February 21, 2019 was supposed to have been a much happier day.
I was visiting New York City with my girlfriend, Larissa, to see Postmodern Jukebox — the musical group I had created seven years earlier — headline the Beacon Theater. Our New York City shows always felt like a homecoming of sorts; not only had the project been born in a basement in nearby Astoria, but New York City was close enough to my childhood home in New Jersey to guarantee that my parents could reliably attend. This was always a thrill for them; Mom would giddily watch the cast get ready backstage (while offering them pearls of Mom Wisdom like, “Be sure you get enough fruits and vegetables on the tour bus and remember to wash them”), and Dad would proudly discuss the project’s unlikely success story with excited audience members. Since it also happened to be the day before Mom’s 71st birthday, I couldn’t wait to surprise her by having the cast and audience sing her Happy Birthday.
By showtime, however, the two seats I had reserved for my parents remained empty, and my anticipation of a fun night had been replaced with worry. My mom had called me a few hours earlier to tell me that she was taking Dad to the emergency room. Over the last few days, she informed me, Dad had been getting progressively more confused. He had been having difficulty writing emails and calculating his taxes, and now he was having trouble reading the clock and navigating the bus schedule to Port Authority. The hospital staff suspected a minor stroke; this sounded scary, but they assured Mom that such a healthy man should be able to make a full recovery from a small stroke in a matter of months. I was concerned, but stayed to finish the show, instructing them to call me as soon as there was more information.
The next 24 hours turned my world upside down. A phone call. A car ride fraught with anxiety. An elevator ride to the emergency wing. Hugging Dad tightly while the both of us cried. The attending nurse solemnly showing us his MRI results. Everything happened just like it does in the movies, except that this was real life.
The scans revealed a large mass on Dad’s right parietal lobe — the part of the brain responsible for reading comprehension, mathematics, and sequencing information. The doctors told us we wouldn’t know what was wrong until he had a biopsy, but we knew by the look on their faces that this was very, very serious. Twelve days later, Dad was diagnosed with grade 4 brain cancer — Glioblastoma — a horrible, hopelessly terminal illness that would quickly rob him of both his body and his mind. By the time he received his diagnosis, he was already confined to a wheelchair, never to walk unassisted again.
If this was a movie script, this whole situation would have seemed implausible, even by Hollywood standards. Dad was the healthiest person I knew, at any age. A lifelong competitive rower, he exercised religiously his entire life and ate a low sugar, low carb diet. He didn’t drink or smoke, had perfect blood pressure and cholesterol, and didn’t even use a cell phone, to further reduce his radiation exposure. There was no history of cancer in his family, and his own grandfather lived to be 104 years old. Our family joked that he would likely outlive the rest of us so often that on some level, we actually believed it.
There were other sad ironies to timing of this, as well. My younger sister had just gotten engaged a few days before, and he was beyond excited for the milestone of giving daddy’s little girl away at the altar. And just ten days earlier, I had just gone into contract on a small vacation house in his dream town of Evergreen, Colorado — my gift to him for all his years of taking me to music lessons, encouraging me to follow my interests no matter where they led, and providing a safe place to return to when things didn’t work out. This was supposed to be a year of celebrating Dad, a humble man that, after many years of encouraging others to shine, truly deserved to be celebrated. Indeed, his preference for staying in the background meant that very few knew just what a hero he was to our family.
Growing up, I never paid much mind to the records that Dad would often play to accompany the many tasks that he would perform around the house. Always of the late ’60s pop variety, they seemed quaint in comparison to the MC Hammer cassette tapes that I largely preferred. But, like all of our favorite songs that stick with us through the years, I later came to see that they held much more meaning for Dad. “Ruby Tuesday,” “Never My Love,” “Wichita Lineman,” “MacArthur Park.” They were snapshots of a time and a place, the soundtrack for a boy from Rhode Island, leaving home for the first time. They were new sounds; sounds of optimism and excitement that pulsed through every jangly guitar chord and harmonized vocal line. Sounds that signaled that, perhaps, he was finally free to build a life on his own terms.
Dad’s own childhood was a complicated one. His father was a serial entrepreneur — a traveling salesman and local tennis champion; his book, “Instant Tennis” analyzed the mechanics of a tennis swing the same way that Dad would later break down the motions of the perfect rowing stroke to me. But Dad would never get to bond with his own father that way; on one trip out of town, his father left the family for good, leaving my grandmother to raise him and his younger brother as a single mom, in a time when single moms where shunned by society. The scars ran deep, and Dad never reconnected with his father, despite carrying his name — Richard — his entire life.
