Arnie; Part One


Aaron, around age 8

Aaron, around age 8

Nearly everything I’ve written about fatherhood here at Dads Roundtable fits neatly into one of two categories.  One,my writing is real-time; how to be a parent for my son who is a twenty-something adult. Two, my writing is retrospective- I look back to my son’s childhood – what worked and what did not.  This seven part series was written in 1999. With the exception of a bit of editing I did in 2000, nothing has been altered.

As this story opens, I am divorced, and seven year old Aaron and I live with my parents.  I’m working a construction job whilst I earn a teaching certificate to go with the B.Sc. in zoology I earned twenty years earlier.  My parents’ next-door neighbors are old friends. They have no grandchildren yet, and so, Aaron has developed a warm relationship with them. Dr. Schaffer has liver cancer. He’s been through several procedures, and his prognosis is not good.  We pick up the story in December, 1999.

Arnie; Part One

“Dr. Schaffer’s pretty sick, isn’t he, Dad?” said Aaron as we drove home.  I thought back to how Arnold looked, propped up in a Laz-E-Boy.  His feet were swollen and discolored, the cancer in his liver choking off the blood headed back to his heart.  His face was shrunken, skin wrapped around cheekbones his once chubby face had hidden. I could tell he was weak; the act of clapping twice as Aaron explained his seven year old birthday gifts tired him so he had to close his eyes for a few moments to catch his breath. His eyes were intent as I watched him listen to my seven year old son.  I thought about eyes.  We are hard-wired to care for creatures with big eyes – puppies, small children, and those we love who are dying.

“He’s very sick, Aaron.  His liver doesn’t work any more.  He can’t fight infection, can’t get rid of waste products.  He can barely change food into energy.”

I am a high school science teacher. When I go into textbook explanations of simple phenomena, my family calls me Mr. Biologist.

“David,” I said to myself. “That’s enough Mr. Biologist.”

“He may be out for a walk in the spring, Aaron,” I said aloud. “Or he may not see the end of the year.  No one knows.”

“Not even the doctors?” he asked.

“Nope, not even the doctors. Remember, your Poppa’s a doctor and he says most people with liver cancer die within six months of finding out, but I think your spirit has a lot to do with it, too.”

“What do you mean, your spirit?” I could see his brow wrinkle under the hood of his sweatshirt, they way he wore it when he was being mysterious, like a Jedi knight.

“Your spirit – how hard you fight until you decide it is time for you to go. Dr. Schaffer knows he’s going to die, but I think a lot of the time, when you are sick like he is, you pick your time.  He’ll fight and fight, until he’s ready to go, he’ll say good bye, and then he’ll die.”

I wondered what it’s like to fight an enemy like cancer.   I knew Arnold fought in Korea.  It was easy for a man who put on a yarmulke and tallit twice a day, every day since he was thirteen, to go to war against communism in the 1950s.  This war of his was a private war.  To go to sleep, to fall into a nap, with the thought in that moment just between sleep and consciousness, that you might never again open your eyes.

“I like Dr. Schaffer, Dad. Didja see him smile at me? Maybe I cheered him up, huh?  Do you remember that Nerf football they gave me? Do we still got that? … Going over to see him was sorta a mitzvah, wasn’t it?” A mitzvah, a good deed. This last wasn’t said as a question.

I waited until we got to the stop sign at the bottom of the hill.  I leaned across the front seat, held his seven-year old head between my hands, looked into his brown eyes and said, “Yep, Aaron, of the very best kind,” and I kissed him on the forehead. We drove along silently for a few minutes.

“You know, Aaron, you are the very best kid in all the world.”

“I know, Dad,” he said softly.  “Hey Dad, when Dr. Schaffer dies, we have to make sure we get an invitation to the funeral.”

“Funerals are different, Aaron.  If you think you should go, you go. If you think that you should think about going, you go.  Want to know when I figured that out?”

“I had this friend, his name was Terry. We weren’t really friends, he was just a guy I knew from bike racing. He wasn’t very good, but he really liked the sport and we’d ride together once in a while. You know that house on the corner that has the really cool cherry trees with the big blossoms in the spring? He and his family lived there.”

“Anyway, he never wore a seatbelt. Wouldn’t wear a helmet on rides, either. One morning, you must have been about two, two and a half, he was late to work, and he was speeding and ran a yellow light that turned red just as he got there. There was a car coming up on the road beside him, the roads merged, more like a “Y” intersection, the other driver saw his light turn green and was going pretty fast through the light. The front corner of Terry’s van smashed into the side of this big old sedan.  Terry’s van went from sixty to zero pretty fast but Terry didn’t.  He went right through the windshield and smacked headfirst into the pavement, just like a big cannonball shot from a gun and he died.”

“I didn’t know if I should go to the funeral. He was a guy I knew, that’s all.  Kind of like that kid in your class you’re sort of friendly with but he isn’t your bud, just a nice guy.  So I went.  Didn’t know anyone there, I wasn’t friends with his friends, didn’t work with him, didn’t know his family.  Sat through the service, hugged his wife Paula on the way, told her if she needed any help around the yard or anything to call, and went back to work.”

“A couple of months later, I went to Sorrento’s to pick up a pizza.  I ran into Paula and the two kids. You know where those benches are out in the lobby? She asked if we could sit for a minute.  She told me that of all the people Terry knew from the bicycling club, and the speedskating guys, and the guys at the gym, I was the only one that made the time to show up.  Aaron, she started crying, and telling me how much my being friends with Terry meant to him.  He thought it was so cool that a real bike racer was his friend, and he’d come home from rides with me all fired up, and saying he was going to start on that diet, and get really fit, and start training a lot, and it would only last for a few days but he would just glow for those days.  So there we were, Aaron, sitting in Sorrento’s, her crying, me with this dopey, dumbfounded look on my face and a cold pizza in my lap, and I decided right then, if you even have a mouse-thought you should go, you go.”

“I didn’t know any of this stuff about us, kiddo, he was just a guy. Who knew?  I promise, when there’s a funeral, we’ll go.”

Part 2; watch this space next Thursday afternoon.


The Beginning
About David Stanley

Teacher & science guy, writer, musician, coach, skier and bike racer, I am interested… in everything; your story, food & spirits and music and everything in the natural world, spirit & sport. My son is 22 and still needs his Dad. I am 56 and so do I.
I blog on life and death, cancer and sports, kids and education at

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