Wednesday, April 18, 2007


I love my dad. Most people do. When I was little I would walk on his back, or put Bugles on my fingers and feed him my witch claws. When I was a tween he spent hours trying to teach me how to pitch a softball. He cried even harder than I did when my best friend died right before my thirteenth birthday. When I got older he tried to protect me from the bad boys that came sniffing 'round our door. Early in our courtship, he heartily embraced SOB because he knew he was a keeper. He cried again at our wedding, and he bawled when his grandson was born. He's a great guy, by all accounts.

But what he doesn't often reveal is the bright red scar that starts just below his left nipple and slashes his across his belly. It's about fourteen inches long. I remember the day he got it like it was yesterday, but in reality it was almost a decade ago.

My father is the second in a line up of seven boys. There are a few years between him and his older brother, but then the rest came in rapid succession, including a set of twins in the fourth and fifth positions. All the brothers played hockey, but my dad and his next brother David were, by far, the most talented. Only a year separated them, so in school they were frequently called the Dynamic Duo because of their skills on the ice. In winter, they would use shovels to tamp down the snow in the back yard and then mist it with the hose, so that by the end of a good week they could skate drills mere feet away from my grandmother's hot cocoa.

I remember getting bundled up as a wee child so we could go and watch Daddy play hockey. It was always a part of his life. My brother still plays and I even played for a season. He broke his ankle once, I remember. Other than that we were, as a family, spared any of the major injuries associated with playing hockey.

Sometime during middle school, everyone was at my grandparents' house for dinner when my grandmother told us that Michael, one of the twins, had something called Berger's disease. Most cases have a good prognosis, so his doctors were not too worried. At that point, none of us were either.

Uncle Michael lived in Boston, so we rarely saw him. We would get information occasionally from my grandma about his condition, but Uncle Michael didn't keep in close touch so sometimes it was months between updates. Right after college he came out, and my grandparents were less than supportive, you could say. Soon afterwards he moved to NYC and then on to Boston, where he met his partner Daniel. During my junior year he started dialysis. His case was severe, and the only thing left to do was get on a kidney transplant waiting list. His face was distorted from the volume of steroids he had to take just to keep his systems from shutting down. His singing voice, which had always been a clear melodious tenor, was raspy and choked from the swelling in his head and neck. He was unable to eat anything with protein or salt.

Finally, when time was getting short, he called the family. Having six brothers, there was a decent chance that one would be able to be a donor. First, his twin was tested. They are fraternal, though, and were not a match. Because the disease is less likely to strike as you get older, the next logical step would be to start with the eldest brother and work down from there. Unfortunately, my oldest uncle's wife wasn't on board with her husband donating a kidney to 'a homo who is just going to get AIDS and die anyway.' (I'm not even going into that right now, because that is a whole 'nother post.) Next up was my dad.

The initial results looked promising, so some additional tests were run. They were a near perfect match. Uncle Michael told my dad to take some time to think it over and talk with us, but he didn't need any time. A few hours later, they were scheduling the surgery. Uncle Michael and Daniel set up a temporary residence in Pittsburgh and my father stopped drinking beer during the Penguin games. My mother made my brother and me go to school that day, but she gave us a call once they got the kidney out of dad and closed him back up just so we would know that the first half went well. After school let out, I drove, for the first time, down into the city with my little brother so we could see our dad and wait for Uncle Michael’s part of the surgery to end.

The first thing Uncle Michael asked for when he came to was a super sized order of McDonald's french fries.

Since my mom was doing an internship, I stayed home with my dad for a few days once he got out of the hospital. We talked a little, he slept a lot. I helped him out of bed and up the stairs. But he recovered pretty quickly, considering his entire abdominal wall had been severed. At that time, the surgical technique for getting a kidney out of the donor was much harder than getting it into the recipient. By the time of my graduation, though, he was back in tip top shape.

My first semester at college was a rough one. My family and SOB were far away, and I wasn't too keen on my dorm situation. I called home almost every day, just to hear about familiar routines. One day in late fall, out of the blue, it occurred to me that no one had mentioned dad's hockey games. The season usually started in September, so by now they should have been in the thick of it. My mom quietly told me that dad wasn't playing anymore. Since he only had one kidney now, he wasn't supposed to play any contact sports for fear of sustaining life-threatening injuring. I asked if he knew that before the operation, and she said it was one of the first things the doctors told him.

He kept his hockey equipment down in the basement for a few more years until my brother finally filled out enough to use it. I don't think he's been on the ice in the past decade. Instead he started focusing on his golf game and almost every year he wins the family tournament.

My uncle lives a completely normal life, free of disease. He has since moved back to Pittsburgh with Daniel to be closer to his doctors, but other than yearly checks he rarely sees them. My extended family is a tight-lipped group, so the operations seldom get mentioned.

But this year, we are throwing one hell of a party.

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janet said...

thats such a beautiful story...i think i need cake now. kudos to your father!

super des said...

That was an excellent post. I think I love your dad.

Anonymous said...

Jake's dad thinks that was a great post.

Amy Jo said...

Thanks. My dad is awesome. I've also been told by my friends that he is something of a looker. Maybe that's what all my female pals think he's so great.

Amy Jo said...

P.S. Jake's dad - Which Jake? ATL or Philly?