Last Thursday morning – 8 days ago – I was preparing to give a 30-minute company training session on a new policy that I helped draft. I was sitting in my office, going over the slides I put together and thinking about how to condense a bunch of information into a short group video call when I, for some odd reason, glanced at my phone. I received a notification of a new Facebook message, and it wasn’t from my small group of nutty yet awesome friends. It was from my father’s wife, Josephine. She and I have never communicated on Facebook before – so I guess that’s what made me open the message.
The next 10 minutes are – quite frankly – a blur.
The message informed me that my father was gravely ill, and that I should text him. So I did. This was the last text I ever sent to my father.
Josephine provided me with her cell number, and I called immediately thereafter and received the level of additional detail that I needed. My father suffered a massive heart attack which caused multiple strokes. It was unclear at this point whether he would ever wake up. He was on a ventilator.
It took me a moment to comprehend what I was being told. The words made sense – but they were instantaneously jumbled with emotions that I wasn’t nearly prepared to deal with. I told Josephine that I was leaving work now, would head home to put some clothes in a bag, and then drive to Phoenix, where the two of them made a life for themselves for the better part of nineteen years. I rescheduled my training session, hurriedly put together my belongings in my office, told my co-workers that I was leaving for the day, and took off.
The drive took a bit more than six hours – so that gave me a ton of time to think about the colorful, full life that my father lived for 74 years. It gave me time to think about all of the water under our bridges. The regret. The good times. Our history. Our family. My failures.
My father was born in Queens, New York on August 5th, 1948. He was adopted as an infant by a blue collar, hard- working nautical mechanic named Joseph and his wonderful wife, Dorothy. They were unable to have children on their own but longed to be parents – so being able to adopt my Dad was a blessing they both cherished every day of their lives. They loved being parents so much that, a couple of years later, they adopted a beautiful baby girl that they named Constance.
(That’s my dad with my Aunt Connie…now I know where I got my impish grin from…)
(That’s my Aunt Connie, my Grandmother, and my Dad…rocking the flat top haircut….)
After my aunt joined the family, my grandparents even asked the adoption agency for the opportunity to bring a third child into their lives. When I was younger, I remember my grandfather showing me the letter that he and his wife received from the agency in response, telling them that there were many other families looking to adopt as well, and that – to summarize – there not enough children to meet the demand.
Looking back on it all, I’m so very thankful for my family and their history. Generations of hard-working Americans that reflected the possibilities that we are so very fortunate to benefit from. That’s my grandfather on the far right, below. Behind him is my great grandfather. Next to him is my Aunt Josie (she was one of the sweetest human beings I have ever met – God I miss her!), my grandmother, and my uncle Henry (he was a hero of mine when I was really young – a retired air force Coronel who raced cars in his retirement) and my great grandmother too.
(…never forget where you come from…)
I shared that last picture just to illustrate what my dad’s side of the family looked like – who his influences were as a kid. As his son, he never really spoke much about his family history – he never shared old stories, spoke about personalities, or provided any insight to what things were like growing up in Astoria.
While my Uncle Henry moved to Delaware and set down roots and grew his amazing family, my Aunt Josie stayed in Queens, living on the corner of 42nd street and Steinway, right across from the small factory that produced gorgeous pianos for many, many years. My grandparents, however, moved to a small island in The Bronx, called City Island, in order to run the family boatyard.
City Island is a small blue-collar part of The Bronx – home to 5,000 people, 4 traffic lights, numerous boatyards (some of which had their hands in building Americas Cup defenders for well over 100 years), and one of the best sailing schools in America. My grandparents showed up one day with a briefcase in their hands, and bought a small home one block away from the family boatyard….for cash. On the spot. (Try doing that NOW….lol). My father then joined him on City Island in early 1970 as a newlywed. My Mom and Dad were married in February of ’70, and I showed up approximately nine months later. So three generations of Kolinsky’s now lived on this small island, two of which went to work every day with each other (while I, of course, was busy with your basic baby-type stuff). The early ‘70’s were a wholesome time. The family maintained two homes on the island, were dialed in to growing their boat business, and life seemed to be going pretty good. My father had plans. Big plans. Goals. Big goals. Big plans and goals that were never really shared with anyone – he held them all close to his vest as if he were playing at the final table at the World Series of Poker.
