Thursday, May 03, 2007

Leo M., 1944-2006

Dad and me, 1970Today would have been my father's 63rd birthday. Approximately 20 years ago he learned that he had a rare genetic liver condition called Polycystic Liver Disorder, which causes cysts of fluid to build up within the liver. Big, awful cysts. When he died, he had been carrying around well over 100 pounds of liver and fluid. Every part of him was emaciated, but he had to carry around a giant and ever-expanding burden within his abdomen that, despite an attempt at resection surgery, would continue to get worse until it finally crushed his kidneys and he could no longer survive.

One year ago, I called him at the hospital to wish him a happy birthday, but that call wound up scaring me, panicking me. He was in great pain, and we had nothing we could say to each other. Nothing at all; an awkward silence. It haunts me more than just a bit. Two days later, I got the call from my mother -- the call you never really want to hear, but it happens and you have to accept it and take action and do your duty.

And that's what he would have wanted; to make sure I did my duty and did right by my mom and make sure everything went okay. Which I couldn't have done without the help of my brothers, my aunt (my father's sister), and the support of the rest of the extended family. My younger brother took care of the awful medical post-mortem details (he was a trained paramedic), and I took care of the convoluted corporate and government survivor benefits and financial details. And I will always be impressed by just how much she was able to learn, as quickly as she did, and take control of her future. At least as much as she can at this point. I was also surprised to learn that I really don't know my own mother as well as I thought I did.

At his funeral, my youngest brother delivered the eulogy in the form of a poem that my father kept handy. I don't even remember what it was. All I remember is being consumed with the disappointment in myself for not being able to stand up there and deliver the eulogy myself. I honestly didn't know what to say. It was like my last phone call on his birthday. No words. Nothing. So I played the role of the stoic oldest son supporting his mother, only cracking a bit when they sang "Ave Maria", which he fondly remembered singing when he was a boy in that very same church.

My father was a bit of an unusual man. He wasn't very social, but he was very strong-willed and a bit of a type-A personality. He was a senior-level manager in a large corporation who was more or less the "fixer"; he'd take on a serious problem and turn it around to make it right, usually by intimidating everyone in his path. He had a patented "look", a withering stare that could strike fear in the hearts of mere mortals. It's a trick that I've only barely been able to emulate. He was also a very gregarious and thoughtful person who attracted intense loyalty of his peers. To watch his deterioration over the last year of his life (because of the medication and the increasing hopelessness of his condition) was disheartening and scary, and I was in denial about it, even after the shock of that last phone call one year ago.

Dad and my little brother at my university graduation ceremonyThere are two stories he told me that I remember well. The second story he told me after I started college and he had come up to visit ostensibly on a business trip. He had just finished basic training for the US Air Force in the early 60's, just before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he and his buds had rented a hotel room off-base to have a party. It turned out to be a very, very rowdy party, with furniture being thrown out windows and the cops showing up to arrest the lot of 'em. It was the only time my dad was arrested. He told me that the squad car had to pull over every five minutes because he was so drunk that he had the dry heaves. While the charges were dropped pretty quickly, he carried around his arrest report ever since then as a reminder.

The first story was something he told me much earlier. When he was in the Air Force, he was assigned to the NSA (National Security Agency) as a codebreaker, with a lot of classified stories in him that he still conditioned not to tell years after his clearance expired. When he told me this one story the first time, he said that when he was stationed in Crete, they would fly missions along the nearest Soviet border in an old DC-3, gathering radio transmissions. There were many instances where similar patrols would be shot down, but that was very, very secret. Families would be told that their sons died in a car accident in Athens. It was deep into the cold war at that point.

So my dad was the decrypter who took the code that the radio guy intercepted, and passed the results to the translator. He had gotten a medal for figuring out a new variation of a code (that was coincidently solved back in D.C. at the same time, so he didn't get that much credit for it). But in this one particular mission, there's a burst of radio activity, and he passes the results to the translator, who suddenly goes white. The DC-3 they were flying strayed into Soviet airspace, apparently, and translator said "they're scrambling MIGs, they're coming after us".

Even in the mid-'60s, a DC-3 was an old clunker of an aircraft, so you can just imagine how everybody felt as that POS was straining at maximum speed to get back across the border before a squadron of modern jet fighters pounced on it. It was tense and worrisome, but ultimately nothing came of it, and my mom, who he was engaged to at the time, thankfully never needed to be notified of an unfortunate "traffic accident".

Just a few years ago, in a retelling of the story, he admitted that it actually happened when he was secretly stationed in Vietnam before that war escalated. The fact that he was even there was something he couldn't even admit to my mother up until recently, because it was so secret at the time. The missions he described, and the failures too, out of Crete were quite real and happened a lot, but the mission from his story was actually from the activity that was happening in Vietnam before the "real" war even started. It was shocking to learn that after all those years.

What other secrets he died with, unable to tell, I'll never know now. The fact that your parents have secrets they keep from you shouldn't be surprising, but they are. How can they not be?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You look very cute on that photo! ^^

*** MartAnimE