A few weeks ago we worried that my father-in-law, Gene, would not be celebrating his 84th birthday today. He was in the hospital, his breathing labored with pneumonia and COPD. Doctors found a blood clot in his leg and other problems. They talked about Gene possibly staying hospitalized for weeks. My mother-in-law Lois was distraught; three of their grandchildren drove long distances to see them and the rest made anxious phone calls and Facebook posts. My husband, Bob, and his three brothers kept in touch constantly and worried about whether this could be it.
But today, Gene is at home, off the oxygen that the doctors said he’d need for weeks, marking his 84th year. He is determined to keep his plans to fly with Lois from California to Boston next month for our early Thanksgiving dinner, a three-year tradition in our family. At last count he had at least 15 Words With Friends games going, and has returned to his daily morning worship at the Squawkbox shrine, following the market as fervently as an old nun fingers a rosary. Lois is back to nagging him about the volume on the TV, so things are really back to normal!
I guess I was not surprised that Gene fought his way back. He has done it before, having beaten lung and colon cancer 17 years ago, another time when we worried that the end was near. The man is a survivor — kept breathing by his lively curiosity, his highly creative and inventive mind, his brash confidence and his unflagging love for his family. And that’s good because we can’t imagine life without him.
His close call motivated me to go through some old photos of Gene and think about his life. The pictures show a mischievous teen who thrived in New York’s mean streets; a
confident rake and businessman (the word “swanky” comes to mind); a family man with four young sons; an 80-year-old looking wistful as he revisited his old haunts. Gene has been all of these, as well as a gifted salesman, an entrepreneur and inventor, an artist at the easel and the computer, a shameless flirt, a teller of outrageously ribald stories and jokes (we’ve had to reprimand him when he goes too far in front of the grandchildren), and a proud agnostic who delights in challenging believers. On the home front, he is father to four sons, grandfather to eight, and a father figure to his beloved daughters-in-law and to other now-grown men whom he and Lois sheltered and encouraged as boys.
Gene talks frankly about his difficult family life, which drove him out of the house to hang out with a rough crowd in the Washington Heights part of Manhattan. They would gather at a stone wall near an athletic field and plan the day’s exploits. When we visited New York with him in 2009 in honor of his 80th, Gene reminisced about swimming in the Hudson River under the George Washington Bridge; something that would probably cause some type of nasty disease ending in “osis” today. But Gene had an artistic streak as well as a wild one; he studied at the Art Institute of New York and showed amazing talent.
Later, as a young businessman at his dad’s company, he’d bring secretaries home to his New York bachelor pad. One of his favorite sketches depicts Lois, his future wife, asleep in his bed looking as peaceful as an angel. Lois successfully ended Gene’s bachelor era; once they married she gave him four sons in six years. Gene’s work in the restaurant equipment business would take his family from New Jersey, to Wyoming, to Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Driven and accomplished, he worked hard, patented many inventions, founded and sold several businesses and made a good living. He and Lois passed on their intelligence, artistic ability and work ethic to their four sons, all of whom have been successful.
Gene’s remarkable paintings and digital art cover the walls of his California home and his sons’ far-flung residences; his pizza ovens, dough presses and tools can be found in pizza kitchens around the country. Not content to rest on his laurels, Gene continues to come up with new concepts and inventions, including (my favorite) a sponge that would be worn inside the mouth to absorb onion fumes and prevent tears. Lois has had to gently (or not so gently) discourage him from doing a patent search every time he has a new invention, for fear of that the fees will drain their savings. Some of his ideas are frankly crazy…but then again, so were those of some of history’s greatest artists, thinkers and inventors.
To Gene I say: keep coming up with those crazy ideas and keep dreaming. And now that you are back from the brink, take care of yourself and postpone the next one as long as you can. Happy birthday! We love you!