That got my attention. What I had assumed would be the usual superficial conversation between myself and a cab driver had unexpectedly grown much deeper. Initially, the man appeared nice enough when he picked me up at my house. An older man with tussled grey hair, he had grabbed my bags from my hands and politely offered me a seat in the front of the cab next to him. I was reluctant at first, but felt compelled to do so for some reason. I had been looking forward to the anonymity a cab ride can provide, some time to myself during a lengthy ride to the airport, but the man seemed eager to have some company. Once seated and on our way, he began an ongoing conversation — more of a monologue actually — in which I punctuated his remarks with a casual nod or a quiet “Yes.” The man was amusing as he spoke with his hands almost more than he did with his words. Yet in spite of this man’s obvious good nature, I had much more on my mind than to waste it on idle conversation with this stranger. Eventually, I kept my gaze out the window in hopes that he would stop and I could be left alone with my thoughts.
That was, at least, until he mentioned cancer.
I was startled less by what he said and more by how he said it. It was so casual, no different than someone said he had a cold or a headache. The remark actually seemed flippant, but that just couldn’t be. After all, if he had cancer, he should be upset or teary eyed. This man showed none of that. He was sitting with one hand gripped the steering wheel while his other would go back and forth between an armrest and his strategically placed mug of coffee. His eyes darted towards me as my head turned.
“Really?” I replied calmly. “I am sorry to hear that. Are you undergoing treatment?”
“Nah. Not yet, at least. I’m holding on until I get back from London. My wife and I are going to London at the end of July. July 28th.” He grabbed the mug of coffee and downed a large gulp. “You see, my son is in the military — he and his wife both are. They are stationed overseas. Somewhere in England, a little outside of London.” He replaced the coffee and rubbed his chin. “Can’t really remember. Anyway, he’s just been promoted to master sergeant.”
“Congratulations,” I interjected. He turned and smiled.
“Thanks. Yeah. I am really proud of him.” He looked down the highway, careful never to exceed the posted speed limit. “Anyway, I am going out there for the ceremony. Looking forward to it. The best part is that they are going to let me give him his stripes. I get to walk on stage and everything.”
“Wow. That’s nice.”
“Yeah.” He smiled and glanced over at me. “Then we’re going to do the whole England thing. Travel out there for a week, see the sites. You know: do the whole tourist thing.” He waved his hand as if he were dismissing it all. “So anyway, I’m not going to start the treatment until I get home because I do not want to be sick. I really want to enjoy that time with him and his wife.” He speech slowed. His hand rubbed his chin and pulled at his lower lip for a moment. He continued. “That chemo can be nasty stuff,” he said, almost as if I was not there. The highway rolled by. A wave of his hand. “Anyway, the reason why I tell you this is that I’m a religious man." He turned and looked at me: “You religious?”
“Yes I am,” I replied confidently, surprising myself somewhat. The driver nodded, glad to hear it.
“See,” he looked at me, “I may be old fashioned, but I believe in the power of prayer — you know? So I ask all my passengers if they could kind of say a prayer for me. Nothing big, mind you. I know everyone’s got their own problems. Just something when they get around to it. You see, I figure, I’ll need a lot to get through this.” His hand dropped down to the console and he fumbled with some quarters. A tollbooth was approaching. He rolled down his window looking into the palm of his hand to make sure he had the correct amount.
As he did so, I quickly re-evaluated this man sitting next to me. At first, he appeared to be nothing more than a very simple man. He clothes were plain and his cab, unspectacular. To look at him, it could be easy to dismiss him as uneducated. But nothing could have been further from the truth. This unknown man possessed more wisdom, a deeper love of life than I could ever imagine. For days before this trip, I had been seeking to make sense of a family crisis. But I had no answers and I had found no comfort. Yet here I had found my answer. It was sitting next to me: a man of courage; a man of passion for life; a man of faith in a time of darkness. He was noble. He was noble facing his pain and in being unafraid to share that pain with others.
What an amazing stranger.
