He might be gone, but Collin Slattery hopes his father would be proud of the man he’s trying to become.
It has been 12-and-a-half years since my father died. I never called him my father – he was always Dad – but since his death, the distance created by using the cold, sterilized term “father” has helped to keep my feelings on the issue in check. I never speak about his death; I try not to think about it. In fact, I cannot actually remember the date he died. For someone with an exceptional memory – I can easily pull off the top of my head all my bank account numbers and credit card numbers – but something as important and simple as the date of my father’s death is impossible to recall. When my mother and sisters would talk about him, I would leave the room. After all, his death made me the man of the family at 10, and I stepped into shoes impossible for a 10-year-old boy to fill. I see 10-year-old children now and see how small they are; I often wonder if I was really that small. Certainly, I was not your average 10-year-old in size, intelligence, or maturity, but I was not a man – perhaps I am not still – despite my belief that I was.
I still remember the day that he came home for the last time. He had been sick with leukemia for 7 years; he had defied impossible odds time and time again; and he was finally coming home. When he got home to our idyllic country estate on a beautiful July morning, he did not look like he was better. We had a hospital bed put in the middle of the living room; he didn’t walk in on his own two feet; and he still had his tracheotomy having spent the past 8 months in the ICU. He did not look like the truly larger than life man he was; the man who ran the Chicago marathon less than a year after his first bone marrow transplant; the man who was given a 5% chance of living 3 months 7 years prior; the man who was told he would not be able to survive another bone marrow transplant. He overcame the odds every time, and he was home.
Two days after he came home I learned why he didn’t look better. He wasn’t. The cancer was still there, and there was nothing more that could be done. All the experimental treatments had been exhausted; he had reached the lifetime limit for radiation; the only option left was spending his last days at home with his family. That is exactly what he did. When my mother told me he was going to die any day, I was in shock. I ran out of the house up to our pool, accompanied by Ginger – our yellow lab, a lifeguard that was always on duty.
I did not want anyone to see me cry, so I churned lap after lap in the pool with Ginger silently standing alongside the pool. The burning of my tears was overwhelmed by the chlorinated water. Time lost meaning; I do not know how long I was swimming. My muscles screamed in agony, my lungs were on fire, and my vision was foggy from my eyes being soaked with chlorine. And yet that pain was nothing. My soul was torn asunder and no amount of physical pain could make the emotional agony any less excruciating.
Emotionally and physically spent, I swam to the edge of the pool to get out. I had nothing left to give; I was empty, and Ginger was there with to help drag me out. I lay sprawled out face down on the concrete motionless with the puddle of water growing around me. I was cold, but I didn’t care. Ginger kept nudging me with her snout, but I didn’t want to move. I wanted to die.
I spent the next three days with my father trying to pretend that he wasn’t dying and enjoying the time with him. I watched him get worse and worse, and on the third day he did not have the energy to eat or talk; he mostly just slept. In the evening his breathing became labored, he was fighting to live, but this was one battle he was not going to win. In his sleep he mumbled, “The boat is stuck; the lines are tangled; I can’t get out to sea.”
“No,” I said, “the lines have been cast off, and the sea is calm; you can sail away.” He stopped fighting and became calm and peaceful. His breathing slowed and finally, it stopped. His life had sailed off into the distance.
I knew this day was coming, but I was not ready. I had steeled myself in anticipation for this moment, but my preparation was no match for the reality of his death. He was never coming back; he was gone forever. He would not take me to play golf with him; he wouldn’t be at my wedding; he wouldn’t see me graduate high school and college; he wouldn’t teach me how to shave; he wouldn’t teach me how to talk to women. He was nothing more than a memory.
I broke down. I cried for hours. I cried long after the tears were gone, my body wracked by spasms. I was ashamed of my crying, but I did not yet have an iron grip on my emotions. After I could cry no more, I promised myself that I would never lose control of my emotions again. I slept in the hospital bed that night next to his body. Once he was gone, I would never see him again. I did not believe in god, but that night I prayed to die. I could not live without him; I would not live without him; and I wanted the pain to go away. The next morning his body was taken away, and the memorial planning began.
