The Valentine’s Day That Changed My Life

Carmen J. Corbi, my loving father was alive for exactly 12 years and 353 days of my life.

He died on this day, Valentine’s Day 1988. He was only 48 years old. He was on a waiting list for a heart and lung transplant (in 1988, this was not necessarily “routine”) so he essentially was dying for a couple years and was constantly in and out of the hospital. I knew he was dying and he openly prepared me for his impending death for a couple years. There were many days we just sat and talked about life and what would happen when he was gone. My 11 and 12 year-old brain tried to absorb every word, lesson and detail my favorite human being, my father, my world, had to offer. And I always encouraged him with, “Dad, I think you’re new heart and lungs will come in, you won’t die!” He often countered my hope with a reality check. Today, as a woman aged 42 years and 353 days (in 2018), I’m dumbfounded when I think about the sadness, courage and integrity it must have taken for him to step outside of himself and say, ‘I am dying and have a short amount of time to show my family (wife, 2 sons in high school and young pre-teen daughter) how much I love them and teach them all they will need to know for their lives’. He was upbeat and happy as possible until his very last day. And even though he clearly laid out that he was living on borrowed time, no matter how “ready” you are, you’re not ready to see the dad who jumps in your kid-sized swimming pool with all of his clothes and shoes on, lifeless on the hallway floor. Yes, I found my father dead on the floor on Valentine’s Day.

He was selfless that day, every day, in fact. He went out the morning of Valentine’s Day and my mom and I were getting a bit worried (the pre-cell phone age) but he came home around 11a with two boxes of Valentine’s chocolates (dark chocolate buttercreams) for us. He must’ve been in line forever. He presented us with the candy and he told me that he didn’t have the energy to get me a Valentine’s pin, my usual gift from him on that day. I told him it was OK and I didn’t even need the chocolate and would rather him feel well and relax. But, the three of us got ready for a typical Sunday, we went out for lunch and a shopping trip.

In line for hamburgers at Roy Rogers he stood there with his arms on the counter, having trouble breathing (sarcoidosis ravaged his lungs and enlarged his heart) and was backlit by the afternoon sun. I remember looking at him and thinking that this would be his last Valentine’s Day. I felt guilty thinking about that so I gave him a hug. He was having such trouble breathing that he shushed me away, telling me he loved me but needed physical space. I understood. We ate our burgers and drove to Clover. He decided to drop me and my mom off and wanted to go home to wait for us, telling us to call him when we were done shopping. At the time, I didn’t want to leave his side and asked to go home with him instead of shopping with my mom and he said, “no, I just want to lay down, stay with your mother.” I was disappointed but agreed, we said our “I love yous” and he drove away. My mom and I both watched him drive away till we couldn’t see him anymore. I think he knew what the afternoon would bring and he wanted to be alone.

At 2:38p I called home from Clover’s pay phone. No answer. I called again. Again, again, again. Again. A call to our neighbor confirmed his car was in the driveway. That’s the moment a wave of helplessness, fear, nausea and panic takes over your body and brain. Time speeds up and everything is urgent and scary and serious. My best friend and her mom who lived down the block from us happened to be checking out at the registers and offered to take us home.

I don’t remember the ride.

I remember putting the key in the door, seeing his jacket on the railing, running up the steps and seeing him on the floor in front of my room. His eyes were open, I put my head on his still warm chest to hear for his heart to beat. Nothing. At that moment I recalled that he told me that he closed his father’s eyes when he died. It’s kind of a weird thing to tell your young child, but something he trusted to tell me. I could tell it meant something to him, that symbol of closing his father’s eyes for the last time. So I leaned over him, took off his glasses and put my fingers on his eyelids. I couldn’t do it.

Any word written about this day after this point has nothing to do with him as a person. He expired. His life ended right then and there. But the death of his life became a new part of him to me. I loved him with all of my heart and he was gone and there was nothing at all I could do about it. There is no worse feeling in the world. That was the worst day of my life. Period. So what do you do to stay sane, to live, to breathe to feel the slightest bit OK with it all? Everyone is different, but for me, you try to live your best life with them in your heart. As you can imagine or already understand, things you see and hear will remind you of them; songs, shows, pennies on the ground, street lights turning on and off (Hi Dad!), their handwritten recipes, their favorite food, drink, color, car, everything. People say their loved ones are ‘watching over’ them but to me, they are not hanging above you in the sky but they have entered a chamber in your heart where nothing else but their memory lives. They become ingrained in your being because they now control your heart while dancing around in your memories. It’s almost like they transform into a bigger part of your life dead as opposed to when they were alive. I intentionally did things FOR my dad, “this is for dad”, or “dad would like this” and the action of doing or creating, something only a living person could do, gave new life to him somehow.