The lesson was so obvious.
The man gathered his receipt from the attendant, politely said thank you, and we drove on. He turned to me as he vigorously rolled up his window, continuing on as if there had been no break in our conversation. “So do you think you can do that for me?”
“Sure I will,” I said.
“See, I figure it couldn’t hurt.”
“No, no — I agree,” I replied emphatically. I paused. “You really seem to have a good perspective on all this,” I said looking at him. He nodded strongly.
“I do. I do,” he said. “See, the way I figure it is, I’ve had a good life. I’ve been married to one woman and seen a lot of the world being in the Air Force.”
“You were in the Air Force?” He nodded.
“You must be really proud of your son then — kind of following in dad’s footsteps.” He turned to me and smiled broadly as if I had discovered some sort of wonderful secret.
I did know. I understood. It’s just that I had forgotten. We all do. Yet this stranger was modeling the answer to the questions that had been going through my head for the longest time. I simply had to open up.
“You know,” I said, thinking out loud, “one of the reasons why I’m going home is that my grandfather has liver cancer." The driver just nodded. Like he expected that answer. I continued. “He was diagnosed about a month ago. Mother’s Day I think it was. My parents had come back from Florida and saw him. My mother said she was shocked at how yellow he had become. They took him to a doctor the next day. It was then that the doctor gave him three months to live. That was about a month and a half ago.”
“Is he doing the treatment?” I shook my head.
“No, he refused. Can’t really say that I blame him. The man has done a lot. He is a diabetic, he has had two strokes, his foot has been cut off, but he has never let any of that stop him. He would go to bingo and do odd jobs — just keep living life.” The driver nodded and muttered “Good for him” as I spoke. “That chemo would have just eaten him up. He’s lived a long life. A good life. I guess he’s just tired and ready to say goodbye. I just don’t want to see him suffer.”
“No, no you don’t. Sometimes it's just time. How old is your grandfather?”
“I don’t know for sure — 83 I think.”
“That’s a good long life. Good for him. Me — I’m not ready yet.”
“No, no — I know, “ I stammered. “I wasn’t implying ...”
“Oh, I know you weren’t. I know. There is still a lot of stuff that I still want to do, a lot of time that I still want to spend with my family.”
“I totally agree with you. I am really impressed with your perspective on life,” I said. He laughed. “It’s nothing special. You know — I just do the best that I can do. The way I figure it, life is meant to be fun and exciting. Yeah, bad things happen — but what can you do? You just need to make sure the good times outweigh the bad.”
"You know, my grandfather was in the military too. Army. He was a sergeant....” And so I went on. Now it was my time to share with the man who shared with me. I spoke about my grandfather and Christmas. My grandfather and Foxwoods. My grandfather and my dog. I rambled on, but all the while, I knew the cab driver was listening. He nodded and smiled and I opened up.
It all began to make sense.
We finally turned into the airport and I gathered my stuff together. The car was quiet now as he concentrated on the traffic. He zipped on in between cars and pulled up to the Southwest gate. We both got out of the car. He pulled my bags from the trunk and placed them on the curb. I took the fare and tip out of my wallet and handed it over to him. Somehow payment did not seem right.
“Let me tell you, it has been really nice meeting you," I said shaking his hand.
“You too. I hope everything is okay with your grandfather.”
“Thanks. You too. I hope it all works out for the best.”
“Wait a sec,” he said. He turned and went back into the cab only to pop out a moment later with a notepad in his hand. “What’s your grandfather’s name?” he asked.
“Francis,” I replied, somewhat puzzled. “Francis Kenney.” The man scribbled the name down onto his pad. There seemed to be a number of names copied down in different colors of ink on the page. When done, he placed it in the breast pocket of his shirt.
“Prayer list,” he said, tapping the pocket. “I added his name. After all,” he said smiling again, “it can’t hurt.”
“Thank you," I said meekly, shaking his hand again. “Thanks a lot.”
