At what point does the man your mother marries stop being your step-father and become your real father? Looking back, in my case, about 45 years ago, my step-father Marty became my father. Leadership, influence, dedication, strength and John Wayne style grit are words that I would have used 20 years ago to describe my dad Marty. Today, as I stand by his side, along with my mom and my two brothers and my sister, I use those words to describe a great man, and not just because he’s my father. His body, weakened by age and condition, his brain, strengthened by more determination than ever. He is fighting the biggest battle of his life and he is doing it completely on his terms. He will go when he decides it’s time to go. This man of steel, my father Marty, is the strongest, toughest man I have ever known. I hope one day to be fearless like my dad Marty.
As I sit in the hospital waiting room, writing this piece, a machine breathes for my dad Marty, medication keeps his blood pressure at appropriate levels. Tubes, so many tubes, too many tubes, keep his body going. I share this, not so you will feel bad for Marty or for my family. He would tell you this is no big deal, just a hurdle to cross. A bump in the road. If he could talk, he’d probably tell me to get him on his feet, it’s Tuesday night and he’s got a poker game to get to. I tell you this about my dad Marty so you can see his resolve. During visiting hours in ICU our family waits, we share stories, laugh laughs and talk about lessons learned from Marty over the years. In between laughs, we cry and then laugh some more. I go back to check on him. Marty motions for me to get a pad and a pencil, he’s got something to say, and say it he will, until I get it right.
We run through the alphabet one letter at a time, then he spells out the letters using a finger, his hand too weak to write with a pen. Through me, we spell out -- “The Tin Box.” It’s upstairs. In the drawer by his desk. I know exactly where it is because he showed it to me three times over the past 6 months. He knew it would eventually come down to The Tin Box. I know what The Tin Box is and I also know what it represents. It’s the box that contains all the important papers. Financial papers. Stocks, bank statements, important phone numbers. It seems inevitable when you are in your late 80’s you have to tell your children about your tin box.
At a time when the beeps of medical equipment provide a steady stream of distractions and the smell of sanitizer and cleaning solution linger in the air, most patients on the ICU floor are focused on their pain, condition and all that ails them. Not my dad Marty. Marty has laser focus. The Tin Box. At a time when anyone else would focus on themselves, my dad Marty is focused on us. He wants no loose ends, nothing to remain a question. He wants my mom to not have to worry. The Tin Box has all the answers. At some point we all need a tin box.
If I had my own tin box, I’d want it to have answers too. My tin box would remind me to say I love you more to the people that are important in my life. My tin box would tell me to spend more time with my kids and my wife. It would tell me that success is far more than a bank account balance, a fancy car and an expensive watch. My tin box would remind me to never go to bed angry, to sing louder in the shower, to burn those fancy candles that I keep near the good dishes, to hug with vigor, to stay out a little later with friends, to not check my email quite so often, to shut off my computer a little earlier, to not worry if my bank statement doesn’t balance every month. My tin box holds the answers to life’s questions.
But most importantly, my tin box would remind me of all the great lessons that I learned from my dad Marty over four decades of having him in my life. For now, I just want him to know how much I love him and appreciate all he has done for our family and especially for my mom. I could never thank him enough for being her best friend and to this day, making her feel like the most important woman in the world.