The last words my father said to me

My Dad, a man of incredible bravery, was a WWII war hero, a father of five, and a devoted husband who had been married to my mom for over 50 years. His courage and dedication were unmatched, and I consider myself beyond fortunate to have him as my father. Dad introduced me to the magical world of sailing. But truth be told, he was not the greatest of sailors.

As a child, I was convinced that ‘Fend Off’ was my second name. My father, the one I credit with teaching me how to sail, would bellow those two words each and every time we brought our 25-foot Catalina sailboat back to the dock, his voice echoing across the marina.

Old photo of a white sailboat on the San Diego Bay, with a man waving at the camera.

Our days on the sailboat, christened ‘Runnin’ Bare,’ (a nod to the 1970s streaking trend), were a mix of peaceful moments and Dad’s panic-stricken frantic commands as we sailed San Diego Bay.

Picture this: You’re on a flight, and the Captain emerges from the cockpit with a look of sheer terror in his eyes. “Crazy Eyes”. It’s not exactly reassuring. Well, my Dad had a similar effect when he sailed. His crazy eyes would widen, and a vein in his neck would throb and pulse when his stress levels peaked.

The day sail always started well. Mom would pack a lovely lunch of turkey sandwiches, chips, and Oreo cookies. However, because Dad did not know how to reef (To reef a sail is to reduce the amount of sail area, thus slowing and leveling the boat), he often found himself in precarious situations, fighting the gusts as the tender boat was over-powered by the wind and heeled 45 degrees. The gunnel dipped into the water, nearly broaching the mast spreaders. As the San Diego Bay flooded the cockpit, my terrified mother would scream as the ocean swept our lunch overboard. While struggling to release the mainsheet, my Dad would yell at me to rescue the Oreos from the sea. Good times!

It’s been 14 years since my Dad died. I remember those days; Hospice was caring for him. His face is a bit hazy in my memory, but his hands are crystal clear. Born late in his life, I remember how weathered they looked, with veins, age spots, and hair on his knuckles. His nails were always neatly trimmed for his office job, but his fingers and palms were muscle-thick and calloused as he never shied from manual labor. They were hands that could fix anything, build anything, and, if my brothers or I stepped out of line, correct anything.

Propped up in a hospital bed in the shag-carpeted guest room of his home, my four brothers and I surrounded him. His death was imminent, but he was conscious, and although the morphine drip eased the pain of cancer tearing through his organs, our Dad wanted to give each of us a few last words of advice. He wanted to talk to us separately. So, I, being the youngest, would go last.

I wish it could have been faster. I wish I didn’t have to wait, but he’d fall in and out of sleep, so it wasn’t until the next day that I spent two minutes alone with him. His lips were dry, and his skin had that awful, pasty, cancer look. Although sunken and ringed with dark circles, his eyes retained their brilliant steel blue that caught the light, grabbed my attention, and demanded my respect. Reaching for my hands, he pulled me close. It never occurred to me that this was the last thing he’d say. I just thought he’d live forever.

He clawed at my shirt with his hands and found the strength to pull me to his face. As he spoke, he didn’t look at me; he looked through me. “Paul, you work too much. That’s all you do is work. You built a good business. You are what I could never be. You’re a self-made man. But son, you need a hobby. Buy a boat. Take your share and buy that sailboat.”

This Memorial Day, I honor my Dad. His love and guidance have shaped me, and his inspiration continues to navigate my life’s course.

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