Posted by: PD Warrior | September 30, 2007

Cigar day cometh…

With October approaching, I suddenly find my thoughts drifting more and more towards my father, Joseph Ralph Jr.

As with any child, I have many stories I could tell about my father, some good, and some bad. Some of these stories, much to my father’s dismay, I have told numerous times; yet others have never been told before.

The story I am about to relate is the story of Cigar Day. It is a story I have only told twice in its entirety; once to my sisters, and once to my wife.

Cigar Day is December 17th, a day that is insignificant to most people, but one that I will never forget, for December 17, 2001 is the day my father passed away; a day that, although sad, is a day I will always remember fondly. Like people who lived through the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or the assassination of President Kennedy, I will never forget what I was doing when I received word of my father’s passing.

For me, my father’s death was the end of an era. It brought tremendous sadness, and at the same time, welcome relief. Watching the poor man suffer at the end of his life was almost unbearable.

My father had always been a strong man, both physically and morally. He told me once, there were only two things in life he could count on – his own muscles to get the job done, and his beliefs which would still hold strong when his muscles failed. I used to tease him whenever he told me that, saying “that’s just a fancy way of saying that your as stubborn a mule!” Deep down, however, I knew he was right, and I watched him demonstrate his convictions…his devotion…in the love he had for my mother.

Of course, he always ignored the kidding I gave him, but deep down I think he knew I was right about that too…

But alas, I digress…

To fully understand the significance of cigar day, you have to understand two things. First is the story of the cigar:

Growing up, one of the things I enjoyed most was looking through old photo albums my mother kept around the house. It always amazed me to see pictures of my parents when they were younger. For whatever reason I never could understand the concept that my mother and father were ever young, that they led a normal life. The idea of them having any type of social life, was outrageous to me, let alone the the thought of my father smoking. Yet here, in these images of the past, was proof that they indeed were human at one point in their life.

The photo that especially intrigued me, was one of my father with a cigarette drooping out of his mouth, taken of all days, on the day of my parents wedding.

Ever since I can remember, both my mother and father preached to me about the evils of smoking – “it’s bad for your health,” or “only bad people smoke, you don’t want to be one of them.”

Now, trust me when I say, if my parents said you didn’t want to do something, you didn’t want to do it! Not because they were right, but because the last thing anyone wanted to do was face the wrath of my father. He didn’t spank us often, but man when he did…(my bottom is still sore from a lie I told in 5th grade.)

Then I became a teenager. Like all teenagers, I went through my own version of the dark ages, complete with my very own bubonic plague – the dreaded Acne. My life was rife with typical teenage drama – high school, girlfriends (or the lack thereof) homework, curfews that no-one else had to obey, belonging to social cliques that I didn’t really want to be a part of, and not being accepted in the cliques that I foolishly admired, and worst of all…Saturday chores, imposed by dictatorial parents whose only goal in life was to prevent me from having any type of social life with my friends.

To defy my parents by skipping these chores would have been the equivalent of signing my own death warrant. At that time in my life I was almost as big as my father. I wasn’t afraid of any spanking that he could deal out and both my parents knew it. So, instead they came up with a different approach to punishment, one that was far more heinous in its cruelty, and effect – something that every mother has perfected – the guilt trip.

I had been a victim of my mothers guilt trips often enough to know that I didn’t want to blatantly risk another one by skipping my chores. So, instead I chose to defy them in a way that they would never know about. I would do their chores, which involved yard work in an area of the property that was not visible from the house, and while doing said chores, I would have a smoke. Not just any smoke, however. I would smoke a cigar – the vilest of all evils in my parents eyes

At first I did it out of defiance, and would smoke them quickly so as not to get caught. Then I discovered I actually liked them, and started to slow down so I could savor the taste for a longer period of time.

Big mistake.

I thought I was so smart with my passive resistance to Saturday chores. I had done it for weeks and hadn’t been caught. I was smarter than both my parents put together. I danced around the yard, my rake as my partner. I puffed on my stogie. I laughed at my parents ignorance of my antics. I suddenly found myself face to face with my father…

I didn’t know how long he’d been standing there watching me, and I didn’t dare ask. In situations like this I had learned it was wisest to let him make the first move. I just hoped he was going to do it quick because the cigar butt was still dangling from the corner of my mouth, and the embers were getting dangerously close to my lips.

