My Father In the end, it wasn't really the end

It all started with a question.

“Do you think I’m too young to die?” he said to me as his eyes filled with despondency.

“Do I think you’re too young to die?” I repeated back, almost dreading to answer.

And then the answer to a question I never thought my father would ever ask me came out.

When my father was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer in early January 2012, I froze. No one ever tells you how you’re going to react to such news, and no amount of preparation will ever help. Being in the doctor’s office with him and my mother when they found out was a surreal feeling – one of those random out-of-body experiences that only happens once in seemingly never. But my father didn’t blink when he was told. He didn’t stutter, stammer, lash out, or anything like that.

“I know,” he started, “what I have to do.”

I knew what that meant. My mom knew what that meant. My father, the toughest person I’d ever known, was merely conveying that he didn’t want his family to see him wither away before their eyes. So, he planned on doing what made sense to him. He was going to grab his 9mm, go on a drive, and make his way deep into the woods where his family wouldn’t see what cancer was going to do to him. To him, it was the right move. When we got home from the doctor’s office, the rage in me came out.

It was the only time I’d ever verbally abused my father in my entire life. He sat on the couch in the spot he always sat in, and I laid into him. I got inches from his face, yelling obscenities at him about how he couldn’t give up just because a doctor told him there was nothing they could do. I told him he had to fight, because that’s who he has always been – a fighter – and there was no sense in changing who you are now just because of a disease.

After five minutes of me in his face, he said that fighting was the only way to truly win. He knew he wouldn’t beat the disease, but to him just lasting an extra day or three days or three months was a victory for him. My father had many victories on the path to the disease taking him from us at just 68 years old, but it was still that question he asked me in private one afternoon that sticks with me.

“Do you think I’m too young to die?”

I can still hear it echoing in my head as I close my eyes to sleep.

The helicopter blade whizzed over his head. The only thing that had saved his life, other than his height, was the simple fact that he had bent over to put his helmet between his legs. It was one of the times that death had come for my father before ultimately getting him in 2012. Other men that he had served with were not so lucky that day.

My father was a member of the United States Army, and he served during the Vietnam War. On the afternoon of February 20, 1966, the helicopter he was in took off like it had every other day prior to that – with one small exception. On all the other days, his chopper lifted off first. But not this day. That afternoon it was the second one off the ground, and the first chopper kicked up so much dust that it blinded the pilots on my father’s chopper.

According to my father, it was like getting kicked in the chest by a mule. His chopper smashed directly into the back of the chopper in front of it, and the rotor blade from the helicopter that took off first sliced through the hull of his chopper like butter. After the whirlybirds smacked into the ground, my father found himself pinned. He managed to pull himself out of the wreckage, and when he did he popped his dislocated shoulder back into place.

His staff sergeant, James Robert Rutledge, was lodged into the windshield.

“The blade got him in the head,” my father recalled, fighting back emotions while doing so. “If it weren’t for me being a short, stocky son of a bitch, it would have taken me too.”

He pulled two men out of the rubble of the crash, and he got them medical help. They’re still alive today because he got them out of there. One of the men wrote him an email about ten years ago, after they had reconnected at a reunion, to thank him for getting him out of there alive. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he showed me it – the raw feeling.

At night, my father would get up at 2 A.M. because that was just his routine back in the Army. He was the recon scout slated with the 2 A.M. to 4 A.M. watch in the jungles of Southeast Asia. I’d sometimes find him out in the living room watching television during those times. He was a creature of habit, and it’s hard to break habits you start during wartime.

I only ever mustered up the courage one time in my life to ask my father how many people he had killed in the war. I never really felt the need to ask him outside of that instance. I don’t know why. Maybe because I didn’t want to know, maybe because I didn’t want him to relive it, or maybe because I just didn’t want to think about my father in that way. Maybe he didn’t want me to think about him in that way, either.

“When you’re firing into the dense brush during a firefight, you never know what you hit,” he said. “There was one, though, in a hand-to-hand fight in the night. I can still see his face.”

I don’t think my father ever thought he was a bad ass or anything. I think he just thought he did what he had to do to survive, like many do. He survived a lot in his life, and that war featured many moments of it. In the end, little did he know, it was the war that still killed him – not in the form of a bullet, but Agent Orange.