Richard, Jr. never repeated the mistakes of his father, however. As The Moody Blues played on the airwaves, Dad entered the University of Rhode Island and majored in Mathematics, while also dedicating significant time to rowing crew and playing the cornet. After becoming the first in his family to earn a Bachelor’s Degree, he then moved to New York to obtain a Master’s Degree from Stony Brook University. It was there that he met my mom, Sunday, and saw through another, even more significant commitment: he married her and started a family of his own.
Knowing that a stable, loving home was the greatest gift that a father could give his offspring, he immediately got to work on his magnum opus — our family home on a quiet street in rural New Jersey. Armed with a cursory knowledge of architecture and more than a few binders of research, he spent hours upon hours designing what he believed would be the perfect home, all to provide me, and later my sister, Mollie, the comforts and security that he never had as a child. When we finally moved to the scantly furnished house a few years later, he set up shop in the basement and began fabricating all the furniture we could possibly need by hand. Bookshelves. Desks. A dining room table. A balcony railing. A wraparound porch. As a child, I envied the houses of other kids in my school, with their glossy, store bought furniture. As an adult, I marveled in awe at Dad’s craftsmanship. Every square foot of our house contained his fingerprints — the fingerprints of a man that wanted to give his family the best he could.
As parents to both me and later Mollie, Richard and Sunday complemented each other perfectly. Where Mom was nurturing, gentle, and forgiving, Dad was strict and exacting, but with a compassionate heart. As the teenaged son of a man who had been an Eagle Scout at my age, I learned very early on that laziness and cutting corners were cardinal sins in his house; I have vivid, frustrating memories of being summoned back outside after cutting the grass to correct the mediocre job I did. Excuses were of no interest to him, just as they are of no interest to the world at large. He taught me from an early age that I, alone, was responsible for the life that I created for myself.
Despite his stern exterior, we caught frequent glimpses of just how awed Dad was by his own children. I remember him reading cartoons I drew as a kid and smiling as he marveled at my creativity (although really, I probably just copying the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips that I loved). I remember him excitedly documenting two year old Mollie’s verbal development — mispronunciations and all — on a legal pad that he titled, “Mollie’s Dictionary.” In later years, we caught more than glimpses of the pride that he felt for us, taking every opportunity to attend my concerts or research the ins and outs of my sister’s latest job promotion (she followed in his footsteps by becoming his first — and only — offspring to earn a Master’s Degree). If he was something of a fierce taskmaster in his early years of parenting, he didn’t show it at all in his later years, as he became the proud and tireless fan club president of his children. Indeed, our most enduring image of him became one of him with just a hint of a smile, shaking his head in wonderment as he looked upon my sister and I, as if to say, how did I get so blessed?
“You can go in to see him now. He’s awake”
I cautiously entered the Dad’s room in the ICU, where he was recuperating from surgery. The tumor was located in a sensitive area of the brain, so a total resection wasn’t possible. Instead, the neurosurgeon performed a biopsy for the purpose of getting a diagnosis, and that’s when our very worst fears were confirmed. We were devastated.
I tried my best to put on a brave face and hide my grief, but it was hard to find any words of inspiration in this moment. I shouldn’t have worried, because Dad was a warrior. He was a bit groggy, but he already understood that there was a very long and difficult road ahead of us.
“So this is kind of like when people climb Mount Everest,” he said, slowly and thoughtfully. “They stop at Base Camp to rest, then they climb some more. We’re at Base Camp 1 right now.”
I nodded. “Yes. I think that’s a good way to look at it.”
“Are you going to be here through Base Camp — whatever it goes up to?”
I nodded, tearfully. “Yes, Dad. I will.”
And I was.
Just as he was there when I was born.
Just as he was there to teach me how to ride a bike and throw a baseball.
Just as he was there to pick up the sheet music to Rhapsody In Blue for me, when I expressed an interest in learning piano.
Just as he was there to drive me to jazz workshops and to help me move into my dorm at college.
Just as he was there to see me perform in front of both audiences of 5 and audiences of 5,000 — always watching in quiet amazement, with that hint of a smile.
