Featured, General

A Decade Without Dad

Todd Dery/WFNY

Where were you ten years ago today? What was your life like? Like you, I was a much different person. I was 28 years old, living in Chicago, happily married to my college sweetheart, and hoping to soon have children. Things were good. Other than my dog recently taking up residency in my bed, I didn’t have much to complain about. Did I have a “charmed life?” I thought so. Then that day happened, and my life as I knew it changed forever.

Flashback to a month earlier. It was mid-October and I was watching the Boston Red Sox play the New York Yankees in American League Championship Series at my place. The phone rang and it was my mother. To be honest, I was half paying attention to her, though I could tell there was something different. She didn’t know how to convey it to me. It unfolded this way: “We just got some bad news, Dad has cancer.” I was speechless, breathless, numb, nauseous. She went on to tell me that my father was diagnosed with Tonsilar Cancer. The causes of this were smoking and heavy drinking, and my father did neither in his life. The doctors had told her that with chemotherapy and radiation, there was a 85% chance he would be fine. The following week I went back home for my dad’s biopsy and we had found out that the cancer had not spread,  He would start the treatments pretty much right away.

To say that I revered my father would be an understatement. His word was the gospel to me. So when he told me this was going to be no big deal, he would take his treatments, fight hard, and be back healthy in no time, I believed it, lock, stock, and barrel. I never allowed myself to even entertain the thought that he might die.

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I didn’t really know what true hardships were all about. I was always schooled in the ways of appreciating what you have and working hard to get it. My late Grandfather came to the United States from Hungary via Ellis Island. He played on the Hungarian National Soccer team in his late teens and arrived in America, like so many others of his time, looking to start his life, but unable to speak the language. He swept floors and ordered cheese sandwiches because that was all he knew how to say when searching for a meal. He met my grandmother, also of Hungarian Ancestry, here in Cleveland, and the two began a family that I couldn’t be more proud of. They were the Matriarch and Patriarch  in the truest sense of those words. But make no mistake, these were two people who came from nothing and made themselves into something all on their own.

My father was the youngest of three boys. While my Grandfather didn’t grow up in Cleveland, his love for the big three American sports spawned here. In 1946, he purchased a pair of Browns seasons tickets at Municipal Stadium. Section 37, row three, on the aisle. Two seats soon became four as Grandpop took his three sons as often as he could. The four sat together in 1964 to see the city of Cleveland snag an NFL Championship. As a kid, my father would tell me tales of this day in vivid detail. Like everyone else, he thought this was something he would be able to see again in his life.

Like my Grandfather, my pops caught the sports bug almost from the jump. By the time he hit college at Philadelphia Textile (now Philadelphia University), he was skipping classes to go see the Phillies play day baseball games. In addition, my Father fell hard for the game of basketball thanks to one man: Wilt Chamberlain of the then-Philadelphia Warriors. While Bill Russell had all the titles, my dad swore up and down that Wilt was the superior player. “Everyone said Wilt was a ball-hog, so you know what he did? He went out the next year and led the league in assists (67-68 season),” he would say.

A gigantic sports fan, he certainly was. Once he had the means, he had his own Browns, Indians, and Cavs seats. If he could get to a game, he was there. Before the Richfield Coliseum existed, The old Cleveland Arena on Euclid Avenue was where the Cavs called home. It was also where one of my dad’s patented moves was invented. On cold Winter nights, he would park in the lot next to the Arena and give the attendant $2 extra dollars and left him his keys. He’d tell the guy to warm up the car and sit in it during the fourth quarter and it was always ready for when he and my mom would come out. The man was a genius and the little things he did like this became story time with our family and friends. “The Bobby D back-in” is a staple at all sporting events. As he would say, “Anyone who fronts into a space at a sporting event or a concert is an amateur.” You back in to zip right out. Remember the old Coliseum “form two lanes” bit on the one exit off of 271 South? “Waiting in the right lane is for suckers.” It was all about zipping up in the left lane and cutting it over when you get the opening. It is what I have been doing off of the Shoreway every home Browns Sunday since I moved back to Cleveland in 2006.