“Is that a cigar you’re smoking?” He asked, pretending to be stupid, with his trademark grin on his face; the grin he kept in reserve for times when he caught me red handed.

You have got to be kidding me! He knows darn well it’s a cigar, but he expects an answer; a verbal admission of guilt. “Yes sir,” I reply, waiting for the tirade to begin.

“How long have you been smoking them?” He grins once more.

I am so busted. Now I have to chose wisely, and he knows it. The longer I have been smoking, the worse my punishment will be, so an answer with a short period of time would be in my favor. The problem is, I don’t know if this is the first time he has seen me do this. I have no choice but to tell the truth, and the ever widening grin on my father’s face tells me he knows this too. “A couple of months…” I wince at the sound of the truth, and wait for the onslaught.

He took a couple of steps toward me, sniffing the air. “They taste good, don’t they?”

I am trapped like a rat. He’ll know if I am lying to him. He always does. The only thing to do is stand up and take it like a man. “I like them…”

He sniffed the air a couple more times, a lion getting ready to pounce. I studied his gaze. When taking part in a serious conversation my father had a way of pausing right before he was about to say something, as if studying his own response to make sure he got it right. When he was angry, the muscles around his eyes would contract, drawing his eyelids into little slits a split second before he spoke. When he was in a good mood, the muscles around his eyes would relax, causing his eyelids to almost smile.

I braced myself for the inevitable as I watched him think. Then it happened…his eyelids smiled, taking me totally by surprise. “I used to be fond of ’em myself,” he said shrugging his shoulders. “Take a puff for me while you’re out here,” then he turned around and walked away.

For weeks I waited for the other shoe to drop, expecting my mother to sneak one of her guilt trips in when I least expected it. But to this day, the other shoe has yet to hit the floor.

I still like my cigars. Always will. Though I don’t smoke them as often as I used to. In fact, I only smoke them once a year, on cigar day.

Now you’re probably wondering, if Cigar Day is December 17th, what does that have to do with October?

Well, this is where the story gets a little strange.

For the last several years of his life, my father was quite ill. He suffered with Parkinson’s Disease, as do I, on top of many other health problems ranging from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) to CHF (Congestive Heart Failure) and CRF (Chronic Renal Failure)

I was going through a divorce at the time, and needed a place for my children and myself to live. Thankfully my parents had plenty of room. As it turned out, my mother needed help caring for my dad. With me being an RN, the timing couldn’t have been better. I can say that now, because hindsight is always 20/20. At the time I didn’t see it that way, but I was desperate, and beggars can’t be choosers. I was just thankful to have a roof over my head.

As my fathers health declined, he spent more and more time in the hospital. Always with a brave face that he kept on just for my mother. For any faults my parents may have had, I could never say they didn’t love each other. In fact, I have never in my life seen any two people as totally devoted to each other as they were.

My father was gravely ill toward the end. He was physically and spiritually ready to die, but my mother wouldn’t hear of it. Any time he even brought up the subject, she would get angry. She was not ready to let him go, and he knew it, so he kept his thoughts bottled up so as not to upset her.

After a while though, it was too much for him to take. He had to release his emotions somehow, and he did so privately, to me one October day, two months before he died.

My father was being treated for his heart failure, when I received a phone call from the hospital telling me he was out of control. He was being stubborn (not unusual) and striking out at the staff physically (extremely unusual.) They thought it was because he wanted to see my mother. He had a very rough time through the night, and was insisting that he talk to someone. It was early in the morning, and my mother hadn’t arrived yet. She came to see him every day, faithfully; arriving the very second visiting hours began, and she would not leave his side side until the very second they ended. They offered to call her, and allow her to arrive early, but he wouldn’t let them call anyone but me, and would I please come in and talk to him?

