“There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” ― David Eagleman, Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
It was a Wednesday afternoon when the first text came. Dad was in the hospital again. There had been another fall, but this time, it was bad. He had hit the back of his head on an end table in the bedroom and the internal bleeding wouldn’t stop. While there had been falls in each of the past several years, this looked like it could be it.
My wife, Victoria, and I caught a morning flight from Seattle and arrived at Harbor UCLA Hospital by Thursday afternoon. In less than 24 hours after our arrival, he would be gone.
Dad was speaking when he first arrived at the hospital, but as the blood pooled inside his head, it began squeezing the brain, slowly shutting down his body. By the time we arrived, dad was just breathing. He was unresponsive, looking like he had so many times before, as if sleeping.
The hospital moved him to a private room upstairs so that we could have more family members in the room with him. Around 11pm, everyone headed home to grab some sleep, while I volunteered to stay with dad. The last stages of life had been described to us, so it was my job to keep an eye on him and, if his breathing changed, I was to notify everyone so they could come back and say goodbye one last time.
It just felt like ‘this was it.’ The doctor said it could last hours, days or weeks, but the chance of dad improving from his current state was pretty much nil.
I’d stare at him, cry a little, then stare some more. As his body worked on shutting down, I remembered someone saying that hearing was supposed to be one of the last things to go. So, I pulled up a chair and began recalling Dad stories, talking with him about every moment of my life where he was involved. During this time, I came to the realization that I had only ever called him two things—Dad and Pop. Then the rambling, tear-filled stories began. There’s no way I could remember everything I talked about that night, but here are a few of the memories I shared with him:
- First, the days of Little League Baseball came to mind. There were the Pee Wee Pirates and then the minor-league Giants (an amazing fact, considering his Dodger Blue loyalty). I only had one home run in my Little League career and he missed it. Dad was trying to get some of the rowdy boys in the dugout to calm down when he looked up and saw me circling the bases. It was a story he liked to tell often.
- We played catch in the backyard a lot. He’d use this mitt I’d swear was once worn by Ty Cobb that he had from his World War II days. Dad made up a wood ‘home plate’ so that he could crouch down and I could work on my pitching technique.
- When we weren’t playing catch in the backyard, we’d be out in the driveway playing basketball. Even through my teens, he liked going out and shooting hoops. While my high school coaches promoted the one-handed jump shot, he stuck with his famous West Virginia two-handed set shot.
- I remembered when he worked the graveyard shift at United Airlines and would come home around 7am. Mom would make him breakfast and dad would enjoy his scrambled eggs with ketchup on them.
- There’s the bird bath that still sits in my folks’ backyard. Back when I was a senior at Torrance High School, as class president, I led the charge to repaint the Senior Pond. We used some Sky Blue paint to give the bottom a nice look and then I took the rest of that paint home. Dad used it to paint their bird bath and was still using that same can of paint 42 years later to touch it up.
- There were times that, as a kid, you knew things were different, but you didn’t know enough back then to worry about it. That’s what parents do. When United Airlines mechanics went on strike in the 1960s, Dad went down and worked on the Long Beach docks, unloading bananas and doing anything to keep a paycheck coming in.
- Oh, yeah. There were those United Airline company picnics and Christmas parties. Those were the days. The picnics were held at the Los Angeles Police Academy, with games, a swimming pool, endless hot dogs & sodas and a clown. The Christmas parties were cool, ’cause every kid got a present and we got to sit with Santa and tell him what we wanted for Christmas.
- There were countless trips to Dodger Stadium, to see our Boys in Blue play. This was back in the day when very few games were on TV and most of our weeknights were spent listening to the radio with Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett calling the play-by-play. The Hunters were definitely Dodger fans.
- To be fair, we also followed the Los Angeles Lakers, back in the days of Jerry West (Zeke, from Cabin Creek….West Virginia), Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and more. Working on the ground crew at United Airlines, dad was occasionally able to grab some autographs of the players when they flew commercial airliners (and boarded from those stairs on the ground). I have one 3X5 card filled with autographs of players like Jerry West, Mel Counts and others. One day I took it out of the book and flipped it over and there all by itself on the other side–the autograph of Lawrence Welk!
- There was the time up at Crestline near Big Bear Lake that my sister Terri was running down the side of a hill, couldn’t stop and ran smack dab into the lake. Not knowing how to swim, she panicked, dad went into the water to get her, clothes and all.
- There were the times while growing up that we would go over to his mom’s house, where his sister and brother also lived, in Gardena. They would have dances out in the garage, playing records. I just assumed that’s what everyone did on their Saturday nights in California.
- I remembered our South Dakota fishing trip with dad, my uncle Jim and myself, on the Missouri River. We went out and caught a nice string of Northern Pike, with me and my kiddie fishing pole landing the biggest. I believe that’s when my fishing addiction officially started.
- It seems as though we have more home movies than most families. My dad isn’t in a lot of them because he was the guy operating the camera. Now I know where I get that. For the 8mm camera to pick up things inside, Dad had to use a light bar, that I’m sure is used by some Third World Countries during interrogations. My sister Debbie theorizes that it’s why all of us kids ended up needing glasses.
- We went camping a lot while growing up. It made for an affordable vacation and we even worked in a trip to Washington State once. I know the Redwoods were among mom’s favorite spots, but dad pretty much liked ’em all.
- This was the guy who bore the brunt of my bad decision to make my first car a 1962 Volkswagen Van. It broke down 3 weeks after I bought it. Dad, in his spare time, rebuilt the engine out in the garage and then we sold it. I might have remembered a mild “I told you so”, but it was a classic example of letting me make a mistake, then being there as my safety net.
Those are just some of the stories I shared with Pop. I pretty much talked Dad’s ears off for two consecutive hours, half expecting him to sit up and say, “Would you shut up? I’m trying to sleep here.” I thought it best to at least grab a little sleep, so around 1am, I set the alarm to go off in an hour. That way I could check and see how he was doing. I did that every hour until the morning. Each time, there was no change in his breathing.
Around 7am, I realized with modern technology, I had the means to put on some music for him. While he enjoyed big bands, I remembered he was very fond of the Mills Brothers. So, I used iHeartRadio and put on a Mills Brothers channel.
I continued talking with him until around 10am when more people showed up. Around 10:40am that Friday morning, with the sounds of his family, friends and the Mills Brothers filling the room, dad slipped away. No final gasps, no unusual movements, he just stopped breathing. He was at peace.
Living over a thousand miles away to the north, I wasn’t able to be there for a lot of his later years. My mom and sister Debbie bore the brunt of all the hospital trips and doctor appointments, for which I’ll be forever grateful. We managed two or three visits a year, with most of those seeming to be at hospitals or rehabilitation centers. Saying goodbye to any family member is never easy, but when it’s your role model and the guy who taught you how to ride a bike and throw a curve ball, that’s tough. I take comfort in the fact that Dad made his life count. People continued to come up to me for the never several days, telling me what a great person he was. 91+ years on this earth, with a wonderful family to show for it—well done, John Hunter.
I appreciate so much being able to spend that last night with Dad. All of us made it pretty clear during those final days that he was loved and will be missed. My goal is to think of him as often as possible with joy, not sadness.
And by saying his name, we’ll put off that third stage of Mr. Eagleman’s theory just a little bit longer.
Love ya, Dad!