My husband and I have been married 18 years. Through the years, I’ve gotten bits and pieces of the story I’m about to tell, but this week was the first time he ever told me the whole thing — and he gave me his blessings to share it here.
Back in 1969, a few weeks after the astronauts landed on the moon, my husband’s dad went into the hospital.
From everything I know about my husband’s father, I gather that he was a manly man. I know he loved strange meats and cheeses, opera and bullfighting.
“He had a bunch of opera records,” my husband said. “I got that from him. I like opera. I’m not a fan of bullfights, but I’m glad I got to see some. I love the music and the sounds of a bullfight — and you know I love strange meats and cheeses.”
That trip to the El Paso, Texas, hospital marked the first hospital stay of his life. Doctors wanted to determine the source of some stomach problems. My husband and his mom were waiting for his dad when he got out of exploratory surgery. Everything seemed fine.
They talked for a while, and then headed home to check on the family’s two younger children staying with neighbors.
At some point that night, the phone rang. It was one of those phone calls you don’t want to get. Someone from the hospital was calling saying things weren’t going well.
No one else in the family drove. They woke Mr. Ortiz, the neighbor. He took my husband and mother-in-law to the hospital. When they got to the hospital, the staff wouldn’t let them in the room where they had visited a few hours earlier. My husband remembers someone talking to his mom and her crying.
Eventually, they went home. Nothing in his life has been the same since.
That was the summer between his 8th and 9th grade years. In 8th grade, he had been student body president and involved in all sorts of extra-curricular activities. Once the funeral was done and the dust settled, he and his mom sat down and had a long talk.
He was the same age as our oldest daughter is now.
“Think about Greer (our daughter) right now,” he said to me last week. “She doesn’t have a clue about the ramifications of the light bill not getting paid. She doesn’t even think about it. The lights go on by magic. We stop and eat at a restaurant, and she orders whatever she wants. It’s all magic. Back then, when my mom and I figured it all out, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, you mean if I don’t do this, the lights won’t go on? What do we do?’ Well, I got a paper route.”
So began my husband’s long career in newspapers — and many other life lessons.
“I became more aware of everything around me because I became responsible. Childhood was over,” he said. “All of a sudden it wasn’t about me anymore. I wasn’t bitter. That was just the way it was. As a matter of fact, in a strange way, it gave me more reason to succeed — to be good at what I was doing because I wasn’t doing it just for me anymore.”
He had thrown a paper route before, but the short route was to earn money to buy model airplanes. He refers to the job he got after his dad died as “a real paper route” — 100 papers every afternoon. He’d pick them up a block from his high school and walk the mile or so up the mountain throwing papers on both sides of the street. He switched to a morning route his sophomore year in an effort to be available for after-school activities.
By the time he graduated high school, he went to work for the newspaper full-time.
Early in our conversation, I asked my husband what he thought his dad taught him. He was stumped.
“When your parent dies and you’re that young, there are a lot of things that you plan to do together or thought you’d do, but we never got to do,” he said.
By the time he got to the part of the story of how his life changed after his dad died, he had come up with an answer to my question.
“Maybe that’s what my dad taught me — to get up and go to work every single day.”
“Or maybe it was something more. Maybe somewhere along the way, I figured out what my dad knew all along. He was a man who never complained — which may explain why he was so quiet! Even so, I believe he taught by example that life is about happily doing whatever you have to do.”
Gracias por la lección, Papi.
(Jan Risher’s column, Long Story Short, runs in The Sunday Advertiser. Email her at email@example.com.)