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Monday, April 4, 2011

In Praise of Pappy

The date is Monday, April 4th.  The 115th running of the Boston Marathon will happen in exactly two weeks from today.  People are still asking if they can donate to the NE Patriots Charitable Foundation on my behalf, which further reinforces my belief that there is so much goodness in the world.  Here is the link to my personal fundraising page:

However, that's not the best part about today.

Robert Philip Cunningham, Jr. was born on April 4, 1937.  He was born and raised in CT, served in the Air Force (for 3 years, 11 months, 10 days), and was an educator both in and out of the classroom for well over a quarter century. 

Robert was also known as Bob or, more affectionately, "Pappy".  I met him in the early to mid 80's when I was in junior high.  My parents had divorced shortly after grammar school.  My mother had been dating since my father moved out, so he wasn't the first person she brought home.  But, as it turns out, he was the last.

My initial reaction to him was less than positive.  For some reason, I had a bad vibe about him.  I remember being less than friendly toward him, which was definitely out of line with my personality.  However, he took it in stride, always treating me with respect and kindness.  Once he and my mother had been dating a while, we all took a trip down to New Jersey to see my maternal grandparents, as well as aunts, uncles and cousins.  This was the turning point in my perception of Bob.  I just remember all of my suspicion and angst melting away and, towards the end of our stay, impulsively embracing him. 

He won me over.

In August of 1986, he and my mother exchanged vows and became husband and wife.  His two children from the first marriage stood up there with my brother and me as they pledged to love, honor and cherish each other, in sickness and in health, for better and for worse.  It was a happy day for them, but also a happy day for me.  I gained a stepbrother, stepsister and, most importantly, a great stepfather.

I attended high school where my stepfather worked, first as a vocational director and then as an industrial arts/cabinetmaking/woodworking teacher.  Bob loved to teach and I believe his students loved him in return.  He also loved to create things out of wood and had amazing talent.  When my parents purchased new bedroom furniture, he made a tall shoe cabinet for my mother that matched the woodwork in their new set perfectly (yup, mom was like Imelda Marcos).  Every day from the time I was a freshman until I had a drivers license and car of my own, Bob and I rode to and from school together.  I used to put my makeup on the car since I never left enough time to do it before school.  He made a game out of swerving and hitting every pothole he could in order to "try and make me miss". 

But the most memorable part of our car time together was if, God forbid, I had the hiccups.  I would try to hide it from him since I knew what his remedy would be:  to scare the living s**t out of me when I least expected it.  The anticipation would kill me and I never quite knew when he would let out the scream that would practically stop my heart. 

It worked, though.  Every single time.

Bob was also a cigarette smoker.  This, coupled with years of inhaling sawdust and fumes associated with his profession, brought on a diagnosis of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).  He had less than 20% of his lung capacity available to him.  In the early 90's, he took an early retirement so that he and my mother could go and retire in Arizona, hoping the dry climate would be better for him.  And it was, for a while.  He lived on for another 14 years, sometimes existing more than living.  Two days before his physical death, he and my mother renewed their wedding vows, pledging their love and devotion to each other in the hospice facility where he would spend his remaining days.  They took him off of all machines and medications, making sure he was as comfortable as possible.  He took his last labored breath on Friday, October 5, 2007.  He was 70 years young.  I was supposed to run a half-marathon relay the next day with my friend, Jeremy; I was to run the first half and him the second.  I knew he would understand if I skipped it, but I decided to go.  I ran those 6.5 miles clutching a picture of my stepdad and mom in my hand.  That one was for Pappy.

It's been about three and a half years since Bob has been gone.  His presence is still very vivid to me and I think about him all the time.  I'm hardly ever sad when I remember him now because I don't think he'd want me to be.  He left behind a legacy of love, compassion and selflessness that allows him to live on as potently and viscerally as if he were still here in physical form.  At times, he was more than my stepfather.  He was my ally and my friend.  When I broke up with my boyfriend in 1993 (who I was convinced was "the one"), Bob's face was the first one I saw when I came in the front door.  He looked at me, said nothing, and held his arms open.  I immediately went into them and let out the tears I had been holding in.  He just held me as I cried and said nothing. 

I have such love and appreciation for what he taught me by the life he lived.  He demonstrated the closest thing to unconditional love that I've ever seen with my mother.  He adored her.  At times, when she and I would clash as mothers and daughters often do, I would try and see her through his lens.  And I would inevitably soften.  He just had that power and ability. 

There is a part of him in every marathon I run, since I know he never would have been able to run a step at the height of his illness.  I run for myself, first and foremost, but I run for him too.  I do for him what he was not able to do for himself.  His memory gives me such inspiration and fills me with strength.  If I begin to tire or question myself, I'll turn my thoughts to him.

Happy Birthday, Pappy.  I like to picture you now, residing in the non physical world, overflowing with life and love like you always did, creating beautiful things out of wood and breathing easily and fully with plenty of energy and vigor. 

No pain.  No sickness. 

You'll always be with me.

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