This is a long story. I write it to you today because there are several people in my world who, are currently in the midst of hospice situations or have just come through them. Their journeys have reminded me of mine and though it occurred 17 years ago it is an experience I still draw upon. There is no greater service a human being can give to a loved one than to help them die. Thus I offer this to you in the hope that you may find a nugget which will help your journey; if you have the patience to muddle through it. It is a moving tale of life, death and above all…….it is a story of love.
“Death will claim us all and before it does, it will mark us.” R Sinibaldi
Seventeen years ago today, the Red Sox were in south Florida taking on the Florida Marlins in Pro Players Stadium, the home of the Miami Dolphins. Their lineup that night had Darren Lewis leading off in right. John Valentin (he of unassisted triple play fame) playing third and batting second. Nomah hit third, remember how good he was then? Damon Buford was the cleanup hitter and he played centerfield; I have zero recollection of him in a Red Sox uni. Troy O’Leary hit fifth and played left; he had some very nice years with the Sox. Rookie catcher Jason Varitek hit sixth and first baseman Reggie Jefferson batted seventh. Mike Benjamin (?) hit eighth and played second and Tim Wakefield pitched and batted ninth.
Nomah hit .323 and averaged 20 homers and 77 RBI a year in Boston
The Sox won that night 9-4; Nomah went 2-3 with an RBI and the immortal Mike Benjamin had a double and three RBI. Wakefield got the win to go 9-3 on the year, his 39th win of what would become 186 wins in a Red Sox uniform.
Today I tell you I remember absolutely none of this, not a smidgeon. You see, seventeen years ago today I became a man.
I had been preparing for that day for quite a while for Dad was living on borrowed time; 22 years of it to be exact. A victim of Rheumatic fever as a kid in the 1920s, a damaged mitral valve had left him with a life expectancy of “about 50”. That was before such things as penicillin, open heart surgery and valve replacements. At the age of 55 he underwent valve replacement surgery at Mass General Hospital in Boston. A stainless steel valve replaced his damaged mitral valve and he was told that he could expect to get eight years of good use from it.
The quick math equation told him that would get him to 63 and that led him to another decision; he would retire. So although his impetus for the surgery was his new position with the Social Security Administration he now knew those eight years would be spent in leisurely pursuits, golf at the top of the list.
Three generations of golfers: Dad, Yours Truly, Willie, and Eric.
Within a year he was back under the knife, following a bout of bacterial endocarditis which nearly took him and left his new valve “leaking.” He recovered and got on with his life. Eight years removed from his new valve, his heart in fact did break when he found himself in a place he never imagined he would be. In an incredible irony, my mother died on the operating table at Mass General Hospital, undergoing the exact same valve replacement procedure he had survived, twice. She too had been a victim of Rheumatic Fever in the 1920s. I can still see him in the kitchen of my childhood home hanging up the phone after speaking with McDonald’s Funeral Home; “I never thought I would be doing this” he said as he hung his head and wept.
Ray and Mary Sinibaldi in September of 1984, 6 months before Mary’s passing.
Ever the warrior, he carried on. There were the joys, trials and tribulations of life which befell he and his family. There were marriages, divorces, grandchildren and a new woman entered his life, the lovely, genteel Marie. The years ticked by, and Dad prevailed. His valve was performing wonderfully and he grew quite adept at living alone. Oh there was Pepper the cat and then Maggie the Corgi who shared his space, and then came the time when son number two appeared at his door step, beaten, battered and lost he came home to find his way, repair and reinvent.
I spent two and a half years with Dad as I worked my way through grad school and out from under the financial mountain which divorce creates. Enduring the anguish of being separated from my children, I was rewarded; for I came to know Raymond Sinibaldi, the man, I was rewarded, for my father became my mentor, my friend.
When I came in at night I would peak down the hall and hope his light was on. When it was I would give a knock and then I would sit at the end of his bed and we would talk; sometimes for just a few minutes and sometimes for an hour. We both came to look forward to those nights.
