Loss and Covid

I have always known that someday my parents would die. I can still remember that fear that bordered on panic as a young child. I was often afraid that I would come home one day to find out I had lost one of my parents. It was always living somewhere inside of me, sometimes more pronounced than others. At one point in my life, the fear was so paralyzing that it prevented me from having fun from doing things that I truly enjoyed.

It was a hot summer afternoon. I had the opportunity to go to the local fair with my Aunt Anita and her soon-to-be husband Denis. Anita was the fun Aunt, the one who drove me around listening to Beach Boys on the 8-track player in her cool Camaro. She was barely 5 feet tall but full of energy, life, and curiosity. She would, and still does, fire off a third question before I have the chance to answer the first she posed. Yet, to me, she was so cool, so popular, and fearless. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up.

Although the details are a bit cloudy I can still taste the emotions I felt on “fair day”. I had been looking forward to the trip for a while and was excited. I knew my Aunt would spoil me and her man would follow suit because even to an 8-year-old it was obvious who the boss in the relationship was.

The butterflies started before she arrived and I told my mother that I was considering not going. I was afraid to leave her, afraid something would happen to her. She encouraged me but also understood my angst.  She was not only my best friend but also the person who understood me the best and could relate, having battled and conquered some anxiety issues throughout her life.

My anxiety increased as I saw my aunt’s Camaro pull up our long driveway. Despite my best efforts, tears poured down my face. My family offered assurances and even though I wanted to, I just couldn’t leave my mom.  It remains one of those moments, I vividly remember and regret.   My heart hurt when I saw the look of disappointment in Anita’s eyes; I felt guilt when I saw the worry I caused my mom, and I felt like a chicken who missed out on a day of fun.

I can still picture the car pulling away, making the long journey down our driveway as I watched the scene from my bedroom window. The tears intensified, streaming down my face as my mom gently rubbed my back telling me it was ok. I felt like a wimp, like a failure. Yet, the bond between son and parent was strong and the fear of separation from my protector was just too much to overcome.

That feeling was back for me on April 2nd, 2020. That was the day I got the call that my father was gone. I would never speak to him again; I would never share success with him again, never be angry with him again.

I knew it was hard to lose a parent. While I suspected for a while that the end was near for Frank, and I knew despite our complex relationship it would hurt. But, I did not expect to feel like that scared little boy again.

My dad was really gone. Through the years, Frank always held the fact that he would someday die over my head in an effort to curry favor and control. He had suffered and survived a few close calls, so when it actually happened, when his saga finally reached its cruel end, it was shocking.

I have a hard time believing it is real. I expect his relentless calls, and no one was more relentless than my dad.  When cell phones (or car phones as he still referred to them) became mainstream he would call the house phone, call my car phone, call the house phone again, then call my ex-wife’s car phone, follow that up with another call to the house and when I still didn’t pick up he would call my friend Chris and yell at him because I had the audacity not to answer. “Jesus Christ D’Ambrese how come your buddy Kris won’t pick up the Goddamn phone?  What the F&8*& is his problem? Would you ever ignore your father like that?”

Chris would respond with “I am not sure Big Daddy maybe he is out” and then he would ask Chris when he last spoke to his father. This would inevitably result in an explicit laced message (or recording in Frank’s speak) letting me know D’Ambrese speaks to his father every day and would never ignore his father like I do mine.

Upon first glance, it would seem that my relationship with my father was hinged on basketball. He first began coaching varsity basketball in the ’80s, taking over the Marlboro Duke basketball program from Joe Champi, (a Marlboro coaching legend who after leaving the Dukes achieved national recognition leading the Women’s Basketball team at Auburn to three final 4 appearances), and basketball quickly became an obsession.  Our living room was littered with basketball books, with Frank intensely studying their contents while eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream with a layer of cream de mint so blindingly green that itr made it hard to notice that only a pair of ill-fitting Fruit of the Loom tighty whities were all that separated visitors from seeing his manhood.

I have come to realize that Frank’s obsession with the game, his drive to outwork everyone was less about basketball and more about a fear of failure and a desire to be recognized.