“Hey, no problem — good luck to you.” He walked away and got back into the cab. I turned and gathered up my bags. As I dragged them into the airport and the cab drove away, I said my first prayer for the stranger who had cancer.
My house has been sold. It has been viewed and inspected. It has been tested and appraised. But I am not sure it has been seen. Not really. Not as I see it. And I think that is the most frustrating aspect because my house has echoes, echoes that help tell the story of how my house has actually been a home.
And if the people looking at my home listened, this is what they would hear:
“I really enjoy the landscaping.”
Do you? Do you see what it was like before we bought the house – how there was nothing but dead grass and a beat-up dog fence? Do you see the front yard? Do you know that the front yard was once a gently sloping hill? Do you know that two months after I bought the house, I was in the front yard in the pouring rain digging up that slope with a shovel, a rickety wheelbarrow, and anger over the pain and suffering of my sister’s divorce? Do you see me out there for days loading a wheelbarrow with dirt, rain pouring down, and carrying it around to the back of my house in hopes that each load would make me feel like I was accomplishing something in contrast to the helplessness I felt for my sister?
“The front door and stairway are nice.”
My aunt had been alone for many years until she met, fell in love and married my Uncle Bob. He and I immediately connected. He was a good man, a carpenter by trade who spent many hours with me showing me how to fix things to make my house a home. That front door and entryway? It wasn’t there when we bought the house. It was an old, wooden door with a metal railing. Bob and I changed that. He showed me how to plumb a door and install railings and balusters. And I showed him my desire to work and use my hands. We talked as we worked, and I learned so much from him Do you see him in that entryway, because I do. Cancer took him from me when my home was still young.
“Does the light in the hallway work?”
No, the light does not work. It hasn’t worked in a long time. It didn’t work when my wife came out of the bathroom years ago and stood in the hallway beaming, having found out she was pregnant. It never worked all those Christmas mornings when my children would stagger down into the living room to see what surprises awaited them. And it never worked as the dog ran dutifully up and down the hallway to fetch a ratty, stuffed blue monkey.
“The bedrooms are a bit tiny.”
Bedrooms should be tiny because they are filled with so much. I don’t want to see a house where the bedrooms seem huge, empty, lifeless. I see bedrooms that are crammed with nighttime readings and midnight illnesses. I see bedrooms crammed with friends and cousins, laughters and cries, time-outs and hugs. I see cribs turning into beds and onesies becoming First Communion suits and Easter dresses. I see too much, which is why the doors are always open because the memories spill into the hall.
“Hmmmm ... the kitchen is small.”
The kitchen is small and we need to pull the table away from the wall to sit around it. But we did sit – we do sit – at the table. We sat when it was just two of us and we were able to sit side by side and talk about the day. We sat when two became three and meals involved sweet potatoes, mashed carrots, and sippy cups. We sat when three became four, with both children on one side of the table and the table still against the wall. Then my babies became bigger and we pulled the table away. Yet even then, we sat when our conversations became their conversations. When talk about our day became talk about soccer and swimming, about pre-school and third grade, about friends and family. That kitchen is where we battled over vegetables and rewarded with something special. That kitchen is where people crammed together at parties and where home-baked cookies became legendary to countless students over the years.
“I love the deck. The deck is huge.”
Ahhh ... but when you stand on the deck, do you see my son’s baptism? It was held on this very deck. The priest performed the ceremony and my wife sang and I stood there in front of family and friends, listening to my wife’s words and staring down at my son. Do you see the birthday parties when children swarmed the deck like flies, eagerly awaiting a piece of cake and a dollop of ice cream? Do you see hide-and-go seek or campouts in the tent?
“The downstairs family room is very nice.”
Thank you. I did it myself. It did not exist when we bought the place. I built this family room. But I did not make it. No, it was made during those nights while rocking crying babies watching reruns of Cheers. It was made with Notre Dame and hot dogs, and Patriots and Lego time. It was made with my wife’s piano and the lessons to children now preparing for college and the rehearsals for high school students preparing for the stage. It was made with movie night and afternoon naps. It was made with Xboxes and Wii remotes. It was made with the warmth it provided during blizzards and the safety it offered during hurricanes and floods.
