Sitting here watching my father in a hospital bed. His breathing is rapid and he will never wake up again. I think he can still hear me. It’s the last inning of his 91 years. He is dying and the eye of the worst hurricane ever recorded is headed our way.
I’m looking at his face. His skin is full of life. I am wondering. About the man he was before my time. The things he’s seen. The things he wanted to see. The things we said. All I would want to say. And what the hell I would do if I was caught in the storm.
I’m in this hospital room with a view of the Gulf of Mexico out above the palm trees and sea grapes and when i look at him i see the man who was my father, Dad, as a living testament to human possibility.
(Before Irma: our view from Naples Community Hospital room 566 out to the Gulf of Mexico)
The weather is pleasant. It’s the reason Dad made Naples, Florida his home for the last 15 years. No hint of the storm, yet.
Some 1400 miles away Hurricane Irma has destroyed Barbuda before leveling Antigua and wrecking Tortola, Virgin Gorda, and the US Virgin Islands.
“The Native Americans preferred Naples because Hurricanes never landed here” he used to say.
Well Dad, your timing was always impeccable.
(Dad, right, with his younger sister Ramona ca. 1928)
Born an Irish kid, with Irish luck, on the North side of Chicago when horses were still used in commerce and not all homes had electricity, Joseph Conway Faul was the grandson of immigrants. His father John Joseph Faul was a plumber who ran busy “soda shops” (speakeasies) on the side. John was murdered July 13, 1928, leaving his wife and 3 kids, one not yet born, to their own.
Dad would grow up without a father.
He lived through the stock market crash of 1929, prohibition, the advent of the commercial airplane and mass production of automobiles. He served in the Navy in WWII on Cebu, an Island in the South Pacific (Philippines) and saw the horrors of the atomic bomb.
He lived through Marilyn Monroe, Kennedy and King, the Korean war and Vietnam, Panama, Gorbachev, Nixon and Reagan. 16 presidents in all.
When Dad was born the tallest building in the world was the 57 story Woolworth building in New York at 792ft. When he died the tallest was the 163 story Burj Khalifa in Dubai at 2,717ft. He watched the Sears (now Willis) tower rise, and the shift from Post-War American manufacturing to off shore sourcing dominate the economy.
He was alive through eradication of polio, the onslaught of HIV and lost many friends and family along the way. Cancer and cholesterol, heart attacks, hemorrhaging, yet Dad’s years kept ticking away.
“We lost another one today Kevvy. In the pool” I remember him telling me not long after he first moved to Florida. “God’s waiting room” he’d say and laugh.
Dad never had any serious health issues.
He smoked a pipe then cigarettes for over 50 years, quitting cold turkey when, a few years after our parents’ divorce, he asked a young (68 year old) lady out for a second date.
“Joe I can love you but I watched my husband die of lung cancer and I’m not going through that again. If you want to go out with me you have to quit smoking”
So he did. The next day.
Her name is Ruth and he called her Ruthie, so she’s Ruthie to us, too.
Ruthie is from Boston and has the “Bawwstin Accent” where every R is an AWE.
By the time I started writing this Dad was no longer conscious. We could no longer talk about old times, and anyone who called or stopped by could only hope his ears could hear their goodbyes. I believe he could. Ruthie still came to visit him and held his hand.
(Irma’s first landfall prediction was incorrect. It would turn westward and hit Naples, FL head-on)
The hurricane turned westward and was en route to the Florida Keys. It’s path was predicted to hit Naples head on. Winds had peaked at 219mph.
What do you do when your father is dying and the eye wall of history’s most powerful hurricane is headed straight at you? You make a plan.
The only thing Dad did that was almost unforgivable is cheer for the Red Sox while being a Cubs fan. We let it slide though because it was chivalrous, and manners he did teach us, like respect for our better halves. Ruthie loves the Red Sox.
Every Saturday he went to the Farmers Market and bought Ruthie fresh flowers. Their house was filled every week with daffodils and daisies, wildflowers, tulips, and hydrangeas.
