Today is the 59th anniversary of my ol’man breathing his first breath, born December 10, 1951. He was born a couple of months premature, and in 1951, that was usually a death sentence.
Born in the middle of a raging snow storm, on the 4th or 5th floor of a big tenement-looking, now long-torn-down apartment building right behind City Hall, my grandmother put him in the oven to keep him warm until an ambulance could take him the few blocks up Niagara Street to Columbus Hospital.
Nurses quickly christened him right on the spot, not expecting the little oven warmed preemie to make it, but he did.
Although that first birthday was a rough one, Dad loved his birthday. It was his favorite day of the year. Around September, he’d start reminding us that his birthday was coming up, and that he’d want a BIG PRESENT… the words said with his arms outstretched and his eyes opened wide.
By November, he’d be getting into specifics. Occasionally, he actually needed something, which was great. Otherwise, we’d have to come up with something on our own. Despite what you might think about someone in your life, rest assured, that my father was indeed, the hardest person ever for whom to buy a present. Until I turned 21.
The Ol’man spent the last decade or so of his life barely ambulatory. He was a diabetic, and went through several unsuccessful surgeries to save his foot; there were then several surgeries to remove his leg right below the knee. He was greatly weakened by all the surgeries, and laying in hospital beds, and never really got the hang of the prosthetic. He was, for all intents and purposes, wheelchair bound.
Dad wasn’t a heavy drinker, but he did like the occasional, or slightly-more than occasional whiskey. It was never straight, but he’d mix it with just about anything. Iced tea, Diet 7-up, Diet Ginger Ale. Though his tastes changed often, I think Ginger Ale was his favorite.
Though he’d eat three doughnuts with impunity, he always drank diet pop because of his diabetes. At one of his last birthday dinners at his favorite restaurant, Danny’s in Orchard Park, he tried to order a whiskey and diet ginger ale, but they didn’t have diet ginger ale. He ordered something else, and when the waitress went away, he whispered to us, talking out of the side of his mouth, “No diet ginger ale? In a fancy place like this?!?” The stuff he’d come up with, being a veritable shut in, was often pretty damn good.
Anyway, he couldn’t make it to the liquor store himself anymore to get a little booze. He was reliant on other people to bring him a taste every once in a while. And in what I now look at as my last great gift to my father, I was his hook up.
“Give me a big bottle of the cheap stuff, instead of that little bottle (of the good stuff),” he whisper to me.
I’d get grief for bringing him a little ‘Old Grandad,’ ‘Kesslers,’ ‘Philadelphia,’ or ‘Old Crow,’ because even a little too much would send his blood sugar out of whack. But it was his last joy in life, and I couldn’t deny him.
I’d get him the little bottle, though, with the hope that he’d only have one drink; try to stretch it out a little more. And that usually worked.
Father’s Day, birthday, Christmas. Dad knew what was coming from me, and he’d always try to devise some sort of ruse to make sure my mother “didn’t know” he’d just gotten some booze. As he was executing said ruse, he’d quietly, but with the tone implying yelling, ask me why the hell I didn’t get him the big bottle.
As is the case with almost any loving father, dad took more than his share of good-natured jibes all year. But none on his birthday. He loved it. And loved even more when someone would let one slip, and he’d remind, “Not on my birthday!”
Today is the ol’man’s first birthday in heaven. Though the polka song says there’s no beer in heaven; on December 10, I know there’s cheap, crappy, blended whiskey in heaven. And Dad’s drinking it by the gallon with plenty of diet ginger ale. They must have it in a fancy place like heaven.