see you in cincinnati
"dad, i can't wait with you any more. i have to go. i want you to know that i love you, and that i'm proud to be your son."
i was twenty-seven years old, and it amazed me how smart my dad had gotten in the ten years since i’d left home...
the call had come earlier that morning, "you better come over to the hospital; the doctors don't think dad's gonna make it through the day." so matter of fact, almost bland, a little like the weather report ("it'll be mostly sunny this afternoon, breezy and a bit milder...") - was that my mom? my brother? my sister? i don't remember. it was a long time ago. when i got to the hospital, mom and kenny and bob and jean and joan (and their various husbands and wives and some of their kids) were already there. and lots of nurses, moving around the room purposefully; moving this, opening that, fluffing, straightening, busy. the nurses had a purpose. they were lucky. we were just waiting. the doctors didn't come around, but their pessimistic prognosis came true.
it was the last day of may, 1991; the last time it ever became today again for my father. he was just six weeks shy of his 64th birthday.
a little over eighteen months earlier, just before thanksgiving of '89, mom had called me in cincinnati (where i was in my first year of grad school) and told me that dad had been diagnosed with lung cancer. she said they were going to remove half of his right lung, and asked if i was planning on coming home for thanksgiving. of course i said i would, and i did; i flew in on thanksgiving morning and my brother bob picked me up at the airport. he had brought dad home from the hospital on monday, and he said dad looked good (it turned out he was right)... it was such a relief to see dad; he really did look good, and he seemed really happy that i'd come home for the holiday. it hadn't been that way for a long time.
like many teenagers in the late 60s and early 70s, i had gotten heavily into drugs - and like many teenaged boys throughout history, i didn't have much use for my father - he laid down the law; stop using that shit or get the hell out of my house! so i did the only sensible thing: i dropped out of school and got the hell out. i don't think we strung more than a dozen words together with (or at) each other over the next ten years. and i mean in total.
but, after banging my head against the world for ten years, drifting from one dead-end, minimum-wage job to the next, pissing and smoking away pretty much every cent of the pittance i had left over after taxes and my share of the rent (i didn't mention food; that came well after cigarettes, drugs and alcohol on my priority list back then), i finally started to get a clue; i started to figure out that, if i continued in the direction i was heading, i'd end up dead or in prison (as many of my friends already had), and sooner rather than later.
i decided that i needed to go back to school, get some kind of degree (i don't know how, but somehow, i'd had enough sense to go and take the high school equivalency exam the year i should have graduated from high school, so i at least had my G.E.D.), and get on with my life, but i had no clue how i was gonna pull that off. i was at the kitchen table having a cup of coffee with my mom, thinking out loud about this one day when dad came in.
to my surprise, he sat down with us, and started brainstorming how i could do what i wanted to do. he reminded me that he had still been finishing college (he went nights) while i was growing up, and said that at least i didn't have a wife and three kids (five, after my sisters were born) to support while i was doing it. that afternoon, we hashed out a basic plan of how i was going to get into college and get my degree. i was twenty-seven years old, and it amazed me how smart my dad had gotten in the ten years since i'd left home.
dad turned out to be my biggest cheerleader as i set out on the ten-year journey to getting my master's degree; i remember in the early years, i'd bring my report card home (just like a little kid) to show him and mom - at the end of my second semester of junior college, i brought home my second 4.0 GPA report card; dad looked at it and said (totally deadpan), "i gotta say i'm pretty disappointed in you, kevin; you've shown no improvement at all over last term..."
i don't remember why, but there was some kind of snag that prevented me from going back to finish grad school in the fall of 1990. i was extremely disappointed; i'd been working towards my goal of getting my master's degree for nearly eight years, and i only had one more year to go. i wanted it so bad i could taste it. but as it turned out, if i had been able to go back that fall, i would've been 750 miles away from dad on his last day on earth. i never would've gotten the chance to say goodbye, to tell him that i loved him, to let him know that i was proud to be his son. i never would've gotten to say the last words i ever said to him: "you look really tired, dad. it's ok if you have to let go now; we'll be alright. and we'll take care of mom".
and he never would've had the chance to say the last words he ever said to me:
"i'll see you in cincinnati."