I once drove with my father across the country. I’m trying to remember the specific year, but all I remember is that it was the year Kevin Love was in the Final Four with UCLA because I vividly recall staying up until an ungodly hour to watch March Madness games in Washington, D.C. with my dad. My dad never flew. He only drove. The helicopter crash was part of the reason why he didn’t fly, but, kind of hilariously, he was more afraid of airplanes than helicopters.

I guess one of the reasons was because he once boarded an airplane to fly back to New York while on leave from training in Fort Benning, Georgia. The flight was destined to land in Laguardia, but as they boarded and the plane started to taxi onto the runway, my father, in his infinite wisdom and outspokenness, told the stewardess that he needed to get off the plane. He just had a funny feeling. She insisted that she couldn’t. I still smile when I call to mind what he calmly responded with.

“Ma’am,” my father began, “let me tell you what’s going to happen. I’ll wait until we get to 30,000 feet, then I’ll get up, open the door, and we’ll all get off the plane together.”

Needless to say, the stewardess let him off the plane. My dad then ended up renting a car and proceeded to drive all the way up to New York, which is where he was originally from. When he got home, his mother – who was easily the most stubborn person you would ever meet in your life – told him that she was worried because there was a plane crash in New York. What had happened was that the plane my father was supposed to be on hit some ice during the landing, and it slid off the runway. There were no fatalities or major injuries, but needless to say it spooked my dad. He just refused to fly.

That drive back with my dad, starting in D.C. then going to New York then coming back down to go back to California, was probably the best experience I ever had with him. That’s not to say that I didn’t spend a lot of time with my father. I did. It was just that we were way too alike. After he passed, whenever someone who knew him would call the house, they would pause for a second before realizing it wasn’t him on the other end. But it went beyond voice similarities.

We just clashed. At every turn it was just a constant battle. But those few days in the car with him, just driving the open road and enjoying each other’s company was something I’ll always remember and cherish. We got pulled over in Oklahoma – okay, okay, I got pulled over in Oklahoma – and it became like a little bit of a bonding story for the two of us. When he told my mom, she flipped out. But he and I just laughed about it. It was something we’d always have together.

Those days spent together on the road, just laughing at the dumbest things and talking about life, were some of the happiest days I’ll ever experience. My dad and I weren’t best friends. I’m not even sure he liked me all that much, but I do know he loved me. He always made sure I had everything I needed or even wanted. It was just how he was. I pretty much inherited that from him. It was one of his best qualities.

He was genuine. When my father served in Southeast Asia, he came across a leper colony with his group. The people – a mix of men, women, and children – were left there unattended. They were left there to die. He took food out from his pack and gave it to them, as did other men he was with. He told me that they visited that colony nearly every day until, on one occasion, they went back to find it empty. He knew what that meant, and it broke his heart for as long as he lived.

My dad had seen the horrors of the real world and had reaped some of the bounties it provided, so he wasn’t exactly shy with helping whomever he could. He knew what struggle was. He was shot at, spit on, and called vile names, yet he never got down. My father was a positive person, even during times of great struggle. That’s just who he was.

One of my dad’s closest friends was a former Army buddy, Robert Hoenig. Talk about a rare guy. He’s a six-foot-three Texan that’ll let you know he’s not to be trifled with. There was only one man who could break him – my father. That day of the helicopter crash, Hoenig was supposed to be the radio operator. He had to miss the mission, though. Hemorrhoids saved him. My dad took the radio pack from him, and the rest is history. If either one had been sitting in their usual spot that day, that would have been it.

I’ll never forget Hoenig coming to my house the day of the funeral, March 29, 2012. The funeral wasn’t until 11 AM that day, but he came over at about 8:30 AM because, well, he just couldn’t stand the thought of being alone. While my mom got ready in the master bedroom, he asked if it would be okay if he could read what he wrote about my dad. In the five minutes he spoke, I saw love. And it drove me to tears.

Here he was, this big ol’ tough son of a gun. It was like watching John Wayne speak to you. When he talked, you listened. But his voice wasn’t what it normally was. It didn’t convey power. It just came across as love and solemness for his friend – his brother. He got emotional, breaking down as he looked up from the scribbled paper to glance at me every now and then. I’m getting emotional now just recalling it.

