This is going to be a long post so you’ve been warned.
Two thousand seventeen.
When I was a kid, say back in 1989, the thought of living to see the year 2017 seemed insane. When you’re twelve, as I was then and my son is now, your world is smaller than it is when you get older. For most twelve year olds, including my son and I, most of our thoughts were about video games, our changing voices, and wondering if we’ll get someone to dance with us at the school dance.
Simple things. Things that as a twelve year old you can’t take for granted because you’re not even aware of how precious life is to understand, “hmm, maybe I’m taking this for granted.”
I love that about being a kid.
So when my father asked me in 1989 if he should stay at his job where they were going to eliminate his position but give him a different job (moving boxes, he said) at the same pay rate, I was like “take the job!” All I was thinking about were video games, Sour Patch Kids, and more video games so the overarching moral/philosophical/monetary implications weren’t all that relevant to me. Nor should they have been.
That year my mother and father made a decision that altered all of our lives. They decided, despite my recommendation, that instead of staying at a 9 to 5 or finding another 9 to 5 they would strike out on their own and start a restaurant, The Hearts of Lettuce. My mom was pregnant at the time with my little sister so it seems like odd timing to switch gears, but that’s who they were.
And if there’s something I’ve learned is that being true to yourself will not lead you to failure even if you fail. One could argue that my parents made a mistake as my mother was struck by a car in 1993 on her way to the restaurant. Also, my parents lost most of all of their earthly possessions while running the restaurant. After my mom died, my dad’s heart wasn’t in the restaurant anymore and he stopped. So they could have gotten another job on the rat race and my mom could be alive today and I would not have had weeks where my breakfast and dinner consisted of a piece of toast with syrup on it.
You could make that argument. I’m not and through all of this I’ll be making the case that they did the right thing even though the price was steep.
So that was 1989. It’s 2017 and entering the year was challenging. My father-in-law, Harold, was a great man. Not a perfect man, but a great man. And his life ended in May of 2016 so the wound was very much still healing at the beginning of this year (still is). Meanwhile, my dad seemed to be dealing with ailment after ailment after ailment.
Many of my friends/family know this story but for those of you who don’t, my dad should have died in 2004. Technically, he was clinically dead for more than 20 minutes. His heart stopped. His potassium was out of balance and stopped his heart. He was 51. At the time, he only had two grandchildren neither of which was out of diapers. If that had been his end my sisters and I would just be telling stories about a grandfather they never got to meet. And my youngest sister, Celeste, would have lost her mother and father before she turned 15.
Thankfully, an EMT lives across the street from my parents’ house and saw him go down. The team worked on him for a long time until they were able to restart his heart. When I arrived at the hospital, his prognosis was grim. He was completely unresponsive to any brain stimulation they had given him. I looked at him and he didn’t “look” dead. Seemed like he was still in there. The doctor advised us that we needed to think about making some “decisions” about continuing life support. At this point he’d been unresponsive for a few days and I thought it was very early to be making that call. Nonetheless, that’s where we were at.
We asked that they try another brain test and this time I asked to be in the room. I wasn’t present for the last one. I began speaking to my dad, “Dad they are going to pull the plug on you if you don’t move a finger or wiggle a toe or something”. The nurse ran through her battery of tests and nothing. I kept talking to my dad and asked her to give him a command one more time. She did and he moved. I said, “Did you see that?!” She said, “I did. Alright Mr. Roach do it again!” He did and over the next few months he slowly came back to the “few screws loose” normal version of himself.
Getting back to my sister, when my mother died I asked God not to let my dad die before she turned 18. I was older, I had spent time with both of my parents but she was three when my mom died and I didn’t want her to have to lose both parents that young. Not that it isn’t fair or something like that, but it’s a loss that I wouldn’t wish on anyone that young. It’s not easy and changes you. So I was glad to see my dad recover and for the remainder of his life he would always be battling his health in some form or another.
A few years ago, he was diagnosed with breast cancer. Of all his illnesses, that’s the one the scared me the most. People have often commented to me about my strength during tough situations and I’m telling you the source of that strength is God. But when my father was diagnosed with cancer I was afraid. But he beat cancer. He was beating his congestive heart failure.
And then his kidneys declined and he was forced to go on dialysis. I remember him telling me how he felt like dialysis was like a couple steps from death and he fought tooth and nail against it until he couldn’t ignore the facts. He had several procedures and for a time was doing great. And then, what I’ll call, the Great Infection of 2017 happened.
He was in the hospital for what seemed like forever with a bacterial infection. I never got beyond my own fear of him dying after the cancer. And that is my only regret – being afraid of him dying. Fear is a powerful emotion and it can cause you to act in ways you wouldn’t or not in ways you want. And with my dad, I was afraid I was going to lose him. And I had been afraid for years. It wasn’t even my biggest fear; that came in the form of losing my youngest sister. I feared losing her because I felt she needed protection that I couldn’t give and I wanted to protect her. The feeling of helplessness lead to dread.
