When we arrived in the COVID haunted airport, my sister and her husband were already waiting for us curbside in the car.
“Hurry,” exhorted my sister, “he’s going quickly.”
Five months earlier, we were hugging my father outside a Courtyard Marriott hotel in Long Island. At 90 years of age , he was still the image of a man in control of his destiny. Well-dressed, he stood ramrod straight tenderly holding the hand of his lady friend. Car keys dangled from the other hand. Accompanied by a two man musical group “Banjo Bob,” his birthday party had been a raucous success–several branches of our family had converged to boisterously celebrate his life. At the time, the only clouds of concern were an upcoming surgery. For that reason, I hugged him tighter than usual; my wife whispered a blessing to him.
Baggage stowed, we sped eastward to Long Island. Federico’s call punctuated the frantic familial chit chat, “Please hurry,” implored the nurse, “I don’t know how long he can last.” We were still thirty to forty minutes from the hospital.
A recent memory come rushing back to me.
“Son, when is the Spanish version of your book coming out? Don’t forget to send me a copy.”
That conversation tumbled me back to the beginning, to our breakfast conversations in the tiny brick row house in Brooklyn. His range of literature was eclectic from science fiction–Issac Asimov and Ray Bradbury to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to the Bounty Trilogy by Nordhoff and Hall. His passion for books and his mesmerizing voice sparked an acute interest in my reading…voracious reading , which culminated in so many visits to the local public library on Flatlands. On Saturday mornings, I would emerge from my room with science fiction stories requesting him to read and critique my puerile attempts to emulate When Worlds Collide, Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s science fiction novel. Not only had writing become my first love but it was also a way to please my father whose interests and talents seemed to transcend those of any ordinary police officer.
We collaborated on a school science project–I chose meteorology. It was an incredible learning experience (and labor of love) as he encouraged me to write a story about an imaginary transatlantic boat race which would highlight the scientific instruments used on ocean going yachts. I sat there in rapture listening to him describe long-distance racing boats and his love for the ocean. I found several pictures for the report; he added a beautiful pen and ink sketch of our imaginary vessel called the “Marilyn,” named after my mother. Out of love for my father, I wrote my heart out. The report was a wild success except for the footnotes which I had not quite mastered.
Although I did not pursue writing as a profession, I never stopped writing. I wrote for school newspapers, dabbled at poetry, penned numerous travel pieces for magazines and newspapers, accumulated dozens of short stories. He would, from time to time, read something I wrote, tell me I had “a way with words,” encourage me to continue, which I did.
Shortly before his 90th birthday, I gifted him my first published book, It’s Your Camino: One Couple’s 500-mile Pilgrimage Across Spain, where he is conspicuously mentioned throughout. There was no denying the urgency to write and publish It’s Your Camino…I knew my father was running out of time. In a short congratulatory email, he thanked me for the book, told me he was proud…called me his “author son.”
A second phone call shattered the tension in our vehicle–it was Federico. “Guys, I’m ‘face timing’ the call–your father’s dying…we have no more time.” For several minutes, the four of us took turns alone and together shouting at the iPhone screen to the ashen face behind the oxygen mask, “We love you Dad.’ I ordered him to prepare the boat and raise the sails as if he could hear me. They say hearing is the last sense to go.
The nurse’s voice quivered as he reluctantly ended the call; my wife and sister sobbed quietly and held hands. I stared out the window into the sepia shadows of early evening contemplating what life would be without him…we would no longer debate if Saint John Henry Newman was a better writer than James Joyce. He would never see my book in Spanish or the one I intended to roll out in several months–a memoir where I had written a chapter about his career.
Yes, he had a good run or, as a dear British friend remarked “good innings,” using the sport of cricket as a metaphor. But it still hurts to lose a parent, at any age. Still hurts to lose the person who always evinced a keen interest in his children, grandchildren and what we were doing. For now, I console myself knowing he’s at the helm of that imaginary transatlantic yacht we created with words…the one with the lofty mast and magnificent sails, the one where there are always fair winds and following seas.
So sorry to hear about the loss of your father, Ken. These are heartbreaking times.
Thanks so much for the kind words Ann. In one visit to New York, I mentioned how much I was learning from you and Ruth. Ken
Heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once. I lost my mom in 2015, shortly after her great-grandson was born. Her final months were terrible and terrifying for her – so her passing was in every way a blessing. I was carrying my firstborn and my brother was about to be married when our mom’s mom died – I was there with her and I saw in her eyes that she fully understood what was ahead. I consider the witness I bore to both ladies to be a gift to me. Lives well-lived and celebrated with far more laughs and sweet memories than tears. Ken, be gentle with yourself in the coming weeks and months. The darnedest things will evoke powerful emotions and I think it helps immensely to embrace the highs and the lows. Sending you gentle hugs and lots of ‘Phin Phamily love.
Thank you Jane. “…lives well-lived and celebrated with far more laughs and sweet memories than tears.” Beautifully said.
This brought me to tears as I thought of the deaths of both my parents. Beautiful words Ken, I am sorry for your loss. I have fond memories of your Father.
Terri…so I have a personal link to your father and mother. Your father was “Coach.” I must confess his words to me during practice, during the games, at halftime in the locker room, didn’t always stick with me. But later I understood them…and him. God Bless.
Ken & Rory,
Losing a parent is indeed one of life’s greatest tragedies. As one who went through it, over a decade ago, I will tell you that the pain doesn’t go away….but it does get better. In time, the sweet memories of your loved one will drown some of the pain. It seems you guys had a great relationship w/ your Dad, so there’ll be plenty of those sweet memories.
You are indeed a great writer Ken! I’m glad you were able to share your God given gift with your Dad before he passed.
My heart hurts for you & Rory. Dan & I send our love & prayers for your comfort at this difficult time. ❤️🙏
Thanks Dan and Nadya for the love and prayers!
You express yourself so eloquently Ken! I feel as if i was there watching too. How it is to lose a parent I hope I do not experience it any time soon, but I know it is in the distant future! God bless his soul and your family
Thanks Mary Lee. I hope you can keep it at bay for as long as possible. Which gives you time to say you love them… God Bless.
Ken I have read with great interest and sorrow of your father’s journey and your recollection of bygone times. I loss my mother when I was 22 years old. That passing defined my life and choices thereafter. From the Invictus Games ” I am the master of my soul. I am the captain of my destiny”. May he rest in peace and may you carry on his legacy. Brian
Thanks Brian. I feel the loss of your Mom. Beautiful words and thoughts–thanks for sharing.