If My Dad Had Lived Longer
If my dad had lived longer this would be his eighty-first birthday. He died of acute pancreatitis within about 48 hours of the disease’s onset. We were all at the hospital when it happened because I had a premonition of trouble. I was in my office in Washington, D.C. on Friday morning when I felt a strong impulse to call my mom. I do not speak lightly of the strength of that impulse. One minute I was devising a strategy for sidestepping the IRS’s handling of a client’s tax challenge. I stood in front of my office set of the Commerce Clearinghouse Standard Federal Tax Reporter and thumbed through the index for inspiration. Then I heard her voice and she was saying, “Call me.”
It had happened to me once before. I was at work and I heard her voice. I called her right after she had climbed up onto a chair that had wheels so that she could reach something in the pantry. She misjudged her balance, fell from the chair and put her head through the pantry door! I stayed on the line with her until my dad could get home in case she suffered a concussion. As a result, when I heard her voice, I responded.
She told me that my brother Danny was on his way to Dad’s office. Dad was feeling so sick that he could not get home alone. He thought he should go to the hospital, but he wanted it to be the hospital close to home. When Danny got Dad home, they went right to the hospital.
I had spoken to my dad the night before his illness. We had a good talk. He wanted me to move back to Chicago. I was considering doing that. He wanted me to get an annulment of my marriage. I had decided to pursue that. (I still have not gotten that done.) He was happy. But he wanted more. He wanted my sister Kathy to move back to Chicago, too. At that time, Kathy and I were living in Maryland. I was divorced and free to relocate if I could find a good job opportunity. My sister had a husband and two children and a job she enjoyed. I did not think Dad could persuade her to come back to Chicago, but he was a determined man.
When my mom let me know that my dad had a diagnosis and was expected to make a full recovery, I already sensed that it was not going to turn out well. I was so concerned that I left my office as soon as I heard my dad was sick. I took my car to a repair shop and had four new tires put on it. I packed a suitcase and put it in my trunk. But my mom convinced me not to start the drive to Chicago. She was certain that Dad would be okay.
The next day I went to my sister’s house. Kathy and I went to the mall. When we got back, my brother-in-law Jeff had a suitcase for Kathy. He told us to hit the road immediately. He would pack his and their girls’ suitcases and follow us on his own within another hour.
My mom had been at the hospital that morning to visit my dad. He wanted to see Danny. She figured there was time for that later in the day. She went to her job at J.C. Penney. Dad slipped into unconsciousness shortly thereafter.
Kathy and I drove through the night and got to the house at about four in the morning. It was a thirteen hour trip. My mom was up when we got to the house. She could not sleep. We went right to the hospital. Dad was still unconscious. I remember that he looked terrible. He wore glasses. They were not on his face. That was strange. He always wore them, even when he fell asleep in his favorite chair at the house.
He was swollen. I was afraid to touch him because he had painful neuropathy after a terrible case of shingles. He could not bear to use his hands other than for necessary tasks. The doctors told us to speak to him. He might be able to hear us even if he could not respond.
The doctors wanted to open him up but were afraid that general anesthesia would kill him. We agreed to surgery without anesthesia. I have no idea if we did the right thing. The surgeon did not find anything that helped Dad. There was some talk about a gangrene length of bowel, but my dad had that week passed a stress test. His bowel was working on the Thursday before his death. I know. He spoke of it (funny how people start talking about that stuff and cannot seem to recall any longer the time when the topic was considered personal).
After the surgery was over, we crowded around the bed to look him over. He was more swollen. His color was orange, like a bad case of “spray tan.”
The doctors told us that it was a matter of time, but it sounded like the time might be a day rather than hours. My Aunt Joan, my dad’s only sister, came to see her brother one last time. My dad’s friend Jack came for a couple of minutes. We hovered in the corner of Dad’s room and in the waiting area, taking turns sitting with him.
My mom and Kathy headed back to the house for something to eat, maybe a nap. Danny and I stood by at the hospital. As soon as my mom left, Dad’s vitals showed he was crashing. The doctors rushed in and said, “Get your family back here.”
I whispered good-bye and ran for a payphone (this happened in 1992 before cell phones). By the time I came back, Danny was in the hallway. The doctors were in the room trying to revive my dad. It was not possible to save him.
My dad was a “King” on his mother’s side. At that time, no King male had lived past 59 years of age. Harry King (my great-grandfather) died before 59. Dr. Edward P. King (my great uncle) died before 59. Even after my dad’s death, the King curse continued. My cousin Steve died before 59. (We are all thankful that my cousin Michael thereafter broke the chain.) My dad was 59 at the time. He had four months to go to turn 60 and break the chain. It’s a funny thing about fate. It probably doesn’t dictate anything, but, until someone breaks the chain, fate seems in control.
