My phone rang just past 7:30 this morning. It was my sister. Even as I jolted awake, I knew the reason for the call. For the last two years, we knew it would come one day. I expected the call to come from 407 area code, from Village on the Green, the assisted living facility where my father lived. They'd tried to get me earlier, but the call bounced and they continued down the line and got hold of my sister.
Karen had sent an email yesterday evening saying my father had symptoms of a stomach flu and went to bed early. She had spoken to him and said he didn't sound good. That wasn't like him and I hoped it wasn't Covid. Apparently he'd coughed up blood. When they did a room check on him this morning, he had passed away.
He turned 93 a couple of days ago. My wife and I spoke to him on his birthday and he was in good form. He said he was still young compared to a lot of people at Village on the Green. But he didn't want to live to 100. I'd had that conversation with him a few times. He was ready to go and had been for some time.
He slowed down in recent years, due to neuropathy in his legs that reduced his mobility. By 2017, he could no longer golf. He stalled for six months, but agreed to move from the house on a golf course where he had lived with my mother for more than twenty years to an independent living facility. We'd hoped he might be willing to move to Michigan, Ottawa or Arizona to be near family, but he wanted to stay in Florida where he had friends. He'd also had enough of winter.
I'm grateful we got to spend a lot of time with him in recent years. My mother passed away in 2006 and we'd taken my father on trips to China and San Francisco. He also traveled on his own to Alaska, Germany, Poland, Israel, Australia and New Zealand.
My wife and my sister helped him pare back his belongings to what would fit in a two-bedroom apartment. He was fine with whatever they got rid of, but he didn't want to see it. He was happy to get an apartment on the ground floor near the dining room. He knew other residents there from his church and was engaged in many group activities.
The facility was in lockdown for several months during the pandemic, so his 90th birthday was over Zoom. Once we got vaccinated, my wife and I flew down to see him. He was in good spirits, if a bit less sturdy on his feet. When we left, I said to my wife: the biggest risk is he's going to fall and break his hip.
Two days later, he called me from a hospital for that very reason. I flew back to Florida the next morning and my wife and sister joined a few days later. We stayed together in his apartment and despite the travails of rehab, there were a lot of laughs. My sister spent the better part of two months with him.
I managed to visit my father every few months during the last couple of years. Surprisingly, he managed a good recovery. My father was hard working and resolute. Whatever life thew at him, he took in stride. But time takes its toll, and the neuropathy continued its course, eventually leaving him wheelchair bound. We also learned that he had Parkinson's. And there was a noticeable deterioration in his short-term memory.
My father had always been an avid reader and I would load his Kindle with Len Deighton, John le Carré and Philip Kerr novels. Sometimes he remembered the stories from the past, but he enjoyed re-reading them. It broke my heart when he gave up reading. My brother and I had finished writing a novel but he could no longer retain what he was reading from one page to the next. I think he was proud of us, but I'm sad that he never got to read the work. Did it measure up? Did I?
The last few years, I knew it was just a matter of time. I tried to be a good son to my father. I would get him to talk about the past, about travel we did as a family out to Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Lake Ontario. His world kept getting smaller. He didn't leave Village on the Green. He barely went outside. He stopped doing email. My wife and I introduced Wordle to some of the residents of the assisted living facility, but without us being there to coach them, it didn't take.
I last saw him in March, on a solo trip that overlapped with my sister's last visit. Meals at the assisted living facility were hard. My father would sometimes close his eyes and nod off for a moment. Without my sister or wife in the dining room, conversation was pretty slow among the other guests. If you could get them to talk about their past there were some fascinating stories.
But after you've heard the stories enough times you can repeat them yourself and eaten the same food five days in a row, you can get a little antsy. To stay sane, I developed a few rituals. I would run and swim at nearby Wekiva Springs State Park. I would get BBQ from Four Rivers Smokehouse. I would have a local Funky Buddha beer at dinner. Sometimes I would play at the blues jam at The Alley in Sanford, Florida. I love my father, but it is an ordeal to see someone you love fade away.
I often thanked my father, and my mother before she passed way, for raising five kids. They gave us good values: hard work, integrity, curiosity, respect. Everyone thrived and no one went to jail. There were some years in my late teens and early twenties when things were strained between us. My older brother Shawn and I duked it out to see who would be the black sheep of the family and, ultimately, he won out. I reconciled with my parents in my late twenties one Christmas when we all gathered at my sister's house in Ottawa.
My dad studied chemical engineering earning a bachelor's degree from Queens University and a Master's Degree from University of Toronto, despite missing a year of school due to scoliosis. He was born in the depression and neither he nor my mother had an especially easy upbringing. My father was a strict Catholic, but as he grew older, I was glad to see he was liberal in his views. He understood the difference between those who do good and those who wield religious dogma against others.
My father had a career in the world of chemical engineering working for Liquid Carbonic, Air Liquide and then switching industries to become GM of the Canadian Division of American Air Filter, a manufacturing company. When he came to visit us in San Francisco one time, my wife brought him to the Zendesk office and I learned to my surprise that my father had worked as Product Manager early in his career. I guess the acorn doesn't fall far and all that.
When American Air Filter was acquired by a larger manufacturer Allis-Chalmers in the early 1980s, my parents moved from Montreal to Louisville, Kentucky. They made a lot of friends there and really enjoyed the community.
In 1989, my father made one final switch to become CFO of a semiconductor testing company CTL located in Florida. I am not sure he was well suited to that industry. After a few years, the founders wanted to move in a different direction and so my father retired. Thirty years later he told me not to tell anyone that he had been let go from his last job. I told him I was sure the statute of limitations had run out on that, that he'd had a good career and he shouldn't worry about it. Good advice for anyone.
After my father's retirement, my parents traveled to Russia, Macedonia and other countries where my father worked with a non-profit organization as an advisor to help local manufacturing companies modernize their operations.
As much as I hate Florida in the summer, I had been planning to visit my father in August. But now, plans have changed. My wife and I are heading there tomorrow. There will be paperwork to be done, arrangements to be made, people to see. There were still a couple of cans of Funky Buddha in his fridge when I visited in March. Maybe I'll get some Four Rivers BBQ. And if I'm lucky, one last trail run and swim at Wekiva Springs State Park to say my final goodbye.
In these situations, you always wish you had one more visit, one goddamned more phone call, please, just one more time... But it would never be enough. He was ready to go and I'm glad that he didn't have to deal with a lengthy illness. He lived a good life, he cared about people and he left a solid legacy through his children and grandchildren. My mom will be glad to see him.
So, if you find yourself with family and friends this holiday weekend, cherish the moment. And if the spirit takes you, raise a glass of Jameson in my father's honor. No doubt, he will do the same for you.
Official obituary at Legacy.com / Orlando Sentinel
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