Growing up in Western Pennsylvania – in the heart of “steel country” – my father began working in the steel mills well before I was born. Dad was a hard worker, providing for our family the very best he could. The steel mills were not run like a typical 9-5 “shirt and tie” job. They ran twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. My father worked the night shift, meaning he worked from eleven at night until seven in the morning. Because he worked all night, he slept all day. I didn’t really see much of him except for at dinner time, which was ALWAYS a family event.
We would discuss our day, and how our school work was coming along. We would also discuss anything new that had happened, as long as it was appropriate dinner conversation. My parents believed those evening meals together were an important part of being a family. Mom was a stay at home mom all during our elementary, and Junior High School days. Wanting to be involved in our education, Mom was a PTA mom and was even PTA President for a few years at our Elementary School. Needless to say, she knew everyone, and everyone knew her. Getting away with being anything but a “good girl”, was impossible.
Mom had me involved in the Girl Scouts, as well as the music program where I played the violin and the clarinet. Eventually, Mom started working around the time I was twelve or thirteen, just part time while my brother and I were in school. We still always had family dinners, and spent as much time as we could as a family. Summers were great! Hide and seek, whiffle ball, bike riding, and sleepovers were a must. I remember sitting out on the front porch with Dad listening to the baseball games on the radio. I wasn’t a girly girl, but I was definitely not a tomboy either.
Camping out in the tent was a big part of what made a lot of summer memories. My dad and brother were involved in Boy Scouts so they were always prepared and up for any kind of camping trip. It was a nice and relaxing way to spend family time. As fall approached, I would dread Sundays, knowing Dad would be parked in front of the television, watching football: The Pittsburgh Steelers, which is what our little town was all about. If there were any other teams, I never knew it, or heard anything about them. Then again, I never paid much attention. Back then, I never could understand how football was remotely entertaining.
I would rather have been hiking through the woods or finding an outdoor activity to pass my time. I did, however, on rainy Sundays, sit with Dad to see what all this hoopla was about. Just to be a non-conformist, I decided I was going to root for a team OTHER than the home town favorite. What a rebel I thought I was! The San Francisco 49ers was my team of choice, although I couldn’t tell you why I chose them, I just didn’t want to be part of the “Steeler Nation,” as it is called. Dad was always a practical joker and because of that, April Fool’s Day was one of his favorite days of the year.
Most of the time, his little practical jokes were pretty funny; but there were those times I just didn’t get his weird sense of humor. I can remember one summer day when my dad had to repair something on the roof next to the chimney. My mom was cleaning and I had just come running in the house from a bike ride. Out of breath I quickly asked where my dad was, wanting him to inflate my bike tires for my next ride. No sooner had she said, “I don’t know, on the roof I think,” I began to hear a faint cry of someone yelling, “HELP, HELP ME, HELP. ” Panic set in and I instantly began screaming to Mom that Dad had fallen off the roof.
I could feel the tears trickling down my cheeks and my heart was pounding out of my chest. I was frozen in place, I couldn’t find my legs, and I stood there in sheer panic. My mother flew out the front door and within seconds I could hear her yell, “You’re not funny Richard! You scared the daylights out of us. ” With a frown on her face, Mom walked through the front door, Dad following close behind, his head down, with his shoulders shaking up and down in uncontrollable laughter. As upset as I was, I wiped my tears, smiled at him telling him that he had a really sick sense of humor.
He hugged me tight and apologized for my tears. I don’t think he ever played another practical joke like that again. Of course he still kept up with his fake poop, vomit, snot, and anything else that would bring a laugh. It was what he lived for. It wasn’t a stretch to find a fake finger, a whoopee cushion, or the infamous rubber snake lying around to scare some unsuspecting visitor. Our house was full of practical jokes. I knew this was something I was going to miss when I went out on my own. At eighteen I moved to Florida to attend college. I was excited about the prospect of being out on my own.
After college, I started a job and met my boyfriend. I was, however, missing home and my family. My boyfriend, who grew up in Florida, was more than enthusiastic to pack up and move to Pennsylvania for a cooler climate. While in Pennsylvania, my boyfriend and I got married and had our two children. Dad seemed very excited, and wanted to be involved in the naming of the first grandchild, a boy. I should have known that it wasn’t going to be a serious undertaking on his part. At the time, my last name was Rolon, and for my dad, this was a great opportunity for the PERFECT name.
Dad was convinced that Rock N. Rolon was clearly what his grandson should be named. As usual, humor came before anything else. Once Rock N’ was shot down, he had decided that his new grandson would have to have a powerful and masculine name, oh boy. Now to Dad, this was the best name to date, a name to top all names, and with a straight face he exclaimed, “Testicleze, he shall be named Testicleze! ” Really? At the time, I was eight months pregnant and wasn’t the least bit amused by his name selection, but to my dismay, everyone else thought it was hilarious.
Dad’s sense of humor was infectious, as was his laugh. He could tell the best stories. After moving back to Florida following the birth of our two children were born, my husband commenced to recite my dad’s stories and marvel at his uncanny ability to make people laugh. During the next few years, as my kids grew, I found myself calling my dad more and more often. We would talk on Sundays but our talks never seemed to spark more than a five minute conversation, that is, until I discovered I could keep him interested when I asked him about Football!
