Saturday, June 30th is my father’s birthday. He would have been 81 years old if he was still alive.
Back on February 6th, 2003, I was working at one of my old jobs in the city when around 4:30 I received a frantic phone call from my mother while I was at the office. She was saying that my father was being rushed to the hospital and that she thought he was having a stroke. I heard him on the background saying “I’m fine, Hon,” but something sounded odd in his voice.
I left work, jumped on the first bus I could catch and made it to Methodist Hospital in South Philly. My mother, sister and some immediate family members and family friends were in the Emergency Room waiting area and they weren’t letting anyone back to see him. At one point I remember the nursing staff directing us to a family room. My mother had spent enough time in hospitals to know what that usually meant, so she instantly started to freak out, knowing for certain that it meant my father had died.
* * * * *
My father Frank was a sports fanatic. That’s where I’m certain that I got it from. He used to play schoolyard basketball in the early 40’s with his friends (among whom was future NBA Hall of Famer Paul Arazin). He had a hook shot that could make you drool and could shoot a basket from the free throw line with his eyes closed. His athleticism stayed with him late into his life as he was an avid bowler and golfer. Bowling was something that we shared. We came in 2nd place in a father-son tournament when I was 14 years old. I later bowled in the same adult league as him, both on a different team and then towards the final years together on the same team.
He loved watching any sport on television and I fondly remember the days of sitting near him on the sofa watching whatever was on. Football (he cursed the Eagles whenever they lost). Baseball (he cursed the Phillies whenever they lost). Basketball (he took particular enjoyment watching both the Sixers and NCAA basketball). Hockey (which was rarely televised at the time). Golf (Oh, how he would spend all day Saturday and Sunday watching golf!). Tennis (even the boring, rather unimportant matches). You name it, he watched it.
And that rubbed off on me for the most part, for which I’ll always be grateful.
* * * * *
The Lombardi Family…circa 2001
At Methodist Hospital my father was still alive. The staff assured us that they were moving us to that room to have some privacy as well as to help prevent the ER waiting room from becoming Lombardi Central. Shortly thereafter they let me, my mother and my sister go see him. He, indeed, had a stroke. A fairly severe one as his mobility was limited and he was not able to speak clearly or coherently.
As the night wore on they transferred him to the brain trauma center at Wills Eye Hospital in center city, where the doctors there could better serve someone in his fragile condition. I had made a few calls, one of which was to Nicole (who I had only been dating for a few months at the time), to let people know what was going on.
At this point my father was having severe difficulty talking. His brain function was a fraction of what it normally would have been. He couldn’t move his entire right side of his body. We would ask him questions and you could see In his face the frustration that he knew he was trying to answer them but something was wrong. He looked tired. He looked bitter, and angry and ready to give up.
* * * * *
“Don’t bring home any whores!”
That’s what I used to say to my father when I’d kiss him goodbye when he was leaving for work at night. My father was a bartender since the day I was born (before then actually). He had managed the La Casa club in Center City and worked at the Penns Port Pub (the side that was a Go Go joint) when I was very young. Later on he worked at the airport, serving drinks to both celebrities and average travelers from the Libations Lounge in D terminal.
But in those years when I was very young and he’d work the night shift at the bar, my mother and I would kiss him and send him off on his way, smelling of cologne and Tic Tacs. And I’d always say that line. I’d like to think it worked because not once did my father ever bring home a whore.
He was a stylish guy. Reminiscent of a mobster, in later years friends used to call him Gotti. He wore fancy suits, had salt and pepper hair and drove a Cadillac. He’d wear casual track suits during the week but when he was going out somewhere with my mother he was dressed to the nines.
He was a fantastic dancer (something I did NOT inherit from him) and he had a raunchy sense of humor. My father was a fun guy to be around. He lived a more lively life than I did, partying harder in his 60s than I did in my teens and 20s.
* * * * *
The doctors informed my family that my father’s prognosis was not very good. He had had cancer twice (skin cancer and cancer in his lymph nodes) that he had beaten through radiation treatment and chemotherapy. He had a triple bypass years prior. He smoked and drank most of his life, and the toll on his body with the stroke was going to be too much. They proposed to us the option of a rather experimental treatment where they use high doses of blood thinners to help alleviate the problems of the stroke and offer the possibility of a near full recovery.
But the chances of survival were under 30 percent. We had a choice to make. We could leave it be and my father would have a 100% chance of surviving in what was essentially a vegetative state, or take a 30% chance that he could live a life like the one he was used to living.
* * * * *
My mother and father were the best of friends. Their love for one another was like none I’ve ever seen and is something that to this very day I try to emulate in my relationship with Nicole. My mother and father have had their share of fights, many of which were loud and filled with words that I usually reserve only for the TV when the Phillies are blowing another lead or when the Eagles are signing players like Michael Vick.
But they had a loving, caring and romantic relationship. And he played very well off of my mother when it came to parenting. She was the pushover and he, while not particularly stern, was the one you had to convince with logic that what you wanted to do was acceptable. He helped with Math & Science. My mother helped with English and Art. He drove me anywhere I wanted to go. He took my friends anywhere we wanted to go. He taught me how to make mixed drinks and also the importance of not abusing alcohol.
He was my mother’s soulmate and the best father that my sister and I could have ever asked for.
* * * * *
My father was a gambling man so we decided to take our chances. A 30% chance of being normal was better than a 100% chance of living a life that would have left him in a wheelchair, unable to do anything on his own.
The doctors proceeded to administer the treatment and my mother sent my sister and I to my sister’s apartment near 12th and Arch so we could get some sleep. It was nearing midnight and it had been a long day. She assured us that she had people there with her (our family friend Carol among them) and if anything happened she would call and we could make it back in no time.
That call came around 3:30am. My mother said that my father was starting to experience severe bleeding in the brain (one of the known possible complications) and swelling. Things were not looking good.
We made it back to the hospital in time. We each spent time with him in the recovery center and I remember talking to my father, holding his hand and telling him how much I love him and how proud I was to be his son.
I remember looking at the monitors as his heart rate was dropping to below 30 and knowing that time was running out. I held my father’s hand and kissed his forehead moments before he died. And in that early morning on what was February 7th 2003, my father took a little bit of my soul with him when he left this Earth.
* * * * *
It’s difficult not to think of all of the things my father didn’t get a chance to see. He didn’t get to see me get married (he had actually only met Nicole three times but said to my mother that he knew she was the woman I’d marry). He never saw my sister buy her first home. He didn’t get to walk my sister down the aisle at her wedding. He didn’t get to see Nicole and I move to the suburbs and buy our first house. He didn’t see the Phillies win the World Series in 2005 (he would have loved it). He still never saw me get my driver’s license. He never saw me get any of my tattoos (OK — maybe he wouldn’t have been so crazy about that last part.)
But I’m sure he’s there somewhere…seeing what has become of our lives. Seeing the man that I have become, trying to be more and more like him every day. Seeing how my sister has become a successful entrepreneur. Seeing how my mother continues to keep her chin up in the face of adversity. Seeing how much we all still miss him dearly and how much we still love him.
Rarely a day goes by that I don’t think of my father. In over nine years he still plays a part in my life…in the decisions I make and in the person that I try to be.
Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you. I miss you. I hope I’ve made you proud.