Frederick W. Kunzinger, Sr.
Five years ago, on Thursday, October 15th, 2015, I had the last conversation with my dad who at the time was in the hospital. Oddly enough, this year the 15th is once again a Thursday. I had been staying at my parents’ condo just around the corner from the hospital in Virginia Beach, and I decided I’d head to the college to teach my 8 am class despite the dean’s suggestion that I cancel. Before leaving, however, I made a sudden turn into the hospital lot to run up fast and see my father. It was just before 7 am.
I walked into the room and he was alone, his head in the middle of the pillow, his eyes open and staring toward the ceiling. He turned his head slightly and smiled when he saw me, and with his baritone voice said, “Well, hello!”
My heart skipped a beat. I hadn’t expected a greeting. “Hey Dad. How are you?”
His voice sank to something like a whisper. “You know I’ve been in here since 4:30 this morning.”
“Actually, Dad, you’ve been here for three days.”
“Oh Geez. Three days? What hotel—hotel! Ha, I wish I was at a hotel!—what hospital am I at?”
“Virginia Beach. First Colonial Road. Right near home.” He nodded but a nurse came in and Dad was distracted and our conversation was over.
It had been almost exactly three days at that point. On Monday, Columbus Day, Dad walked downstairs in the morning and told my mother he didn’t feel well at all and he was shaking and had a fever. Dad told my mother he thought he’d better go to the emergency room. That was about 8 am. I had been in West Virginia so Mom didn’t call figuring they would take care of him and send him home. But that afternoon about five while I was visiting a friend’s class to read to his students, Mom called and told me they were in the ER. I drove to the hospital and Dad was on a gurney as they still didn’t have a room for him. It was then I found out he had been there almost nine hours.
They got Dad settled in a room and my siblings came to town. I won’t go into the details of that week, of how one of us was always in his room even through the night, of the comic relief at the expense of everyone, of the shared stories of Dad, of the boxes of to-go food from Panera, of the phone calls from family, of the nursing staff—nearly all of whom had been students of mine at some point and of whom Mom always asked after one left, “Did she get an A? I hope she got an A.” There were the knocks from neighbors, and since one of us was always at the hospital, whenever the phone rang we all held our breath, and each call was followed by a few moments of horrific quiet and no one talked, no one said anything at all, but all thought something similar.
Dad had turned ninety the previous May. He had some significant health issues those last couple of years, and sometimes life could get stressful—for him, for my mom, and the best you could hope for is things were the best they could be. I can tell some stories that are hysterical, stories that we all have, each of us as individuals with Dad and some with all three of us as well as Mom; but the essential element here is we had those stories, and that is what life is for—the stories, the shared and personal memories. Dad was everyone’s hero when it came to being a father, a husband, a grandfather, a great-grandfather, and a hard-working, golf-loving, gentle beautiful man. Oh, sure, I can tell stories of incidents and misunderstandings, but instead this:
Less than two months earlier Mom and Dad celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary. A few days before that when my son and I picked him up for lunch—a monthly tradition the three of us had been doing for a few years—he asked if we could stop at an open-air garden shop at a parking lot not far from their home. We walked around slowly for an hour while he inspected every plant, every basket, and every arrangement looking for just the right one. He settled on a red-flowered Mandevilla and asked what I thought, then he asked what Michael thought, and finally we bought it and put it in the car.
Then he asked if I wouldn’t mind stopping at Hallmark so he could get her a card. Dad didn’t drive anymore so he knew he was going to do all this when I came to bring him to lunch. We went in and since by this point his eyes had grown weak, he asked me to read him some cards. I read maybe seven and still they didn’t really say what he wanted one to say. I found a large, beautiful card and while I can certainly no longer recall the phrasing, the sentiment was pure: something to the effect that he only had a life at all because he spent his life with her.
Perfect. No, really, it is perfect for my mother and father, for either to give the other.
Then we had oysters and beer.
And on the way home we surprised Dad by stopping at the golf club to which he had belonged for years and years, but at which he hadn’t played in a very long time, and we went to the putting green. Dad putt several balls and explained to us that it was always the best part of his game, and he leaned over and put a twenty-two-foot putt right in the hole. He was about to hit another, but I picked up the ball and said we had better get the plant home. I just knew that needed to be his last putt of the day. It was his very last putt.
