Tuesday, May 16, 2006

namesake


"I can still remember that day like it was yesterday..."
At some point each year before my birthday was officially over, my father would recite the same speech which began with the above sentence. "It was __ years ago this day that I drove your mother to the Rancocas Valley Hospital and waited for the nurse to come out and tell me that I had a son. I looked down to see you in your mother's arms, and as soon as I saw your face I knew for certain that I wanted to give you my name..."
Dad was a salesman for a living so he had a tendency to lay it on a little thick at times.
But he was absolutely thrilled to have a first-born son that could carry on the family tradition. I would eventually wind up sharing his exact initials right down to my confirmation name. He was the first one to start calling me TJ, which is short for 'Thomas James.' When my wife was pregnant with our son, we didn't want to know the sex of the baby beforehand. Dad would coyly ask if we had thought of any names if it was a boy, and eventually would make a comment about how proud he had been to pass on his name to me, and how nice it would be for that tradition to continue.
Tradition is a wonderful thing, but I was determined for my son to begin his life with his own unique identity free from anyone else's expectations. From my driver's license to my bank account to my Blockbuster card, there was always the constant reminder that I was a "Jr." Worse, just by adding the letter 'y' to the end of my name, a person could instantly make me feel like a little kid no matter what my actual age happened to be at the time. After law school, I held the title of Assistant District Attorney Thomas __________ to the violent criminals that I prosecuted and sent to state prison for multiple years with consecutive sentences. But as soon as I crossed back over the city limits of Williamsport on my way home for a holiday, I immediately reverted back to being Tommy to my parents' friends all over town. That always had a way of making me feel like a 9-year old right on the spot. If Neil Armstrong had been named 'Timothy', I am sure that people in his hometown would be turning to one another still to proudly remark, "Look, there goes Timmy--the first man to walk on the moon."
Hence, my son's name: Brendan.
Being a "Jr." had other expectations as well. Dad had gone to Villanova on a football scholarship in the fifties, and he had an immense feeling of pride when I chose to go to his alma mater after high school. The fact that I primarily based my decision to apply there on the thousands of very cute Catholic girls that I saw during my campus tour would have only slightly diminished his sense of legacy. A quick look at the photo at the top of this post gives you a little hint about his hope that his firstborn son might follow completely in his collegiate footsteps, but Dad would have to wait until my younger brother Chris was born to realize his ultimate wish of having a college football player in the family huddle. Hey, if Villanova had given scholarships for high scores on Atari, I would have been an All-American.
But along with being a namesake came other responsibilities. After my mom passed away nine years ago, Dad began a slow spiral downward in spirit and in health. His inner demons overtook him, and his drinking became more frequent and more severe. The salesman in him helped convince everyone that he was doing fine for awhile, but three years ago his physical condition got so worse that I had to force him to go to the hospital in the middle of the night and insisted that he move into my house when his doctor told us that he only had about six months to live.
Almost to the week after receiving that news, I came home from work one day to find that he had slipped into a coma while lying in his bed. As the oldest, I was the one with power of attorney, and I was at the hospital constantly to get the latest results from his doctors. But all of the tests indicated that his liver had completely failed, and the lack of oxygen in his blood had permanently affected his brain function. The other parts of his body were all working, but he would need to be kept on a ventilator and feeding tube until the rest of his organs finally gave out. My siblings began to scour the medical journals and online databases for information about a miracle cure, but every single doctor that I spoke with gave the same prognosis.
After a week of seeing him lying in that hospital bed without any brain activity or motor response, I felt that he wouldn't want to continue on that way. I knew that my younger brothers and sister could never live with the guilt, so late one night I drove over to the hospital on my own and asked the doctors one final time if there was a remote chance of him coming out of the coma with any type of awareness or ability to experience sensation. They explained once again that the damage was just too severe. I told them to go ahead and remove the ventilator, after they had assured me that he would not suffer.
I sat beside him in the darkness, thinking back on different moments from my childhood. Memories came flooding back of lazy summer vacations at the beach, laughter around the dinner table, and playing catch in the backyard. As the hours passed and his heart continued to beat steadily on, I began to wonder if I had made the right decision. Maybe his body was trying to tell me not to give up on him, and to give him another chance to fight to come back. But the doctors explained that the heart was one of the strongest muscles in the body, and could continue to beat on its own for awhile regardless of the complete lack of higher brain function.
It was dawn before his heart rate began its slow descent. His breathing became more shallow and the nurses kept coming in to check on his condition and make sure that he was comfortable. After awhile his heart rate dropped significantly, and the nurse said that it would only be a matter of minutes. The complexion of his skin was pale and thin, and his body resembled nothing of the robust man he had been only a year before. I brushed his hair away from his forehead and leaned down to give him a kiss. "It's okay to let go, Dad. You can go be with Mom now." A few moments later, the line on the monitor went flat. The alarms had long been disconnected and it was eerily silent as the nurse came into the room to begin unplugging the machines. I hugged him one last time and silently prayed that he would now be at rest. I asked the staff at the hospital to tell anyone who was curious that his pneumonia had taken a turn for the worse. To this day no one in my family knows about my decision.
So today on my birthday, I found my thoughts going back to that afternoon in the delivery room when my father was there to welcome me into this world, and that morning many years later when I was there at his bedside to say goodbye to him as he went off to join the next one.
I can still remember that day like it was yesterday. I think back to the moment when I looked down to see my father's face finally at peace. I may have had some doubts about whether I ultimately made the right decision, but one thing that I knew for certain was how proud I felt to have been given his name.