I was three years old when my brother, Robert, was born. He was diagnosed almost immediately with having a genetic disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (“SMA”). He suffered from Type 1, which was shows up in infancy and has a 100% mortality rate. My brother passed on at the age of six months – and this was one of the events in my father’s life that I believe shaped him for the decades to come. No parent should ever lay his / her child to rest – to have to do so leaves a silent pain residing in your soul that never takes a vacation. About two years later, more or less, my brother John was born. Same diagnosis. He passed away at the age of four months. Shortly after his passing, my parents’ marriage came to an end. The house was sold, and my mom and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment to rebuild our lives. My father had recently met a wonderful woman named Joy and found some solace and needed inclusion in her huge Italian family.
Joy was a wonderful stepmother. For seven years, I enjoyed seeing my father happy alongside someone that appeared to bring out some of his qualities. It’s not easy to find the right person with which to share your life – but Joy and her amazing family wrapped their arms around my dad…and me….and accepted us immediately. The ship seemed to be back on course.
At the age of 11, I began reporting the boatyard after school, whenever I could, and over the summers, working with my father and grandfather. I learned how to hone an engine block, remove and replace pistons and oil rings, winterize sailboats, and basic seamanship. Blue Collar College. I loved it. I’d come home some evenings wearing my father’s button-down striped work shirt, smelling of oil or gasoline. My mom hated that….and loved it at the same time.
I figured that being around my father would, by default, help me learn more about his makeup. Help me understand what drives him…what makes him happy. Looking back, I thought these things could be learned via osmosis. I was wrong. I know I was young, but that’s no excuse. I should have asked the questions. I should have taken an interest. I should have shown some level of desire to get to know him at a deeper level than the accent and personality traits we already shared. I failed to do so. This was a mistake that I hope my readers will take to heart: don’t wait for the answers to your questions to come to you. Go ask them. And don’t wait, because you have no idea when those answers will become unavailable.
When I was fourteen, my father’s second marriage gave way to his third, to a woman named JoAnne. By this time, my Dad began to see the writing on the wall: our family business was weakening and probably wouldn’t survive. Well I won’t delve into the various stories here (because there are enough of them to develop a Sopranos-esque mini-series), but during this time he began to get involved with….let’s just call them unique outside business activities. As his son, let’s be 100% honest here: it was pretty cool. It was during these years that he’d love to walk into a restaurant where everyone knew his name, tip the maître de along with a waiter or two on his way to a corner table, and order wine and osso bucco while introducing me to similarly dressed men who had a particular flair for double-breasted suits and well shined shoes. Those years were tumultuous, as his attention was focused primarily on the hustle. Family took a back seat. Tempers flared between he and I. The water underneath the bridge of our father / son relationship was about to swamp the overpass.
There was, however, a brief period of time here where both he and I really tried to mend the fences…and that was when he became a grandfather. My daughter, Chelsea, was born in November of 1998, and he made sure that he attended the baptism. While he wasn’t one for remembering a birthday or reaching out with a call now and again, the possibility of being a solid grandfather for my kiddo was enough for the both of us to try our best to see eye-to-eye and forget the many….many…MANY ways we hurt each other over the years. This was the happiest couple of years I’d ever seen my father.
As his third marriage gave way to his fourth over the course of a humid New York summer, the communication thinned and then finally evaporated all together. Was it purely my father’s fault? No. Not at all. Neither of us wanted to give in to the other. Neither of us wanted to be the one to crawl back to the other and ask for forgiveness for whatever part of the family sins he was responsible for. There was enough ego and pride between the two of us to fill a college gym. I was guilty of holding the grudge. I was guilty not being able to forgive nor forget. I now know that, in the grand scheme of things, holding a grudge and not being able to just forgive and forget was a dumb move, plain and simple. Why? Because you never know if you’ll be given the chance to forgive down the road.
By the time his fourth marriage ended, he needed a change from New York and his personal history with some of the people within it. He then made a move that was both brilliant and foolhardy at the same time: he moved to Manhattan Beach, California….and was married for the fifth time. I’m not quite sure how the two of them made it work for the brief period of time that they did, as the two of them were radical opposites. I met his fifth wife – Linda – only once. While she seemed nice, I just didn’t see the connection. The marriage was short lived, as was my Father and I’s reconnection.
Then, a little over 19 years ago, he met Josephine.
Over those last 19 years, my Father and I only chatted briefly here and there, mostly using text messaging. Why? Because texting is impersonal. It can be passive-aggressive. People can hide their feelings behind them. You can control what others see in you through it much easier than looking that person in the eye. The more personal the level of communication, the more exposed your feelings – and your heart – become. My Father was a very guarded person. Even as his only living son, I didn’t know much about what truly made him tick. And the more estranged we became, the less interest I had. What a fool was I. Don’t make the mistake I made, and allow a family member to hide behind texts. Family SHOULD get personal. Family SHOULD be able to communicate without the fear of permanent damage to the soul. Look him / her in the eye. Don’t hold back. Say how you feel, what you want, why you are sad, happy, angry….whatever. Let the chips fall as they may. Maybe you argue. Maybe you yell. But in the end, you both knew how each other felt, good bad or indifferent. That’s better than the spiritual limbo that accompanies leaving things unsaid.
