It was October 3, 1998 and I had just driven back to New a Windsor, NY back from a wedding up in Albany. It was around 11 at night when I got a call from my brother Tito. We chatted for a minute- thinking he didn’t want to wake me up with a midnight call for my birthday. I asked him “Where’s Dad?” Tito told me he was out for a walk and that he most likely would call tomorrow for my birthday. My dad and I had a … we’ll call it a contentious relationship, and he had moved down to Pensacola living w my brother while my mom was preparing to come down from New York.
The Boot and The Call
Around 2am i was awoken with what would only be explained by a feeling like a giant boot to the chest. Winded, i got up and went to the kitchen. I walked around for a bit – then grabbed a Zantac from the top of the fridge and took it with some milk. I remember thinking to myself “Happy Birthday. You’re 24 and you’re getting up in the middle of the night feeling like your heart is getting ripped out. Good job RC.” I went back to bed.
Two or three hours later I get a call from my brother – frantic. “Wake up. Wake up. Wake up!” I tried to shoo him off the phone “i know. I got it. Thanks man. Let’s talk in the morning.”
“Dads dead.” He just muttered into the phone.
I remember this emotional surge – going from extremely sleepy to completely wide awake. It was nauseating. But I was awake.
“Ok. If you wanted to get my attention – I am awake. Ok? You got my attention. What is it?”
“That was it man. Dad died. ”
My dad was walking on the side of the road not too far from the house when he suffered a heart attack. When they found him they found a spent tube of Nitro – possibly trying to kick start himself when on the road.
What a Wonderful World
I don’t really remember much after that. I know that I got in the car and drove down the super winding roads of the Sprain Brook Parkway at a ridiculously fast speed- trying to get to my mom in the Bronx. I remember just listening to the radio – crying. While driving , the radio played “What a Wonderful World” by Louie Armstrong and I remember screaming in the car…
The next couple of days felt very much like a blur. We got all of the family planning done to go down there to settle everything up. I sat in an incredibly small room at the hospital with my mother while we waited for a small window with a black curtain to be pulled back – revealing the body that we had to identify. I sat and gripped my mother as hard as I could as a blood curling scream etched itself into my brain that I could still hear in my head to this day.
My dad was far away from New York – and we had very little money to deal with the overall transport and setup of a funeral for something that would have no visitors. Add to this the fact that my dad wanted to be cremated and there were little thoughts about how much planning we could do for him when it came to burial.
I sat across the man at the funeral parlor expecting to be upsold and taken advantage of in this moment of grief. To my shock , he leaned forward and said, “look. This will break about 100 laws. But let me tell you what I will do. This body should not be kept like this for a long time. But I am going to then the temperature of that room as low as it can humanely go. It is going to feel like an icebox in there. There are only a handful of you here. We could just leave him in the pressboard box that he will be cremated in and you guys will have just a matter of minutes to say your goodbyes. If the body starts “seeping” we need to move on. But you will have a couple of minutes.
Everything was set in place and one by one was allowed in the room to say goodbye. I was the last to go in. I sat and thought about all of the things that I had wanted to say and couldn’t. I spoke about how much I hated that this happened to him and how much I hated that it was happening on my birthday. I told him how I wished we were better prepared and that I hated that it was coming down to all of this. But. That I needed to say goodbye.
As I tried to say goodbye – in the softest volume possible – the room started to pipe in “what a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.
I just didnt know what to say anymore- I was done feeling like this. I was spent. Without thinking, I placed my hand on his chest and felt it.
He had started to seep. There was no more time. I put myself together and walked out of the room knowing that was the last time I’d see him.
That was eighteen years ago – and every birthday feels like it’s a story that gets retold in my head over and over.
My Moments of Gratitude
I use this day to remind myself of what I want to be, what I value, and they are the things that offer light in this moment of gray.
- I promised myself to never let what I think and what I feel be kept from my surviving mother. If even a challenging relationship with a parent left me hurting this bad, what could I possibly feel from losing someone I had a great relationship with? I made a pact with my mom to try my best to do as much cool stuff with her that I can. When it came time to bury her – i would do it with sadness but with a full heart knowing she and i said what needed to be said – and enjoyed our lives as full as we could. If you have a parent – reach out. When they are not here – you would be shocked to see how it hits you.
- I was not going to let my mother go to the grave with my dad. She was an uneducated Mexican housewife – with no school education. Through sheer grit, she has been able to eek out a life for herself, work hard, make a small business for herself, and find a purpose in her own life moving forward. She has learned to be a fighting independent woman and can be proud that she is doing for her own- on her own. We got to share that story together.
- I would look at my daughter and make sure that I loved on her in as many ways that I could. I would promise to make sure that she sees me stumble and fall. But desperately try to pick myself up. I would make sure she would never see me at the bottom end of addiction – and that her memories of me to be ones where I tried to be my best – albeit an amazingly caffeinated one.
- I’m grateful for the true friends that I have – that understand that today is this really weird day for me – and understand that I don’t mean to be off or to hide- but that I still get stuck in my own head with it all. I’m grateful that they make me smile when i need them – and give me the space that i usually just run to. Every year I try to do something to just put out stuff the stuff that’s inside – just to see if it helps. This is year 18. After this thy won’t be anything else left to b said.
- That no matter what happens- I will always miss him. But that he put me here for a reason- and I owe it to everyone involved to figure that out.
In that – it always ends up being a good birthday. I have a great family, a chance to try to see if I can make it on my own in this business, and great friends.
Im blessed beyond measure.