My father died a decade ago of congestive heart failure. It wasn’t a shock since he’d suffered a heart attack a few weeks prior (his second) and doctors sent him home after a month in cardiac rehab with a dire diagnosis, an oxygen tank and a whistle to blow if he woke up in distress.
An hour after arriving home from rehab Dad went to take a nap. A few minutes later the whistle loudly chirped. My mother and brother frantically rushed into the room to see Dad lying in bed with a broad smile on his face. He said, “Just testing.” That tells you most of what you need to know about the man.
He had had a massive coronary almost 30 years earlier at age 47 and underwent subsequent quadruple bypass surgery. He was fortunate to have survived and considered everything that came after gravy. Life was a game for him and if you haven’t guessed by now my irreverent streak was inherited.
Still, we’d never been extremely close. My younger brother was named for Dad. Although I’m the eldest child I was named after “Brad” the evil character in a TV soap opera. That speaks volumes about my family hierarchy.
The heavy medication he was on was making Dad kind of loopy, to use a medical term. His doctor said that was normal. In fact the doctor had a patient on the same meds who boarded a Greyhound bus and rode from Omaha to Pittsburgh for no reason whatsoever. Dad’s lucidity varied day-to-day, from his normal clever sharpness to borderline incoherence.
For the initial few days after getting home from the hospital we went through the motions. Waking up, eating, helping Dad to and from the bathroom. Then, on his fifth day home from rehab he suddenly had renewed energy. He was walking unassisted throughout the house. He rarely needed the oxygen. Maybe it was a miraculous recovery but more likely it was not. The doctors said this energy would likely be short-lived. I sat Dad down.
Me: “I have to go back to California soon. But first it’s probably time for us to have the talk about things - ” Dad: “The talk?! You’re over 40 years old and you don’t know where the hell babies come from?!” Me: “The talk about your affairs. I believe your will is in the file cabinet in the bedroom.” Dad: “My will? All you need to know is I left every goddam nickel to the woman with the big jugs I used to ride the bus with!”
In the ensuing days Dad began, I guess the word would be “puttering,” about the house. Now this was a man who never puttered. To say he wasn’t handy would be an understatement. He once bought a new lawn mower because the old one wouldn’t start. We later determined the old one was out of gas.
I walked into the kitchen on his seventh day home from the hospital and Dad was hammering a photograph into the wall. “Who are these people?” I asked. Dad: “I dunno. It’s a good picture though.” Mom walked in, saw the photo and explained it was part of an advertising mailer sent from a J.C. Penney photography studio.
I decided Dad needed to get out of the house. Mom suggested a walk around the mall. Dad vetoed that. He did favor the notion of doing something physical.
And that’s how I found myself on the nine-hole, par 3, public Warren Swigart Golf Course in Omaha with my father and his bum ticker for what was most likely one last round of golf. We’d played dozens of rounds together since I was in first grade. Still, we both sucked at the game.
I probably need to clarify that although we stunk at golf we nevertheless loved it.
“Who the hell is Warren Swigart?” Dad asked as I helped him out of the car. “Some dignitary. Funny you’d ask that now after we’ve played this course 50 times. You’re sure you’re up to this?” “Hell yeah. Would you rather have me boarding a bus to Pittsburgh?”
A few minutes later this wobbly man who was alternating from medication-induced off-kilter statements that were possibly also linked to some early onset dementia, to moments of great clarity and wit, was teeing off.
He topped his first shot and demanded a “dead man walking mulligan.” He hit his next tee shot into the crick. (A “crick” is what Nebraskans call most any body of water, including the Atlantic Ocean, Niagara Falls and the Black Sea.)
On the fairway I helped him out of and then back into the golf cart and held him gingerly around the waist when it looked like he might topple over while lining up a chip shot. When we began playing golf when I was six Dad used to get behind me and help me swing the club. Four decades later our roles had reversed.
We were playing even worse than usual. I was recording lots of triple bogeys and he was taking 8 to 15 shots per hole. Still, we played at our normal fairly fast clip. At the fifth tee we caught a foursome of ladies. He asked, “Mind if we play through? I’m expected to croak soon.”
Freed of the inhibitions of those of us whose lives don’t have an approaching expiration date, Dad invited the women to “check out my hip action” while taking a practice swing.
Around hole number seven of our nine-hole round the jokes diminished and we pretty much stopped talking. It felt like one of those deals after something huge happens in sports and the TV commentators go silent and let the moment speak for itself. This was almost certainly our last round together - ever. I broke the silence.
“What are you thinking?” I asked, my voice possibly quivering a little. Dad: “I’m thinking how awful it is when peanut butter sticks to the roof of your goddam mouth.”
On the eighth hole - about a 165-yarder - I turned back while lining up my second shot to see that Dad had fallen. He was gasping for air, his thin chest heaving.
“We’re done” I said helping him to his feet and checking for broken bones. “No. No!” he shouted. “NO!” This was serious now. He was like a marathon runner who goes down a few feet from the finish. He was going to complete this round, his last, no matter what.
He pushed me away and steadied himself over his ball. It was laying up a good 140 yards from the green after he had badly mangled his drive. He brought the club back and held it aloft for what seemed like an eternity, before bringing it down fast, striking the ball clean. It took flight high into the air, sailing, sailing...it hit the green three feet from the pin, stuck the landing and rolled downhill. I ran toward the green to get a better look. The ball had stopped less than a half foot from the cup. “It’s four inches from the hole!” I shouted. To say he looked proud would be an understatement. I hadn’t seen that look since his first grandchild was born.
I immediately dubbed what had happened The Shot. It was The Shot. Almost certainly the best of his entire life.
Struggling for breath and barely able to stand, for one instant on the next-to-last hole of his last game of golf ever, Dad had looked like Tiger Woods in his prime.
Dad somehow basically jogged toward the green and picked up his ball which was firmly in “gimme” territory. He’d parred the hole. It was the only par either of us recorded that day.
Dad took about a 12 on hole nine, but it didn’t matter. We were still thinking about The Shot.
Neither of us spoke on the way to the car but there was a distinct feeling of contentment. Of acceptance. Of the fact that our time on earth is finite and if you make it to a certain age and get some enjoyment from your life and record a few pars - on and off the course - then you are one of the fortunate ones.
We weren’t an emotional family and love was something you felt but didn’t say aloud. Driving home from the course I felt it.
Dad died a couple weeks later. He was 76 years old. Mom walked into the bedroom and found him with the whistle untouched on the bed stand. He hated doctors and was done. I put the ball from The Shot into his hand before the casket was closed.