My dad died a year ago today.
On February 11.
At 11 am.
At 11 minutes past the hour.
In Las Vegas and the Native American casinos, 11 is a lucky number, at least at the craps tables. When Alec was young, everyone had a nickname, and his pals called him Lucky. Some people say you make your own luck, and that's certainly true in dad's case. How he actually came by his youthful nickname is lost with his death, but lucky he surely was.
The youngest of nine kids of a Neopolitan-born couple in upstate New York, dad spent his formative years during the Great Depression, learning quickly how to climb railroad cars standing on a siding and toss coal to waiting accomplices in order to help keep warm in winter. He was agile enough not to get caught and thrashed by the railroad police as many of his friends were. Lucky.
On the far side of New York Central Railroad's tracks lay the Mohawk River. The summer he was 6 years old, his older pals took him out in a rowboat and threw him overboard. Swim, swim, they called, as he flailed along, trying to reach the boat that was being rowed farther away. He learned to swim by sudden immersion — and succeeded. Lucky again.
As a young man in 1956, with a wife, two small boys and a house, dad knew he couldn't afford a house painter and was handy enough to try it himself. Standing on the top rung of a 28-foot extension ladder at the peak of the 2-1/2 story house, dad stretched too far and slipped off, tumbling into a double somersault and landing on a grassy terrace with a heavy thud.
By a hairs-breath, he missed hitting a stone wall he'd built the year before. As a 7-year-old, I watched as he stood, shook off the fall, retrieved the paintbrush and climbed to the top of the ladder again. Lucky. It's a word that followed him through his life like a thistle stuck to his pant leg.
There would be many other lucky incidents over the years. A crane accident at a manufacturing facility that broke his leg, but could have snuffed out his life. A massive printing press in an advertising shop that swallowed his hand as he cleaned the swiftly-spinning rollers. A near-fall off a steep slate roof, three stories up, prevented only because I was able to grab his workbelt and stop him from tumbling over the edge to the concrete driveway below. Lucky, lucky, lucky. His nickname followed him throughout his life like a charm.
Even when he was diagnosed with colon cancer, his luck held. The surgeon removed the diseased portion of the colon and stitched it back together so a colostomy wasn't necessary. Lucky.
Rounds of chemotherapy followed to shrink adjacent tumors in his liver and stomach. The chemo worked and the tumors disappeared. Lucky.
A year passed with all good news until the day his physician said the chemo wasn't working anymore. The tumors had returned. He tried a different kind of chemo, but that didn't work either and took away his ability to care for himself. Dad chose to stop the chemo entirely, knowing full well he'd signed his own death certificate.
While dad was getting hospice care at home months later, he made small talk with the nurse sent to care for him.
Do you live in Amsterdam, he asked?
Yes, the nurse replied. On John Street.
Dad perked up. John Street? What number?
The nurse smiled. It's a great house, she said. Number 25.
A tear formed in the corner of my father's eye. Number 25 John Street. The house he was born in. The house he grew up in. And now this angel, who was to care for him in his last days, lived in his boyhood home.
His house. His nurse. His life. Lucky.
Al Petrillo is a freelance writer who lives in the Northwest.