The last time I received a text from my Father was about 4 months ago, which expressed disappointment in my lack of effort as a son. And he was right. For all of my failures, I carried around the corresponding guilt. He basically wrote me off after all of these years. What I didn’t know was that over those 19 years he suffered numerous major health issues aside from the one biggie of which I was informed (I’ll leave the particulars out here). All the while, Josephine cared for him, nursed him back to health time and again, and in the middle of it all experienced a love together that made him a different man. One I hardly recognized. And those changes – that evolution – was the greatest gift he ever received.
I never got to know Josephine, until I showed us the Critical Care Unit of the hospital in northern Phoenix last Thursday evening. She met us downstairs and brought us up to his room. As I walked through the open door and saw him for the first time in 8-9 years, I stood in stunned silence. He was on a ventilator. Tubes everywhere. He was laying at about a 20-degree angle, with his eyes closed. He appeared to simply be sleeping. It was at that moment that every single emotion pounded my chest like Tyson in his prime. The emotion poured out of me, pure and savage.
Once I was able to recover, I began to talk to Josephine and several family friends that surrounded her with love and support. I t was clear she was excellent hands – and she would need all of them to get through this. The next hours are a bit hazy, as people traded stories about my Dad, all of which made everyone else laugh. Over the next 48 hours, I learned a lot about my Father and his west coast life….and it was all good. I understood that he loved horses. Had two awesome dogs. Still enjoyed a good meal at a restaurant while trying to make the server laugh throughout the experience. Wore cowboy hats. Developed a string of successful equine products for distribution. But most of all – he enjoyed this with someone that was a soulmate. As the stories came and went, the overall weight the past became lighter, because I knew he lived the best part of his life at the end.
The head of Neurology came into my Father’s room at one point to do a test. I was the only one in the room at the time, so he introduced himself and explained that my Father had a massive heart attack, which in turn threw a bunch f clots throughout his bloodstream. These clots caused multiple strokes resulting in – as his bluntly described it – “being shot in the head from the inside, out”.
On Friday late afternoon, the decision was made to remove him from life support and provide him with pain medications in order to allow him the most peaceful way of passing on. Once the ventilator was removed, his vitals stabilized. As we all sat near him, still sharing stories, one of his friends walked into the room. She was tall, with silver hair and a loud Brooklyn-esque voice. She let my Father know – rather loudly – that she was here. His eyes flickered and opened for just a moment. So I went over to his side as Josephine immediately coached me to do, and began to say over and over “Dad….Dad….Dad…”. His eyes briefly opened for 3-4 seconds. We locked eyes, and he gave me a faint crooked smile just long enough for it to register. Everyone was stunned. He closed his eyes once more and fell back into that deep sleep that comes with massive medication.
Those 3-4 seconds, I will take with me to the grave. In those 3-4 seconds, we both experienced the closure on our 50-year odyssey.
He passed on Monday night, at around 9pm, in his home with his caring wife of 19 years by his side.
What I was helped to realize was that we were never going to reconcile to the level that holidays would be spent together. Out paths grew too far apart, and he found a brand-new life that suited him best. I would be the constant reminder of where he came from – not where he wanted to be or go. In order for him to live his best life, he needed to be free from past demons. So go figure: our almost lifelong great divide wound up providing him with the ability to Etch-a-Sketch his life and enjoy almost 2 full decades. All of the toxicity was now washed away by fate.
Treasure the here and now. Say how you feel. Express gratitude. When it comes to anger – be a goldfish (the happiest animal in the world because it only has a 10-second memory). Tell people what they mean to you. Don’t wait. Don’t let the water under the bridge flow. Each day is a gift – that’s why they call it The Present.
Godspeed, Dad. Embrace your family that all await you with open arms and be at one with the universe. Talk to your parents. Your grandparents. Spend time with my brothers, doing whatever makes you all happy up there and tell them I’m sorry for not being able to look out for them both yet. Tell my great-grandmother I miss her cookies – no one baked like her. Tell my mother’s parents thank you for being there for me all those years. But before all that fun stuff, make sure you first duke (that’s slip a tip secretly to someone by palming a bill in your hand while shaking his/ hers) Saint Peter well as he opens the gates for you. Be at peace. Know that I do love you and miss you. Know that I regret my failures, and I beg forgiveness for them.