seven million eight hundred eighty nine thousand two hundred thirty two seconds.
one hundred thirty one thousand four hundred eighty seven minutes.
two thousand one hundred ninety two hours.
ninety one days.
one quarter of one year.
not enough time.
not when the doctor says that’s all that’s left.
it’s a blink. a sudden inhalation of breath.
then no more.
Dad had cancer. We found out less than three weeks ago. I didn’t cry. His doctors did the biopsy on his liver and gave him the results on August 13th. His 74th birthday.
“Happy birthday! Now guess what?”
I don’t know how to be with this. Sad angry scared frustrated nervous grappling for handholds anywhere I can find. I’ve known other people who’ve died. Friends, teachers and even other family members. But this is my DAD. The man who taught me how to ride a bike notch an arrow draw a circle kick a soccer ball read a map. The man who introduced me to reading Heinlein Tolkein Bradbury Shakespeare Twain Clarke Herbert Sagan. Showed me how to ride a motorcycle drive a car sail a boat ride a skateboard. Told me about science history politics geography design architecture typography sculpture painting drawing sketching. Played me Mozart Beethoven Glass Reich Peter Paul Mary Simon Garfunkel Cocker Gilbert Sullivan & the Beatles. Took me to see Star Wars Jaws Close Encounters of the Third Kind 2001 Raiders of the Lost Ark. Helped me understand Cosmos Roots Algebra Geometry Biology Geology History Politics Technology. Gave me the choice to go to Hebrew school or to play music. When I chose music, he defended protected and nurtured that passion until it became a career. Most importantly, he taught me everything I know about how to be a Good Husband and especially how to be a Father.
When I was five years old I really wanted to play soccer. The league didn’t have enough coaches and Dad knew nothing at all about the game. He signed on anyway so I would get a chance to play. Record wise, The Hot Feet ended up being the worst team in our division. We were awful. I think we only found the back of the net enough to win one game that season, but we definitely had more fun than anybody else. Dad made sure of that. 37 years later, I still have friends from that team. And almost any time I talk to them, they bring up that team and ask about my Dad. My parents made some good friends that season that are still around too. Over the years, they became much more than friends, they became Family.
I played more concerts and little league games growing up than I can count and Dad cheered from the sidelines, announced from th booth behind the plate or sang along in the audience at nearly every single one. He never let himself forget the one show he missed though. He needed to go to China on business. I told him it was okay, but he wouldnt hear that. He never forgave himself for not being there that one time. He needed to be there to support me. This translated down to his grandsons too. Where he went to every one of Brendan’s soccer games and all of Gabriel’s baseball games up until we moved to New England.
When Jodi and I were kids, our house became one of the main hang outs for the neighborhood kids. We always had the coolest toys because Dad worked at Mattel, which was rad. Obviously. Everyone would come over to raid my room and see what was new. I remember having sleepovers and burying a lot of them up behind the bushes in our pretend fort behind the pool. If he got in trouble for it back at the office, he never told me. We threw huge pool parties, rocked out in the garage and played whiffle ball tournaments on the cul de sac. For Jodi’s sweet sixteen they brought in a local rock band to tear up the backyard. The police came to shut it down. If my folks weren’t cool before then, they sure were after that night!
Every summer break, Dad would take my sister to the office and they would spend the day together. Then he would take me along sometime the next week or so. I have such incredible memories of those times. He’d give me the tour and introduce me to everyone. I got more free Hot Wheels than I could carry. He even introduced me to the woman that Barbie was designed to look like. She was much older then, but still beautiful.
A few years later, he and his team were developing one of the very first electric cars. It had three wheels and the driver provided power to the engine by pedaling off and on. Of course it was the greatest thing since cheeseburgers when he let me drive it. I made three easy laps around the underground test lot. Then i pressed the pedal down, picked up speed and let go with one hand. Mr cool right? Well, Mr cool proceeded to crash into a pole and broke the front left wheel off. Dad didn’t get mad. Instead he laughed, grabbed his tools and dove right in with his team to fix it. Then they all took me out for ice cream so I’d feel better.
After he left Matel he was an early pioneer in the video game industry. Since he designed games, he needed to study them. So he went to the arcade a few hours every week to play the hottest new trends that kids were dropping their quarters into. I remember him picking up this heavy black velvet bag full of quarters. He winked at me and said, “Let’s go Tiger.” Not a bad job right?
As we walked into the arcade, all the teenage skater punks turned and stared. Here was this middle aged dude wearing a tie with his little red headed kid in tow. I thought for sure they were going to jump him for the quarters. But I heard their voices whispering all around us. “It’s SDK. Look, it’s him. Hey man, that’s SDK!” they parted like the red sea in front of him as he stepped up to the Defender machine. He handed me the bag and reached in for a quarter. Other players left their games. Taller kids let the shorter ones stand in front. The orderliness of it was a well rehearsed dance. The professor had arrived and class was in session. Every high score listed on the screen was followed by the same three initials:
The Mohawk and pierced crowd watched in awe while he absolutely destroyed that game. It was spectacularly cool.
One note about that particular adventure to make it even more spectacularly cooler… Almost every single one of the skater punks crowding around that brilliant Defender demonstration were riding skateboards that Dad designed. Yeah. THAT kind of spectacularly cool.