I was almost 13 when this happened. Before he died he had already written out my birthday card for the 26th. That just amazed me all over again, his selflessness, his love and thoughtfulness. How did I deal as a 7th grader? A lot of Super Mario Brothers at Jen Messina’s house, a lot of bike rides, a lot of walkman-listening to INXS and a lot of thinking, but not a lot of sharing because there was no one who understood this major thing from my point of view. So, I edited music, and danced in my room and took solace in being with friends like, Kathy and Colleen and Jennifer.

My dad didn’t get to see me get braces, go to my proms, get my first job or be a semi-rebellious teenager or captain of the cheerleading team in my teenage years. But his death made me empathetic and creative; it taught me to see almost everything from a different perspective. A perspective that was different from that of my peers. This realization is something I appreciate much more now than I did back then. Because growing up, you want nothing more than to fit in. And although I did indeed, “fit in” there was that powerful life experience in my history. These were things I wanted to share, but felt that no one understood. No one that I knew had experienced the death of a parent at such a young age. It’s awful, but it shapes you, you just have to use it the right way. Sometimes, I’d find that friend who had the “dead dad” (I’m looking at you Niki) and I’d say, “that’s what I’m talking about” “that’s my people!”

Sorry dad.

He was there for me, for the 12 years and 353 days and throught all of the subsequent years that followed. The outlet of editing music was the outlet for the pain I experienced from his loss. I went to school and started a career in video editing, something I’ve been doing professionally for over 20 years. He was at my wedding walking me down the aisle to Dan in his special place in my heart and mind. He was and is always there. And although he has no idea who I am now, something that is very hard to swallow, I am alive because of him and the values and character I possess are because he died. In a sense, I became who I am because of the event on Valentine’s Day 1988.

Every year since I was 21 years old I’ve acknowledged this day with a cocktail that reminded me of him, the classic Manhattan. He’d always save the maraschino cherry from his occasional drink, dip it in water, and hand it to me. Sometimes he’d take it out of the boozy brown liquid, look around the restaurant to see if anyone was watching, and quickly hand the cherry to me, dripping with Makers Mark. I loved the mischief of this more than the liquor. It’s one of my favorite memories.

But the older I get and I the more deaths of beloved family members I suffer, my mother and my brother, Timmy, and the fragility of my own life presents itself (brain surgery 2009) I take this “now” perspective and revisit the past and look at my dad’s life. What was life like back then? What were our habits, activities and dinners comprised of? My dad was a great Italian cook by hobby. Chicken cutlets, meatballs and gravy and cheesecake were three dishes he made wonderfully. He snacked on chicken wings and chocolate malts. We ate salads and vinegar and soup and chili together. Because both he and my mom both had mini strokes in their middle age and both died before age 65 I considered I had bad genes. Wouldn’t you? And then, boom, brain tumor for me at age 34 and I’m like, “yep, definitely dying before 65, sorry Dan (my husband).”

But, I used my brain surgery recovery as another “new perspective” (I so want to say New Sensation as a nod to INXS) and I paid close attention to my body, my habits and opened my eyes and ears to find important health information.

And then I found this quote from Michael Greger M.D. from the incredible resource, Nutritionfacts.org: “Just because we may have been dealt some bad genetic cards doesn’t mean we can’t reshuffle the deck with diet.”

This resonated loudly with me. I did not want to have the same health ailments like my parents and die from heart problems, strokes, infections or brain tumors. I wanted to reshuffle, reshuffle reshuffle, and I had a new hope. I thought, what did my parents eat, could their lives have been spared? My dad died from a major heart attack and he had an enlarged heart and diseased lungs, but could he have lived longer if he ate more foods that would heal rather than harm? I can’t find any documentation that a hamburger, chicken cutlets, meatballs or cheesecake saved someone’s life. And my mother, at 56 she had a heart valve replacement and a triple bypass. She died at 64 from major complications due to a hospital-contracted infection she could not fight with the strongest antibiotics. Could she have been spared if her immune system was nourished by exercise and more fruits and vegetables rather than eating food products like processed Little Bites blueberry muffins and cheese and crackers? And my brain tumor…I’ll never know why it grew.

Losing people you love, feeling out of control over your own health and then learning the power of food and its impact on health and longevity, it was a no-brainer that I decided to dedicate myself to eating the foods that help my body fight disease. Not only do I eat food that are beneficial to my health, I avoid foods that will get in the way of my life’s journey….It’s been quite a doozy. I cherish the memories of my father. And I will try to live longer and stronger than he did every day.

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