The thing is, confusion and forgetfulness were not unusual, and by the time the fall arrived, it had been a very, very long time since I had had any normal conversation with my father—one with sharp exchange, or, to be wide-open about it, one during which he didn’t think at some point I was my brother.
Through the end of August and all of September, while I saw my father several times a week, there was little or no conversation. His words were slipping away. So on Thursday, October 15th, five years ago, when I walked into the hospital room and we talked and Dad was completely lucid, after the nurse came in and I could see in Dad’s eyes he was gone again, I walked to the car and instead of teaching class that day sat for hours in the parking lot unable to compose myself. Not because he was dying–Dad died the following Wednesday, October 21st–we saw that coming for quite some time. No, it was because he was so present, so with me in that moment, as he had been a few years earlier, or before that when Michael was a toddler and the three of us would meet somewhere for lunch and Dad and Michael would tease each other and laugh for hours, or when I’d meet him at the mall and we’d walk around looking in windows and talking, or when he and I went to my college when he dropped me off and I swear to you it was the first time I remember him every shaking my hand, or before that, earlier, when just he and I spent the entire day in Disneyland in California and then drove up into Beverly Hills.
Earlier, when he and my brother and I would play golf at Timber Point Country Club in our neighborhood on the Island, and we were all learning together, and his passion was ignited. Or how when I was little he’d open the door to my bedroom every night to tell me to “Sleep tight,” and I never really knew what that meant.
Before that when he coached my little league team and promised me if I hit a homerun he’d buy me ice cream for a week; and it was a safe bet because I absolutely sucked at hitting, but dangle ice cream in front of an eight year old and watch me clear that ball out into right field. I couldn’t hit but I could run and I stretched a double into a homer and, as promised, had ice cream from the truck everyday for a week.
Scotch every Tuesday. Nine holes Wednesday afternoons during high school. Heading to his office on the top of the Dominion Tower in Norfolk to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Calling him on his 800 number from anywhere I traveled in the country and he always answered, and he always had time to talk—I mean always. I do not remember him saying to me even once that he didn’t have time to talk.
When he’d come to my house and we’d sit on the porch and he’d comment how much he loved how quiet it was and I loved the way he understood why I moved where I did.
The way he would share books with me: Roger Kahn, John Grisham, and more. The way he bought us all a book every Christmas; one he picked up based upon how he knew us. The way I went to sit with Dad every single Wednesday for every single season of “The West Wing” to watch it with him. The way we watched every Superbowl together and Mom would put out wings and shrimp.
The way he knew what nights I taught, even in those last months, he might have forgotten most of everything, but he always knew exactly what nights I would be by. And I’d go by, and I’d no sooner be in the door when he’d say, “I think I hear some ice and Scotch calling my name.”
To say he was generally a quiet man with a sense of humor, who everyone loved and considered one of the kindest men they had met, is to describe my son; and I’ve said many times how much my son reminds me of my father. I’m lucky to have had excellent relationships with both. Dad and I had no scars that needed healing, no disagreements we swept under the rug, no false companionship or fabricated gatherings for the sake of family. He was genuine to the bone, and if I could ever have been one tenth the man he was life would have been different.
I’ve told the story of that lucid morning in the hospital many times, but sometimes I tell the whole thing and other times, depending upon whom I’m talking to, I leave off one part.
After he said he had been there since 4:30 that morning and I corrected him, he asked what was wrong. I told him he had pneumonia, and he said, “Oh, oh geez. I guess I only have a day or two left then don’t I?” And I said, “These are great doctors Dad and you got here fast as soon as you didn’t feel well, so hang in there.” And he said, “What hotel—hotel! Ha, I wish I was at a hotel!—what hospital am I at?” and the nurse came in and I went outside and sat in the car for hours just remembering.
The way he would be embarrassed by foul language or scantly clad women on television. The way the summer of ’75 he and I went to a large movie theater together to see Jaws when it first came out and we left, him saying, “Maybe we won’t get a canoe after all,” laughing. The way the last piece of writing of mine he ever read was “Instructions for Walking with an Old Man at the Mall,” and Mom told me he said he really loved it.
Or how when my book Out of Nowhere came out he told me he loved it but never made it past page forty-six. Of course I had to check, and on that page is, “long before my own aging father was born.”
Or how he loved, and how he was loved.
Sleep tight, Dad.
“Missing someone is like hearing
a name sung quietly from somewhere
behind you. Even after you know
no one is there, you keep looking back.”