After he was done, he asked if he could give me a hug. I obliged. A rugged Texan and a “short shit Yankee” were dear friends, and he loved me as if I was his own son. I knew that if my father were there, he’d love Hoenig for it. He did something he didn’t have to do, and he did it because of endearment. I can still hear my dad echoing Hoenig’s words when they first met in boot camp all those years ago.

“You’re short and you’re a Yankee. That’s already two strikes, you trying to look for a third, Russo?” Hoenig bellowed.

What brought them together was just how tough my father was. My father might have been five-foot-nine on a good day, but he was about seven-foot-five when you started to give him any shit. He was the tallest short man that ever lived. He had natural grip strength that would bend your bones if he ever dug his fingers into your skin to get your get attention as he grabbed you. It was like having Zeus pierce a lightening bolt through your flesh just for amusement.

He was raised by a World War II man. My grandfather was a special breed of tough, and he passed it onto my father. There were a lot of other things my grandfather was, mostly mean from what my mom would tell me my father would tell her. My dad didn’t talk much about my grandfather, except to just say that he loved me as a baby. That was basically it. But I’ve heard stories about my grandfather from my mom, and it made me realize just what my dad went through growing up. He had to be tough. He couldn’t have survived without it.

That toughness likely saved his ass in a war, helped drive him to be successful in life, and helped guide him to be the father he was for me and my four siblings. While he’s not here with me in person, I can still hear his random musings running wild through my head.

“Always be aware of your surroundings.”

That awareness led to him saving Hoenig’s life in Vietnam when Hoenig was preparing to step into a tripwire while on patrol. My father spotted the tripwire at the last second, yanked back on Hoenig’s shirt collar, and pulled the Texan right on top of himself. The explosion came, and the shrapnel punctured Hoenig’s legs but he wouldn’t lose them. To this day, Hoenig still only wears pants because the shrapnel is still embedded there.

“Eat the pain!”

He endured a lot of pain in his life, and he just kept fighting. Especially those last few months. When he would have to go get the bile drained out of his stomach because of the buildup due to the disease, he wouldn’t ever sulk. He’d just do it. I can remember taking him myself, and I knew it was close to the end but I still didn’t realize how close. It was just hard to process as it was happening. But he kept trucking along. He just kept fighting.

I can still hear my doorknob twisting as my mom turned it to burst into my room on March 17, 2012. I got 30 minutes of time to myself every day after she’d come home from work just because I’d taken care of him all day. I was supposed to go out with a friend to see a movie that night, but I opted to stay home. A time prior to this, my dad actually burst into tears when I said I’d be gone for a couple hours to watch a movie. He felt like I was abandoning him. I promised him that I wouldn’t abandon him again.

As I sat in my chair just watching the television, the door swung open. My head jerked to the left, and I could see the look on my mom’s face. I sprang up in one motion as the words came out of her mouth.

“He’s throwing up,” she said, “and I don’t know what to do.”

By this time, my father was frail. The hulking man that he once was had no appearances to be made anymore. The arms, once burly and well-built, were drawn out. The tattoo he had on his right shoulder – which read “MOM” – was sagged. I found him on the bed. He was leaned over in the middle, mustering up what little strength he had to make sure he wasn’t going to choke as he vomited.

I reached over, wrapped my arms around him from the front, and clasped my hands together around his back. I used all my strength to pick him up and sit him on the edge of the bed. I nearly threw my back out, but I had to make sure he could be in a position of comfortability. My mom was already on the phone with the paramedics. They were on their way.

He let it out one last time, and a waterfall of blood splattered against me. It hit me in the neck and covered my entire upper body. It was my father’s last attempt to rid himself of this foul ailment. My arms were drenched, but I was holding him. It was all I could do. He was my child now. I did the only thing I could do. I leaned back, looked at him, and asked him one simple question.

“Do you feel better?” I said with a slight chuckle.

He looked up at me. He locked his eyes with mine.

“Yeah,” he said with a smirk.

It was the very last word he would ever say to me.

On the afternoon of March 22, 2012, I was in my room preparing to watch an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation off the DVR. My mom came into my room to let me know that she was heading out to the cemetery to make plans just so that she could get it done now rather than wait. She barely made it through their door when I called her to tell her.