Everyone everywhere they frequented around Naples knew and loved them. From Longhorn Steakhouse to Freddo Gelato, St Finbarr church, and their local sandwich place where, after the farmers market they would get corned beef on rye. “Irish Turkey” as it’s called. A first name basis to all.
Dad never disliked being old, but he hated having an old body. He couldn’t move as easily, couldn’t hear as well. He couldn’t hold his bladder and would sometimes drool. Easy chores got difficult. We no longer allowed him to climb onto the roof. My sister finally took away his keys.
“The only thing I really want, Kevvy, is my youth back, and I can’t have that so I’m not going to fight it when it’s my time”
(we tried to fly him out on this plane but missed our window of opportunity)
The hurricane plan was to try to get him out of Naples. Instead of abandoning ship, we’ll take the ship with us. I chartered a med-evac plane, but as I sit here we’re not sure he’ll live long enough to take it. If we wait too long, the airports will be closed.
He was never someone who fell. The first time he did he broke his arm and bashed his eye. This happened around the end of July. We didn’t know it then, but that was the beginning of the end.
When it happened, my sister flew down and checked him into the hospital. My siblings Erin, Brian, Sean and I would trade off time by his side.
We didn’t know well wasn’t possible. We didn’t know in 8 weeks he’d be gone.
“What did I do to deserve all this attention” he’d say smiling up at the nurses. He never complained. He appreciated everything. His appetite was gone. His digestive system was failing. He was telling jokes.
He lived through the jazz era, and listened to the first radios, he saw the first televisions, satellite dishes, vhs, compact discs, the invention of digital technology; the internet, Hip hop (sorry about that one Dad), rock and roll – The Beatles.
He always woke between 2:45 and 3:30 am every night. As a kid I’d find him eating Saltines and milk staring out into the yard where deer and foxes, groundhogs and coyotes would cross. This night routine would cause us the most trouble in the end.
Once he checked into the hospital he never went home. We made arrangements with an assisted living community. A place where he and Ruthie could live easy. We transferred him when he was well enough.
But the falling didn’t stop.
He went from De Sotos to Station Wagons and Minivans, always got the model with woodgrain panels. He always tried to buy from Uncle Larry Faul’s “if it didn’t come from Faul it’s no deal at all” chain of car dealers in the Chicago suburbs.
He saw the decline of Communism, and the rise of telecommunications.
He couldn’t make it out of the local Ace Hardware without buying something on sale.
He wore suits every day until he was nearly retired and saw the abominable rise of business casual. I blame him for my late 80’s tendency to combine turtle necks with cardigan sweaters. Dad, you led me astray on that one, but the funny pictures were worth it.
He lived through the rise and fall and rise again of Detroit. He test drove a Tucker hitting nearly 100 miles per hour on back roads in Michigan with Uncle Warren Rice in the 1940s.
After a week in the first hospital he moved to rehab, then a care facility where he fell a second time, breaking his nose and bashing his other eye. He awoke during his nighttime routine and forgot he was frail. He got up, and fell down.
Our hope was that his illness – whatever was causing the falls and the brain fog – was treatable. We came to learn that the stages of inevitable death were fairly obvious, we just didn’t know enough to see it.
He was born before plastic was common at a time when coal was shoveled into furnaces to heat buildings. He saw the advent of renewable energy like wind and solar.
He was there during the time of Woodstock and saw men make it to space, even land on the moon.
He flew a million miles in the 1950s.
He sailed the South Pacific in the Navy and taught us to sail on the Great Lakes. Though he stopped sailing around the turn of the millennia, he loved boats and decorated anywhere he lived in a nautical theme.
In the Navy in WWII he helped secure and disable a warehouse full of torpedoes while being shelled by Japanese forces, then ran shore patrol in a PT boat. He was a Torpedoman Third Class, trained in torpedo assemblies.