Usually, he’d try to keep me and my friends out of his office at home, but we’d all eventually end up with some tracing paper and his secret stash of brilliant prismacolors on his drafting table. He’d take the first letter of our names and turn them into a spaceship airplane submarine alien cowboy grizzly bear dinosaur helicopter or intergalactic superhero. I couldn’t walk into somebody else’s home without seeing something in there that he designed. Ceiling fan silverware toy telephone boat outboard motor car truck motorcycle skateboard roller skate or bow. I bragged a lot back then. Probably annoying the crap out of more than a few people in the process.
Everyone loved my folks. I’d see them sitting at the kitchen table with one of my friends trying to help them out with one problem or another. Something they might not be able to deal with at home. I knew a guy in high school who had a particularly bad home life. When I told Mom and Dad about it, they invited him over. They told him that he could come and stay with us for a while if he needed to and even offered to call the police. It ended up not happening, but it gave him the strength to get away from his situation and make things better for himself.
Every holiday Dad made us all cards. Every holiday. Without fail. He made them by hand, drawing cutting pasting beautiful things in his studio using Exacto knives markers colored paper watercolors. He’d find something that we were interested in at the time, make a fun scene and place us right in the thick of things. Everything in crazy unrealistic proportions so he could fit cartoon versions of our faces in there. Lots of oddly shaped drums howling guitars soccer balls screaming through the air at the goal baseball gloves making that last second catch to save the game. Princesses starship pilots graduation caps high school mascots wedding bands. Along with the grandsons he gleefully transitioned to digital prints etched with laser ink but not without the exact same amount of love and care. Jonah flashing a wand in a Harry Potter poster or Gabriel attacking the Death Star in an X-Wing Fighter.
The one card I remember most wasn’t made for me or my kids though. He gave it to my Mom on one of their anniversaries. The message was short and poignant and I steal it every now and then on a note to my wife. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. Mom kept the card in a place of honor in the hallway of their house for years. It’s still my favorite. It said simply,
“Always the same. Always new. I love you.”
I’ve never been religious. I do consider myself spiritual though. Is there something after this? I think there is. I mean we’re all made up of energy right? Everything came from the energy of exploding stars. We know that energy never disappears or dissipates. It transfers into something else. It turns into water air color earth sound fire. I am part of my Dad. My sister is. So are my boys and her son too. We may not be able to have two way conversations with him or sing his favorite songs together like we are used to, but his energy, his life will always be here. Nothing can change that no matter what religion or fath you cling to.
He described Fatherhood to me as one very long experience of opening your arms and letting go. I didn’t understand that for a long time. After having my own children, I realized that all we can really do for our kids is teach them what we know and hope they take enough of the good things to make a happy life for themselves. We cant control their choices or mistakes. We can help them only as much as they allow. Sometimes I didn’t listen to him. Sometimes I did. Sometimes the advice was good and sometimes not so much. That’s life for everyone I guess. The most important thing to me is that he was always there for me. Always.
He ocasionally made some not so suble hints that our lives would be better if only he’d made more money. If only he’d been more successful. But I know people who grew up with tremendous amounts of money. Among the large houses, elaborate vacations and bottomless trust funds, they were always missing something. Something urgent and important elluded them at the cash registers. They never had anything remotely close to the loving family relationship my parents showered us with every day. Dad was the most successful person I’ve ever met in the ways that really matter. Great friends. The respect and admiration of his peers. Children who love him no matter what. An extended family of siblings nieces nephews cousins aunts uncles who adore him even when they argued about politics. And above all, he had Mom. She was his best friend. He was so deeply in love wi her at he used to hide behind corners so he could watch her walk when she didn’t know it. He loved her more than I ever knew was possible.
My wife Melissa told me that Dad restored her faith in men. Once she met my parents, she knew she could trust that I would be good to her. I learned from the best. One of my best friends recently told me that he learned how to treat women by watching how Dad treated Mom and Jodi. Love with everything you have. Never hold back. Especially in the difficult times. Love when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy. If I end up being half as good an example for my boys as Dad was to me, I’ll consider myself incredibly successful.
Dad travelled the world designing products that not only made people’s lives more enjoyabe and simpler, they often saved lives too. Children grew up hearing his voice as Porky Pig on the See n’ Say. People flew in his airplanes rode his motorcycles rollerskates and skateboards. We stayed cool under his ceiling fans watched television using his satellite dishes and unsuccessfully attempted to beat his scores on Defender. He designed drums and orchestral bells. Dad sang opera, played guitar, made Mickey Mouse pancakes and swam back and forth across the pool really, really, really slow. He was threatened in a jazz club once by Miles Davis. Dad hosted a radio show and announced for WTTW Public Television in Chicago. He was a “Naviguesser” in the Civil Air Patrol. And Dad always brought home a Hot Wheel for me when I stayed home sick from school. Even when he knew I was faking it. I faked it a lot.
August 20, 2012.
Dad died seven days after his 74th birthday. 83 days earlier than the doctor originally estimated. When I went in the bedroom to check on him in the morning, his breathing had grown very shallow. So I woke up Mom and Aunt Marcia. I held his hand willing so hard to feel him gripping my fingers in return. Mom kissed him on the forehead over and over. I said it’s okay now Dad. We love you so much.
Then he was gone.
I leaned over him and kissed his cheek. Aunt Marcia ran a finger over the Naval Aviation Pensacola Florida logo on his t-shirt. “You can fly the greatest plane in the world now Stevie.” she said. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and a smile on her face, “He’s even wearing wings.”
I finally cried.