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Chapter 32

Chapter 32 - My Dad's Dying

"The man of the hour is taking his final bow.

"As the curtain comes down, I feel that this is just goodbye for now."

—Pearl Jam, "Big Fish"


My dad, Jerry, was the man of the hour. He was the coolest guy I ever knew, a hometown celebrity. He was a toastmaster for hundreds of sports banquets so, as a kid growing up, I always saw him with all these big-name athletes—from Terry Bradshaw to Mickey Mantle to Jack Nicklaus to Muhammad Ali. It was really impressive that all these sports superstars knew my dad. In fact, his first sports dinner appearance was with an aging Cy Young.

Jerry Flynn grew up in a poor, working class Irish family. He was born in the United States, but his family moved back to Ireland when he was 2 or 3. His father was involved with the IRA and was almost shot by the British Army. His wife intervened and the family had to move back to the United States when he was five. He was the first member of his family to go to college. He went to Notre Dame. He was very popular, became the head cheerleader and traveled with the football team. In those days, they traveled by train. They made these whistle-stops in small towns across the Midwest and he would pretend he was a famous fullback, even though he was only 5-foot-7, 130 pounds. He'd sign autographs, shake hands and pose for pictures. With no TV then, no one knew. "I made people happy in all these little towns," he used to say. He was quite the character. He and another cheerleader friend of his would take the Notre Dame mascot, a little Irish Terrier dog, out to local bars the night before games. The pub patrons would inquire about the dog. That always lead to an explanation about their affiliation with the Fighting Irish football team. Then the locals—enamored with the Notre Dame mystique—would buy them free drinks all night. During games the dog would be asleep on the sideline under the bench because they had kept him out all night.

After college, he joined the Navy. He served on the U.S.S. Enterprise, won 11 battle stars. He was morale office, of course. They couldn't drink on the ship, so he would coordinate R&R with about a million bottles of beer for his men on the local islands in the Pacific.

After World War II, he became Sports Information Director at the Naval Academy. That was back in the day when the Army-Navy football game was the Super Bowl. He spent time in New York with all the famous sportswriters.

Eventually he came back to Rochester and worked in advertising sales and eventually started his own ad agency. He taught me business ethics on a high level. He also did about 3,000 speaking engagements. He and my mom were soul mates for 47 years. Mom died March 14, 2000. She'd been diagnosed with lung cancer in the early part of December 1999. Gary Fallesen and I were planning to climb Aconcagua in January 2000. We delayed the climb a year. I remember knowing it was the right decision not to go.

My dad had had multiple bouts with cancer. He had cancer of the vocal chords in 1975 and lost his voice box in 1991. He would speak to middle-school classes and show them the hole in this throat and talk about the dangers of smoking. I think he enjoyed it as much as sitting next to a Wayne Gretzky at a sports dinner.

But at the end of 2003, my father's health took a turn for the worse. The machine was just starting to wear out. He and I were the same height 10 years before he died. We were both 5-foot-9. But by 2003 he was about 5-5. He was all hunched over. The bones were starting to go bad. During his last six months, his quality of life was bad. But he never complained about it. In fact, it was difficult to remember he was sick.

I'd never been worried about him in the past. "We'll just beat this," he'd always say. If he wasn't too worried about it, I wasn't worried. The difference this time was he was getting ready to go.

In January 2004, he was recovering from surgery on his bladder at a rehabilitation medical facility. They found something in his lungs. Fluid. It was non-symptomatic pneumonia. At this point, he was 84-years-old. He weighed 125 or 130 pounds. On Thursday, Jan. 22, he called us all in—my sister Colleen, my brothers Kerry and Chris, plus our spouses. He walked into this little meeting room. The medical-case worker explained the situation.

"I've made a choice," he told us. "I'm not going to take any medications. The reason I asked you all in here is to tell you that I love you all very much. I've had a wonderful life. No regrets. Don't cry over me, I'm ready."

Of course, everyone cried.

He wanted to go stay in the Genesee Hospice, where my mom died. (The nurses there were absolute angels in the treatment of my mom.) At that point we didn't know how long he had. Selfishly—and I'm embarrassed to admit this—I was torn between whether or not to continue with my plan to climb Everest. I'd been training so hard and I didn't want anything to keep me from the climb. But I couldn't imagine what it would be like to be on the mountain if my dad died.

The next day, Friday, we went to visit. He was hardly talking, which was unusual. He would just wave. On Saturday, this nurse Denise, who'd taken care of my mom, was going to evaluate him. That night or Sunday morning he was no longer communicative. He was basically not awake. Monday morning his vitals were not great, but well enough to transfer him. An ambulance came to take him to the hospice. The driver let me sit in the back with him and hold his hand. It was against the rules, but he made an exception.

Unfortunately, my brother Kerry had to go away on a business trip just a day earlier. No one knew it was going to be this fast. But suddenly we were on a death vigil. Kerry called from the airport in D.C. He wanted to be with us so bad, but he was delayed by weather. It was heartbreaking and frustrating for him. The nurse told my dad, "Your son is trying to make it back, Jerry. But because of the weather he can't be here." The nurse held the phone to my dad's ear so Kerry could say goodbye. "I love you, I'm trying to get home but it's OK for you to go."

It was an amazingly short period of time. About a half an hour later he started to take his last breaths. Chris' oldest daughter Katie had written a poem and read it for him. There was a calmness and serenity and resolve about him. He'd made his decision. No one thought it was going to be days instead of weeks. But he was so strong willed. He was ready.

I remember a few days before he'd said to me, "What's my timetable here, pal?"

"I don't know, buddy," I'd told him. "You're supposed to live forever."

His dying was a very surreal kind of thing. He went very peacefully and quietly.

In typical Jerry fashion he had donated his body to science. He felt the medical profession had been so good to him and had given him a number of second chances.

He was one of the lead stories on TV and in the newspaper. He didn't want a funeral, he wanted a celebration. He had given us his instructions.

"What I'd like to do is have a party, with good food and drinks for folks," he instructed. "Make sure it's a helluva party with good music—Frank Sinatra, Glen Miller, Tony Bennett and Dean Martin."

About every 10th song in the loop we threw in the Notre Dame fight song. It was a true celebration of life. There were tears, but there was more laughter than tears. It would have only been better if he were there. But I'm sure he was.

Dad died on Jan. 26 — 7½ weeks before I was scheduled to leave for Everest.

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Front Cover
Back Cover
Table of Contents
Chapter 5: The Decision—Don't Tell Anyone... Yet
Chapter 6: FWA
Chapter 17: A Camp 3 Wake-Up Call
Chapter 18: Death on Everest—Our Dirty Little Secret
Chapter 32: My Dad's Dying
Chapter 33: Here We Go Again

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