Exactly 10 years ago today my mother, brother and I sat with my father as he drew his last breath. He’d been battling pancreatic cancer for eight months; I’d been on assignment in England, interviewing travel writers for my book, A Sense of Place when he took a turn for the worse. I got home the day before he died – he wanted to watch a Warriors game – Dunleavy missed a shot at the buzzer that would have won it. Click here for the essay I wrote for the SF Chronicle about rushing home to see him and the memories of how he held on to me at my time of greatest risk:
By Michael Shapiro
As a planeload of people stared at their tiny seat-back screens, I raised the cover of the oval window and witnessed my second dawn of the day. The orange-pink light illuminated the crystalline snow below that blanketed Baffin Island like diamond dust. This second dawn, which kindled my wavering hopes, brightened the horizon just a couple of hours after my first sunset of the day, when our 747 nosed above the Arctic Circle and into December’s round- the-clock darkness over central Greenland.
The brilliance of the second sunrise contrasted sharply with the day’s first dawn. My cell phone rang before 7 a.m. with a message from my wife that my father, who was battling cancer, was slipping away. The iron skies over London barely lightened as I packed; a friend drove me to the airport through thick, sepulchral fog. It was a typical December day in London, one in which the sun climbs meekly into the southern sky for a few hours before beating a hasty retreat from the bone-chilling cold and bluster.
Because my wife told me every minute could count, I intended to carry on my small backpack, my only bag. But it exceeded Virgin Atlantic’s weight limit, and despite the urgency of my situation, the gate agent refused to let me carry it on. After getting seated, my frustrations mounted: We’d be delayed 40 minutes due to the fog, the captain said. Forty minutes later he said the delay could be two hours because so many planes were stacked up waiting for takeoff.
I knew that if we were delayed too long our pilots would be disqualified because they can only work so many hours. With an 11-hour flight to San Francisco, we had to go soon or we would lose this crew. If the flight canceled, I probably wouldn’t be able to leave London until the following day.
The captain said we’d been scheduled to take off at 1 p.m., exactly two hours late. We crawled up the runway, and with every inch of progress I breathed a bit more easily. Two minutes before 1 p.m., I heard the engines rev. After rolling over the length of several football fields, we left the ground.
As the anxiety of the delay ebbed, I recalled a trip my family — my parents, grandparents, brother and I — took to Venezuela when I was 10 to visit an old friend of my mother’s, named Chata, in Caracas. After a few days in Caracas, Chata and her clan took us to their vacation house in a remote jungle. Never had I seen pigs sauntering down a dusty main street, never had I slept in a hammock draped with a mosquito net, and never had I seen an emerald snake slither silently into the shrubbery.
Chata told us we’d be going to one of the country’s most beautiful beaches, but first we’d have to navigate through a horseshoe of sea caves. When we arrived at the caves’ mouth, about 2 feet high and 10 feet wide, the adults huddled and seemed agitated. Usually the water is about knee-high inside the caves, Chata told us, but the tides were high and the water would be above everyone’s waist. We had enough young men in our group of 20-some people to form a human chain and pass the kids through the deepest water. My grandmother, younger brother and mother stayed behind.
When we got inside, I realized it wasn’t just that the water was deep — the tides could yank out to sea anyone who lost their grip. The thunderous concussions of water against stone reverberated inside the caves. As my father held my hand, we walked into deepening waters.
We grasped the caves’ walls and stepped tenuously toward the chain of young men. My father reluctantly released his grip. In seconds I was passed from body to body, then steadied myself. Through the knee-high horizontal exit, a sliver of shimmering beach opened into a broad crescent of fine, fawn- colored sand as the sea stretched into shades of turquoise, azure and lapis. No one else was there. It was a postcard made real.
Soon my father emerged and we lounged in the sand, talking about whether Walt Frazier and the Knicks would win another championship — they would, three months hence — and whether the Yankees would ever get good again. The sun warmed us. Despite the moderate surf, we plunged into the tropical waters, my father warning me to stay close to him. I floated on my back, stared at the cottony clouds and let the waves ride me up and down, up and down.
“Michael!” my father shouted, shattering my reverie. Behind me, I saw him and the biggest wave I’d ever witnessed, both zooming toward me. My father grabbed my hand — we were too far out to beat the wave to shore. After a few terrifying seconds, the wave began to curl over us in slow motion and enveloped us with unrelenting force. The surf spun us around like driftwood; my father’s grip tightened. As the wave slammed us into the scabrous ocean floor, he held on. And when the undertow began to suck us out to sea, his grip remained strong as he swam us — with his one free arm — toward the shore.
As I reflected on that 30-year-old scene I could again feel my father holding on, across the dwindling miles. And I knew that despite the pain the cancer was inflicting on his body, his spirit wouldn’t let go until we embraced one last time.