I am going to tell you about something else in addition to how my dad died, because death is sometimes just an ending and lots of us know what it is like to lose someone suddenly.
My dad was the life of the party. He taught my sister and me to dance. He was very good at dancing. I was a kid in the 1960’s. We used to “twist.” It was a blast. I always get tears in my eyes when I think of him dancing with me on my wedding day and then taking my mom into his arms. I married a man who could dance. The marriage did not last, but dancing with my ex-husband is something I still remember fondly.
My dad enjoyed a party so much that there were times he went to a party at Norm and Jane’s house across the street and stayed late enough to make them breakfast when they woke in the morning.
[Yes, Mary is wearing her earrings in her hair and nose. My dad also mixed a strong drink, as did his cousins.] My dad lived boldly. We had a summer cottage when I was a kid. My dad loved to throw newcomers into the lake during their first visit. One of my cousins knew about this and so stayed inside the house so that he was never close to the water. He also perched on a tiny chair that had belonged to my grandma, thinking he would be safe. My dad filled a huge pot with lake water, dragged it into the house and tossed the water right into his face! Everyone got wet.
One night we were partying at my grandparents’ home and my dad got mad about something and went out for a walk. He did not come back. We were an hour’s drive from home. My mom piled us into the car and we all went out searching for him. When no one could find him, my mom gave up and took us home. Imagine our surprise when we arrived home to find him sleeping on a lawn chair on the driveway. He had wandered up onto the toll road, flagged down a police car, and convinced the police officer to drive him all the way to our house.
When he was about my age, he suffered through an illness that left him in a weakened condition, but he refused to let it get him down. He got into a fight with someone who was big enough and tough enough to wipe the floor with my dad, but my dad would not give in to threat. He said to the guy, “I’m not just going to kick your butt. When I’m done with you, I’m going to kick the butt of every one of your friends.” The other guy growled. My dad knew this was going to get ugly and his Louisville Slugger (always kept in the car in case there was a game (fight)) was in the car and not at hand. My dad said, “I want all my friends to see it. Wait right here while I go get them.” Then he ran away. As he explained it, “I beat him with my superior intellect.”
My dad loved God and country. He convinced many a fallen Catholic in the family to go back to the church. He said the rosary every day as he drove in his car. He stood every time he heard the national anthem–even when we were at home. He was a Republican block captain and always voted–even during the many years when he and my mom would vote and cancel out each other’s votes. He loved the Marine Corps and often put out American flags at our homes.
My dad was a bad boy who thought boys should be boys. He pulled the fire alarm when he was in grade school. He played pranks. He used to follow his slightly older sister Joan when she went out on dates so he could keep an eye on her and her boyfriends. He always had a list of jokes in his pocket. He used to keep an old-fashioned fire extinguisher at the house. He would fill it with water and chase us around spraying us with water long after our little water guns had gone dry.
My dad did not forget his own history. When my brother Danny got into trouble, my dad would wrap his arms around my mom and say, “Boys will be boys.” He would not falter in his belief that a bad boy could turn out to be one hell of a good man. (My brother is a man my dad would be so proud to know.)
My dad loved my mom. There was fighting in our home. My mom used to darken the house and we would lie in wait for Dad when they were “on the outs.” When he walked in the door, we lobbed Tupperware at him. He would chase us all around the house until everyone was exhausted. Then he would toss my mom over his shoulder and carry her off to their bedroom. We did not understand about “make-up sex” in those days, but we knew as we put ourselves to bed, that everything was okay in our world. I can still remember my dad kissing my mom first thing every time he came home and last thing every time he left.
My dad always said, “It only costs a little more to go first class.” He was a clothes horse. When we went on vacation he had a vacation wardrobe. He wore yellow trousers, red trousers. The man even had Kelly green trousers. He always picked out the best thing. He had the best umbrella, the best rifle, the best fishing pole, the best camera, and the best tools. We did not always have much, but whatever we had was nice. If we could not afford the “best,” then we waited. We worked hard. We saved our money. Then we went out and got it.
My dad used to go on ahead. When we used to go to the mall, my dad always walked well ahead of the rest of us. We would walk slowly, stopping to look at things. Sometimes we would catch a glimpse of him on another level of the mall or far ahead of us. At the end of our circuit of the building, we would find him sitting on a bench eating an ice cream cone. I think of him that way now, waiting some place down the road for the rest of us to catch up with him, eating an ice cream cone.
If my dad had lived longer, today would have been his birthday. Happy Birthday, Dad.