Like so much of this house-- it was built, but we made it.
“What do you want for it?”
What do I want? I want to be able to come back and relive the memories when the kids are older. I want to be be able to sit on the deck at various points during my life and listen to the night sky again. I want to come and see the flowers and the hosta, to see how much they have grown. I want you to awaken the echoes by having a loving marriage and a loving family in this home the way that we did. I want you to carry that legacy on and pass it along to the next buyer. I want you to see that this is not a house. This is a home. And if you are taking it from me, you need to know that the price I have it listed for pales in comparison to its worth to me or my family.
One thing I like about my wife is that she let’s me date. Granted, that date is with my 5-year-old daughter ...
My daughter called it that a while ago. She decided at the age of 4 that she and Daddy should go out on a date. And like all strong-willed fathers when confronted by demands of their baby daughters, I melted like butter.
So, I decided on would take her out.
On that Saturday, Faith and I climbed into my truck and off we went. While driving, I reached over and clicked on the radio. There was a game on. The Red Sox were playing and I figured I would listen to it along the way.
“Daddy?” came the little voice from the back seat.
“Yes Faith?” I replied as we headed down the road.
“That man there is walking a dog.”
“Yes. Can we get a dog? I would like to get a dog some day Daddy. Could we get a dog some day?”
“We will see Princess.” I strained a bit more to listen to the game.
“Daddy, guess what? My friend Mary at school has a dog. She has a little dog and — guess what? — she is going to bring it in to school next week.”
“Really? That’s nice.” I could feel my head leaning a bit more towards the radio. What was that score? I couldn’t quite hear it.
“Yeah, and — guess what? — she is going to let us all pet the dog. And when I pet the dog, I am going to say ‘good doggy’ and hug it tight.”
“That’s nice.” Wait—are the Sox winning?
“At school Daddy — guess what? — I have a job of feeding the fish at school. And — guess what? — I sprinkle the food on top of the tank and they eat it. And — guess what — sometimes Billy tries to feed the fish and he — guess what? — he puts too much food in the tank and ... ”
And then it happened. That moment when I reached over to turn up the radio. I could feel it happening. It was surreal. I was watching my arm go towards the volume to turn up the Red Sox game. I wanted to turn up the game so I could drown out incessant chatter of my daughter as I took her out on her date.
Fortunately, I caught the irony.
There I was with my daughter. My daughter who had asked to spend time with her Daddy. Who had wanted to go out on a date, and my focus was on the score. And in that moment, I saw it all.
So I did not turn up the radio.
“ ... and sometimes when we draw I use paint and — guess what? — I get to use the red paint with the thick brush ... ”
Instead I shut it off.
I tried my best to interject while she spoke, but she gave me little opportunity, but that was okay. Instead, I found myself caught up in the whirlwind of run-on sentences and rhetorical questions. I was a spectator to our conversation, but that was okay.
Lunch consisted of a stop at Red Robin where my daughter filled the time with explanations of Phineas and Ferb (“Yes, that was funny”), of how she likes her French fries (“Of course I like ketchup on my fries”), of how she really likes a boy in her school ("Whoa ... say what?”) and of how she really hopes to get make-up and shoes for her fifth birthday (“You want SHOES?”). From there, I brought her over to the Warwick Mall so that she could go to “Macy’s-star-store” and ride the “excalator.” Then we headed over to the movie theater to watch a movie.
We walked into the theater a little late. "Tangled" had begun, so we ran past the refreshment stand, down the empty hallways. There I twirled her as we ran, her giggles filling the air behind us. Once we chose some seats, Faith plopped herself down, her little legs pointing straight out and her long hair falling way down past her shoulders. She smiled up at me. I smiled back, passing her a bag of M&Ms as we settled down to watch the movie.