It was there where life’s truths came into focus.
In the winter of 1992 bacterial endocarditis struck again and one morning I entered his hospital room to find three doctors and three nurses tending to him, an Ambu bag on the table next to his bed. I took a seat in the corner and watched. I watched as the crises passed and he “stabilized.” For the next couple of days he was not present. Oh he was breathing and would occasional nod but it was clear that his mind, his energy were in other places. On the third morning I got out of work and drove in to find him sitting up and eating breakfast, he was back! AGAIN!
This experience gave birth to many a conversion about, you know, the big stuff. Life, death, where do we go, what happens. All the big stuff. “He was right there” he told me, “the Grim Reaper was right at that door and I told him to go way…..I told him I want one more summer of golf.” I now understood where all that energy was those couple of days and I marveled at what would prove to be a prelude to the singular most remarkable thing I have ever witnessed.
Dad came home and as my graduation approached I was ever mindful of how blessed I was that the accident of birth had delivered me to Ray and Mary Sinibaldi. A few weeks before I left, I was sitting in the rocking chair in the living room. Dad was in his chair peeling an orange. We were watching Jeopardy. As I looked at him it occurred to me that I was, at that moment, missing him. There he was, 10 feet away from me and I was missing him. “You know what Dad” I said, “What?” ” I just realized something….I will never miss you more than the day I die….If I am fortunate enough to grow old and die in my bed…I will want to talk with you about it.” He smiled and unveiled yet another one of his truths. “Son, we come into this world naked and alone and we go out naked and alone……Don’t misunderstand me, you have great loves, great relationships……It’s all part of life’s package….But in the end, there’s you.”
Finishing grad school in August , I was on my way back to Florida, to my children and to my career.
These conversations would become a part of our weekly Sunday calls and with me now 1500 miles away, I wanted to be sure that he knew that I would be there when he died. We made a deal….He would “hang on” till I got there.
In January of 1998 he somehow mustered the energy and strength to visit me in Florida. He took the time to gather us all in the living room because he wanted to show us something. He played a video tape of Andre Bocelli singing with Sarah Brightman the song Time to Say Goodbye. He told us the story of this man who had become his favorite tenor but his message was clear. “I won’t see the end of the summer” he said to me, “I’m running out of gas.” We laughed when he added, “and the Red Sox will probably win the World Series…the bastards.” We solidified our deal and the calls from then forward were poignant discussions as each of us rung every minute from every conversation. Nothing would be left off the table.
The call came on Thursday night June 18, 1998. It was my brother Willie and he was in Dad’s hospital room at Mass General. “It’s not good Ray” he said “I’m not sure he’ll make it through the night.” “Can he talk” I asked and in a moment I heard Dad’s failing voice…”When can you get here….I’m slipping.” I’m on my way Dad, I’m on my way.” The next morning the entire family was heading north up I 95!
Dad was in congestive heart failure, had been for a couple of years and it was now taking him away. The valve, which was now 22 years old, had grown ineffective and he was, in fact, in need of a heart transplant. Heart transplants are not performed on 77 year old people.
Fathers Day was Sunday and Dad actually rallied. Everyone of his grandchildren were there and visited with him, all four of his kids were there with their spouses and he was great. He was alert, he was happy, he was Papa.
Papa with all his grandkids on his 75th birthday.
Each of us siblings took turns being with Dad as the week rolled on. He was weak but he seemed to be getting better. His Doctor of 25 years was on vacation and would not be back until Thursday. I was off for the summer so I took the night shift. Everything was on hold until Dr. Hughes arrived on Thursday. Dad actually had “stabilized” and there was talk that he would be discharged at the end of the week.
