(Part of the essay originally appeared in The Huffington Post 5/25/16)
I didn’t meet Charlie until I was an adult, but he and my father Anthony, known to his friends as Chick, were friends for fifty plus years. My father talked of many friends, like Frankie, Dinky, Danky, and Applehead. But when he was on his deathbed, Charlie was the one to whom he directed his dying wish. “Please promise me you’ll take care of Mimi.”
Mimi was my mother, Marianne. She was married to my father a week shy of 50 years. In hospice, my father had my sister Angela purchase a 50th Anniversary card for my mother and asked Angela to make sure my mother received it in case he didn’t make it. My parents had a tumultuous relationship, at least from their five kids’ perspectives. They argued all the time. My mother expressed on a daily basis, “He drives me crazy.” Yet when he passed, she was broken.
Charlie was the first person outside of the family that I saw in the hospital when I stood by my father’s bed. Across the room, his face looked redder than usual. Charlie liked his drinks. When my mother saw him, her trembling arms reached out to him. They embraced as he kept his view on my father, who lay with eyes half-open, heart still. I wonder if Charlie was thinking about my father’s last words to him. He called Charlie on the phone earlier that evening. He removed his oxygen mask and said in a weak voice “Charlie, it’s Chickie…ah, I’m not going to make it Charlie. Thank you for being such a good friend, and look out for Mimi.” Maybe Charlie was thinking about the times they stayed away from their wives for days playing poker, or the times they played baseball scraping elbows and knees in a concrete parking lot in downtown Troy. Or their fishing escapades on what they called “The Dirty Old Hudson”. The river in which General Electric dumped their toxic chemicals. Charlie had a half a century of memories with his friend Chickie, but perhaps Charlie was thinking about the one memory where my father most likely saved Charlie’s life.
Charlie had had three bypass surgeries, and in the last surgery he was close to losing his leg. He spent ten days in the hospital. When he was released, my father and mother picked him up to take him home. On the way, Charlie asked my father to stop at Stewarts, the local convenience store to buy a pack of cigarettes and a cup of coffee. My father turned to Charlie and said, “Charlie, if you ever pick up another cigarette, I’ll never speak to you again.” On that day, Charlie stopped smoking.
Almost five years have passed since my father’s death. Living across the country, I try to call my mother weekly to hear how she is doing. I hear about Charlie and her going golfing, attending birthday parties, winning the Veteran’s club lottery and splitting the money. I recently asked her how Charlie and my father met. She answered in her high-pitched New York accent, “They were in a gang together…not the kinda gangs like today with guns. They used their fists.” She added, “Charlie was always getting in fights because he was always sticking by his friends no matter what. Even if he was smaller than the other guy, he still fought them, if it was for his friends. He was like that—loyal.” Before I hung up, I said, “Well, I’m glad you have Charlie, and that you are enjoying his company.” She replied, “Yeah, but he drives me crazy.”