(Dad, right, the Torpedoman Third Class)
He was an engineer, graduating from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
He helped invent magnesium oxide insulated wire for temperature sensing – technology used in everything from airplane pitot tubes to car engines. The first space missions used them.
He founded a company called Pyro Electric in Barrigton, IL that specialized in temperature resistant wire.
He started Equipment Sales Company as a side gig until it grew big enough to commit to full time. He retired in 1998 selling the company to the brother of my best friend. The company is still alive and well today. Celebrating its 59th year in business.
He is a dual citizen to the US & Ireland. He is an older brother to two younger sisters Ramona (deceased), and Joanne. He was married twice and for the final 17 years he and his girlfriend lived together in Naples. He liked to say “it took me three times but i finally got it right”. They never married but they could have. “I like to keep him guessin’ Kev” Ruthie would say.
He was a lover, and his heart was as big as his chest. He was a fighter, and put everything he had into the things he loved.
He has 7 children and 3 grandchildren, and would have loved to have more (maybe one day, Dad).
As i watched him lying there I was thinking of these things. Of the privilege and honor it was to accompany him to the end.
He was a devout Catholic and active member of his church, attending mass every Saturday afternoon. He humbly served as a punctual and friendly usher. The father and the congregation all liked him.
“I’m Joseph Leo and he’s Leo Joseph” he’d say about his priest at St Finbar referring to his own Catholic confirmation name.
He loved people and parties. He enjoyed being active locally. He served on boards of county governance and was a Village Trustee in Wauconda Township, Illinois where we grew up at the end of a dead end road in a log cabin among the deciduous forest. He gave often to many charities and believed in respecting everyone.
(a brief biography for Dad’s inclusion in who’s who of engineering in the 1970s)
He made friends everywhere he went and had the gift of making everyone feel special – from the UPS delivery man to his doctors and nurses in his final days. When he died, several of them cried.
The night before he died we started to think he wouldn’t. My sister had a ticket on the last flight out of Fort Myers before the airport closed for the hurricane. I made her leave because she had a husband and 2 kids at home. We’d never abandon Dad but if Irma got ornery only minimal crew would go down with the ship.
We had missed the window of opportunity to get him on the chartered flight. I tried in vain to reserve a med-transport van. Then desperately tried to arrange an SUV – if Irma was going to hit us head on we’d strike her out with our absence. Medical teams in 2 states were cheering for us, fearing for us what we feared for ourselves.
But it didn’t work. We were foiled by my inability to get his doctor to give us a prescription for morphine. Ahead of Irma everything was closed. The nearest open pharmacy to Naples would be nearly 200 miles away. Too far to transport Dad on the way out without his morphine wearing off. I cringed at the idea of him living his last days in pain, uncomfortably stashed in the back of a Yukon Denali for a 20 hour drive. The doctor said no, three times. She was right in doing so.
This was it. We were stuck in Naples.
It was the last fall that ended it all. Five days ago, around 2:45 AM, he got up from bed (ignoring the rule to click for his assistant at the community home) and fell to the right. His hip broke between the ball and the femur. His doctors, first hopeful, deemed him inoperable. He was moved to hospice where we started this game of wait, a double-header with the hurricane.
I battened down the hatches and stocked the hospital room with snacks and water.
It’s just us now, Dad. Take your time, I’ll be ready when you decide it’s your time to go.
Irma was inevitable. Naples was told to evacuate.
The eyewall was predicted to eviscerate the state, starting with this little town 5 feet above sea level.
(Irma was the strongest storm in recorded history, and it was coming straight to Naples)
I moved their car to the 3rd floor of the parking garage behind a giant concrete pillar. The storm surge was predicted at 12-15ft.
When the Cubs won the World Series I called and he picked up on the first ring – after in Florida. I cried and he laughed. “Next year is finally here, Kevvy.” His faith in the Cubs second only to his faith in God.
We lived to see it.