Sometimes you dread meeting up with a person you love not because they’ll tell you all about the bad things you’ve done to them (families can be fun, right?) but you dread that it’s going to be the last time you see them and you don’t want to face that. For my dad, that was my fear. Is this the last time?
The last time I physically saw my father this year was in June after he had gotten out the hospital. He took Noni and I on a grocery store run. He told me he only needed to go to two stores we ended up going to about 8. He told Noni that he only told me two in order to get me out there. Good move because if he said about 8, it’s likely I wasn’t going. While we were coming back from the last store, I wondered, “Is this the last time I’m going to drive my dad to the grocery store?” When you have lived so close to death you ask yourself this stuff. It’s sometimes difficult to stay in the present.
I was nowhere close to the 12 year old boy who didn’t have a care in the world. I’d lost too much to – and putting this in an unkind manner – be that stupid. And sure enough it was the last da— time I went to the grocery store with my dad. And in August 2017 I buried my dad. Going through that process was surreal.
When my mom died, I felt I needed to be strong for my two little sisters. When my dad died, I didn’t feel I had to be strong for my (now) five sisters and stepmom. I think I felt more that I needed people to know what he meant to me and I needed to grieve myself. I lost the one man in my life who could say jump and I’d say “how high?” And I don’t want to downplay the importance of the previous sentence. Having someone in your life who you respect and who you believe understands you well as our parents do is irreplaceable even by someone who might be more technically qualified to give us advice. My dad was that man. And he cannot be replaced.
Losing that is a significant loss that I’m still trying to grapple with. He always downplayed his importance in my life, lamenting that when I went to college he didn’t help me more. But I was a latchkey kid at 9 and, for better or worse, very used to/comfortable doing things myself. I’ve probably become too independent, rarely asking for help and believing that no one wants to help even if I needed it. That’s the downside of being so independent.
Back when I was going to college he told me, “Joseph, I can’t really help you with college” and he was sad about that. I wasn’t. For me it was just another hurdle in a long line of hurdles to overcome. If that sounds matter of fact, in my brain it’s the same way. Mountains are meant to be climbed.
What I needed my dad for often as an adult was in remembering where I came from and who I was. I needed him for guidance when I was too stuck in my brain to see right in front of me. An example was in 2007. Previously, my credit sucked. I had a repossession, credit card charge offs, you name it during my early twenties. I was doing work to restore my credit but applying for a mortgage scared me. My dad came to visit and said, “Joseph, get a house!” and it was as if a light bulb clicked in my brain. We closed on a house three months later.
And on August 21st of this year, I lost him. We were about to visit him on August 30th which would be the day we would bury him. All the family took a picture with him the day we put him to rest, but it wasn’t the picture with him smiling in it like we thought. Instead we were huddled around a rectangular box missing the person who brought us all together. Still, it was the last time, in our corporeal form, we’d all be together so…I guess there’s that.
As if that were not enough I received news later by phone that my job was eliminated. So in the span of about a couple of weeks I lost my dad and my job (I’m still there but that’s another story). Fortunately, I work for a great company that gives you time to find other roles in cases like this. Earlier in August,, we had found a new home and I remember thinking to myself then that, “Man things seem to be looking pretty good right now.” I texted my dad and he said “I always knew you were a winner!”
And then boom. He’s gone.
Like my parents about 30 years earlier, my family and I were faced with an interesting situation. My parents decided to “go for it” and to the objective observer they “failed”. My mom died and my father gave up his business. So here I am about to lose my job, just lost my dad, and I know the history of the risk they took. No one would blame me for folding, I mean I already owned a house, had some money in the bank, and severance would give me months to find something. Why not just be comfortable, daresay, content with what I have?
But I heard my dad’s voice telling me to never give up and to always reach for the stars. I remembered that my mom died trying to make a life for my sisters and I. And choosing not to “go for it” didn’t seem like an option. And I know I’m wrong in thinking this, but not going for it felt like what they did would be a waste somehow almost an insult. I know that’s not true but it’s how it felt/how it feels.
So I decided to go for it like they did. For me the outcome is not as important as living a life where going for it is my norm. When I was a kid it was, as adult with adult notions and responsibilities it hasn’t been. And sure, “going for it” probably sounds cheesy or whatever, but for me, I feel honored to have had parents who grew up in the generation where their childhood was filled with racist insults and they still persevered. I want to continue their legacy. I have to continue that legacy.
So 2017 was hard. Who knows, 2018 might be even harder. But what I do know is that I’m going for it and I hope to make mom and dad proud. If my mother and father cannot be on this earth, then at least their words of wisdom and craziness can live on through me!
Happy New Year!