I saw my dad yesterday. I saw him walking downtown on Main Street in McAllen. He had on his khaki pants and a dark blue shirt on with the “Rodriguez Auto Accessories” emblem on it. He was wrapped in a thin light brown jacket and walked with his hands in his pants pocket like he always did on cold days. I called out to him but he didn’t hear me. I wanted to tell him to zip up his jacket because it was a cold day and mom would always get mad at both of us when we didn’t close up our jackets in this weather. I knew it was him. I recognized his full head of white hair, his glasses, and that walk. He would kind of kick out his left leg a bit when he was in a hurry.
It surprised me when he walked past the auto part store. No matter what I did I couldn’t catch up. He made a right turn and walked down toward Broadway Street and walked into the Klink’s Drug Store. I was happy at that. Klink’s has a great diner in it and I knew he was going to get a coffee. I knew I could catch up to him there and I could really use a cup of coffee myself. I walked in and I saw him at sitting at the counter. The place was packed with noisy people and they just barely drowned out the sound of clanging silverware. It was great. I love the sounds of a busy breakfast kitchen.
I went up and sat on the stool next to him and he glanced over and smiled at me, but he didn’t say anything. This tall waitress with even taller hair smiled at me. She had worked there forever and had a thick accent. Dutch, I think. She poured me a coffee without even asking. She left me a small silver pouring cup with half and half milk, a bowl of sugar with a plastic spoon, and then walked off. I looked over at dad and he was busy reading the Mexican newspaper El Alarma. He had taken off his jacket and I could see his arms. They were darker than I remember.
I met dad when he was about 44, more or less. As far back as I can remember he had always been dark. I guess he had worked for most of his life by the time I met him. And not a single day in the shade by the looks of it. Now I’m only guessing at that, because I never met his parents or even saw pictures of them. Could be they were all dark but I don’t know for sure. But if they weren’t dark then he must have just burned his skin like most people do when they work outside all of their lives. I do know that he worked construction for a while. I even went with him a few times when I was little. Those were the first times I went to work with my dad. I must have been around 7 or 8. I was too little to do anything really so I just picked up wood scraps and piled it together so real workers could get rid of it later. I was also in charge of walking down to the store and buying drinks for the other workers when they asked me to. Dad paid me a dollar a day for the times I went out there with him. I was so rich in those days. Years later, when he couldn’t work construction anymore, he worked at the auto part store with my uncle.
I looked around in the diner and didn’t recognize anybody else there that day. I reached over at dad and touched his arm. His skin was thick and tough. He always had the toughest skin. One time I saw him remove the cap off a coke bottle by putting it up against his forearm and pulling down. This was in the days before twist offs. I don’t know anybody these days that could even do that with a twist off. I remember asking him if that hurt and his answer was “you try it”. Of course I didn’t try. I was pretty sure even back then that I could never do the things dad could do. Even then I realized dad was from another time. He was older than most dads I had seen. He wasn’t much of a talker and when he did talk it was usually Spanish. He could work all day every day if he could find the work. By the time he got to us he had already raised a family and I guess my brothers and sisters and me were like starting all over again. I don’t know if that was a good or a bad thing for him. But he did his best.
When I touched his arm he didn’t react. He just kept on reading his paper. The waitress came back and asked him if he wanted a refill on his coffee and he said yes. Then he pointed at my half empty cup and told her to fill mine. She did that and we both drank. He drank his black, of course, and gave me a look when I put milk and sugar in mine. We talked for a little bit. He asked how I was and I didn’t know what to say. So much had happened since we had last talked. I didn’t know where to start. I guess he could tell I was at a loss for words. He reached over and touched my hand. He said it would be okay. “Everyone”, he said, “would be okay.”
He went back to drinking his coffee and then reached in his pants pocket and pulled out a pack of Winston cigarettes. He lit one up and took a drink of his coffee. I knew right then something was wrong. I recognized the cigarettes. They were the ones that killed him. Dad had smoked at least one pack or more every day of his life from the age of 21 to 71. A year before he died he had a minor stroke and went to the hospital. He had many tests done, including a lung x-ray which showed his lungs to be clear. He recovered quickly from the stroke. About a year later he started losing weight for no reason, and for once in his life he requested to see a doctor. He told me before he went into the hospital that these were his last days. I didn’t believe him.
But the new x-rays confirmed his words to me. He had huge dark masses in his lungs and a surgery showed the cancer had spread to his heart. Three weeks later he died. I was their every night except his last. He told me to go home and rest so I did. Mom told me that the night I left that he fell asleep and started breathing strange. She told me what it was called but I don’t remember the name of that type of breathing. Mom was a nurse for years in that very hospital so she recognized that type of breathing when she saw it. They tried to call me but I was in the middle of 2 exams that morning (I was in college). By the time I got to the hospital my dad was gone.
My dad had a rough 3 weeks in the hospital. The surgery and medications took everything out of him. By the second week nothing in his body was working and that hit him hard, emotionally. He kept going through the pain. He got past it and put up a good front for everyone.One night, a couple of days before he died, I caught him sitting up in his bed.He had a small tape attached to tip of his index finger on his right hand which was attached to a wire that led to a machine. That machine monitored his oxygen saturation rate. The tip of his finger glowed with a reddish light. I caught him bringing that light up to his lips and inhaling what he thought was a cigarette. He looked at me and then looked around, he brought his left index finger to his lips and said, “Shhhh…no les digas a las enfermeras”. I smiled back at him and told him I wouldn’t tell the nurses.
My dad was a good hard working man. He loved his family and they loved him. He never wanted anything other than for us to be okay and do better than he did. He never pushed us to be things we did not want to be. He just wanted us to be happy, in whatever form we could find happiness. He found it with us.
You won’t find any monuments raised in his honor. No one will write great things about him. He was an ordinary hard working man who led an ordinary hard working man’s life. And when his children are gone no one will remember his name. I don’t think he would have wanted it any other way.
My dad has been gone more than 20 years now. I saw him in a dream yesterday. We had coffee together.