Thursday morning Dr. Hughes came through the door. In their 25 years together these two men had become friends. They chatted a bit about this and that and then Dad said,” I have an idea…..I know I’m not a normal candidate for a transplant…..But…….If you have any experimental stuff you want to try, you know, you want to try an old heart in an old man, or something….I’m the guy…..You can do it.” “Ray my old friend.” Dr. Hughes began, “I would lose my license to practice if we did that…..There is a 99% chance you would not get off the table….Not the kind of odds they’re looking for to OK such a surgery…..Ray we are where you and I have talked about for a lot of years……You have stabilized, you have about 60-90 days left…….We’re going to get hospice involved…..You will be staying with Nancy (my sister)….There’s nothing more we can do but keep you comfortable.”
Although not unexpected, the finality of the words, for an instant, took my breath. The intellectual thought of Dad dying had now become all too real.
Dad looked up at Dr. Hughes and said, “So how was your vacation?” As they chatted I went to that surreal place you go when monumental life moments arrive. As Dr. Hughes was leaving the nurse arrived informing Dad that he was scheduled for a cat scan on the second floor and they needed to get him ready. They prepared him and I wheeled him down to the second floor.
We were gone about an hour and when returned to the 25th floor, the summer sun was shining brilliantly in his cleaned room. From his wide open windows, Harvard University could be seen across the north side of the Charles River and to the west the Citgo sign of Kenmore Square. As I helped him get back into bed he looked at me and said, “What do we do now?” “Anything you want Pop” I replied, “you want me to get you a hot fudge sundae, a bottle of Scotch, what do you want?” He looked me dead in the eyes and said, “I wanna die.” “You can do that too,” I said and from that moment I became witness to the singular most remarkable feat of human will and courage I have ever seen, read about, heard about or experienced.
A meeting was scheduled for Friday morning. It involved the hospital social work team, a hospice representative and of course my brother, two sisters, and I. They were looking at discharging him on Saturday or Monday and this was to line up all the proverbial ducks in the proverbial rows.
Dad had other plans!
The night came and Pop was a bit restless. He didn’t want to go to bed so he sat up in a “hospital chair” where he found it easier to breathe. The Red Sox were playing in Philly and I was struck that he didn’t want to watch the game. In fact he didn’t want the TV even on. I asked him if he wanted me to play Bocelli on the CD player and he said no to that as well. This was a surprise, he loved his opera, he loved his tenors and he loved none more than Andre Bocelli. He just wanted quiet. So I took a seat in the chair and read my book. I still remember Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball. My eyes passed over the words but I don’t think I really read that much. Dad drifted off and so did I.
It was about two hours later when I was awakened with a start as Dad was trying to get out of the chair. He was agitated and he wanted to get into bed. I helped him get to bed and within ten minutes he wanted back in the chair, so it was back in the chair where again he was able to drift off to sleep. I didn’t go back to sleep, I just watched Dad and I could see the restlessness even as he slept and I was struck at what was taking place.
“He’s dying” I said to myself; as it occurred to me that I was watching a man, my father, the most important man I would ever know, wrestle between the physical and spiritual world. Throughout his golden years he’d extended so much energy willing himself to live, he now was using all he could muster to will himself to die. I remembered what a hospice nurse once told me about people who are dying. “You can help them by reassuring them that you and all their loved ones will be OK……In a sense give them permission to go.”
It was not long before Dad was awake again with a start and struggling to get up, only this time he wanted to walk. I stood before his chair and wrapped my arms around him. “No more fight Dad” I said to him and I eased him back in his chair. “The fight’s over Pop, it’s OK….I’ll be OK….We’ll all be OK…You can stop fighting.” I kissed him on the head and eased him back in his chair. The long night was spent with Dad waking with a start and me just intercepting him, hugging him and reassuring him that all would be well and it was OK to go.
As morning approached he got back in his bed and asked me to set it so he could sit up a bit. Now comfortable he drifted off to sleep, and so did I.
We all attended Dad’s “discharge meeting” however I didn’t last. I left the meeting telling all that Dad would not be getting discharged and I went back to his room.
The specifics of that day have left me, I remember that there were med students who examined him early in the morn. And I was angry as I watched him struggle to comply with their requests, but that was Dad, teaching to the very end. And I remember Dr. Hughes coming to us late in the day and saying “He’s taken a turn for the worse….We’re going to put him on a morphine drip and keep him comfortable.”
