Since December of 2013, My father has been battling an ailment complicated by his advanced age (92) and pre-existing conditions he has managed to bear over the decades. The conditions would surprise no one, a long life means many opportunities to get sick. But, whereas several of these conditions would have struck-down individuals of lesser countenance, my father persevered.
A long life has its benefits. However, it will leave one susceptible to trials and tribulations. Some are emotionally gut-wrenching and could easily have incapacitated the strong amongst us. On this list we can add the death of three sons, a wife, and multiple bouts with Cancer. These and many other events are the chapters of my father’s life- Nicomedes Valentin.
92 years is a very long time. There is a story to tell.
Before the advent of fatherhood, my father toiled as a peasant laborer in the sugarcane fields of Depression-Era Puerto Rico. The island was the home of his ancestors dating to, and beyond, the European colonial period. He toiled at this back-breaking work for years only because he was full of the strength and vitality that accompanies youth. This could have been his lot for the rest of his life and for the generations that he would ‘father’. Events, however, would intervene as it did for everyone else, leading up to and during World War II.
Pearl Harbor ushered the US into World War II, but it could be said that the nation was already preparing for a conflict it hadn’t entered yet. When the nation ‘called’, my father ‘answered’ by enlisting in the US Army in 1941. For the duration of the war, my father was sent to numerous stations throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and the Pacific basin. Among his stops we can include: Puerto Rico (his home), St. Thomas, Panama, Galapagos Archipelago, and Hawaii. One of his assignments was ‘cleanup’ of the debris resulting from the attack on Pearl Harbor.
When the war ended in the Pacific, it marked the official end of WWII and the start of my family. My mother and father had their first child as the nation started it’s conversion from a wartime footing to one of peace. It began with the birth of my eldest brother.
From the 1940s through the 1950s, the nation leaped to global preeminence, militarily and economically. My father road the wave of ‘opportunity’ and moved the growing family to New York City. By 1960, my family had moved to Brooklyn and swelled to seven children, I being the youngest. The “good times” we associate with the Post-WWII period and the 1950s, was fading as the decade of the 60s began.
From 1960 – 1975, the economy failed to show the robustness of the Post-war era and my father’s inability to find steady, consistent work landed us on the ‘Public Dole’. Public Assistance, better known by it’s colloquial name, Welfare, kept us fed with the nations agricultural surplus. I remember the huge, silver-colored cans with black print that we were given as recipients of the government’s largess. Powdered eggs, huge bricks of butter and cheese, and peanut butter populated our cupboards. To this day, I love eating peanut butter and bread with butter.
The earliest I recall my mother working outside our home was in the 1970s. Her work in a nursing home provided steady income and benefits that my father’s intermittent work could not obtain. Always, my mother did whatever she could, from working in a seamstress factory to piecemeal work at home, to help make ends meet. My father and mother took turns caring for my sisters and I as my four older brothers were semi-independent by then. I recall my father bringing lunch to our elementary school every day for my youngest sister and I. Invariably, the lunch consisted of hotdogs wrapped in aluminum foil. To this day, hotdogs remain a favorite treat for me. When my father was working my mother would be home tending to us. Like two eagles, one parent would care for the chicks while the other hunted. Then, they switch and reverse the roles. Only a short 8 – 10 hour period (often during the late night) saw an overlap of their schedule.
At ten years of age, the 70s introduced me to life’s trials and tribulations. The passing of one of my twin brothers in 1970 was a lesson in growing-up that I could do without. While death is part of life, I have never come to terms with it. I did not like the impact death had on my immediate family in that first encounter and I still don’t in my most recent encounter.
The 1980s was the beginning of a lifelong medical obstacle course for my father. He was first diagnosed with colon cancer and had to endure painful treatment that ultimately left him without a significant portion of his intestines. This would handicap him ‘publicly’, but privately he could not keep from doing work in and out of our Brooklyn apartment. He would be, depending on the day and hour, a gardner (vegetables), carpenter, plumber, cook, home painter, plasterer (?), disciplinarian, and exterminator (rodents). As medical problems reappeared, he endured additional procedures and a temporary cessation of routine activities while bedridden in the hospital. When he returned home, he was active once again.
Medically, my father received blows that could have cut his life short. Unfortunately, he was also receiving blows of a more emotional nature. From November 1970 through January 2007, my father endured the passing of three children and his wife. How he survived that is beyond me.
The last 14 years had slowed my father and ultimately confined him to a wheelchair or bed by December 2013. Since then, his health and will to live were visibly evaporating. Every time I spoke with him he would try very hard to convince me that he was fine. But, I could see otherwise.
In his final hospitalization, he would argue with my sisters to take him home. He complained that he had responsibilities to attend to. Not the least of which were the lost wages his favorite home attendant was enduring because her services were not needed while he was hospitalized. When news from his doctor indicated that medical intervention may not improve his condition, the family decided to accept his desire to return home. Within a few hours of returning home, the agitated behavior ceased and he became calm.
My father, the strongest human I’ve ever known, lasted one week in his home. At 92, he passed into the hands of his creator late Wednesday evening, 11 June. He left behind four remaining children and nearly 100 grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. To the youngest in our family, his life is now a story; His exploits, myths.
As we laid him to rest near his wife and son, a military honor guard performed the ritual that culminates with the words found in this post’s title. I couldn’t help thinking how grateful we all are for having known him and being his children.