His Browns game driving exploits were literally the stuff of legend. By the time I was six, my Grandfather’s four seats had become 12. Four were my dad’s, four each to my uncles, and two for my Grandfather. Each Sunday from probably 1978 through when the Browns left after the 1995 season, there would be eight to ten of us in my Uncle’s old Suburban. We met at our house, would all pile in and go. My dad and Uncle Kenny were creatures of habit. Though it was my Uncle’s car, my dad always drove. There is an art to it.

My dad and Uncle were great friends and perfect as brothers. The Yin and the Yang. Dad was rarely the serious guy. He was “on” all of the time. My Uncle is a brilliantly calculated man who lays back and surveys the scene before making his move. A true analytical thinker. But Scotch for Scotch, Uncle K will take you down. The two of them knew how to cut it loose when the time was right and had hearts as big as the sun. One guy you wanted driving you out of that Port of Cleveland lot on Sundays, the other one, you didn’t.

The Suburban was big and being aggressive to get out of that lot was a must. So here is what my father did: If the game was close, he would leave with five minutes to go, run to the lot, and drive the car to the top of the hill. He made friends with all of the freezing cops and somehow managed to have them watch his car, double park it on the side, and run back into the stadium and watch the finish from the end zone. When the game ended, we would bolt out, and he’d be there in the car, at the top of the hill, outsmarting everyone else who would sit stuck in that lot for an hour not moving.

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We all go through adversity in life. Mine came my Freshman Year at the University of Kansas. The motto of the man I idolized was “work hard and play hard.” As he told the guests at my wedding in 2001 “He got that second part right.” Scholastically, I was not exactly top of my class in High School. I always knew how to do just enough to get by. I figured at KU, I could do the same thing. That didn’t work as a Freshman as I flunked out. Two major things happened to me in the Fall of 1995: I learned how to focus on getting my life on the right track and I attended boat loads of Indians games with my dad.

Before Jacobs Field, there was actually baseball played here in Cleveland,. There weren’t many of us, but diehard Indians fans did exist. Every home Saturday afternoon game in the 80’s and early 90’s, my father, brother and I sat together in the upper deck of the old Stadium, about 15 rows up, right at third base. Many times, the three of us and about five others were the only ones in our section. The Indians were bad, but we didn’t care. My father was a baseball-first guy. He played baseball in college and in the Army. His best tale involved facing knuckleballing Hall of Famer Phil Niekro. As the story went, he watched teammate after teammate flail away at this guy who threw junk and he couldn’t understand how they whiffed on pitches so slow. “I’ll be teeing off on this guy” he told his buddies on the bench. Then he stepped to the plate, swung and missed three straight times, and walked back to bench with his tail between his legs.

The memories I have with my father and the game of Baseball could fill a book. Like the time we went to a night Spring Training game in West Palm Beach, Florida between the Mets and the Braves. My brother and I begged for him to get us food so of course he did. While he was gone, Darryl Strawberry, George Foster, and Hubie Brooks went back to back to back. He came back deflated, but of course laughed it off as always.

In Cleveland, we used to wait for the players after the game to get autographs. They all used to walk out the same gate and there would usually be like five-to-ten people waiting. My brother once fell out of the car chasing down Ernie Camacho as we were pulling away. My favorite though was back 1983. Career backup catcher Jim Essian played for the Wahoos. If don’t remember him, lets just say Sandy Alomar Jr 1997 he was not. Anyways, there are like six people waiting for the players and out walks Essian. As he barrels through quickly, my brother and I ask him to sign for us. My father was always a stickler about politeness. He always told us to refer to the players as “Mr.” so and so and follow up with “may I please have your autograph. Not to mention a “thank you” afterwards was a must. So here I am: “Mr. Essian, may I please have your autograph?”

Crickets. He just kept on walking.

We follow him a few steps. My brother tries. He says “sorry kid.” That set my dad off. “That’s nice Jim, deny a couple of kids your signature. We don’t want to ruin your All Star season. Great guy Jim!” And Essian just kept walking. I remember it like it was yesterday.