He was scary intense back then, a force of nature that you could not take your eyes off.  He lived and breathed Duke basketball, and my mother and I lived the highs of every win and the devastation of every loss. He saw every aspect of the program as his responsibility. He took it personally when the home crowd was not as large as he hoped. He saw it as an affront when a call didn’t go his way, and a small piece of him died with every loss no matter how big the talent gap was between Marlboro and their opponent.

Was I scared of Frank back then? Sure, but I was also proud he was my dad. He was somebody, and somebody you wanted on your side. That’s why it was so frightening for me as an eight-year-old when Frank had his first brush with death, or so I thought.

It was on the long cold bus ride home from Liberty, New York. Like most games Frank coached, it was an emotional rollercoaster.  His undersized and over-matched Dukes went to the mattresses against future first-round NBA draft pick Maurice Martin and his Liberty Indians. I don’t remember all the details of the game, but I do remember Frank pulling the team off the court when he felt fans were treating “his boys” inappropriately and threatening forfeit if the officials didn’t get “their f#$#$ing heads out of their asses and get the game under control!”

When the final horn sounded, the Dukes had put up a valiant effort, but fell short.  Frank stomped off the court, spent, looking like Deniro in Raging Bull after the Ray fight. I cried along with his players when he apologized to the team for letting them down in a heartfelt post-game speech filled with crocodile tears. His voice cracked, he sniffled his nose and promised to work even harder for them and get them to the “promised land”, which for him was to get a rematch with the Liberty Indians at the UCAL championship game with a different outcome.

I loved the bus rides home with the team.  Randy, Robert, Matt, Bobby, and Roger may have knocked me around, but I got to listen to their music, be part of their conversations, and, most importantly, got to hang out with my heroes. These players meant everything to Frank. He spoke about them at the dinner table, in the car, before the season, during the season, and after the off-season. In fact, right up until his death, he spoke of his players as if they were family, holding internal debates as to who was the best shooter, scorer, defender, played the hardest, etc…

Those bus rides helped me to develop a code of honor that has served me well in life. They guys may have given me shit, but they looked out for me and showed me what it was to be a man, and much like Jimmy Conway said, they helped me learn the two greatest things in life: never rat on your friends and always keep your mouth shut.  It was this eight-year-old’s version of Omerta; I would never report to Frank on any bumps or bruises they left.

The ride home that night wasn’t as joyous as other nights had been. You Dropped a Bomb on Me wasn’t blasting on the 80’s boom box, in fact, no music played.

The tone the coach had set was one in which fun and joy were inconceivable.  They knew as I did if they dared to fill the bus with the upbeat sounds of the Gap band, Frank wouldn’t have it. We all could imagine his look of disbelief and disgust.  “What the f$%^ is wrong with you Randy? We lost the f%^&*@#  game and you are playing that shit music having a grand ol time!”  Randy and the boys knew better, therefore it was a somber ride.

I was half asleep when the bus slowed and came to a stop in front of the emergency room entrance. At first confused, then scared when Randy, the man child leader of the team embraced me with tears in his eyes and said it will be ok. That’s when I realized the reason for the trip to the ER was Frank’s chest pains. It was a frightening, sinking feeling that had me believing that if something could happen to Frank it could happen to anyone.

Before getting off the bus he made a point of lumbering through to the back of the bus, despite the protests of the driver, assistant coach, and players to offer me a hug, distort his face, let a little yelp, and tell me he would be ok, before collapsing into one of the cold pleather seats of the George M. Carrol bus.

The ride home was brutal, as my adolescent mind made up stories, I would never see my father again. Relief finally came when I saw and hugged my mother and felt the warm comfort only a mother can offer.  I was shocked when she did not share my concern over my father’s well-being. She then, like me today had seen her share of Franks “near-death situations”

Between the winter in 1981 and April 2nd, 2020, I had witnessed too many Frank-proclaimed close calls to count.  Numerous heart attacks always seemed to occur right in the middle of a heated argument, miraculously swinging the debate his way each time. His chest grab move would have made Fred Sanford proud.  Claims of “sugar” (Frankism for Diabetes) cancer, and use of one of his favorite lines “One day I won’t be around to kick around.” or “ I am not long for this world, Kris.”