Dad and I were always similar which is why for a long time we didn’t get along. We were family but we weren’t friends.
It wasn’t until I was 28 when, at the urging of my girlfriend, Dad and I resolved our differences by taking a long drive into the Everglades. I asked what I had to ask and we said what we had to say. From that day on we were friends forever. It was the hardest conversation I’ve ever had. I’d highly recommend it.
As I look at Dad’s face during his last hours I am overwhelmed with the enormity of these memories. There is so much I’ll never know, and so much i’ll always remember. I don’t want him to go so soon.
The clouds are gathering outside our windows, rotating counter clockwise. Irma was upgraded again to Category 5. She’s getting close now.
Dad, I’m scared of what will happen next. I’m scared of not having you anymore. I’m afraid we haven’t recorded enough of your jokes and of losing the memories.
He made perfect bacon and his eggs were pretty good too. Spaghetti, not so much, but his Corned Beef was rapture.
He liked buttermilk and blue cheese and preferred his martinis stirred as to not “bruise the gin”. He was a traditionalist.
He laughed at babies crying, bad jokes, pouting dogs, and the weather. Dad always had a joke, limerick, or saying for anything. He laughed to make you feel good and he laughed because it felt good to him. He saw life as a divine comedy and enjoyed it.
He laughed when he was happy and when he was sad. Even when he was being poked and prodded during his last days in the hospital, his body was going but his mind was still quick. If you said anything funny he’d give you a smile as wide as would fit on his face. He was the happiest person I’ve ever known. If you knew him, you know what I mean.
I wish I was more like him.
He liked my girlfriends. They loved him.
Everyone was welcome in his home.
He didn’t need much and never wanted for more. He made the best of wherever he was as long as the thermostat was set to 85°.
Saturday morning I told him everything was ok. I whispered that Irma looked bad and if there was anything he could do, we could use his help.
Within an hour his breathing had slowed.
I stopped in the cafeteria for a quick bite. I hurried back to his room when I had that feeling.
(Dad’s room at Naples Community Hospital)
Passing the nurse’s station we caught eyes.
“Have you checked on him?”
“No but i’m right behind you” she said.
I upped my pace and arrived by his side as he let out his last breath. I don’t know how but I knew before it was done.
He didn’t breathe in.
He was gone.
He let go to go forth. I’m sure he did so to see if he could help. Dad was always good with the ladies. If anyone could charm Irma it was him.
After doing what I had to do, I said goodbye to Dad for the last time. I left him there in the hospital room and a nurse walked me out.
I had faith Dad would watch over us but I also needed a shower. Living in a hospital room for 5 days under threat of imminent death and an aggressive storm, i yearned for peace and life.
A crowd 2 blocks long was gathered to get into the hospital, a shelter from the impending storm. I walked past them with a cart full of belongings and the remains of the day. I wore his ring – silver with a cross and an emerald.
I drove 16 hours to my sister’s house in Baltimore. Away from the hurricane.
(there was no gas left in South Florida. It took me 200 miles before I found an open station that had very little left)
Luckily it seems Dad had his way: Naples was mostly spared compared to what could have been. Ruthie and their friends were safe, I was safely out.
He never stopped changing. As he got older he got better. Maybe it was his religion. Maybe it was his relationship. Maybe his family. Maybe his waning memory.
I drove all night. I spent 2 days with my niece and nephew. New lives excited about everything. Mom made pumpkin pies (my favorite). Friends brought food and Midleton Irish Whiskey. We toasted to his life.
We ate, we drank, my sister sang an Irish song. We looked through old photos.
I am left with more questions than answers. And a story Dad would be proud to tell of harrowing death flirting with disaster. Like that time on the lake when we were the last boat standing.
Only this time, we lost a man. One of the best.
May the wind always be at your back.
Dad, we love you. Goodbye.
(Faith – the sailboat we grew up sailing on Lake Michigan shot by Dad’s oldest son Brian ca 1970s, the wind at Dad’s back)