Today marks the second anniversary of My Dad's death and the first time I'm really grieving his passing. This delayed mourning started just before the holidays and seems to have hit a crescendo this weekend. I can't believe he's gone. I can't believe it's been two years. I can't believe the sadness over losing one of my best friends is just now hitting me. But I do understand why. After waiting for me to arrive on a Friday night, My Dad died in his sleep, at home, a smile on his face. He knew he had passed off care of My Mom to me and he knew everything would be okay. It was time for him to rest. At 92 My Dad had been the sole caregiver to My Mom -- his dedication and love so amazing we had the priest read a wedding verse at his funeral. The shock and in many ways delight over taking on care of My Mom so consumed me, I didn't have time to process the loss of My Dad.
That doesn't mean I don't think of him. He's in my thoughts daily. He left me with a pretty big task -- to be more specific, he left me an invaluable gift -- and its not just spending quality time with My Mom. By taking on this caregiving experience my parents have enabled me to pursue a lifelong dream. The kind that makes you think about them and thank them daily.
For as long as I can remember My Dad taught his daughters how to bet -- and how to split the profits if we won. If one of us scored big bucks in a Super Bowl square during my aunt and uncle's annual party, we'd have a family meeting that week and talk about what to do with the winnings. We'd usually agree to put it toward a family vacation.
Later in life he self proclaimed himself "The Sleaze" and became weekend bookie for college football and basketball games. In the fall the phone call would always go the same, "Out of the goodness of my heart I'll give you 7 in the Notre Dame game." The point spread would change, but whatever number he tossed out would always be in his favor -- usually by at least two touchdowns. That was until we got wise and learned to find the spreads on our own ahead of time, then the pre-game negotiating would get heated. After a defeat he'd feign having health problems to avoid payoff. The big time bets by the way -- chili dogs. He missed Detroit coney islands down in Florida. My Mom, a money gal, would go crazy over how serious we were and how many calls would go back and forth right up until the end of every game. "You never even pay up," she'd say frustrated. "It's about the pride, not the payoff," I'd constantly remind her. At the end of any given season we all knew exactly who was up and who was down and by exactly how many hot dogs. Sometimes there'd be carry over into the next season.
My Dad also bet on his daughters. He believed in us, and at the end of his life, he attempted to take a gigantic gamble on me.
I'll never forget it. Seeing that he was literally wearing himself thin caring for My Mom, I visited often the last year of his life. During one of the trips he wanted to have a serious talk. I thought Mr. Independent might finally be ready for assisted living, but was shocked instead at an offer he made me.
"You've always wanted to write," he started, my eyes immediately welled with tears. I never thought he took my writing endeavors seriously. He loved watching me as a television news reporter, he even took pictures of the tv when I was on CNN, but I never thought he saw me making it as a novelist. At least you wouldn't have guessed it from his critiques of my early work, or his pleas for me to go back into television, in particular begging me to do weekend sports. But he had a plan -- as unrealistic as it seemed. Bottom line, he thought he could pay off my condo and have me move down to Florida to help take care of he and My Mom. In exchange, he'd convert the guest room to an office to write the novel I always talked about. "I already called the cable company. They can install that computer hook up you need," he concluded, internet being the grand finale to his very generous offer, minus a couple of key points. First, he was still in pretty good health and I wasn't going to uplift myself to live indefinitely in the middle of no-where Florida (have you heard of Homosassa??) and he, being a World War II vet and super middle income, had no clue what it would take to pay off my condo. He'd for sure have to add a zero to his best guess. So, there was no way I could afford to leave everything and head down there even if I wanted to.
We ignored the big road blocks and continued to negotiate terms during each visit. "What if I wintered in Florida and you summered in Michigan?" I countered. "That would kill me," he'd say, trying to hold as much ground as he could, all in Florida.
He sounded so serious the week before he died, I half heartedly agreed to his terms, then tried to lighten the dire mood by asking what my pen name should be.
"James?" he asked immediately, his own name. "I'm not thinking that's for girls." "You're modern enough, but okay, how about Jamie then?" "No, it's not me."
"J.J.," he said, this time not a question. Those were his initials. He was called J.J. periodically throughout life, he used the initials and our last name on all documents. "I love it!" I exclaimed. I immediately had an image of this really collected gal named J.J. writing best selling novels. The name alone might give me the necessary persona to tackle this very difficult craft. And then the whole name came to me in a flash -- J.J. O'Neill. O'Neill is My Mom's middle name. I loved it. My Dad loved it and even My Mom seemed to love it.
That was our last big heart to heart talk. I drove back down to Tampa that Tuesday night for a training class and when I returned Friday he was too weak from heart trouble to talk about much of anything. He promised to go to the hospital the next morning if I let him spend that night in his own bed. Evidently the plan to help me achieve my writing dreams wasn't the only one on his mind.
He snuck out that night, but I still followed his wishes, with the minor exception of staying in Florida. For the past two years My Mom has lived with me in Michigan. Her account pays the bulk of our bills while I stay home and write. I work part-time, mostly for horse and spending money. And although I've had a lot of detours and difficulties trying to find a schedule that works, I've managed to somehow finish that novel. It's just a silly horse murder mystery -- a two-day beach read, but getting the 80-thousand words on paper in a somewhat meaningful order was still incredibly difficult. Procrastination, of course, being the biggest enemy. Now, not only is the novel finished, I'm attending a conference to pitch it to publishers in New York City this week.
When I booked the conference I had no idea it coincided with the anniversary of My Dad's death. I wish he was here to see the giant manuscript or to even help me word smith a few last details on the pitch. He was great at that.
My Dad came from the south side of Chicago. He supposedly emptied beer kegs for Al Capone to earn a nickel. He played sandlot ball for the mob. His whole life he tried to overcome a bad start. On my 40th birthday he gave me a small ruby necklace and said he wished he had been a Rockefeller to give me a piece of jewelry worth handing down to future generations. Instead he left behind a legacy far more valuable -- first as a kind and loving role model and next for believing in me. The intent, his attempt at helping to create a way for me to achieve a seemingly impossible dream will never be forgotten.
I still can't believe I finished this project. And I still can't believe he's gone because whether it sells or not, there's no one I want to share this moment of satisfaction with more than My Dad.