My dad died last Monday, March 4th. He was 92, and had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this past summer. Due to the low success rate of treating that particular type of cancer, along with his age, he decided against chemo or radiation. He wanted to enjoy the remaining time he had left, and not spend it sick from treatments. He made it all the way through the holidays and into the new year with barely any symptoms, even as blood tests indicated the cancer was progressing. While hospitalized in February, the doctor said the CT scan showed it had spread to his liver, and after a few days, he was released to go home under the care of Hospice. We all expected he still had at least a few more weeks, but on March 4, he passed away suddenly and quickly, surrounded by family (including some from out of town who had come to visit and were getting ready to leave that day). I had the incredible privilege of being by his side as he left this world.
I could go on and on and list all the ways my dad was blessed, both in life and in death. He made it into his nineties, and had survived a couple of small heart attacks, from which he had bounced back. While he did have the heart issues, his health was otherwise generally great throughout his life. He and my mom were married for 59 years, and enjoyed many memories together. My dad was a happy-go-lucky, physically small guy with a huge heart and smile to match.
When I think of all he saw in his ninety-two years, it blows my mind. He was born in New York City, almost three years before the stock market crash of 1929 that signaled the start of the Great Depression. A huge baseball and hockey fan, he grew up watching many legends in those sports, along with notable figures of the big band era. Dad served in the Navy in the final year of World War II, and after Duke University, went on to follow in the footsteps of his father and began a career in the financial district of Wall Street. He and my mom were married in 1960, and eventually moved to Rhode Island, where all things Yankees and Rangers transformed into Red Sox and Bruins for Dad. In later years, he often enjoyed going to Florida during spring training. He also had the opportunity to travel to many places, including a six week post-war European adventure with a good friend of his during the 1950s. I could certainly go on and on here, and turn this post into a book with all the stories.
My dad wasn't perfect. Like each of us, he struggled with his own unique challenges and weaknesses. But he truly loved and cared for his family. One treasure I'll always have is a collection of encouraging notes and letters he gave me during a particularly difficult season in my life during my late teens and early twenties. Though it was something I had to work through and that no words or actions from another person could fix, he tried nonetheless.
Over the years, I've seen friends and family lose their dads at much younger ages. In 1993, my friend David's father died suddenly at the age of 69. Another high school friend lost her dad when he was in his fifties and died suddenly one day while playing golf. Both uncles on my mom's side of the family died around 70 from cancer. My church music ministry has exposed me to many situations where I played for countless funeral services related to all sorts of tragic and terrible situations, including a fifteen-year-old girl who was hit by a school bus and more than one occasion of young people who died in car accidents.
As the years went on, I knew this day would one day come. I wondered if I was being selfish in some way. I mean, after all, I got to have my dad around for way longer than many people do. Isn't it considered "normal" to lose someone who's elderly? I tried like crazy to encourage him and to make it so he wouldn't be afraid of his approaching death.
For someone who's been involved in church music ministry for most of his life, I'm not necessarily very "religious" in the sense of beliefs, dogma, and rubrics. I don't believe there's one specific path to God that is exclusively the right one while all others are wrong. I believe there's elements of truth in all spiritual traditions, and I'm very much on a personal quest and path of learning more. But I 1000% consider there's so much more to us than our lives in this physical body here on earth. I do a lot of reading and a great deal of searching, and all the things I've read from so many diverse perspectives, along with the experiences people from all walks of life have had, have left me sensing there's so much beyond what we know. The one thing that seems impossible to me is that this life could be one big random coincidence. I tried to share all this with my dad. But I wonder if, somehow, he was pretty much totally at peace and it was myself I was trying to prepare...
In more contemplative moments, I've thought about how there must be a reason and purpose for this physical experience on earth. But as I watched Dad dying those final weeks, I went through times of being absolutely pissed off at God - for making my dad go through that, as well as other people I've lost, and for all the heartache, hurt, and illness people everywhere experience. I know religious people would say things like it's not God doing that - it's because humanity is imperfect or fallen or whatever. But when a sports team loses a bunch of games, or a company does poorly, it's not the players or employees who take the ultimate blame - it's the coach, or the CEO. So I was like, "ya know what? God's supposed to be in charge. So the buck stops there." I've thought and said a lot more colorful things than I'm writing here. If there really is such a thing as a life review in God's presence, it's gonna make for an interesting conversation between myself and the Almighty.
In death, Dad was blessed just like he'd been in life. Here he was, battling one of the most ugly, insidious, painful cancers known to humankind, and he went for most of his illness with barely any symptoms. As the symptoms finally began to grow, he had a quick and graceful exit, surrounded by loved ones. He was never forced to experience the worsening physical conditions that were sure to come. For that, I'm thankful. Maybe that right there was the Divine making its presence known.
And now, here we are. Just like that, he's moved on to the next experience of his spirit's journey. And now I know what it is to lose a parent. It seems almost impossible to imagine the world without him. Every time I call or stop by their condo, I expect to hear his voice answer the phone, or see him sitting there. It's like this raw, bittersweet heartache. There'll be these moments of peace, where I feel like he's all around us. And then that'll be followed by piercing waves of sadness. In one card I received, there was a quote that read: "yes, your life will not be the same without your Dad...but your life is not the same because of him." I've learned it doesn't matter what age a person is when they die - it still hurts to lose them. Even if you believe they've moved on to something so much greater, the bottom line is, you miss them, and nothing will ever make that go away.
The night before he passed, he'd gone to bed early. The family members who were visiting went in to say goodnight to him. In the course of that exchange, he told them, "I'm going to a better place." That's a common phrase that's often used to describe moving on from this world. What strikes me, in retrospect, was the timing. Was it coincidence? Or did he somehow know the next day would be the beginning of his new life? I hope and pray I one day get the chance to ask him.
Robert Joseph Russo
January 26, 1927 - March 4, 2019