Never give up, never stop fighting

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It was two years ago today that I experienced something in my life that will change me forever. Although I saw it coming for awhile, it was the events that occurred and led up to it that make it such a hard thing to move on from. One thing that has helped me through it has been hockey.

Throughout my childhood, my dad purchased partial season tickets for the Philadelphia Flyers and NHL Center Ice so we could see our favorite team despite living in Maryland. We did as much as we could to see the Flyers, even though it was difficult. What made it harder to see games was after the 2004-2005 lockout and ESPN decided to drop NHL coverage, as we had to resort to just highlights and game recaps. Every year had the same feeling until 2010-2011. It was the final year my dad bought partial season tickets.

My father had suffered from sleep apnea for many years and wanted to change it, so in September of 2010 he went in for three separate surgeries. After my first week of junior yeat at college, I called my dad to see how his surgeries went on September 3rd, 2010. He said he was fine and we joked around for a bit, as I assumed he would be fine. Three days later on Labor Day I received a text from my brother Ian saying, “Dad’s in the hospital. I’ll tell you more later.” I didn’t know what to think. I was confused and nervous, and I think everybody that knew my dad at the time was as well. What happened was 40% of his lungs were filled with blood and if my brother hadn’t been talking to him in person to recognize his decreased movement, as well as the paleness in his skin, he could have died that day.

Luckily, he didn’t. He was in a coma for several weeks following the episode, as I came home from school each weekend to see him at Upper Chesapeake Hospital in Bel Air, Maryland until he eventually regained consciousness. He then regained his voice. Shortly after his voice came back, he was transferred to Good Shepherd in Philly, where he’d stay until he had fully recovered and was released on my birthday, November 2nd. Unfortunately, in his time recovering in the hospital, they discovered a cancerous tumor on my dad’s lung. It wasn’t malignant, but surgery to remove it was required.

The season of 2010-2011 is a season I’ll never forget for the simple fact of remembering the games my dad, Ian, and I went to together. The Flyers lost nearly every game we went to that year, but I remember joking around with my dad and brother a lot, like we usually did.

After the season ended, we embraced for an ECQF series the Flyers had against the Buffalo Sabres. Since I was still at school, we couldn’t watch the first four games of the series together, but thanks to my dad’s spontaneity,  he and I went to Game 5. He called me at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon that Friday and asked me if I wanted to go. I told him he was crazy and I didn’t want him driving that much, to which he replied that it was too late since he already bought the tickets. I then waited for him outside the Wells Fargo Center before he showed up at about 6:55pm. After we rushed into the arena and sat down, I asked him how much the tickets were. He said, “Craig, don’t worry about it. You only live once.”

The Flyers ultimately lost the game, but the ride home was more significant. As we pulled into my dorm room’s parking lot, my dad parked rather than saying bye and dropping me off like he usually did. We talked for half an hour, mainly about the game and a little bit about his upcoming surgery he had less than a week later for the tumor. I remember saying I was happy he was still around after everything that had happened in 2010. He told me he was too and that he wasn’t going anywhere for awhile. That was the last game we ever saw together in person.

We watched Game 7 of that series together at my grandmother’s house. After seeing the Flyers win in the last game we’d ever watch together, we went to bed and woke up early, as I drove him to the University of Pennsylvania for surgery at 5am. Several hours later, the tumor was successfully removed.

He was making progress in his recovery from the surgery until May 2nd, when he had an extremely high fever the night before he was supposed to be released from the hospital. A few days later, possibly the worst day of my life, as well as my brother’s and father’s lives, occurred on May 7th.

It was a Saturday and I was talking to my girlfriend Madie about going to see my father. I was about to get in my car when my dad’s doctor called to tell me I should come see him today. The call confused me, but I proceeded to the hospital nonetheless. When we arrived, he was still in a coma that he had relapsed into a few days earlier and the doctor said he was doing better than he was in the morning when she called me. Madie and I, as well as my grandmother and brother who were already at the hospital before us, exhaled and went down to grab some lunch.

When we came back upstairs, we turned the corner and looked down the hall. There were several doctors surrounding my dad’s room. As I moved closer and looked into my dad’s room, more doctors were around my dad’s bed and panicking, attempting to figure out how to keep my dad’s heart from slowing down even more. After seeing the scene I quickly stepped back and walked back to the waiting room with my family.

A few hours later, my father’s doctor came out and talked to us. She explained to us what happened. How all of his organs were giving out on him and it was a miracle he was still alive. She stated how the next 24 hours, from 6pm on May 7th to 6pm on May 8th, would decide if his body was capable of carrying on further. Madie and I decided to stay there the entire night, as we told my brother, grandmother, and aunt that we’d call them if something came up.

