Sunday, February 7, 2016

Cherish the Good Times

It's been 6 days now since my father took his last breath at the age of 88. The last number of years with him were not as I hoped they would be due to circumstances beyond my control. Sometimes, the choices of third parties can separate even the closest of family relationships.

I'll leave it at that.

I was not there when my father died. Given when I learned that he was in his final days, I don't know that I could have been anyway. I said my goodbyes to him by phone. That was where I made my peace.

You may judge me for that and that is your right. But, for me, the way I handled the end of our journey together was absolutely correct. There would have been no purpose in me causing additional discomfort for another person who came into my life just over 30 years ago and left it as quickly as she could find a way. My dad would not have recognized me anyway. Burdened with Alzheimer's and dementia at the end, his nurse told me that he didn't even recognize the people who were in his life every day.

I spoke to him over the phone. His nurse acknowledged that perhaps he recognized. He moved his eyes, positively. Perhaps he smiled. I cried, but it was comforting for me as I reminisced to myself.

We had lots of good times together. If you're still with me, you get to read about a few of them.

My fourth birthday was an interesting one. I remember two gifts in particular that I got -- one from my parents and one from who knows where. You see, on December 5, 1961, I woke up with massively swollen glands and a high fever. I was chilled and after sleeping the night through, I remained tired. My first gift of the day was mumps (there was no MMR vaccine back then).

But, on your birthday, the show must go on. And, it did.

A few people who could possibly see this might remember our house in West Orange. When you came in the front entrance, you were in a small foyer. The den or family room, quite large in my memories, but quite small I'm sure in reality lay in front of you. To the left were seven very wide stairs going up to the living room.

The gift part of my birthday party was there, in the living room. I thought that I had seen all of my presents. That may have been one, it may have been ten. I don't know. My mom told me that there was one more present. But, my dad had to go get it. He went outside. What could possibly be out there.

When my dad came back through the door, he did so with my first bike. As sick as I was, I ran to the stairs and while my memory tells me that I jumped down all seven of them into his arms, my knowledge of my jumping ability tells me there's not a chance in the world that that happened. Nevertheless, I jumped as many stairs as I was able into his arms. I hopped right on that bike with its two big wheels and much smaller training wheels and spent my entire time with my mumps riding that bike around the bottom floor of our house.

And, then there were Sunday breakfasts. When the weather permitted, my dad played golf on Sundays. But, when it got colder, he would be home. We had a ritual. You see there were two delicatessens in the Pleasantdale area of town -- Jay's and Tabatchnick's. Tabatchnick's was the well-known one, but we liked Jay's (I have no idea why).

Every Sunday, we would get in the car together to go to Jay's to pick up salt bagels and lox. It was our Sunday morning ritual -- a great tradition. And, to this day, although if I did all the time I wouldn't fit through the door, bagels and lox is a special (very occasional) breakfast treat for me.

Fast forward to 1967. The little league that I played in, something called the Mountain Top League, was split between 8 and 9 year olds in one league and 10 through 12 year olds in the other. Being 9 still, I played in the lower league at that time. When I was 8, I had hit everything. I recall making the All-Star team and playing in the All-Star game that year. For us, the All-Star game was played halfway through the season.

When I was 9, however, the first half of the season, I couldn't hit worth a lick. I was doing something wrong and today, I have no idea what it was. Nevertheless, because our team was so bad and because each team put three players on the All-Star team, even with a Little League batting average well below the Mendoza Line (.200, for those that don't know), I made the team.

I don't recall what my dad told me, but I do remember him telling me something that did the trick. The All-Star game was on a Saturday afternoon, but due to rain earlier in the week, our team had a makeup game Saturday morning. In the makeup game, everything came together. With every swing I took, you could hear the thwack of the fat part of the bat on the ball. I went 4 for 4 (all extra base hits) in that 4 inning game (don't ask, but the league thought we could only handle 4 innings at that point).

That afternoon, we played at a field then known as Vincent's Pond (later Degnan Park, certainly not as charismatic a name to me). My dad knew that I was starting at 3rd base. He liked watching me play over there. My reflexes were pretty fast and my arm was pretty strong. On the first pitch of the game, somebody who has long since been nameless to me, ripped a ball down the third base line. I could hear my dad as I stabbed at the ball with my glove backhanded, turned and in the motion he had taught me, threw a strike to first base. Three or four more times in that game, I made plays at the hot corner and each time, I heard my dad cheer louder. But, it didn't end there. Whatever it was that he had told me about my hitting was really resonating. Three more extra-base hits on the day. My dad beamed. I did too.

My dad loved his golf. He got me into the game. And, I couldn't be happier than to say that three of my happiest moments on the golf course were with him.

The first time that I broke 100, we were together. The 18th hole was a short par 4, perhaps 320 yards, but shorter I think. It was all downhill with a walled creek running across the front edge of the green. A bogey there would give me a 99. So, playing safe was theoretically an option. The problem was that there was no real way to play safe on that hole. Over the green was trouble and hitting a second shot over the green was not going to produce a good result.

I recall hitting a good drive, slightly left of center. I was nervous. I think my dad was more nervous as I grabbed my pitching wedge to hit over the water to that rock hard green. I thought of everything he had told me, stayed firm through impact, followed through and watched that little white ball fly straight toward the pin. One hop past the hole and the backspin from hitting the ball properly took hold. The ball spun and came to rest about 8 inches left of the hole. I had a tap-in putt and ordinarily, it would have been treated as a gimme. But, to break 100, nobody was giving me that putt. Again, focusing on what he had told me, I stroked the ball into the back of the cup for a 97. I swear he was more excited than I was.

