Losing a father and a hero

I thought that I had more time.

Richard and Helenmarie Kubatko.JPGMore time to be with my dad even after the August diagnosis of esophagus cancer and the later news that it was Stage 4. Even after the stroke he suffered last Monday that put him in a hospital in Salisbury. Even after his oncologist decided last week to stop the treatments, my dad’s body no longer able to handle the poison, and aim for quality of life at home.

More time to say the things that, while he probably already knew, needed to be said again.

My parents joined the crowd at a function years ago, probably the annual Delmarva Shorebirds banquet, where I served as the guest speaker. I shared the story of how I attended my first baseball game back in 1971. Game 2 of the World Series between the Orioles and Pirates at Memorial Stadium. How it was postponed on a Sunday due to rain, the news coming to us over the radio on our way there, and rescheduled for the following afternoon. The disappointment almost crushed me, but he insisted that we were going anyway.

I got to miss school and spend the entire day with my father. It remains one of the greatest days of my life.

We returned to their Eastern Shore home after the event and he thanked me for the memory. And it hit me that I told a room full of strangers, but had never expressed it to him.

I thought that I had more time to reminisce about the tickets my parents bought to an exhibition football game between the Colts and Vikings, given to me as a surprise early birthday present. My two favorite teams as a kid. Another showing of love, expressed through sports.

We tailgated at Maryland football games and complained about the play calling. Talked about the Ravens and complained about the clock management. And there was always the latest on the Orioles.

“How’s Buck doing?” he’d ask.

I’d read the emails he’d send after every “Wall to Wall Baseball” show on MASN, always telling me how I did a great job. I could have sat silently for two hours and he would have felt the exact same way.

Richard Kubatko Football.JPGHe read this blog every morning before his newspaper and kept checking it throughout the day, scrolling through all of the comments. I’ll keep telling myself that he’s reading this one, his eyes moistening because the former offensive guard at Ford City High School and Indiana State in Pennsylvania softened as he got older. The hugs hello and especially goodbye kept getting tighter. The old guard called for holding.

He referred to me as his “wall” because of the mark he was leaving in this world from all the people who heard his last name and asked if he was MASN Roch’s father. It had always been people asking whether I was the middle school principal’s son, but life spun us around.

I thought that I had more time to laugh about the times I’d “help” him build something as a kid, meaning that I’d hand him the tools. How he once became frustrated and said, “Don’t give me what I asked for, give me what I meant.” How he’d request a nail punch by calling it a “Punch and Judy,” just to make me giggle. An outdated reference to an old puppet show, but I still got it. And I still laughed long after it stopped being funny.

We used to watch all of the bowl games together, bringing a second television downstairs when they overlapped. And he taught me at an early age that SEC cheerleaders were the best. The man didn’t lie.

I attended the last Colts game at Memorial Stadium because of him. We’d still laugh at the memory of fans combining owner Robert Irsay and running back Curtis Dickey into one chant.

I thought that I had more time to talk again about the night he took the family to watch roller derby and donkey basketball at Northeast High School, where he was an assistant principal. Because he knew how much I loved it. And he loved showing us off to his friends and colleagues.

I sat in my car yesterday and thought about how I called him to get advice before purchasing it - four years ago, in my 50s. A light came on warning me that I needed a “strabali track repair,” and I wanted to walk back in the house and ask him what in the heck is a strabali track?

My father was my go-to guy, too.

I thought that I had more time to remind him that I expected an angry reaction after I got a tattoo at spring training in Fort Lauderdale, but he told my mom that he wished he had been able to do the same. But he did threaten to remove a delicate part of my body and hang it from my lobe if I ever got an earring.

I assumed that he was kidding. I never got an earring.

So many people loved my father, and I was reminded of it more and more over the past few months. The woman behind the counter at an Ocean Pines deli who teared up and hugged my mother during a recent stop. The produce guy at their Food Lion. The woman who used to cut his hair. The waitress at their favorite breakfast spot. Neighbors up and down both sides of their street. All of the nurses who kept commenting on his “beautiful green eyes.”

Helenmarie Hugging Richard Kubatko.JPGGod gave us one last Christmas together and it was the first time that the entire family gathered. Parents, kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. My girlfriend Emily and my sister Shawna’s boyfriend Alan. We took lots of photos. He sat silently as gifts were opened, soaking it all in, knowing that this would be the last.

I tried not to notice, but I saw it.

Richard Lee Kubatko went on his own terms, which is pretty cool, as a friend texted while offering condolences. He waited until he got back home from the hospital. Until his wife Helenmarie, daughter, son and one of his dearest friends were with him. He kept fighting sleep until about 11 p.m. Saturday night despite the heavy doses of medication and the exhaustion. He finally gave into it and never woke up, taking his last breaths just after the rest of us had finished breakfast.

He waited until he was home and surrounded by family. He wasn’t going to die in a hospital. He wasn’t going to linger and make the family suffer, too. Always worrying about us first.

He wasn’t going to hold on until I was in Sarasota or on a road trip. And there was no way that he’d want me to skip games or end my streak because of him.

My dad won’t be around to see me become a grandfather, whenever that happens. Or to dance with my mom at my wedding, whenever that happens. I feel cheated, but there will be more smiles and fewer tears as time marches forward. Friends keep telling me. I have to believe it.

Being such a close family is a double-edged sword, both a blessing and a curse. I’m so lucky and wouldn’t trade it for anything, but the pain runs much deeper.

I got to live with my father and my hero. How many people can say that?

As I’d leave the hospital each day, my heart heavy, I’d kiss his forehead, stroke his hair and whisper “best dad in the world.” But I wanted to say so much more.

I thought that I had more time.

Richard Kubatko family.JPG

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