I will always remember. It was sunny. A Saturday. Crisp autumn temperatures. Three days after his eighty-first birthday. My brother called from North Carolina. The things we discussed when I was down there in and out of the ICU for a week had come to pass. It was time. We had to prepare to say goodbye. So, I excused myself from my immediate and extended family, who came to stay for the weekend, put on headphones to listen to songs from my childhood and took a walk. Had a cry. When that was done my bother called back. He kept me on the line as they took my dad off the heavy sedatives he’d been on for nearly two weeks. I took that opportunity to tell him that I would carry his name with as much dignity as can be expected from…well, you know…me, that my daughter and wife loved him as much as I did, and that I appreciated everything he did to make me the man I would become under his tutelage. They then removed all the stuff that was keeping him alive. Within the hour, as I listened to my brother describe the scene with my mom by his side, my father’s breath became shallow, his heart slowed down, and then he died. We both said we’d look to the sky and say one last so long.
My father is dead.
It is hard to explain how many times I had rolled that sentence around in my head. I had feared it for as long as I can remember. Not really sure why. Got worse when I got older and he got older and then endured a double-bleeding ulcer in the early nineties, survived prostate cancer later that decade, then had a series of small health scares that culminated during the last five years with the failing of his kidneys, followed by time on dialysis, a quadruple bypass surgery, a broken hip, femur and wrist last winter, and hip replacement surgery a month or so ago. He was languishing in a rehab center for the second time in less than a year when he contracted an infection that he fought for way longer than any doctor or nurse could fathom. He was helped by modern medicine, but man was my dad tough.
Yet, for me, there was a rare fragility to my dad. He was quiet, self-assured but never, and I mean, never a braggart. If anything, it was hard to understand his immense abilities until way after he’d accomplished the feat. He was never macho or confrontational. If anything, there was a cold, almost detached demeanor about him – all that Anglo-Saxon, Irish DNA. It always vexed me that he never talked about his childhood, his friends, crazy or brave shit he may have done in the Air Force. When he was stationed in Japan he coached a bunch of kids to a Little League baseball title; Japanese or American kids? Don’t know. And I only know this happened at all because there was a trophy sitting on a shelf. I had zero idea who the man’s parents were, when and how they died, what they did or what they meant to him. Tried to press, nothing. Tried my mom, who sent me back to my dad, and then more nothing. I thought when I had a kid of my own this would force him to say one of them was a serial killer or contracted some rare disease, so I would know what kind of lunacy may be coursing through my daughter’s veins.
So, I think, there was this sense that the mystery of my father would somehow unravel at some point, as long as we could keep him going. His life was like a precious historical artifact that I was, I guess, the result of.
I think maybe, without getting too dime-store psychological here, for most of my childhood my dad was kind of in absentia. Not the usual, “Cat’s in the Cradle” stuff, although there is always that in the old-fashioned nuclear family, of which my parents definitely were. Dad worked, and mom took care of us. Nah, if anything having a father who’d gone to college at night at Pace University in NYC while working at a Bronx department store called Newberry’s and later the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in uptown Manhattan where I would be born, so he could get a better gig to help the family was cool. If it meant having an absent father who was exhausted on the weekends, that was okay. He took care of us. I truly understood this dynamic as a kid. Subconsciously, though, I did miss him and felt time with him was fleeting, and so I longed later in life for time I would not get back.
The time I did have with my father as a kid and even as late as a few weeks ago was monumental. He said very few things, but they all stuck out. He imparted wisdom incrementally, but I still have not forgotten any of it. For a public service I shall share some of it with you.
I was maybe four years-old. We were climbing some giant city park rock and I insisted on doing it the hard way and pressed my father to do the same. He told me to use my brain and not my emotions to complete a task, find the most efficient way, that is the challenge, not killing yourself for some hollow man victory.
A little later, still pretty young, my pal, Stephen Ryan ditched me for some other kid. My dad hung out with me all day, referring to Ryan as a “flat-leaver”, a term I assume was all the rage when he was a kid, because I had never heard it uttered since. During the rest of the day he told me that I shouldn’t make someone else’s decision ruin my good time.
All I wanted when I was a kid was to play pro football. I was and am extremely small. I played pop warner and some pee wee football and even tried out for my Freshman High School team. After being beaten rather severely in one practice wherein a helmet a size too big for my head spun around so I was looking out its ear hole, my dad sat me down and said something to me that I have paraphrased in many cocktail parties and press events over my professional life: “Son, you need size, speed and strength to play football and you have none of those. You have to know your limitations in life and where your true talents lie. These things will reveal themselves to you and the opposite of this is true as well.”
In my second year of college, I was hired for the nightshift of a radio station in Washington Crossing, NJ in this little raised hut of a building that overlooked where colonist troops crossed the Delaware with good ole George in the winter of 1776. The staff had gotten word that management was on the verge of selling the station and turning it into some other format and that everyone would be summarily sacked within the week. So, I invited friends up one evening to put on a Howard Stern type fun-loving campy show instead of running a feed for the NJ Nets basketball game, hoping to get a demo tape to pitch to other employers. Halfway through this “performance” the station manager showed up in his pajamas and fired me on the air. When I got home I regaled this story to my dad, who didn’t get mad or look disappointed. He just took a moment and said, “You know, they hired you to do a job and you did something else. Try and remember no matter what job you take, whether it’s digging a ditch or painting the Sistine Chapel, do it to the best of your ability.”
I wonder what he might have told me as he stopped being a part of this surreal thing we call life at 1:24 in the post meridian on the 26th day of October 2019. It dawned on me in his final minutes, as my brother described him as looking peaceful, no longer in distress and succumbing to the beyond, that James Vincent Campion’s heart had been beating ceaselessly since 1938. I mean, I understand this intellectually, but it is hard to even fathom such an achievement. It is even harder to realize how his body, our body, has worked and does work throughout our lifetimes, when you watch all the machines, medicines, tubes and monitors it takes to do what we take for granted every minute of every day.
I could use one of dad’s wisdoms to explain that better. But I’ll finish this by writing: Life is weird. Death is way weirder. James is gone, but the dad part I still carry. You can’t take that. But for the purposes of wrapping this up…
Goodbye, Pop. I’ll miss you… again.