When 1994 arrived and Jacobs Field opened, a new era of Indians Baseball was about to begin. My father had been going to that old relic on the lake front for probably 45 years. Seeing his face light up as he walked into the park for the first time was something else. The four of us – my parents, my brother, and I – were there on Opening Day 1994 when “Jacobs Field Magic” was born. As we all know, the ’95 Tribe was the most dominant of all of those great Tribe teams. After returning to Cleveland in May as a college failure, I spent the rest of that year doing three things – waiting tables, attending local college classes, and going to Tribe games with my dad and brother, who was now a college graduate working at WHK Radio in Cleveland and living back with my parents for the time being.

While being at home completely humbled me, it would have been very easy for my folks to be even harder on me. Instead, they were all about reinforcing the positive. Throughout the hard fall for me, my dad and I were there, side by side, watching the Tribe. When Alvaro Espinoza chucked it across the diamond to Herb Perry for the out that launched the Indians into their first World Series since 1954, my brother, father, and I embraced in our family room like WE had just accomplished something special together. We had. The Derys were not “Jacobs Field” Indians fans. This was a life long struggle for three guys who bled Wahoo Red, White, and Blue. All of those years of the three of us trekking down to Municipal Stadium, cheering on the likes of Alan Bannister, Jerry Dybzynski, Ron Hassey, and Manny Trillo had been worth it. There was so much more to come.

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My father’s Cancer treatments were two-fold—Chemotherapy and radiation. He required an aggressive treatment, so the plan was five days, 24 hours a day, hooked up to the chemo, then two days off. This was going to go on for three weeks, along with radiation treatments in between. Once the three weeks were up, he was supposed to be be Cancer free. With my brother now in Detroit and me in Chicago, we were going to switch off weeks. So the week before Thanksgiving was my week, we would both be home for Thanksgiving week, then my brother would stay behind for week three of treatment while I headed back to Chicago. Before he entered the hospital, he wanted “The Last Meal.” he was so funny: “The chemo is going to help me lose tons of weight anyways, might as well go out with a bang.” So that Sunday night, I watched him eat an extra large, double cheese, sausage, pepperoni, and mushroom pizza from Donato’s without coming up for air. It was quite impressive.

The first week was a struggle. Watching someone you love so much struggle to get out of bed or even speak because they are too weak, is about as depressing as it gets. He was quiet, but was keeping his spirits up. He watched sports and the Travel channel between snoozes and bouts of vomiting. He told me it was to keep his mind on places he wanted to go when he got out of there. My mother was incredible. What a rock this woman was. You want to talk about an all-time advocate. It was hard to watch, yet throughout the awful week, my mom was so tirelessly strong. Everything was positive, no negative talk or thoughts were even allowed, despite the fact that my father spent most of his time either asleep or throwing up.

Friday afternoon he was to be released from the hospital to spend the weekend at home, feeding tube and all. It didn’t seem right, but the doctors assured us he could go. We didn’t even make it back to our house before he threw up his feeding tube. My mom was exhausted and needed a break, so I told her I would take him back to the ER and she should go home and rest. The next six to eight hours were amongst the worst of my life.1 It was a frantic time. He had no business being in general population of an Emergency Room, nor should he have been waiting two hours to be taken. He was a cancer patient needing his feeding tube put back in, but nobody would help us. Finally I got him into his own room. The EMT who attempted to put in his tube told me “this is so easy, a monkey could do it.” Then he proceeded to fail at the job and I literally was watching my father choke. The whole thing was so awful and most of it a blur. It took hours more to get him into his own room back up in the hospital that saw fit for him to be released earlier in the day, which was a clear mistake.

While I was in the ER watching my dad fight for his life, my brother was at the scorer’s table, court-side in Detroit during the infamous “Malice at the Palace.” He was right next to Rick Mahorn, who was trying to break up the melee. He would later describe that as one of the scariest moments of his life. We were experiencing similar feelings at the same time, only neither of us knew it.

Things finally calmed down and he became stable around 2 a.m. My mother and I went home and slept for a couple of hours and headed back Saturday morning to be with him. We watched the first half of Ohio State-Michigan and flipped over to listen to my brother be interviewed on ESPN News about what he saw during the brawl in Auburn Hills. He couldn’t speak, his eyes were barely open, but he smiled the entire interview.  A proud father, he was. I was headed back to Chicago for a few days of work and had to leave that afternoon. I kissed him on the forehead, told him I loved him, and said, like an NFL coach who had just won a hard-fought Sunday afternoon battle, “See you Wednesday.”

