By Tom Froehlich • January 29, 2015
My dad had a spot on his pancreas. "Only a shadow," they said. "Nothing serious, but we should do a biopsy just to make sure." His doctor suggested he have it done in October, but he decided to wait until I left in January.
“I know if anything goes wrong Tom won’t go and I don’t want anything to get in the way of his dream of moving to California,” he said to my mom. My mom reiterated what the doctors had said about it being standard procedure, I’m not certain if it was to reassure my dad or herself, most likely a little bit of both, but he held his ground.
I had dinner with my parents the night before I headed west. It was a cold January, Wisconsin night where you could see your breath and feel the dampness of it freeze your nose hairs. This reaffirmed my decision to leave everything I had known for forty-six years and the people I loved for the sunny warm days of Venice, California.
We stood in the parking lot of the restaurant after dinner, stalling, knowing it was our last night together until possibly the holidays the following December. Or maybe we just didn’t know how to say good-bye. My dad, finally tired of stamping his feet to keep them from numbing in the cold said, “Well, you know I don’t usually do this but it looks like it’s going to be a while until we see each other again.”
He stepped forward and wrapped his seventy-six-year-old arms fully around my 6’3” frame and said, “I really hope you find what you are looking for out there. Good luck.” I thanked him and looked toward my mom trying to vainly blink back tears.
“You know I told you I won’t say good bye,” she said turning her head, looking away.
“I know mom”, I said, my voice catching a bit in my throat. I hugged her in my arms, her frame seeming so much smaller than it should have for the strong and opinionated woman who had raised me and still called all three of her sons her “baby” although we were all in our forties. “I’ll see you later okay? And I’ll call you when I get to Iowa.”
I walked to my car which was already packed for the next day’s departure. I turned the key in the ignition and started the defroster waiting for the windshield to clear as I watched the two people I loved most in the world drive away. Watching the red tail lights fade into the distance I had mixed emotions of adrenalin filled excitement and a feeling of abandoning my parents to chase a dream. They had never discouraged me when I told them of my decision a year earlier. My mom had only said, “Honey, you have no job out there and you don’t know a soul. Aren’t you afraid?”
“Yea, mom. Actually I’m terrified, but I am more afraid of not going and twenty years from now knowing that it was fear that stopped me.”
“Well you are a hell of a lot braver than I ever was kid,” was the only response.
I understand more now than I did at the time how much they loved me to let me go. I know that sounds cliché, but you don’t understand what a task it is for my mother to keep her mouth shut when she feels strongly about something.
Six weeks later I was in the bedroom of a house I had rented on the beach in Venice when my phone rang. It was my older brother Rick. “Hey, the reason I’m calling is dad’s in the hospital.” It’s funny how Rick would always start a phone conversation feeling the need to explain and justify the reason for the call as if just calling for no reason at all wasn’t acceptable. Our dad did the same thing. It always made me smile. Rick was my dad. “Don’t freak out on me or anything. He just went in for a biopsy on his pancreas and developed an infection.”
“What do you mean? What kind of an infection?!”, I demanded.
Laughing he said, “I knew you would freak out. You’re just like mom. Relax. I already have to keep her from going nuts. I think the doctor’s ready to sedate her if she doesn’t stop asking questions. On second thought maybe it’s good you are out in California or the doctor would have the two of you in straight jackets.” I laughed. Rick always knew how to make fun of my drama and calm me down.
“It’s not unusual, the doctor said. About ten percent of patients that have this procedure develop an infection. They have him on antibiotics and are keeping him under observation. We’re just calling to keep you up to date. Don’t want you to feel like you’re out of the loop being out in Cali and all.”
“How’s mom doing?”
“How do you think? I told you she’s driving the doctor nuts!”
“Then I guess she’s doing fine,” I joked.
“Exactly,” he laughed.
“Thanks for calling Rick. Just keep me updated”, I said.
“You got it bud”, he said and ended the call.
Rick has a way of assuring you everything will be all right. He owns a million dollar construction company he says he “fell into”. Building it from the ground up, he started with two run-down rentals to house students from the same college he was booted out of. He’s the kind of guy you want around in a natural disaster. Not only will he keep everyone calm, but also has an engineering mind and will think of some way to make a contraption to sterilize water out of a shoe string and a coffee can. And he has a way of making it seem so obvious with out making you feel like the village idiot. He’s a great guy.
I began to settle into my life and found a job and began going to Agape Spiritual Center, a nondenominational church. I was never big on the whole God thing, but have strong beliefs in a higher power and considering the life change I had just made tapping into that power on a regular basis seemed like a pretty good idea.
I was getting ready for work one afternoon when my phone rang. It was my brother Rick. “Ah Tom. Things aren’t looking so good. The infection isn’t going away and they can’t figure out why.”
“What?!” I said, all of the air escaping from my lungs.
“They’re doing the best they can, but he keeps going in and out of consciousness,” I heard my brother whimper. Rick doesn’t whimper.
“Shit Rick! What should I do?” I asked.
“All you can do is pray I guess. Shit, even I’m praying and honestly I think the last time I did that I was ten-years-old praying for Santa to bring me a BB gun. A fucking BB gun,” I heard him say and then he began to sob.
“Dammit Rick, you’re freaking me out!”
“Honestly? I’m freaking out too and usually that’s your department. Please just pray. I’m here taking care of mom and there is nothing else you can do but pray. Hopefully I will call next time with good news.”
I went to work that afternoon in a surreal fog. How could my life have changed so much in just six weeks?