But of course, I wasn’t the only one that would accompany him on his final climb; far from it. Mollie flew back and forth between the exciting new job she had just started in Denver and our sleepy New Jersey town to keep Dad’s morale high and help with all of the quickly accumulating paperwork. Larissa — who steadfastly accompanied me on every one of the many trips I took to be with Dad — helped coordinate errands and took care of Mom when she was having an especially tough day. Mollie’s fiancé, Brad helped him with some of the unfinished construction projects in the house, and my longtime best bud, Steve helped with the yard work. Dad’s brother, my Uncle Bob drove in from Virginia Beach to visit him, bringing him deliveries of Chinese food to enjoy as they sat and reminisced. Larissa’s friend, Mary Ellen designed TEAM RICHARD t-shirts — light blue to match the color of his eyes, with an image of Mount Everest — which we gave to friends, family and neighbors.
Dad’s soundtrack of ’60s pop now became our soundtrack, as well. We spent hours camped out around him, listening to his carefully curated Spotify playlist, as he narrated the history and current events that shaped each song. My talented musician friends helped me record some of his favorites: “Nights of White Satin,” “I’ll Never Find Another You,” and “Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?” Postmodern Jukebox music director Jesse Elder even worked with Larissa to surprise us with a beautiful version of “The Rain, The Park, and Other Things” that featured twenty-five Postmodern Jukebox performers — all recorded remotely, in different parts of the world — that moved us all to tears. The same songs that accompanied his transition to adulthood were now bringing him untold joy in the last chapter of his life.
Through it all, my mother — the one we previously felt to be the most fragile in times of crisis — proved to be the biggest rockstar among us. She remained by Dad’s side through this ordeal as his fiercest advocate and his most trusted confidant, truly defining the vows of marriage in the most beautiful way, in the face of so much grief and turmoil. Whether it was helping him to achieve his daily physical goals or gently comforting him when he woke up in the middle of the night confused and upset, she was an inspiration to everyone that watched her; an elderly woman that, when faced with the ultimate challenge as a caretaker, managed to once again summon all her strength and faculties to provide comfort and dignity to her husband in his time of need.
And Dad, as always, remained a warrior to the very end. Not once did he express even a hint of self-pity; “why me?” was simply not a question he was interested in asking. His only question was a practical one: How do we get the best outcome for our family? Digging deep into his psyche as an athlete, he was willing to do whatever it took, if it meant that it could keep him in our lives for another day. After the last grueling round of radiation treatment weakened his body so much that he could hardly stand, he rang the bell at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center with the same pride he showed after completing an endurance sculling race. And although we were heartbroken knowing that despite the torment he endured it would ultimately fail to cure him, we were likewise very, very proud of him.
On October 29, 2019, Dad left this world, but he left more of a legacy than he could have ever dreamed. When I walk around my childhood home, I see his conviction that seemingly impossible tasks can be accomplished with enough time and attention. When I listen back to the music I make, I can’t help but hear echoes of the sounds of the records he used to share with me. When I watch my sister continue to grow into an intelligent, highly capable young woman with a resilient streak that very few could rival, I see his most admirable character traits reflected. When I see the way my family and those closest to us stuck together and helped one another during the most difficult year of our lives, I see his desire to build a strong, loving family succeed in ways that surpassed even his own wildest dreams.
Dad taught us how to live — guided by logic and principle, with the courage to pick ourselves up and try again when we failed. And at the end, he taught us how to die — calmly, unafraid, and content, knowing that he had done his part to better the world around him.
Rest in peace, Dad. When I close my eyes, I see us there, at the top of Everest. It was a tough climb and we’re tired and cold, but you still have a hint of a smile, as you shake your head in wonderment.
I was blessed to have you, too.
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I’m holding a fundraiser to raise money for the National Brain Tumor Society — to give, go here.
Special thanks to Dr. Igor Gavrilovic at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for his excellent care of my father; to Charles, our home health aide, for his never ending compassion and devotion; to the staff at Karen Ann Quinlan Home For Hospice, and to the rest of TEAM RICHARD — the friends, family and neighbors that supported Dad and the rest of my family in so many ways.
To hear the ’60s Pop Spotify playlist that we listened to together, click here.
Dad’s love of music and family was matched only by his love of rowing. To make a memorial donation to Princeton National Rowing Association’s “Rowing Is Growing” program, click here.