Three years ago today I woke up with six missed calls from my mom and aunt at roughly 6:00 A.M. on a random Wednesday morning. In an early morning irritable haze, I thought nothing of it, took my sweet time stretching out and sleeping in for another few minutes, and only then called my mom back. In hindsight, the most ignorant and lazy of actions. After what felt like the longest five-second pause once she answered, bless this woman’s heart, she managed to say: “your dad had a heart attack a few hours ago, and he’s in the hospital.”
I have never heard my mom speak in a more somber voice with so little energy. Her spirit, utterly shaken to it’s core. I don’t want to hear her speak in such a tone again. If there was the perfect example of audio detailing hearing someone’s heart breaking into millions of tiny pieces forever, this would be it.
Once her words came over the line to me, I didn’t know how to react. I must have sat there in bed in stunned silence for at least 10 minutes, like a deer in the headlights. And, as a man without a clue.
My parents moved here from Poland in the fall of 1992 to seek a better life for my brother and I. The United States had streets paved with gold, after all, and they wanted their own piece of the pavement. The “American Dream” was being able to tap into that potential. It’s not as if they’ve complained, because they never have, but if only they knew it wouldn’t be so simple.
Most notably, my dad and his brother came here in advance to secure jobs and living arrangements for most of my extended family. Eventually, after much hair pulling and stress induced, they were able to green light everyone “safely” over with the promise that they’ve laid some kind of, at least at the time: incredibly risky foundation.
Since then, my dad has went from grueling night shift after night shift, to early morning drudgery in factories roughly every single day for 26 years. All to provide for his family. All to make sure we were better off than he ever could’ve hoped for. To create something worthwhile and stable.
Has there been physical deterioration? You bet.
There he is, picking up his hard hat and lunch pail despite the pains, aches, and his body slowly betraying him day by day.
To provide for us. To protect us. To boost us. Which, he’s undoubtedly succeeded at doing, for as much as he insanely believes he needs to do more.
Somehow I think this hasn’t been a fair trade.
When I was a kid, I used to think of my dad as a “villain” of sorts. He was the disciplinarian between my parents. He was the one who would take away the TV and video games when I misbehaved (oh heavens no!). He was the one who most often raised his voice when my grades in school weren’t up to par. He was evil.
It took me awhile to realize that most often, his anger was because he was so irretrievably stressed. That he was already irritable from carrying a family on his back, and that he didn’t need any more bullshit from me or my brother to weigh him down and chip away at his spirit.
What first inconceivably chipped away at this mindset, was sports. Where I had once never thought of my dad as someone I could connect with (what child even thinks about “connections”?) sports was there to build a bridge for us. To manifest a worthwhile bond with the most important man in my life.
The first year we began watching sports together was 2006, not by coincidence the first year I played football competitively. By osmosis, we decided to take in the professional version and see what we would glean from the game. Fortunately (depending on who you talk to), that was the last Chicago Bears’ Super Bowl team.
From that point on, the final February results not withstanding, we were smitten with football. From that point on, we had a commonality that slowly developed into a friendship. From that point on, we eventually developed the father-son bond some can only unfortunately dream of.
Bears’ quarterback debates? Those started as trivial conversations about a game, and evolved into philosophical discussions about life. Chicago continually ripping our heart when it mattered most? Those became me using my dad as the pillar of wisdom through problems I had as a teenager, college student, and adult. A pillar I never knew he was until we broke down walls through sports.
This reality eventually transferred over into hockey, basketball, soccer: anywhere we could sit down together to enjoy each other’s company as friends. As father and son. A male role model of the highest order and his legacy liking each other after years of being at each other’s throats (we sometimes still are). Once unthinkable.
Sports, more than anything, helped facilitate that.
“The hospital is 15 minutes away, but I can’t afford to waste any time,” I thought.
I slapped on the first pair of pants and shoes I could find, but for the life of me, somehow fumbled aimlessly around the house, wasting time.
“I’m not ready for this,” was the conclusion I came to. What if the night before was the last time I had seen my dad in good spirits? What if, after this drive, I was about to see my dad for the last time? That’s a lot to process at once. My internal hardware was fried.
Nevertheless, I rightfully felt like a coward, and bucked up after much consternation.
After the drive where those thoughts repeatedly bounced around my head, where one thinks of the last words you said to someone you love (not a recommended state of mind), I made it to the hospital. I soldiered on up, joined my family in the waiting room, and then ensued what was and still is the longest day of my life.
They were prepping my dad for surgery by the time I had rolled around, and by the time I had later brought my brother in (who had flown in on the obvious short notice). We didn’t know what to expect, except for the worst, because this was someone’s heart.
Luckily, my dad had actually gone into the hospital that night for kidney stones. When his heart attack happened, he was surrounded by professionals that immediately began to save his life. Every minute counts in these situations, and he so happened to be in the most right place one could conceive in this event. In terms of fighting his dire medical emergency, he had won the lottery.
It would take time. He would need oodles of rest. He would need to alter his lifestyle, begin taking care of himself, and loosen up at every level to the utmost degree. But, he was going to be okay. Surgery, by the end of this arduous day, was successful. We could stop holding our collective breath.
After important reflection, we knew it had been from him continually overworking himself over the years to make sure everyone was okay. All this time it was about everyone else first. All this time, he forgot about taking care of himself. A stark lesson to learn with your life on the line.
The following morning, it had been three days since the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. Three days since the old man and I celebrated intense jubilation together as our relationship through sports grew stronger. Seeing as how he was recovering from surgery, we had no thought of attending that day’s Stanley Cup parade in downtown Chicago and subsequent rally at Soldier Field.
In fact, it never even crossed our mind. I was going to be by his bedside while he recovered and came to full strength. No questions asked. We all were.
Try as he might, my dad wanted to watch the parade broadcast. Understandably, however, he was weak. Energy to take in something that gave him joy was there, though. That gave us joy together. I had secured him a championship ball cap earlier, which only strengthened that urge too. We flicked it on to the first local station that was showing the Blackhawks parading through the streets and left it there.
What ensued next was a moment of my life I’ll never forget.
When the Stanley Cup came on screen, and when the Blackhawks were more explicitly featured instead of broadcasters: my dad smiled.
It wasn’t a beaming smile. It wasn’t a grin from ear to ear with his teeth showing. But from the corner of his mouth, by damn he was smiling, if only faintly.
The perfect spirit-lifter for a man that had almost left us with Father’s Day on the horizon, and for a son that didn’t yet know what to conceive of the past 24 hours. His body and heart attempted to betray him, but his resolve wouldn’t let him give in. This adversity would only make him, and us, appreciate life’s little things. Little things like a puck being passed around ice, or physical football. Even while he was on the brink of falling off a cliff.
As he sat there smiling, I (perhaps selfishly) couldn’t help but think of when he was going to be at full strength again. When I was going to be able to bounce more inane sports drivel off his chest (metaphorically after what he had been through, of course). When I was going to be able to just talk to my dad, about anything. No one has a helpful perspective like him. No one can assist me in understanding what I’m going through, and give me the best possible advice like him.
Thankfully, despite the most dramatic of scares, we had plenty of time left. The time for father and son to talk would come soon.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.