After she had left, I decided to sit out in the living room with him. By then, he was on hospice care for not even 24 hours. He had come home on the night of the 21st. He didn’t want to die in a hospital. That was his one request. I made damn sure he didn’t die there. While watching the show, I could hear it happening.

The breaths were shallower and farther between. I got up from the couch, stood next to him, grabbed his hand, and spoke every word I’d ever meant to say to him. I told him that everyone loved him, that I loved him, and went through a laundry list of things that were only for the two of us. When I was done and told him that I loved him for the last time, he drew one last breath. He was gone at 1:10 PM. He was lost to the other side that awaits us all.

I’ve tried to recall of a time I lost it more than that. I’ve had to put down animals that I dearly loved, and that always affected me in a way that’s indescribable. But watching the man that helped raise you pass away right in front of you after battling so long and so hard, it reaches a certain level of indefinable nature.

When my mom came home, she found me in the driveway. I was sitting on the pavement, head buried in hands. The tears were still trying to come, but there weren’t any left. My oldest brother was the one who told me to go outside. I had called him to tell him what happened, and he told me I didn’t need to stay inside the house. It sounds strange, but if he hadn’t told me that then I doubt I’d ever have moved away from the bed my father was resting in.

My other brother came over after I called him, and I waited for him so he and I could close our father’s eyes for the final time. My father would never watch me grow up to become a man, something he told he didn’t do until he was about 35. That was when he hit his “stride in life.” He’d never watch me get married, or have children, or see more wondrous things in this world. Then I remembered the conversation he and I had that one afternoon on the couch as he fought this affliction.

“Do I think you’re too young to die?” I said.

He nodded.

I took a long breath.

I looked at him.

“Look at all the shit you’ve been through in your life. You survived an insane upbringing, a crazy mother and father, an unspeakable war, various jobs that could’ve gotten you killed, and you still managed to come out the other side with five kids, a host of grandkids, and stories that you could tell for years. You’ve seen and done more shit in 68 years than a lot of people will do in 168 years. So, do I think you’re too young to die? Of course. I’m your son. I want you to live forever. But look at what you’ve done. You can be proud of all of it.”

He wasn’t a perfect father, but he was the best one I could have ever asked for. He never made me feel unloved, unwanted, or underappreciated. He was always proud of me no matter what happened. Sure, he was tough and gruff and surly at times, but it also made the moments when he’d laugh that much better because you just knew it was real. It wasn’t bullshit.

As I look back at the time I spent with him, I’m not really sad about how everything went. I couldn’t imagine my dad being some old guy just biding his time until the Grim Reaper came for him in his late 90’s. He would have been miserable. That wasn’t who he was. He always wanted to do something or see something. He just wanted to live. And live he did.

He lived better than 99.9 percent of us will ever live. He was kind, generous, caring, and lovable. He was a teddy bear. But he was also stubborn, outspoken, and a pain in the ass. It was just who he was. He wasn’t a saint, nor would I have wanted a saintly father. I got the perfect father for me, and I would like to think he got the perfect son for him.

Charles Joseph Russo was born on July 3, 1943. He passed away on March 22, 2012. In between those 25,000 days, give or take a few, he lived life with vigor and love and attitude. He lived life how he wanted to live it, and no one could ever take that away from him. I miss him dearly, but I know I’ll always have the stories he left behind and the memories he created for me.

In the time he’s been gone, I’ve realized just how important every moment I had with him was. I don’t visit him as often at the cemetery, but I don’t need to. He let me know a long time ago that it was okay. He came to me in a dream, and it was all I ever needed to see.

I got him for 26 years, and while in some instances it was not nearly enough time, I know it was longer than some people get their loved ones. I’m not sad he’s gone, but rather happy I had the time with him that I did. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Those last few months with him were some of the best few months we ever had.

He was my father. I’m proud to call him such. I’m prouder because of how he fought. He was stronger than I’ll ever be. In that fight, he showed me how to live. Don’t take anything for granted and live life to the fullest. You never know when it’ll be over.

After I was done telling him what I thought, he sat back before turning to me.

“Thank you,” he said with a smile in his eyes.

My father had found peace.