I left work immediately, and flew to the hospital, not knowing what to expect. When I arrived at the nurses’ station on his floor, they told me that he had calmed down immediately as soon as he heard I was on my way.

Why he wanted to confide in me, instead of my mother was a mystery. Puzzled, I entered his room. He was almost in tears when he saw me.

“I’m going to die soon,” he said.

Then I knew what he wanted. He needed to talk to someone about his feelings. He needed to talk about his own death, a very normal and natural part of the dying process; something I had seen a million times as a nurse.

The conversation we had was very deep, and very personal. Much of it is way too personal to divulge here, but it started with him telling me about a dream he had the night before.

He dreamed that his “brother” had come to see him on a motorcycle, and that he told him the “time was near,” and not to be afraid because he would be there and they could “ride off together.”

From a reality point of view, the dream made no sense what so ever. My father did not have a brother, and he had never ridden a motorcycle in his life.

Spiritually, however, it made perfect sense. The brother he was referring to was his cousin Bobby that had died earlier that year. Bobby was an avid motorcyclist, and even though they were only cousins, my father often thought of him as a brother because they were raised in the same house for years. Bobby always used to stop by the house on his bike, wanting to take my father for a ride – something my father always wanted to do, but wouldn’t because he knew my mother was terrified of motorcycles. (You should have seen the look on her face when I came home with my first bike – a story for another time)

My father then proceeded to tell me that he was not going to live to see Christmas that year, and that he had a number of things he wanted to see done. He gave me the list, and I wrote it down, promising to carry out each and every step for him.

A week later my father was dismissed from the hospital. He managed to stay well for several weeks while I worked away doing everything on his list. The last item he wanted done was to have Christmas Lights put up on the outside of the house, something that hadn’t been done in the last several years because the outside electrical boxes needed to be rewired.

Rewiring the boxes was a relatively easy task, but one that took several hours none the less. The hard part was the task my father was undertaking while I busied myself with the electrical work – keeping my mother and my children occupied so they wouldn’t discover what I was doing. He wanted it to be a surprise for them.

I don’t know what was more precious; the looks on their faces when I threw the switch, illuminating the house and every tree in the yard, or the look on my fathers face.

Two days later he was admitted to the hospital for the final time. His kidneys had shut down completely. They attempted to put him on dialysis, but were unable to do so because his heart began to shut down every time they tried. The only thing we could do now was wait.

The evening before my father passed away I couldn’t sleep. I was suddenly filled with energy at a time when I should have been exhausted. I tried to fight it for a while, by turning off the lights and covering up with a blanket in an effort to force myself to sleep, but it didn’t work. Eventually I gave in to the energy and did a lot of odd jobs around the house, cleaning things that hadn’t been cleaned in months, catching up on some bills and paperwork that I had been putting off etc. Finally, when I ran out things to do, I picked up a cigar and went outside – I never smoked in the house. (Besides the fact that I didn’t want the house to smell like cigars, I still wasn’t sure if my mother knew I smoked the things.) I stepped out side and stood in front of the house, alone with my thoughts and my stogie. It had snowed most of the day, but the night sky was clear, and the stars were shining brightly. By then it was 1:00am December 17, 2001. A cool wind blew by, and a sort of peace came over me as I looked at the heavens. I took one last puff before putting the cigar out and going back into the house. “This one’s for you dad…”

The phone call came less than five minutes later.

I have since cut back dramatically on the cigars out of love and respect for my wife, much in the same way that my father quit smoking out of love and respect for my mother. Now I only smoke one a year, on Cigar Day, in honor of the greatest man I ever knew.

Dad, you are sadly missed…

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Responses

  1. Joe,
    This is such a dear, sweet story and so well-written. Thank you for sharing.

    Like

  2. What a wonderful tradtition in memory of your Dad. It brought tears to my eyes – in a nice way. Thank you for sharing this.

    Thank you for dropping by my place. 🙂

    Like

  3. Great writing…and the story is such an awesome tribute to your father. I thoroughly enjoyed it, Joe, thank you for writing it!

    Like

  4. An absolutely beautiful story. Thank you for sharing it.

    Like


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