Expressway: Flowers for my father

Max Cohen and his daughter, Sharon Cohen, in Max Cohen and his daughter, Sharon Cohen, in 2007 Photo Credit: Cohen Family

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Normally around this time I would be thinking about what to get my dad for Father's Day.

I found that I could never go wrong with a Tanger Outlets gift card and a blueberry pie from Briermere Farms. When I was little, I would make a Father's Day card out of construction paper and attach it to a mug filled with Hershey's kisses. These memories are now bittersweet.

On an April day more than a year ago I called my mother, Bernice, to check on my father, Max. Two days earlier, he had been taken to Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead with severe complications from chemotherapy. It was late on Saturday night and she sounded tired. Her voice was low and stressed.

"When is Dad coming home?" I asked.

"Wait, hold on," she said. "The hospital is trying to get me."

When she didn't return to the phone right away, I started to worry. Finally she spoke again.

"Dad's heart stopped!" she said. "They're working on him. We have to go now!"

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I called my brother, Howie, who met us at the hospital.

When we arrived at the third floor nurses' station, I saw white coats and grim expressions. A resident on duty explained that my father's heart stopped suddenly and they did all they could. I shook my head in disbelief. I thought he would be coming home. I thought there was more time. All I could do now was say goodbye, but the child inside me could not let him go.

I remembered how years earlier, Dad and I would visit Belmont Lake State Park to feed the ducks, stopping first at McDonald's on Deer Park Avenue for pancakes and hot chocolate. The lake was immense, tranquil and glassine. With bread in hand, we were soon encircled by squawking ducks, geese and swans, eager to gobble every crumb. On rainy days, we would go to Stables Garden Center in North Babylon. I gleefully jumped in the puddles while he loaded the trunk with bags of mulch and flats of pansies. Sometimes we would stop at the pony rides on the way home.

My father was born in Brooklyn. He was the starting pitcher for his high school baseball team and a straight-A student. He and my mother met in Hebrew school and had what anyone would consider a fairy-tale love story. After graduating from college, he managed S. Klein department stores in Yonkers, Valley Stream and Commack. The Yonkers store had a kennel, and one night he brought home a surprise — an 8-week-old pug we named Princess.

Later, he worked in the garment center at a sportswear manufacturing business started by his father-in-law. He enjoyed reading spy novels, writing poetry and painting. One of his beloved possessions was a worn copy of Roget's Thesaurus. His love of music — classical, rock, opera — encouraged mine.

But his single greatest joy was gardening. His green thumb nurtured every bud, bulb and seedling with loving precision. Our yard in Dix Hills was a panorama of velvety emerald green punctuated by beautiful flowers and manicured foliage. In the spring, the blossoms of the weeping cherry, purple plum, apple and dogwood trees were magnificent.

In June of 2009, my father was suddenly diagnosed with signet ring adenocarcinoma, an aggressive stomach cancer. The disease was cruel and unrelenting. A year into treatment he was profoundly gaunt and ailing — a wisp of his former self.

You pray for miracles. You make silent deals with God. You cry like a baby when no one is watching.

"Sha, will I make it to the spring?" he asked in one of our last conversations. It was early March 2011, still cold and blustery. He was already thinking about planting season.

"Of course you will, Dad," I said, choking on my words. "You have to."

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But the joys of springtime never came for him. He passed away a month later on April 2, 2011, at age 73.

Nothing in life prepared me for the loss of my father. Cancer shocks you visually and viscerally. First it does the unthinkable and then it does the inevitable. I wanted to turn back the clock to a simpler time, when a trip to Carvel could make things all better.

More than a year later, my feelings are still raw. I can't adequately describe what it feels like to miss someone who had always been there.

Grief's steely grip has eased some, leaving behind a relentless, gnawing ache. I am grateful for the compassionate medical care my father received. I am grateful to my mother for holding him in the darkest hours.

I am grateful to my brother for holding it together when I couldn't, never leaving his side.

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The solar glare on my computer screen reminds me that summer is fast approaching. On Father's Day, I will plant flowers in memory of my dad.

They will be hardy and vibrant, just as he was. They will remind me to appreciate the simple things in life, just as he did.

When I sink my hands into the cold brown earth, I will feel his presence.

And from somewhere in the heavens, he will be smiling at me.

Rest in peace, Dad. Love you.

Reader Sharon Cohen lives in Calverton.
 

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