watched him while we ran errands or went to Buy Buy Baby to stock up on supplies. Both times we knew the baby was fine because we left him with a Baby Whisperer.
In February we had a Valentine’s Dayish date night—we went out for dinner and a movie. We saw American Sniper—I know what you’re thinking, he’s a romantic. After seeing the movie we brought dinner home with us. Although Esther’s sister watched the baby, cutting the chord was difficult.
In late April my Dad was hospitalized, diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. Managing his healthcare and Mom’s (she has her own health issues) while caring for a baby and juggling a freelance consulting gig is challenging, like juggling three balls, a kitten and a chainsaw.
Cristian has an excellent babysitter who watched him when I visited Dad at the hospital or took mom to doctors’ appointments, but she wasn’t always available. Paying the babysitter got expensive fast, forcing us to expand the babysitting pool.
Esther and I are lucky–Cristian has a big personality—he loves performing for anyone who smiles at him. We’ve had many offers to watch him, most having no idea of what that entails–not from the baby—but from his parents.
Potential babysitters were screened, kind of like the way the CIA screens new employees. Fingerprints were checked, references verified and they must first handle a blowout, an overflowing diaper that spilled over up his back and down his legs, usually after Cristian ate a high-fiber meal. Prunes work really well for blowouts.
Dropping the baby off with friends produced new anxiety. Esther kept asking if we should scrub their apartment first with industrial cleaning products like we did at the hospital. I had to keep reassuring her, they both graduated from Ivy League Schools, and I’m pretty sure their building isn’t a meth lab.
As time passed, things got easier, still not easy but we are getting there. It reminds me of a piece of advice given to me by a friend years ago. When someone offers to help you, don’t be too proud to take it. It’s still good advice, but thinking back, this friend wasn’t a parent.