Happy 96th Birthday, Dad
When I was 12, I had no idea what a homeless person was. All I knew was living in a safe, warm and comfortable home with two parents who loved me. Despite having very modest means, pretty much anything my younger brother, Keith, or I wanted, we got.
But if Keith or I wanted something — be it a new bicycle, a hot new toy, the sneakers that all the cool kids wore — we got it. We were spoiled terribly, though speaking for myself, I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought that was how life was.
It’s not like we were the children of well-to-do parents, either, because that was most definitely not the case. My father didn’t graduate from high school. He held blue collar jobs all his life.
I didn’t realize until much later how much both my mother and father sacrificed for my brother and I.
I learned about homelessness when I was around 12. One Saturday morning, my father and I went to visit my grandmother, and on our way home, we stopped at one of my favorite places for lunch.
I was a picky eater as a child and was almost always a skinny kid — I was 6 feet 2 but weighed 155 pounds when I graduated from high school — but I loved the hot dogs at a place near my grandmother’s called, “The Original Hot Dog Stand.” My Dad and I would frequently sit at the counter and eat our lunch together. I loved to sit on that chair and spin around while we talked sports.
On this particular day, a disheveled man approached us as we were about to enter the hot dog place. He wasn’t the kind of man I was used to seeing, and I remember he didn’t smell good. He asked my father if he could borrow a cigarette.
We diverted from the hot dog stand and I saw my father buy the man a carton of cigarettes and give it to him.
At that point, we headed back to get lunch. I usually ordered two hot dogs with French fries and a drink. My Dad would get one hot dog with a coffee. When our food came up, a strange thing happened: My Dad took my second hot dog and my French fries and gave them to this stranger we’d met outside. He’d apparently followed us into the restaurant and whispered to my Dad.
I noticed after a while that my Dad was sipping coffee, but he wasn’t eating. He had nothing in front of him.
I asked him about it, and he shook his head no, and told me to be quiet. I didn’t understand and I persisted. After a while, he matter-of-factly told me he’d given his lunch to the stranger and changed the subject.
On the way home, I several times asked my Dad why he didn’t eat his lunch, but he wasn’t answering. I didn’t find out until much later that he’d given his lunch to the stranger we’d met. I then discovered that my second hot dog and my fries also went to this man.
I learned that this man didn’t have a roof over his head where he could sleep each night. He hadn’t eaten, and so my father gave him his lunch and some of mine.
It turns out that my Dad didn’t buy himself another lunch for a simple reason: He couldn’t afford it. He went without that day, giving his lunch to someone who needed it far more.
Countless times I saw my father literally give all the money had had in his pocket to someone who needed it. He was always available to help a neighbor. One year, a family near us had an emergency. They were a family of five, with two boys and a girl.
The father of this family went to the hospital for what was supposed to be a routine procedure. It turned out not to be. Something happened, and he turned into a vegetable, confined to a wheelchair and unable to walk or speak.
Until I went away to college, my parents would buy a bag of groceries for those people each Friday they went shopping, and would have either my brother or I deliver it to the neighbor around the corner.
That was my Dad. He would literally give you the shirt off his back, or the money in his wallet.
When he died in 2003, I heard hundreds of stories from people I hadn’t seen in decades, telling me of kindnesses small or large my father had done for them.
Everyone who knew him loved him. He saw most everyone as a friend and rarely did I see him angry.
One of the few times I could ever recall him being truly angry was when a neighbor was sitting on the deck of the pool talking with my parents. The man used a nasty, derogatory term to refer to African Americans. Almost as soon as he said it, I saw the rage on my Dad’s face.
Don’t you ever talk that way in front of my children, my father said to the man, fuming.
He later apologized to Keith and I for getting angry but encouraged us never to judge anyone by the color of their skin.
He lived for nearly 20 years after my mother’s death in 1984, but I don’t think he ever recovered from that. He was never the same.
He didn’t have a high-paying job and he wasn’t an educated man, but he was the wisest and kindest man I knew.
He loved sports, particularly the Steelers and Pirates. He wasn’t a hockey guy but followed the Penguins because I somehow had developed an interest in hockey. He took me to my first boxing match, to see the great Sugar Ray Robinson, fight Joey Archer at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena on Nov. 10, 1965.
We didn’t know it at the time, but it was the legendary Robinson’s final fight.
He died of colon cancer on Aug. 18, 2003. I was living in Las Vegas, and I knew he was sick, so a few days earlier, I’d purchased a ticket to fly home to visit him. On Saturday, August 16, 2003, I spoke to my father’s doctor. He told me my father was on borrowed time, and would probably last another three to six months. It was possible, he said, that he could make it to Christmas. But on that day, the doctor told me, he was doing well.
The next morning, I received a panicked call from Keith. My father had a bad night and wasn’t expected to live another 24 hours. He begged me to get on the next plane home.
I did and landed sometime on Sunday evening. My brother, a few of my cousins and some of our friends were at my Dad’s bedside. He and they knew the end was near.
My first cousin, Bob, picked me up at the airport. I desperately wanted to get there to see my Dad alive, but he was getting worse by the minute and with no traffic, it would be about a 40-minute ride from the airport to the hospital. We were in a race against the clock.
My cousin was exceeding the speed limit. My brother called my cell phone several times, pleading with us to hurry. On the last call, I asked Keith to put the phone to my Dad’s ear. He did, and I said in a loud, firm voice, “Dad, this is Kevin and this is very important. I know you are sick and you don’t feel very good, but hang in there because I’m on my way to see you. I’ll be there in a few minutes.” I heard his voice, faint and scratchy, use the nickname he frequently called me.
When Bob and I got to the hospital, he parked and we dashed through the emergency room, sprinting to where my father was. A priest was in the room talking with the small group gathered to be with my Dad. They walked out of the room to give me privacy, maybe my final seconds with my Dad while he was still alive.
I walked up to his bedside and grasped his hand.
I leaned over and spoke directly into his left ear. “I’m here, Dad. I love you.”
I felt him squeeze my hand. He smiled and struggled to sit up. He was unable to get to a seated position, but he opened his eyes, smiled at me and said, “I love you, kid. Thanks for coming.”
He laid back down and never said another word. He died early on Monday morning, passing in his sleep.
Had he lived, he would have been 96 today. I can only imagine the conversations we would have had.
He was a humble man, but he knew the difference between right and wrong and he respected everyone he came into contact with. He had the ability to laugh at himself and never take himself too seriously. He was proud of his family and treated my brother and I like we were heirs to the throne.
I always wanted to be like him, and though I’ve failed miserably, I can take solace in the fact he set a pretty high standard.
A day hasn’t passed that I haven’t thought of him, and it never will. It’s always rough on his birthday.
I wish I could have done more. I wish I could have said something more profound. I wish I could have been more like him.
Mostly, I wish I could wrap my arms around him and say, “I love you,” one last time.