Needless to say, it was a long night. I’d sit restlessly in the waiting room for a few minutes before I’d stand up and walk down the end of the hall to see my dad in a quiet room where the only sound was the beeping noise of a big machine acting as his organs. I told him this was the hardest it would get and he’d make it through. That he’s been through tougher times and everything will get easier from here on in. It was the same set of motions until about 4am in the morning, when he briefly showed signs of consciousness. As I saw his eyes open I said ‘Dad?’ to see if he could hear me. He slightly turned his head and smiled at me, then looked for my brother. I told him he had gone home to make sure his mom was alright. He nodded his head to recognize the statement.

Then, with tubes in both his nose and his mouth, he tried to mouth something to me. I couldn’t make out what two-syllable word he was saying. I asked him a few times to repeat it until I finally could read his lips. My father, who was possibly moments away from passing away, was saying, “Flyers?”

Stunned and shocked, I didn’t know what else to do besides tell him the truth. I said, “Oh dad, they were swept by the Bruins.” He then shook his head in disgust and slowly drifted out of consciousness again. I stood in the room for half an hour to try and let what just happened sink in. I didn’t see my dad conscious again until about 9pm on May 8th. When he awoke, he was confused, but saw me and my brother there. He then reached out a hand to both of us before he told me and my brother how much he loved us.

I finished my second semester of junior year the next day and returned home to Maryland, where I found a job that I worked 40 hours a week. With my two days off each week, my brother, Madie, and I would drive up to UPenn to visit him. We’d talk to him about a variety of things, as he gestured or mouthed things to keep the conversation going. I never once heard him say that this whole thing was unfair. I always heard him saying how he was thankful to be here still and how he was thankful to have two sons he loved with all his heart. Without fail, my dad and I would spend at least a half an hour to an hour talking about the Flyers.

One conversation I remember specifically having with him was asking him if he thought the Flyers would trade anybody that summer of 2011. He mouthed, “Yes, but Richards, Carter, and Giroux are the only untouchables.” Ironically he said that on Tuesday, June 21st. When I saw him the Sunday following the trade, he just shrugged his shoulders and smiled when I brought it up.

Throughout the summer, my dad’s health had gone up and done. He never regained his voice, but he was twice moved to Good Shepherd due to his progress in recovering. Unfortunately, he returned to UPenn shortly afterwards. Then, on August 30th, 2011, he finally lost the fight. After months of battling without a voice or a functioning kidney (only one because he lost his other due to cancer when he was four years old), lung, or liver, my dad told me he wasn’t giving up, but his body just wasn’t listening to him. After I grabbed his hand, I remember looking up to him in our last few minutes alone together. He had a straight face all day, but then mouthed “It’s going to be okay” and smiled. I knew he said that and smiled to comfort me. There’s no better way to describe the type of father he was. At this particular moment in his life, he still put me and my brother first.

I was in the room when they turned off the machines and let my father slowly pass away. The doctor asked me before if I wanted to leave or stay in the room for the process. With the decision of never seeing my dad again or seeing my dad one last time, I decided to be by his bedside for his final moments.

It sucked. It still sucks. There were so many things to it that hurt and will forever hurt. It’s not so much what I lost, it’s more about what he lost. A 49-year-old who was twice divorced and survived cancer twice didn’t get to see his sons graduate college. He didn’t get to see his sons get married. He barely knew Madie, the girl I’ll one day marry. It hurts me that he passed away, but I’m more upset for the things he lost out on. If I didn’t have Madie, Ian, or my mom, I don’t know where I’d be right now.

I’ve always loved the Flyers with a passion, but ever since this day two years ago, things have changed. It has become a source of therapy. It’s something I use to take my mind off things, yet I always think of my dad when I watch a game. Every game is filled with more emotion for me. I don’t stop watching though. I never will, because that’s giving up on this team and going against everything my dad ever taught me. No matter how much heartache and pain my dad went through in his life, he fought until the last second, and he treated the Flyers the same way.

Nothing will bring him back. When I watch Flyers’ games though, a part of me provides the closest sensation I have to him being here. That may sound silly or cheesy, but it’s true. It’s hard to see something big happen in a game and know I’m not getting a text or a call from him to talk about it, but I know he’s watching the games up there. I know he’s up there, trying to nudge my shoulder after each deke Claude Giroux puts on a defender or smirking and laughing each time they show Chris Pronger in press row. I know he’s up there waiting for us to share a Stanley Cup together.

I know the World is filled with bigger problems than the outcome of a hockey game. I get that. Hockey is just a game to some people. To many, it means a little something more. It was something my father and I talked about the most in his time here on Earth. No matter how hard times get, as a fan, brother, boyfriend, or writer, I hear him telling me to never give up and to never stop fighting.

  • Marcello

    Very well written, Craig. You handled this situation very maturely and I wish there was more I could have done to help. You’re one of the good guys, buddy.

  • Jon Marsh

    one of the most hardworking and caring fathers i’ve ever met. the guy was a hero through and through. go flyers.