I talked with my brother and my mom daily to check on my dad’s progress. After a week of these daily calls my mom got on the phone and said, “Honey, the doctors said that it may be time for me to call my son in California and let him know things don’t look so good. There is nothing you can do, but if you want to come home it’s up to you. Only you can make that choice.”
Numb and strangely detached, I somehow managed to say, “Let me talk to Rick.”
He didn’t even wait for me to ask the question, he just said, “You don’t want to see dad like this Tom. He looks awful. It’s not even him.”
“But a week ago…”
“I know. It all happened so fast. They said his circulatory system is just so poor it is affecting his immune system and it can’t fight the infection. He’s barely conscious at all now. The doctor is here. I gotta go.” I heard him sobbing as he hung up the phone.
At 5:30 the next morning my phone rang. I didn’t need to look at the caller I.D. to see who was calling. I reluctantly answered, “Hello,” and heard Rick gasp out through tears, ”Dad’s gone.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can. Tell mom I’ll call when I have a flight.”
I went into remote control somehow blocking everything I felt, knowing I had to stay in control until I was safely back with my family. The word even sounded strange knowing that it meant “my family” without my dad.
Later that morning I called my boss and told him the news. I told him I would call him when I was back in town and ready to start work again. My brothers had families and I knew I would stay with my mom as long as she needed me. I called the airline and booked a flight for the following day, the soonest I could get out. My roommate offered to move my car every other day according to the parking restrictions, which meant I needed to get another key made. I had somehow lost the extra key while packing the car the night before I moved and knew if I lost my only key the entire ignition would need to be replaced.
The lock smith informed me that my key had a special computer chip so it needed to be ordered and would take up to a week and cost five hundred dollars. This only added to the shock of the loss I had yet to fully comprehend. Leaving the locksmith, I drove down Lincoln Boulevard and said out loud, “Dad, I don’t need this right now. I need to get home. Please help me.” Pulling up to a stop light, for some reason I looked down in the recessed area that housed the emergency brake and saw something glimmer. Looking closer I saw that the glimmer was the extra key I had lost six weeks previously. It wasn’t hidden or obscured in any way. All I said was, “Thank you.”
When my flight landed in Milwaukee my best friend Marbella picked me up at the airport. Her name means beautiful sea. And she is beautiful to me an ever way. My friend in the truest sense. My many flaws softened through her eyes. She gave me a hug and started to cry. I just said, “Don’t. I can’t. Not until I get home or I won’t make it.”
My bags barely touched the floor of my parent’s entryway when my brother Rick hugged me for the first time in our lives and said, “I am so glad you’re here.” We held the hug and shared our pain.
Hugging my mom, she felt even smaller and more frail than when we had not said good-by six weeks earlier. My younger brother and his family were arriving the following day.
My brothers and I had never lost anyone close to us, both sets of grandparents having passed away when we were too young to remember, so we didn’t know what to expect or how to mourn. We spent the afternoon crying over our loss and laughing over the memories our family had shared. Family vacations gone sour. Christmas tree lights gone dark. The way my dad couldn’t remember people’s names and filled in with whatever made sense to him. He often referred to Marbella as Marmaduke, the Great Dane from the Sunday comics and if your name was Larry and you were Italian you were most likely going to be called Tony. It just made sense to him. Marbella adored my dad and took no offense. Larry, not so much. “And what was with that damn song he was always trying to sing but couldn’t remember the lyrics I asked. That Shanti, shanti, shanti…business?”
Rick furrowed his brow and then had a flash of recognition. “Oh yea. Who knows? Maybe it was really shanty, like fish shanty and reminded him of being in the navy or something.”
The memorial service passed and I stayed with my mom two more weeks, my brothers and their families going back to their homes three hours away. My mom and I did our best to ignore the void in our lives and somehow trying to impossibly fill it at the same time. Finally she said, “Honey, it’s time for you to go home. I am going to be fine and so will you. We’re still a family and we will get through this.”
My plane landed on a Wednesday afternoon and that evening planned on going to the Agape Spiritual Center for the mid-week service and meditation. As I slipped my key into the ignition I remembered how I had found the spare key two weeks earlier and wondered.
Jean, a woman I had met when I first started attending, asked me how my father was and I told her he had past away. She hugged me and said you know he is just on another plane, but he is still with you. Somehow her kind words didn’t lessen my pain. The choir came onto the stage in robes all colors of a sunset. I had been attending services twice a week since I had arrived in California and had heard dozens of hymns, most of which were written by the founder of the church and his wife, who lead the choir.
I thought, “Well if you’re here dad it would be nice to know cause I’m back here in California with out my family and this is really, really, really hard.”
The soft sound of the piano began to fill the room as the choir swayed to the rhythm and began to sing, “Om shanti, om shanti, shanti, shanti om…” Yes. They really did. Tears streamed down my cheeks and I said out loud, “Oh my God. You heard me. "You really heard me.” I began to sing along and thought, “Wow dad, now I can get the rest of the lyrics for you.” Then I thought again, “But I guess you already know them, I guess you already know them,” and smiled singing, “Om Shanti, om shanti, shanti, shanti om...”
I know Om Shanti is a Buddhist chant and the closest my dad may have ever gotten to a Buddhist temple was rubbing the Buddha’s belly for good luck at Harvey Moy’s restaurant after a meal of chow mein on a Saturday night, but no one can tell me it wasn’t a message from him to me. Some things you just know. And now, whenever I attend Agape and we sing Om Shanti, I sing it for my dad. I sing it with him. And now, we both know the words.
I love you Dad.
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