"Tangled" is the retelling of the story of Rapunzel, the young lady whose hair has never been cut. In true Disney fashion, the heroine meets a hero and the two of them face all sorts of adversity, their journey peppered by light and whimsical songs. But at one point, during the song when the heroine, Rapunzel, sits in a boat gazing up at her hero, Eugene, I caught sight of my little girl. There she sat, totally enthralled by the movie. She was sitting straight up, her mouth slightly open, totally caught up in the romance of it all. Even though she was sitting right next to me, I could tell that she had been transported away.
And I was as well.
In the darkness of the theater, I saw another movie unfold. This movie had my little girl getting older. I saw her riding the bus and starting school. I saw her playing soccer and dancing. I saw her making friends and having sleep-overs. I saw her entering middle school and high school. I saw her going to college. Getting a job. Getting married ...
Meeting her Eugene.
I think for any father of any daughter, that must be the most difficult realization. I swore from the moment when I held my little girl, the back of her head resting squarely in the palm of my hand, that I would protect her. During those dark hours at night, in front of the haze of Cheers reruns, I made the same silent vow that countless father before me had made:a vow that I would never let anyone hurt her. After all, who could love my little girl more than me?
As the past four years have flown by, I have watched in amazement as her personality has developed. She laughs freely, makes friends easily, and hugs everyone. She is everything I was not as a child. And I am sure she will be much more than I could ever hope to be.
And no one — no one — better break that spirit.
But that is for another day. Not now. Not here.
For now, she was my little girl. For now, I am the one that can lift the heavy packages and open the jars. For now, I am the one who can scare the monsters away. For now, I am the one that she wants to dance with. The one she wants to talk with. The one that she wants to twirl with down the empty hallways of the movie theater. Some day, someone else will sweep my princess away, but for now, she dances with me.
As the movie ended, Faith stood up and I helped her with her coat. As she pushed her arms through the sleeves, she said, “Thank you for going on a date with me Daddy.” She threw her arms around me in a hug. And I melted.
When she pushed away, she smiled and said, “Can we get some ice cream?”
And the dance goes on.
So I will dance with Cinderella
While she is here in my arms
'Cause I know something the prince never knew
Ooh-oh ooh-oh I will dance with Cinderella
I don't want to miss even one song
'Cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight
“Daddy, I cannot wait for tomorrow,” says my five year old little girl from the back seat. My mind quickly runs through tomorrow’s schedule. I cannot find any big events on my radar, but that doesn't mean anything. After all, I have come to accept that I am the last to know when anything happens in the family. So I assume I have just forgotten something.
“Oh yeah sweetheart, why? What’s tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow I have soccer practice and my coach is my DADDY!”
Ah yes, I forgot: U6 soccer practice.
I have come to see that coaching any youth sport is a rite of passage for any adult with children. I am proud to say that I did two years coaching my son’s U8 soccer team. The first year was fun. Now I know the cardinal rule is that we don’t really keep track of wins and losses – but that year we won almost every game. The reason: obviously it was the coaching. I had visions that I had missed my calling and that the entire U8 youth soccer enterprise would soon be calling me, asking me for my coaching secrets. First U8. Then U10. Then college. And then the pros. It was all laid out before me: Money. Fame. Fortune.
And then year two.
Year two consisted of a team that scored one goal. Not one goal per game. No – one goal the entire season. The other teams? They scored goals on us at will. In fact, my team would get excited and high five when the other team missed our net. They would jump and cheer as one of them eagerly ran over to get the ball and hand it to the referee. I think we set the U8 record for speed in which a goal was allowed when the other team took the soccer ball, went down the field and scored in under six seconds because my defense had found a frog on the field and my goalie had become tangled in the meshing of the net, which required a good five minutes of game stoppage as well as my repressed skills with a Rubix cube to get him out.
