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My Dad's Health Was Failing — So I Made A Split-Second Decision That Changed Both Of Our Lives

The author and his dad
The author and his dad

The author and his dad "getting the aura along Bourbon Street" the night before Super Bowl XX in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1986.

It was Super Bowl Sunday, and I was determined to get my dad to the game.

We were at the assisted living facility in the suburbs of Chicago that I’d helped him select. When he first moved in at age 91, four years after my mom died, he’d been thriving. He threw himself into the singalongs, movie nights and chair-volleyball games. He even had a new lady friend who became his nightly dinner companion at their favorite table for two.

“You’re pretty busy these days,” I said to him on the phone three weeks after he moved in.

“You don’t know the half of it,” he said.

Now, a year and a half later, he’d gained 30 pounds, lost his ability to operate his computer and was suffering from congestive heart failure.

I had come to Chicago from New York City for what I thought was going to be a three-week visit. Being 54, divorced and childless gave me the freedom to come see my dad on my own time. When I arrived, I saw how much he had declined from the previous time I’d seen him just one month earlier. He teetered when standing and often seemed confused after waking up from a nap.

During my visit, we watched the Chicago Bears games, just as we did when I was a boy. Back then, with my three older siblings away at college, I became his football buddy for the games at Soldier Field.

Dad had unique ways of making those afternoons fun. Before every big play, he cheered “Go get ’em, Steve,” as if I was going to get the ball. Before every punt, he yelled “It’s a fake,” and was giddy the few times he was right.

Every game began with him harmonizing the national anthem. And every afternoon ended with us leaving early to beat the crowd, something we also did for every Cubs, Bulls and Blackhawks game we attended.

“We got the aura,” he said, each time we walked out of a stadium hearing the distant sound of fans cheering for a play we’d never get to see.

After three weeks visiting my dad, I was scheduled to fly home.

“I don’t want you to go,” he told me.

It was the first time he’d ever said that. For all the years I lived in New York, he always encouraged me to catch earlier flights home so I wouldn’t arrive too late and could be ready for work the next day. I wondered if this time he realized he would be too frail without me.

I canceled my flight and extended my stay at the hotel across the street. For the next four months, I worked remotely from his place, taking breaks so I could join him for the group activities. Every night after tucking him in, I called out the same words from the living room before leaving.

“My dad,” I yelled.

“My boy,” he yelled back.

The author and his dad at Super Bowl XXI in Pasadena, California, in 1987.
The author and his dad at Super Bowl XXI in Pasadena, California, in 1987.

The author and his dad at Super Bowl XXI in Pasadena, California, in 1987. "The Bears didn’t make it back to the Super Bowl the next year, but we did," he writes.

Staying those extra months gave us the chance to watch the remainder of the Bears season together — something I’d never do on my own, as I’d long since lost interest in football.

Sitting with him on those Sundays gave me a sense of comfort I never felt back East. I wondered what my life might have been like had I never left Chicago 28 years before. Would I have turned out more like him? Maybe I would have stayed married instead of pursuing a series of short-lived failed relationships. I might have even given him grandchildren, like my brother and sisters had.

“One of these days you’re going to meet someone you like having on the pillow next to you,” Dad often said, holding out hope that I’d find the kind of lasting love he’d shared with my mom for 66 years.

As the season progressed, my dad’s health declined. Sometimes he hallucinated that he needed to arrange a payment for the scrap metal business he’d owned for more than 60 years — the same family business I’d rebuffed in my early 20s to chase the allure of Madison Avenue.

I suspected he wouldn’t make it to the holidays. But after our family hired a team of caregivers and made the agonizing decision to begin hospice care, Dad surprisingly rebounded.

During the holiday season, I took him for rides in his wheelchair to see the decorations throughout the building. I was determined to recreate the childhood memories of my parents taking the family to see the Christmas lights in a nearby suburb.

My next goal was to get him to his 93rd birthday, and after that, the Super Bowl.

“They have a Super Bowl party in the TV room later today,” I said. “We should go.”

“I don’t want to go to any party,” he said.

I was disappointed. The Super Bowl had become our thing.

When the Bears became contenders in 1985, I was away at college, so it was the first season I couldn’t watch with him. When I came home for winter break, the first thing he did was play me his newly bought recording of “The Super Bowl Shuffle” performed by the Bears players.

“If they make it,” he said, “we’re going.”

They did make it, and my dad did his own shuffling that year to get us there. He booked five hotel rooms in New Orleans, sold four of them to other fans, and used the profits to buy two tickets to the game.

Dad and I got to the stadium five hours early.

“We have to get the aura,” he said.

“Should we leave now?” I joked, after the Bears had built an insurmountable lead by the third quarter.

“No, we have to stay and watch them celebrate,” he said, breaking his cardinal rule this one time.

The author and his dad watching their last Super Bowl together at his dad's assisted living home.
The author and his dad watching their last Super Bowl together at his dad's assisted living home.

The author and his dad watching their last Super Bowl together at his dad's assisted living home.

Watching the Super Bowl together remained our tradition. The next year, we went to the one in Pasadena, even though the Bears didn’t. When I moved back to Chicago after college, we made sure to sit next to each other at my uncle’s annual Super Bowl parties.

But moving to New York at 26 meant missing a lot of Super Bowls with him. It also meant other lost opportunities. Instead of taking me to the local sports events, my dad often took my brother and nephew, who lived in town.

By the time the Bears made it back to the Super Bowl in 2007, I was so wrapped up in my life out East that I didn’t even come to Chicago to watch with him. It wasn’t until my mom fell sick in 2015 that I felt a deeper sense of urgency and made it a point to fly in each year for the game.

Now, with kickoff just minutes away, I was losing hope I was going to get him to the party. 

“Are you sure you don’t want to go?” I asked again.

“What do I need that for?” he said.

If he didn’t want to go for himself, I figured maybe he’d go for me. 

“I’d really like to go to the party with you,” I said. “It would mean a lot to me.” 

I realized none of this had been about him needing to watch the game. It was about me needing one last memorable Super Bowl with him. 

“Alright,” he said. “Let’s go.”

His caregiver wheeled him to the TV room where nearly a dozen other residents had gathered. I said hello to the ones who remembered the more vibrant version of my dad from his early days there. He no longer recognized any of them. 

My dad perked up at the party, joking around and munching on potato chips and pigs in blankets. But I could tell he was struggling to follow the game.

“Do you want to go back to your room?” I asked after the first quarter.

“No, let’s stay a little while longer,” he said.

My mind drifted from the game to my decision months earlier to stay in Chicago with him. In that time, we had experienced some of our most loving moments together along with some of our most gut-wrenching. Through it all, I never questioned my decision to stay. 

If there’s one thing I learned from my dad, it’s that if life presents you with an opportunity, you grab it. Just as he had grabbed those Super Bowl tickets years earlier, I had seized the opportunity to make the last five months of his life as magical as he made my childhood. 

Now, with him gone, I continue looking for those opportunities in my life wherever they arise. It’s my way of keeping his spirit alive.

After the first half of that last Super Bowl, my dad was fading.  

“I’m getting tired,” he said.

His caregiver wheeled him back to his room.

“That was fun,” Dad said. “I’m sorry I had to leave early.” 

“That’s OK, Dad,” I said. “We got the aura.”

Steve Doppelt is a creative director in New York City who still pulls for the Bears, Bulls, Cubs and Blackhawks. He’s working on a book about his dad.

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