May 7, 1998
If you Google "What happened on May 7, 1998?" you’ll learn that it was the day Mercedes-Benz bought Chrysler and that country singer Eddie Rabbitt - “I Love A Rainy Night - died at age 56.
It will not tell you that it was also the day my physically fit father dropped dead in his basement gym at the age of 74.
I remember that it was a Thursday and even what I wore to work that day: A gray linen jumper with a crisp white blouse.
I never wore that outfit again and can’t explain why. It seemed unlucky. Tainted by bad news, perhaps. Threw both garments in a bag for Goodwill about a year later and got them out of the house.
I don’t remember what I’d written in The Virginian-Pilot that was so controversial, but my phone rang relentlessly that morning. On top of that, a disgruntled member of Virginia Beach City Council was coming to the office to gripe about my coverage of the city and to try - again - to get me fired from the paper’s editorial board.
When the phone on my desk buzzed at about 9:30, I was so harried I let it go to voicemail. I listened to the message a few minutes later and regretted that decision.
“Daddy’s in an ambulance on his way to the hospital,” came the breathless voice of my mother. “He had a heart attack.”
I felt panicky. And those 300 miles between my parents and me never felt farther.
I frantically and fruitlessly tried to call back. About an hour later my brother phoned to tell me our father was dead. He said Dad was probably gone when he hit the floor next to his stationary bike.
Numb, I called my husband. Found a flight. Drove home. Packed.
The flight to Newark seemed endless. I stared out of the window and thought about what it meant to be fatherless. How the guy who’d taught me to drive, handicap horses and keep a baseball scorecard, was suddenly gone.
Worse, I’d not had a chance to say goodbye.
I arrived at my parents’ house that evening and it was packed with friends and relatives. I heard my mother - who had cancer and would die four months later - answer the phone more than once to tell the person on the other end of the line that no, she was still among the living, it was Tom who had died.
“I should have known something was wrong when he didn’t have any birthday cake,” my mother mused once we were alone.
May 6th had been my nephew’s birthday. My dad, who had a sweet tooth and an enormous appetite, didn’t eat any dessert. A bad sign.
On the way home from the party, however, Dad pulled into a McDonald’s and bought two-for-the-price-of-one fish sandwiches. He ate one in the car, stashed the second in the refrigerator.
It would be nearly a week before I convinced my mother we should throw the stale filet-o-fish away.
“Daddy wouldn’t want us to save this,” I joked as I held the desiccated sandwich aloft.
She looked stricken.
Two decades since I last heard his voice. Twenty years since I smelled his Brut. Years and years since I heard him say, “We’re off like a dirty shirt,” as he did every time he turned the key in the ignition.
May 7, 1998.