They were the nicest kids you ever met, though. They shared that soccer ball with the other team freely. If someone from other team rushed towards the ball at the same time, they would stop and let the other player take it. One time, two of my players were on a break-away. The other team’s goalie was out of the net and the two of them were headed for a score. I was pumped. The parents on the sidelines were euphoric with expectation of the imminent goal. Then one of my players on the break-away fell. The other one, being a true friend and teammate, stopped, walked over to his injured pal, asked him about his health and well-being for a while, and then helped him up. They hugged they way little kids do and the entire team congregated around them to make sure everyone was felling fine. Granted, the entire other team had by then regrouped, taken the ball, and gone back down the field to score on our now empty net because my goalie became fascinated by the airplane in the sky, but it was a touching scene and we all left feeling a Norman Rockwell moment.
So, when my son moved up to U10, I assumed my career was over. I had done my fair share. So as he went on to U10 and she went on to U6, I felt I had earned the right to relax. So I watched my little girl practice for two weeks, comforted in the fact that it was someone else’s turn.
But then the coach’s assistant stopped coming. He missed one practice, and then another. Then, he did not show up for a game. So, there I stood like a deer in the headlights of a car, watching my daughter’s coach move seemingly in slow motion towards me. And I knew what was coming:
“Tim, do you mind being my assistant coach?”
Thursdays are when we have practices, but Saturdays are what I enjoy the most. In U6 soccer, the team is split into two with both teams playing simultaneously. I find myself typically with my daughter and three other little girls. And this has brought my soccer coaching experience to a whole other level.
“Okay girls, get the ball. Get it.”
“Coach, my Daddy has Pop-Tarts waiting for me. I love Pop-Tarts. Do you like Pop-Tarts Coach Tim?”
“Yes, I like Pop-Tarts but let’s focus on the game. Suzy, where is the ball? Point to the ball Suzy. No, not any ball. The ball we are playing with. Where is our ball?" ... and the other team scored.
“Coach Tim – my shoe is untied. Can you tie my shoe?”
“Yes. Come here. Wait – you too? Your shoe is untied? AND yours? How did all of your shoes become untied at the exact same time?" ... and the other team scored.
"Girls: don’t fall on the ground please. Come on. Yes, I liked how you all fell at the same time. Very funny. No. No snow angels on the grass please. Please? Let's get up. Look! – the other team is coming by you with the ball and ..." and they scored again.
“Coach Tim – when the game is over, guess where I am going? Guess? Guess? I am going to my Gammy’s. She is making hot dogs.”
“She is? That’s awesome. Could we try to kick the ball first though? Good job. Good kick. But next time, let's try kicking the ball to someone on your team." ... and the other team scored.
“Coach Tim? Coach Tim? Coach Tim?”
“Coach Tim, can I have a high five?”
“Well, let’s not do high fives when the game is going on let’s do them when…" and the other team scored.
And so it goes. And it all must look so funny: four tiny girls, with hair pulled back into various forms of pony-tails and me running frantically around, looking like some drunken giant.
But then the girls score, and I fall into Steve Martin from Parenthood mode and I jump and I clap and I am honestly excited for them. Each one will turn around, almost unsure of what just happened, but each will have a wry smile on her face as if wondering if it is okay to have scored and hurt the other team’s feelings. But my smile and clapping tells her that she did well and that she should be proud.
At that point, the whole team will rush over to me:
“Coach Tim! Coach Tim! Coach Tim: I scored a goal.”
“I know. I know. You did awesome.”
“Can I have a high five?”
“Me too Coach Tim!”
“Me too! Me too!”
“Sure you can. Yes. Yes. You can all have high fives. Yes OUCH. You hurt my hand. Yup. It is stinging. But there is a game going…" and the other team just scored.
“I need to do pee!”’
Yet, when the game is over and we walk back to the car, I am so proud of my little girl. She hustled and she tried and she scored two goals. She became better friends with the girls on her team and made friends with the kids on the other. But more importantly, she smiled the whole time.
So as she skips back to the car, she grabs my hand and asks:
“Daddy, do we have practice tomorrow?
"No pumpkin, not until Thursday.”
“That’s great because then I have practice with my DADDY!” And she hugs me. And it is all worth it.