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When it involved sports and his children, my father always dove in head first. He was never a head coach of a little league team, but he pitched in as a back-up. Dad was always either the third base coach, the assistant basketball coach, or just there in the stands watching. He traveled for his job, but if he was in town, he was there being the biggest cheerleader for his sons that he could possibly be. The man loved three things more than anything: Family, sports, and food.

When DirecTV first came out, this guy was first in line and every single sports package had to be ordered. In college I would come home from a night out over winter break and stumble in at like 2 a.m. There would be my dad in his customary robe and slippers, watching Canucks-Kings. He always was fascinated by hockey even though Cleveland never had a team. How did he find the love for the game? Naturally, through his kids.

One year he came up with an idea: A Dery boys road trip to Pittsburgh to see a Penguins game. It is a short, two-hour drive; tickets were not hard to come by then; and it was the perfect mini getaway the night before Thanksgiving. That first year he busted out the now famous “Goodie Bag” as he called it. It was loaded for each of us with Football stickers, Madlibs, candy, and more. These kept my brother and I occupied on the drive. We went to an early pre-game dinner, followed by our first NHL game at the Igloo, got a couple of jerseys (Paul Coffey for me and Zarley Zalapski for my bro), then went back to our hotel. We would wake up the next morning, have breakfast and head back to Cleveland for our annual Thanksgiving extravaganza at my Uncle’s house.

Thanksgiving is the most important holiday in my family. On my father’s side, I am the eighth of 10 grandchildren. No matter where we were in our lives, no matter where we lived, all of us come home for Thanksgiving. Nobody misses it, even to this day, The grandchildren range between 33 and 52, from Denver to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Detroit, Michigan to Burlington, Vermont and San Francisco — no matter where we are throughout the country, we descend back to the 216 in late November. This is how my grandparents always wanted it and we genuinely loved it. If you ask all 10 of us about it, 100% would tell you it is “our time,” and it never disappoints. Except for one year: 2004.

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The morning of Wednesday, November 24, 2004, my wife and I were finishing up getting ready to make the five-and-a-half hour drive from Chicago to Cleveland. The phone rang and it was my Uncle Kenny. It was pretty early in the morning, so I knew something wasn’t right. He told me that over night, my father had developed an infection in his blood, a sepsis, and was moved to the intensive care unit. As he always is, my Uncle had a calming nature to his delivery and told me that he would keep me posted as soon as he knew more. I remember relaying the news to my wife and asking her “I have never let this ever enter my mind, but do I have to start thinking about the possibility that he may die?” “Of course not,” she replied and we headed to the car to start our journey.

It was a bitter cold, gray day between Chicago and Cleveland. The conditions were not great, but we soldiered on.  About a half-hour in, its a driving rain and sleet storm and my Uncle called again. I answered. He said “Are you the driver or the passenger?” I said “The Driver” and he said “You need to pull over.” I gave the phone to Leah and blacked out. My father had passed away from the sepsis. The guy was the dad everyone wished they had, and the one I was lucky enough to have, was now gone. I was devastated. The last thing I remember was handing the phone to Leah and listening to her sob. How was I suppose to function? How were we going to get home, still four-plus hours left, as we sat on the side of I-90 in a sleet storm? Thank Goodness for my wife. She called my lifelong friend Jaime who was on the road an hour ahead of us with her husband and they pulled over and waited for us. Leah took the wheel before eventually turning things over to Jaime who safely got us back to home. I am still forever grateful to her for what couldn’t have been a pleasant car ride for her.

As we arrived at my childhood home, the driveway was full of cars. Our family and my mom’s close friends were all there. I don’t remember much outside of walking in and seeing my mom, who immediately hugged me and we shared a moment that changed me. I looked up and saw a room full of familiar faces, all with tears in their eyes. They all had the best of intentions, but I just wanted to be left alone. I went straight into my old room.

His funeral was slated for the day after Thanksgiving. Our favorite family holiday – the one where we gorged ourselves and watched football together – was now going to be tainted forever. I don’t even remember it to be honest. The funeral is another story.

