Well, folks… We’ve arrived. Four and a half months ago, when my dad got one of the worst cancer diagnoses out there, I tried to imagine this moment: life post-death. I had a few misconceptions: one, I didn’t think it would arrive so quickly. Two, I focused too much on the death part and forgot that life goes on. But bad news turned worse, worser, and worst, until finally even the bad news was more forgiving than the actual progression of events. It was kind of like the classic cartoon montage of a character first falling through an attic floor, then through the next floor, and then unexpectedly through 10 more floors. I’ve been using this metaphor for months now, and it’s still the most accurate one I can find to describe how it feels to have a loved one with terminal cancer.
And now we’re here in the cartoon basement, which is terrible because it’s sad and scary and lonely, but slightly comforting in an odd way because at least you know you can’t fall any further. A week and a half has passed since my dad shed his meat suit (his words, not mine), and I still don’t know how to picture a world without him in it. To me, it feels like Bill Thompson III the public figure has died—not my dad. Reading the flood of tributes online, I feel somewhat detached. They don’t really make me cry like you might expect. I guess it’s because they’re mourning just a part of the person I knew. Even my sweet mama accidentally fell into this trap—when she sent me the draft obituary full of his accomplishments to look over, I felt I had to add a paragraph about how much he loved things like the Pirates and grilling. These were the somewhat less spectacular but nonetheless wonderful things that rounded out who my dad was.
My dad was a visionary. That man had so many ideas it made my head spin. If you were anywhere close to him, you were destined to get caught up in his creative tornado at some point. Many people are aware of his brainchildren such as the podcast This Birding Life, as well as various Bird Watcher’s Digest events and associated acts. But many never knew he had dreams of installing a pond on our dry ridge top to round out the bird checklists with some waterfowl. He was always planning something, whether it be a music party, a birding outing, or what to grill for dinner. Every weekend we were all home together, he cajoled Liam and me into some grand project like cutting up a felled tree, building a sweat lodge, or going deep into the woods to cook burgers and beans over a hot fire. From an astrological perspective, he was a sensitive Pisces dreamer with an Aquarius persistence, intellect, and worldview—a powerful combination.
The man knew how to have fun. And he chased it constantly. Obviously, music and birding were two major outlets, but he also loved playing just about any sport or game. Liam and I spent so many endless summer evenings with him in the yard, rotating between whiffle ball, frisbee, basketball, bocce, and more, as swallows chattered on the telephone wire and my mom tried not to get hit. In winter, he was always game to go sledding, and GOD help you if you became his target in a snowball fight. He was also amazing at darts and was the NYC Metro League champion one year, a legacy I am now trying to live up to in the bars on La Gomera. Sometimes we’d go outside with one of his rifles and practice our aim on some old fruit, beer cans, or a stale gingerbread house (you know, Ohio things). There was always a Heineken nearby.
Travel. Boy, did he love to travel. I think passing along his ability to get up and go and make friends anywhere in the world is one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me. He sparked my wonder by bringing back “surprises” from any trip he went on—beautiful handcrafted earrings, unique toys, fun candies. As I started to venture out into the world little by little, he equipped me with everything I could possibly need, from outlet converters to binoculars. Before I left, he always assured me that if I ever needed him, he would jump right on a plane, and send one of his countless birding friends to help me out in the meantime. Anywhere I told him I was going, he presented me with the contacts of multiple people who would care for me as their own. He’d developed this network effortlessly, just by being himself and genuinely engaging wherever he went. As I prepared last August for my biggest journey yet, he was there with me throughout my panic about moving to a tiny island, and (correctly) assured me it would be absolutely amazing as he expertly packed my suitcase. Any possible problem had a solution when my dad was there.
The Pirates. This wouldn’t be a proper impromptu eulogy if I didn’t mention this man’s undying love for his hard-luck team. I signed on as a fan when I was 12 or 13, much to his delight. He was convinced it all started back in the mid-90’s when he’d give me my bottle and rock me to sleep on his chest while the Bucs played in the background. Together, we watched the Pirates finally break their 19-year losing streak in a manner not unlike watching a baby giraffe struggle to take its first steps. We had the highest highs—chanting while floating back across the Clemente Bridge after an amazing win—and some really low lows, like when the Bucs slid from playoff contenders to basement dwellers in a couple of consecutive Augusts. Now, when I watch or listen to baseball, I know exactly what my dad would be saying (or rather, yelling): “THAT WAS A HANGING CURVEBALL!” “C’MON!” “How could you swing at that?!” “I could be a commentator.” “LAROCHE, YOU BUM!!!!!” At the last Pirates game we attended together, he managed to do something of which he’d always dreamt: he caught a home run ball on the fly. Made it on TV and got a shoutout on multiple networks and everything. Unfortunately, it was tainted with Cardinal victory, but he was so triumphant it didn’t matter. As we walked out of the park, countless people congratulated him after seeing us on the jumbotron. At his request, I am now the proud owner of the ball.
I can’t say I planned to write something like this, but es lo que me salió. I miss my dad so much already, and will spend the rest of my life doing so, but I am so incredibly grateful for the 22+ years we spent together and the fact that we got a chance to actually say goodbye. That was the hardest and strangest thing I’ve ever done, but I know that so many people lose loved ones without ever getting the closure of thanking them and hugging them one last time. His life was far too short to live out all his dreams and execute all his plans, but then again, 100 years more still wouldn’t have been enough.
I’ll leave you with some of his typical wisdom that became a mantra for me. He knew we shared the same tightly-wound and restless mind, and told me a version of this almost every time we spoke.
“Don’t fret. Almost every problem is a small one. Let them pass, confront them head on, just don’t let them consume you. Worry 80% less.”
Workin’ on it, Daddy.