Biography: Eternal optimism characterized Dad's funny way of dying


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My dad wasn't one for sad stories, or tragedies. He liked things that he'd call "upbeat."

So how is this "upbeat," Dad? How do you explain this one? You have a healthy 61-year-old man, a guy who swims 1 1/4 miles and bikes for another 45 minutes every day; a man whose diet consists of fish, zucchinis, raisins, Cheerios and bagels (lots of bagels); someone who saves and saves for retirement, only to discover that he's terminally ill and is never going to get the chance to use it.

Dad, you liked movies like "Kindergarten Cop," "Robin Hood" and "Major Payne" -- you'd only watch things that you called "brainless." The story about the 61-year-old guy who gets terminally ill and passes on, you wouldn't have liked that one. It wouldn't have been "upbeat" enough for you. But the funny thing is, somehow it was.

My dad saw things from a different perspective. He knew it and didn't particularly care. If you disagreed with him, he'd say, "Suit yourself" or "You're entitled to your opinion, I'm entitled to mine." So, when it came time to battling cancer, from the moment of his diagnosis until his final day in late January, my dad did it on his terms, his way.

After three lines of chemo, radiation, countless procedures and several hospitalizations, my dad was transferred back to Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Ill., the hospital he'd been on staff at as a podiatrist for 28 years.

After we got there, my dad's oncologist came in the room and told him, "Rick, I think you and I know that we're at the point where there's nothing left to do." My dad looked at him and said, "That's your opinion. I guess I just think positively."

Four days later, one of my dad's colleagues came to visit him and said, "Rick, I just came to say goodbye." My dad responded, "Why? I'm not going anywhere."

From the moment of his diagnosis until his final day, my dad maintained that he had no pain. Throughout hospice, he didn't want morphine or pain meds. It wasn't his thing.

Throughout the entire ordeal, he kept his sense of humor. When he was hospitalized at the University of Chicago, a chaplain came in and asked him if he wanted to "take communion." My dad said, "Sure, but I don't know if my rabbi knows how to do that."

At one point after a procedure, my mom was sobbing in my dad's arms. She looked up at him and said, "Rick, I don't know what I'd do without you." My dad replied, "Call Vanguard."

• • •

For him, life was simple. He loved his family, he loved to exercise and he loved to work. He loved his Libertyville office and Condell and everyone associated with the two.

In my dad's eyes, things were pretty clear. Maybe a week or so before his death, when we were at the University of Chicago, my dad wasn't feeling too well. His heart rate had increased, and his breathing had shortened.

The situation grew dim rather quickly, and the resident called a code. Within seconds, my dad's room was filled with 40 people, among them the chaplain. My dad looked at the chaplain and waved him away, saying, "You can leave, I'm not ready yet."

To assist his breathing, an oxygen mask was placed over my dad's mouth. The doctors were preparing to intubate him and do chest compressions, and unexpectedly a resident passed my dad a cell phone. On the other line was my dad's oncologist from Condell.

My dad grabbed the phone, pulled up the oxygen mask and said into the receiver, in a voice that I'll hear forever, "We will win. We will win."

So the story about the 61-year-old guy with the terminal illness, the man who never smoked or drank, who exercised, ate right and saved, but nonetheless passed a mere 11 months after his diagnosis, my dad would tell you with all his heart that the story is "upbeat" -- and if you disagree, you can "suit yourself."

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Adam Reinherz of Squirrel Hill, an instructor at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of the University of Pittsburgh, can be reached at adam.reinherz@gmail.comThe PG Portfolio welcomes "Biography" submissions about special people, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.


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