My brother is a sports talk radio host in Detroit. He’s been on he air in some way, shape or form, taking sports or calling games since he was in college. He is three years older than I am. We both decided to eulogize my dad. Coming up with the right words to describe him and our relationship actually came easier than I thought. I wept for hours writing it, but I had so much to say. My brother was always a “wing it” kind of guy.

The temple was packed. It was standing room only. Over 700 people were there to pay their respects to my dad. Since it was Thanksgiving, so many of our friends, past and present, were in the building. My brother and I walked up together and he stepped forward. This was a guy who made his living speaking in public. He couldn’t get himself together. He just pulled out his wallet, put it on the podium and cried, “Take it. Take everything. I just want my father back.” We are both emotional guys. I thought there was no way I was going to make it, yet somehow when I stepped up to take my turn, a calm came over me, and I was able to get it all out. A lot of it centered around sports.

One of the stories I told was how a year earlier, my beloved Kansas Jayhawks were in the regionals of the NCAA Tournament out in Anaheim. I badly wanted to go as it was a mini Final Four of KU, Duke, Arizona, and Notre Dame. The first guy I called was my dad. “I have this great idea.” I told him about it and he asked “Where do I sign up?”

I was sitting on two free Southwest Airlines tickets and a bunch of hotel points, so he met me in Los Angeles and we spent three amazing days together. We shared drinks and greasy food and took in some fantastic basketball. Kansas beat both Duke and Arizona to head to the Final Four and we celebrated almost as we did eight years earlier in our family room watching the Tribe go to the World Series. It was a trip that I will never forget and hold about as dearly as any memory I had of him. Two months later, a package arrived at my door in Chicago. It was a framed tribute to our fantastic weekend in California with pics of us at the game, the ticket stubs, and some newspaper headlines. It sits on the wall in front of my desk and I look at it every day.

The story about him forcing us to leave the Jets game in January of ’87 came up as well. Yes, we left. It was 20-10 with three minutes to go, so pops led the troops out. We were back in time to watch double overtime on television. The next week everyone who had been sitting around us for years in section 37 was all over my dad for leaving early. Of course, we sat in the stands until the bitter end a week later and watched John Elway go 98 yards and then beat the Browns in OT (I still maintain Rich Karlis’s kick was no good, by the way). We walked to the car slowly for the first time I could ever remember that day. We were stuck in that parking lot for hours. He never got a chance to do “his move.” That car ride was unlike any other in my lifetime. Nobody spoke. I mean nobody. Ten of us in pure silence for probably two hours.  The Jets game early departure clung to him for years so I said in the eulogy “I think it is now time we can all forgive him for leaving the Jets game early.”

Somehow I got through it. I turned to my brother, we gave each other a hug, and walked back down to our seats on each side of our mother.

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Ten years later, I am different in many ways, yet still the same to the core. I am married to my best friend and we have two beautiful, healthy children. We raise them right here on the East side of Cleveland, where we have lived since 2006. The decision to move back as soon as I could after my father’s passing was easy. I wanted to raise my family in the place that I loved so much as a kid.  My job situation allowed this to come to fruition and I wanted to be near my mother. Cleveland and the teams I was raised on were such a huge part of my upbringing and this was exactly what I wanted for my kids.

If you are familiar with anything that I have written at WFNY than you know that I am an extremely devoted father and husband. Emulating my father, my hero and role model, is how I try to live my life. The Morris Twins who played at Kansas and now for the Phoenix Suns have a credo that they have lived by for years: “FOE – Family Over Everything.” That was my father and in turn, that is me.  My seven-year old son has been to every Browns game with me since he was four.  This season my four-year-old daughter started going as well. Over the last two years I have probably been to 70 Indians games with both of my kids, They aren’t forced to go kicking and screaming. They love everything about it. And don’t think this is a couple of brats asking for food and not paying attention. My daughter literally sits on my lap for nine innings and doesn’t move.  She is four and she knows more about the Indians than most of you do. My son is Seven, the kid is a walking sports encyclopedia who likes to keep score at the games. Sure they love Slider and the Hot Dog Derby and the ice cream we always get after the sixth inning, but make no mistake, these are two chips off the old block.

If only my father could have seen them.

  1. Getting into specifics is something I haven’t done or thought about in years. I try not to. []