The one thing that I dreaded on Sundays as a child, was the one thing I could talk to Dad about now, 20 years later. Yes, I will admit that over the years, I did become a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, so this wasn’t too much of a stretch for me, but I would have to brush up on my knowledge of the game in order to keep up with him. It became a weekend (and sometimes a Monday night) ritual for me to call Dad and talk to him about how the game went. The good plays, the bad plays; the amazing win, the embarrassing loss. And it wasn’t unheard of for one of us to call the other in the middle of a game if something exciting had happened.
I loved the enthusiasm in his voice when we would discuss what was going on. It was nice to have something special that I could share with my dad. We were both just as passionate about our Pittsburgh pride. And when it wasn’t football season, it was either hockey or baseball season, so we always had some kind of Pittsburgh sports team to chat about. Missing a Sunday phone call was very rare, and I looked forward to them. Super Bowl Sundays were our all-time favorite football event. I loved hearing Dad’s voice and listening to his infectious laugh.
It was Super Bowl Sunday and I had not been feeling well all week, so I ended up going to bed early, missing my weekly phone call with my dad, which was a very rare occasion. Feeling better later that week, I started planning my daughter’s birthday party that was scheduled for the following weekend. It was Sunday, February 13, 2011, and I could not believe my daughter was about to turn sixteen in just two days. We had a house full of party-goers and everyone was having a good time. My daughter had been getting phone calls all day wishing her a Happy Birthday, and the day was going great.
I was looking forward to my call today with my dad, considering I had missed the last one. Dad was scheduled to call my daughter, so I knew I could get a quick hello in, and then call him later that evening for a longer talk. The phone rang and as I glanced at the Caller ID, realized it was my brother, which I wasn’t really expecting a call from. I assumed he was calling to wish his niece a Happy Birthday, and I answered the phone in my usual chipper voice. I realized immediately that something was wrong.
I think everything stood still as I heard my brother say, “Tiffany, Dad had a heart attack! I felt my knees buckle, and that same feeling I had felt so many years ago when I thought Dad had fallen off the roof, flooded through me, but this time, I knew there was no practical joke behind it! The flight at three am to Pennsylvania couldn’t go fast enough. Dad had made it through surgery, but no one knew the prognosis. The hour and a half drive from the airport to the hospital was full of emotion. I wanted to see him, but I was so afraid of what I would see when I did. I had been to this hospital so many times.
I was born there, my daughter was born there, I was even a candy striper there, but walking through the doors of the hospital that day was different! The smell, the sounds, everything seemed to echo. As we walked into the ICU, I could feel the knot in my stomach get bigger and I knew the tears were only a blink away. I wanted to get to his room so badly, but I could feel myself slowing down with each step. As we stepped into his room, I could hear the monitors beeping and the sound of the ventilator as it slid up and down. My brother stood just inside the doorway, blocking the view I so desperately didn’t want to see.
As he hugged me I couldn’t stop the flood of emotion that had been waiting just under my next breath, and the tears began to flow uncontrollably. Trying to compose myself as best I could, I squeezed his hand, and walked past him to stand at Dad’s bedside. So pale, so fragile, I don’t think I had ever seen my dad look so helpless before. As helpless as he looked, I felt even more helpless, because I knew there was nothing I could do for him. The machines, the IV’s, they seemed to consume him, and the room. I wanted to hug him, but was afraid to hurt him, so I kissed his forehead, held his hand, and whispered in his ear, “I love you Daddy. At that moment, I realized, that somewhere along the way, I HAD become, “Daddy’s Girl. ”
That realization brought back a flood of memories and made me ache to keep creating more. I wanted to continue our Sunday phone calls and our unspoken connection. I wanted my Daddy back! Please open your eyes Daddy, please wake up! It had been two days of waiting, and watching. It was a bad dream, right? It had to be, I was so confused, numb, the voices in the room seemed far away, a distant whisper. No brain activity? Lack of oxygen? Remove life support? I don’t understand, you fixed his heart, you said it was strong now!
Maybe if I close my eyes real tight, and count backwards from 10, I will wake up. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6,”Tiffany! ” 5, 4, “Tiffany! ” “What? ” I heard myself say softly as I opened my eyes to look at whoever was calling my name. “What do you think? ” I was asked. “What do I think? ” I repeated. “I think this is a nightmare! ” My thoughts were scattered and I could feel my stomach tighten and suddenly I felt nauseous. Am I supposed to know what to do? Am I supposed to have some sort of epiphany? We were told he could breathe on his own but would have to be put on a feeding tube.
We had the choice to put him into a long term care facility if we chose to. He would never open his eyes, he would never feed himself, and he would never know who we were. What was proposed was not living. To my family and me, that was not living; that was not what Dad would have wanted. He was a golfer, he was an outdoorsman, a practical joker, and he used to be FULL of life. The decision to remove all form of life support was heart wrenching. We knew it was the right thing for my dad, but I didn’t like this feeling I had, the feeling like we were playing God.
The next seven days in the Hospice Unit at the hospital were emotionally and physically draining. Watching a loved one, slowly slip away, isn’t something I would wish on anyone. I don’t think we, (my brother, Mom, and I) left Dad’s room for more than a few hours at a time. I would spend many hours holding his hand, talking to him, telling him how much I loved him, and how much I was going to miss his voice, his laugh, and most of all, his presence. On February 22, 2011, at around 5am, my Daddy took his last breath – and my life changed forever. I can still hear his laughter and the sound of his voice. I am so afraid of afraid of forgetting!