He always looked on the bright side of life, and he lived each and every day as if it were his last. He was always telling us to appreciate life and “breathe that fresh air” and other things to really appreciate life. He would not have wanted people to mourn his death; he would have wanted everyone to celebrate his life and that is exactly what we did. We held his memorial at his favorite country club; the one he was going to take me to play at but never got a chance.
The weather was perfect. It was the most beautiful late July day ever. Not a cloud in the sky, flowers in full bloom, and the temperature was perfect. It was one of those days where you know, if paradise existed, every day would feel like this day.
All his friends had shown up to celebrate and remember his life. I watched grown men cry as they got up to speak, relating stories about how great a man my father was. Every one would come up to me, shake my hand, and tell me what a great man my father was. They all said that they knew they would never be able to take the place of my father, but each one promised to do things with me that I would have done with my father.
I had been working on the remarks that I would deliver about my father. I was offered help by my mother, but I insisted that I would write my remarks myself. In a letter he wrote to me the previous year before he went into the ICU, when he thought he was going to die then, he had given me a great deal of advice I would need going forward. He also included his favorite quotation. It is a quotation he lived by, and it is one that I struggle valiantly to live by myself.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. – President Theodore Roosevelt
It was my turn to speak. I stood up with my speech on note cards in my shaking hands. I adjust my suit and walked up the aisle to the podium. Standing at the podium, I looked out at the faces of hundreds of people; hundreds of people who knew and loved my father. Almost all cried when they spoke of him, but I was my father’s son, and I was his greatest legacy. I had promised myself I would never again lose control of my emotions, to let the world see my weakness, to let the world know that I was too small, too scared to stand in the footsteps of a giant.
I could no longer recall my remarks from memory. I cleared my throat, looked down at my note cards, and began to read. My voice quavered. I stuttered and stopped. I stood before the crowd of friends and family… silent. Some people began to applaud, but I was not going to cry and admit defeat. Each silent second felt like hours as I stood behind that podium, rigid, trying to smother my emotions. And then, it was over. It was the first time I was able to smother my emotions, but it would not be the last.
I raised my hands for silence, and began to recite the speech I had written. The speech I had memorized. I talked about the giant that was my father, how he appreciated each and every moment of life and never showed that sadness. He was simply happy to be alive, to spend time with his children, and to enjoy the gifts he had been given. I talked of all the great memories I would have of spending time with my father, but those were all that I had left. I shared the quote that he had shared with me, and promised all the people seated before me that I too would live by that code.
I offered a glimpse at the hole that would forever be in my heart and my life. He would not be there to smile and clap and hug me when I graduated college. He would not take me out for my first round of golf… the one I had been practicing for because he said I needed to be good enough to play on a real course. He would not teach me how to shave; he would not be there on my wedding day; he would never know my children. I hoped that he was proud of me and that someday we would meet again and he would tell me such.
As I stepped down from the podium, every pair of eyes was filled with tears save one: my own.
At the time, I knew that would be the nadir of my life, but I was tragically mistaken. The years were not kind to me. I had worried about him missing the big events in my life, but I realized that the little things were where I truly missed his presence. He was not there waiting at the foot of the stairs puffing out his cheek for his goodnight kiss. He could no longer come to my track meets, basketball games, cross country meets, and say, “Good job. I’m so proud of you!” The anchor that stabilized my life was gone.
I have lived more than half my life without my hero, my role model: my dad. I have had to teach myself how to be a man. I have had to be my own father. I know I haven’t done the best job, but I have tried. I have not always lived up to the lofty ideals of that Theodore Roosevelt quotation, but I am always trying. I have a long way yet to go in life, but I hope that he would be proud of the man I have become.