A few years later when I played more and better, I was in a real slump. I had actually started throwing clubs in anger at some of my bad shots. I hadn't played with my dad in a while. He asked me if I wanted to skip caddying and play with him that Wednesday afternoon. He made a game for us, but told me that if I threw a club, he was yanking me off the course.

I had a good feeling about that day, but it sure started out poorly. The first hole was a short par 5. I hit my drive into the heavy rough, made the stupid decision to go for the green and hit the ball into a worse place. 6 strokes later, my triple bogey 8 was a bad way to start the round.

But, I had a calming influence with me. There were no more triple bogeys that day. In fact, there were no more bogeys. For the rest of the front 9, there were nothing but pars. 39 wasn't bad, but it wasn't where I wanted to be.

As I said, though, I had a good feeling. Coming home on the back 9, there were still no bogeys, but there were 4 birdies. That made for 32 and totaled to 71 for the round, 1 under par and my first and only under par round. I was proud, I think someone else was prouder.

And, then there was March 30, 1980. I was playing golf with my dad again (my mom, too as it turns out). It was my first round of the year. And, I almost didn't play that day. At breakfast, I had been a little bit too careless with a sharp knife at breakfast. The large cut in my hand didn't look good.

And, my game was pretty bad. I had nothing but over par holes through 11. Then I birdied the 12th hole. More bogeys and then finally, I parred the 16th hole, giving me the honor on the 17th.

The 17th hole was a long par 3, about 230 yards from where it played that day. Most of the path from tee to green was over water. There was a small sand trap in front of the green. And, of all things, the whole was playing into the wind that day. My dad asked me if I was going to go for it or play safe out to the right. At the age of 22, there are no choices like that. I grabbed my 1-iron, at that time my favorite club (I must have been nuts). I stayed firm and felt the feeling that you get when you know that you have hit the ball absolutely dead on the sweet spot. The ball mark was dead on line, about 8 feet short of the hole. The foursome that had just left the green tell me that the ball bounded once and trickled into the hole for my first hole-in-one.

As happy as that made me and it still makes me, it leaves me sad as well in that my dad never had one. He came close many times, but in more than 50 years of playing and he played pretty well for most of them, he never had an ace. I would have given up mine for him to have one.

And, then there was school. I was a very good student, but I was particularly good at arithmetic. Those who know me well would tell you that even to this day that I am likely faster at it in my head than anyone that they have known. But, back then, I had an interest in and a propensity for math in general.

I know that this was in kindergarten because it was at Pleasantdale School. After my kindergarten year, West Orange redistricted and I spent the next several years at Mount Pleasant School.

In any event, I was an early reader and my favorite book was something called Facts and Figures. It was (memory tells me) roughly 200 pages of facts and data about everything that could possibly interest a young person. It was where I learned about capitals, currencies, dinosaurs, area codes (I knew all of the original 86 in North America and I thought it was really cool that I lived in the 201 code as that was the first in any numerical list), and lots of other not very important things.

I also learned about pi. Yes, pi, that strange number denoted by a Greek letter and equal to the ratio of the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter. And, yes, I had somewhat of an understanding of what it actually meant. I also learned how to find the areas of 2-dimensional figures.

One rainy afternoon, this nerdy little (likely 5-year old) kid set about on a project. I started making what are known as regular polygons; that is, n-sided figures with 'radius' equal to 1 or 'diameter' equal to 2. (Today, I have no idea why I did this, but I did. In fact, I wish I still had the papers.) I started with a square and found that its area was 4. I moved to a hexagon and found that the area was about 3.46. Then on to an octagon where the area was about 3.31.

As the number of sides grew, the area got closer to pi. Yes, it's obvious now, but at the time, I didn't know why. These were polygons with angles. Circles don't have angles.

I asked my dad and he didn't know. He said he would find out for me. But, I was impatient. I asked my teacher -- my kindergarten teacher. She said she had never heard of pi. I told her she was stupid.

So, were the origins of the first parent-teacher conference that my parents got called to. They tended to be over stuff like this. Whenever they had them, though, my dad would lecture me, but not in anger. He would lecture me with pride and counsel me to treat others with more respect. And, I did, or at least I tried my best.

I know it happened more than once, but I only recall my dad spanking me once. Our house in West Orange had a backyard that all my friends knew well. We played every sport imaginable in that backyard and made up some of our own. But, when we moved in, there were lots of rocks in the backyard.

My dad was going outside to gather them and remove them and of course, I wanted to help. And, as a young boy might do, I listened to him, at least initially, when he told me to only pick up the small ones. But, as the day wore on, I picked up larger and larger ones. And, my dad told me to go back to the small ones and I did, but only temporarily and then I went back to even bigger ones than before. My dad was scared. He picked me up and spanked me and he was far more upset about it than I was.

Whenever my kids did some of the stupid things that kids will do, I thought back to the way that I was parented. Make sure that they knew that they shouldn't be doing things like that and punish them, but make sure that they knew above all that I loved them and always will.

Something that my dad instilled in me when I was very young (and I hope that even though he was stopped from doing it in his later years) was that when you make a decision to become a parent (and you may or may not realize at that time that you are making that decision), you don't get to take it back. You don't get to pick what your children will be like. You can mold them and influence them, but there will be times that they will do things that anger you. But, when you become a parent, you become a parent for life. And with that comes a set of responsibilities and one of them should be unconditional love.

I'll always love you and miss you, Dad. But, I want to cherish the good times.