Today would have been my father's 75th birthday. He died in 1999 at the age of 65. He and his girlfriend, Pat, were on vacation--every year they went down to Florida to watch the Yankees in spring training--and Daddy had a massive heart attack one night in their hotel room. When Pat returned to Albany, everyone along the way commented that she sure had a lot of luggage for just one person. "My companion died on the trip," she explained. I bet they didn't expect that one.
Daddy was a colorful character, a bus driver who absolutely loved his job. “I don’t work,” he’d brag, “I drive other people to work.” Always the kidder, he’d sometimes ask the riders, “Have you ever thought of buying a car? Everyone has a car these days.” They’d laugh at his good-natured ribbing, but I’m sure he would have dropped them off at the auto showroom had one been on his route.
He had the most delightfully demented sense of humor. I remember when I was in labor for my first child, I called my parents to say I was heading to the hospital. My father offered a tender bit of advice, words that remain with me to this day: “Good luck,” he said, “and don’t go home empty-handed.”
And this is how the conversation went when he called to inform his sister about a death in the family:
"Joyce," he began to break the news, "how many uncles do we have?"
"Why, we have one uncle," she answered, to which he bellowed, "WRONG!"
My father would do anything to score a laugh--walk into walls, summon a waitress by calling, Nurse!--whatever it took. Daddy was always on, always looking for the perfect opportunity to quip, "Other than that, Mrs. Kennedy, how'd you like Dallas?"
His sudden death was both a shock and a blessing. Soon before he died, Daddy had been diagnosed with throat cancer. The heart attack spared him what have would undoubtedly been a much more painful and trying way to go.
We gave him an awesome wake and funeral; he was laid out next to a billboard of himself that had been part of the bus company's promotional campaign a few years earlier. (Daddy prided himself in being a "male model.") The funeral began with a bugle playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and my aunt, who's a pastor (!), performed the service. Afterward the funeral director said he never heard so much laughter coming out of that room. Daddy would have loved it.
When I think of my father's sense of humor and how several years after his death I began to perform stand-up comedy, I'm reminded of a passage in Natalie Goldberg's book, Long Quiet Highway.
"Whether we know it or not, we transmit the presence of everyone we have ever known, as though by being in each other's presence we exchange our cells, pass on some of our life force, and then we go carrying that other person in our body, not unlike springtime when certain plants in fields we walk through attach their seeds in the form of small burrs to our socks, our pants, our caps, as it to say, 'Go on, take us with you, carry us to root in another place.' This is how we survive long after we are dead. This is why it's important who we become, because we pass it on."
Thanks, Dad, for everything you passed on to me. Except for the crappy hair gene--that's something you really could have kept.