My dad never called a tow truck. That would have cost too much.
It didn’t matter where he broke down in his second-hand jalopies. Tony Lopez was a Depression-era guy who watched his wallet and dropped daily pocket change into a cigar box to pay for annual family vacations in Santa Cruz or Tahoe. When his car conked out, my dad called my Uncle Mike, who was cut from the same cloth. Mike would drive for miles and use a chain to tow my dad to safety, and they’d check junkyards for used parts and make the needed repairs themselves.
Remember the days of towing by chain, with sparks flying when the drooping links hit the pavement? That was my dad. It’s a miracle he didn’t go up in a ball of flames.
Tony Lopez didn’t hire plumbers or landscapers. He did it himself or called friends, and he returned the favor when they needed help. He was frugal, for sure, but there wasn’t much cushion in a bread truck driver’s paycheck. Before checking into a motel, he was known to find out whether the bed could be taken apart so some of his brood could sleep on the box spring to save the cost of a bigger room. On a trip to Europe, my father, brother and I stayed in flop-houses and hovels near railroad stations, once sleeping in the bedroom of a house where the owner had just plucked a chicken and left feathers everywhere.
“That’s where they get you!” he’d declare if soup and salad were not included in the price of a meal.
And yet for a guy who would drive 50 miles for a nickel discount on a gallon of gas, especially if they gave you juice glasses with every fill-up, my dad was always ticked off if I reached for the check at a restaurant. When I bought my first house, he insisted on helping with the down payment to lower my monthly burden. With his three kids and four grandchildren, he was as generous with his love as his money, sticking with us even when we screwed up.
Tony Lopez died the other day at the age of 83 after a long illness that he fought like a mule, literally hanging on to the rails of his bed to keep from being dragged into history. He used to bump into the undertaker around town, hold up his hand and say, “Not yet,” as if he were waiting for a sale on funerals. But his time was finally up, and he went quietly Sunday morning, dying in his own home with my mother and sister at his side.
I want to thank him for the love and support, the memories, the sensibilities, the laughs.
Tony Lopez, a scrappy little four-sport high school athlete known as a fierce competitor, raised a daughter who inherited his fight. If you went by statistics, my sister Debbie would have been gone a couple of years ago, done in by ovarian cancer that spread to her brain. But she’s still battling.
Tony Lopez, never too shy to clown around in a crazy wig or wacky hat, raised a son who became a comedian, inheriting my dad’s ability to connect with everyone, including strangers. My dad got tears in his eyes laughing about the time my brother Johnny edited my Aunt Milly’s bumper sticker from “Say No To Drugs, Yes to Burritos – New Mecca Cafe,” so that it said “Say Yes to Drugs.” Milly drove around like that for months, wondering why she got so many peculiar looks.
Tony Lopez didn’t go to college and never moved out of the little town he grew up in, but he sent his first son to college on that once-abundant and adequately funded California dream of giving your kids greater opportunities than you’d ever had. The son went to San Jose State to become a journalist who shares his dad’s suspicion of authority, and the journalist would like to thank his dad for this last gift — a story that has lent support to others, and perhaps some insights, on the hard choices around death and dying.
Those who have followed the tale of my dad’s months-long decline, or have been through this themselves, know the anguish of decisions about life-extending medical procedures and where final days should be spent. I’d see but a shadow of my dad, curled up in half surrender, and want for him to slip away. Then he’d surprise me with a glance or a whispered “hello,” and I didn’t want to let go.
I came to appreciate the merits of palliative and hospice care, which help both patient and family prepare for the inevitable. But death is in charge and comes when it’s ready, and after the hearse pulls away, an instant of relief gives way to a chill that creeps into your bones.
I believe more strongly than ever that everyone ought to have the option of doctor-assisted aid in dying. I can’t tell you how many people have asked me why we keep loved ones alive with cruel limitations, but humanely end the suffering of animals.
Let Tony Lopez’s passing stand as a call for doctors to be more up front in laying out the hard realities of medical limitations. And let it stand as a call for families to share their own attitudes with each other as to how much compromise is acceptable. Too many people are hanging on against their own wishes, only because they didn’t make their feelings known in advance healthcare directives and other forms (which anyone can get from the Coalition for Compassionate Care of California, coalitionccc.org).
In his final days, my father was treated with grace and dignity by nurses and aides who grew up in Nigeria and Tonga, among other places, and they served our family and a noble profession well. And if my mother and sister were nuns, they would surely pass beatification and go directly to sainthood for the way they loved and cared for my father.
My heartfelt thanks, as well, to readers who have checked in by the hundreds with their own stories and words of support.
You had a heck of a good run.