The end was imminent!
Friday night into Saturday morning was interminably long matched only by Saturday day. The family gathered and we all sat, talked, walked and sat, talked more and sat, all waiting for the inevitable. Morning grew into afternoon and my brother Willie and his lovely wife Paula had to leave to go to a wedding which was in the city. I was leaning against the wall in the family waiting room just staring out over the city; the city that Pop so loved. My sisters and my aunt were sitting by Dad’s bedside. Gazing out at the city I had an epiphany. “He’s not going to die with a room full of people,” I thought to myself, for months, actually longer, Dad and I had talked about this very moment. My mind was clear and I knew what I had to do. It was 4 PM when I went back to the room and I said, “I’d like to be alone with Dad, do you mind giving me about an hour or so?” My sisters and Aunt graciously parted the room.
Dad had not spoken since Friday afternoon and as I took the seat beside his bed, I remembered again what a hospice nurse told me….”They will hear you to the very end.” I took his hand. “Dad” I began…. ” I want you to know how honored I am to be your son……How honored I am that we shared our birthdays…….How honored I am to carry your name……If I can grow to be half the man you are, I will die a very successful man …. I promise I will carry you with me every step of every day for the rest of my life…..We’re going to be fine Dad….We’re all gong to be fine.” And I simply held his hand and I watched him breath. He was averaging about six breaths a minute. I sat with my head resting next to his hand and in about 20 minutes, I heard a soft guttural sound come from him and then I heard his breath escape. The Mass General logo of his hospital gown was directly over his heart and I watched it flutter…..flutter again……..flutter again…….and then it was still. I looked at his face and one solitary tear fell from the corner of his eye.
He was gone. It was 4:40 PM June 27th, 1998…..I was a man!
I sat in the quiet stillness, lay my head upon the bed next to his hand and wept.
Dad was cremated and he had only two places he wanted some of his ashes spread and after that he said “I don’t care what you do with the rest of me.”His wishes were carried out and as for the “rest of me.” Well, he’s in a shrined cabinet in my home, some of him was spread at the foot of Pesky’s pole at Fenway Park. Some are on Mom’s grave in Weymouth Massachusetts. And some are in the Lake in Venice Florida in front of the 18th hole at the Lake Venice Golf Club; the last golf course he visited.
Dad’s last day on a golf course. He drove while my sister-in-law Paula and I took on my brother Willie and a friend John. Paula and I WON!!! Everyone signed the card.
Pop was one of those guys who never saw the Red Sox win the World Series. On that glorious night in October of 2004, I went to the enshrined cabinet in my house, took out his ashes and placed them upon my lap. I called my son, who was away at college and the three of us were together when Edgar Renteria grounded back to Keith Foulke making the Red Sox World Champs.
Pop’s enshrined cabinet!
This afternoon, at 4:00 PM this miserable rendition of the Red Sox will be 45 minutes away from me at Tropicana Field to take on the Rays, but I won’t really care. For tonight I will carry out a long standing tradition as I will make my way to the Lake Venice Golf Club at about 6:30. I will put on my golf shoes and I will take my 5, 6 and 7 irons, my putter and three balls. I will walk to the 18th tee and I will play it in.
And on my way in, I will look for green golf balls, but that’s another story for another day.
The 18th hole at Lake Venice Golf Club. One of Dad’s many resting places.
I will return to my living room, open Dad’s enshrined cabinet, remove Pop’s wine class and drink to him….
My Father, My Friend….The greatest man I’ve ever known!
Then I will be off to dinner for a delayed birthday celebration for his youngest grand-daughter. We will toast Papa!
Oh and Dad…….I’ve kept my promise.
Dad’s all time favorite musical piece, his choice to open his funeral service. It will take you to a peaceful place.
And so it is on this day, June 27, 2015, 17 years to the day, I became a man.