Despite how dire his self-proclaimed diagnosis was he would always finish with “I’ll be ok Kris” and guess what? ….he was.  That is what makes losing him seem so surreal. Is he really gone?  The last time I spoke to him, he called from his hospital room, a few weeks into the quarantine.  His voice was barely audible, as he told me he wasn’t feeling great, and he had a few rough days.  Before hanging up he managed to get out an “I’ll be ok Kris.”

How is it that he isn’t?  How is it that was the last time we spoke?  How is it that I will never speak to him again, be scared of him again, be mad at him again, be in awe of him again?

I always thought basketball was something we had in common. When I took over as the Onteora Boys Basketball coach he became my unofficial assistant. This gave us a common interest that helped us to enjoy some of the best years of our relationship. We spent hours together studying film, scouting games, talking hoops, developing successful teams and programs.  He taught me the game. He taught me about work ethic, desire, and being obsessed with success. It was during those years that I felt he truly let his guard down, he let me see him, he let me in on the joke he played with the world.

Did basketball bring us together, help us to make great memories, share a special bond?  Of course, it did, but for him, I think it was more about impressing me, showing me his talent, and his uniqueness.  For me, it was simple; I want to make this hard to please my father proud.

He always wanted to be the best and in turn me to be the best. I, too, often felt like a disappointment. I wasn’t the smartest, the toughest, or the most athletic. I didn’t like trucks, tractors, farms, or dinners. I was much more content spending the day on epic shopping trips with my mom.

When I experience self-doubt even today, I can not help but feel like that 12-year-old living in a giant’s shadow.  Not tough enough, not strong enough, not manly enough.

I think I disappointed him most as a basketball player.  Despite his best efforts, I was never the star he wanted me to be. I fell short of his biggest dream for me, being the starting point guard for the Marlboro Dukes Boys Basketball Team. I still have a nagging feeling that I didn’t work hard enough, didn’t shoot enough jumpers, or didn’t do enough drills. That feeling still plagues me today, shaking my self-confidence. If I am being I am honest I have to fight those feelings off even now as I write this.

I suspect that is why I wanted so desperately to be a successful coach, not so much because I was obsessed with basketball, rather because I was obsessed with impressing my dad.  The funny thing is as unhealthy as that obsession may seem, it helped to shape me into who I am today.  It helped me to develop that “no one will outwork me” mindset.  It helped me to understand schools, and people, and develop some of the best relationships with incredible people who I still call friends today.

Did I love basketball?  I grew to love it and all it taught me, but not as much as my dad and all he taught me.

I did not get to say goodbye to my dad, he didn’t get to have “The biggest wake in Didonato’s history” that he always wanted a fact that makes me sad.  It makes me sad until I realize maybe this was a better way to mourn, and to celebrate his life.  It afforded me the opportunity to write his obituary through tears of sadness, anger, and pride.

It is hard to say goodbye, especially when you can’t. It’s hard to believe Frank isn’t “going to be ok” It’s impossible to believe he is gone.

I have thought a lot about Frank, our complex relationship, the good and bad times.  I guess the quarantine has allowed me to do a lot of thinking to be with my thoughts, to process one of life’s cruelest realities, and to mourn.

The stories, countless stories, phone calls, tears, the laughs have made me realize that slowing down, taking the time to reflect, to think, to celebrate, and analyze a special, crazy, flawed intense life is natural.

I am grateful for the forced slow down the quarantine provided.  All of this thinking has made me realize that he isn’t really gone. In fact, strangely enough, he seems more alive than ever because of the stories and memories.

Frank is going to be alright because even with all his flaws he left his mark on the world and helped me become the man I am today.

I wonder what else this forced slow down will help me to process.  What insights might be available to all of us now that things are not as they were? Can we become more at peace, can we become happier, can we be kinder, can we be more content?  Can we figure out what is truly important before it is too late? I am not sure, but I really think we can.

We all have lost someone or something; the question now becomes will those losses break us or will they make us stronger, better people?

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