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Driving Vince Donnelly

My Father Was Dying. He Knew. I Knew. But There Was Time Enough for One Final Trip to a Distant and Difficult Past.

June 16, 2002|JOE DONNELLY

The valet at the Pittsburgh airport rental-car office brings around our white Lincoln Continental and Vince Donnelly raises his eyebrow slyly and says to me, "If I'm going to go, I'm going to go in style."

A bit of subversive humor from my dad that I well appreciate. It helps alleviate the shock of how he looks. Prior to this trip, I hadn't seen my dad since I spent Christmas in Vail, Colo., where he and my mother had moved several years ago. What a difference five months can make.

During the holidays, Vince didn't look so bad for a guy who recently had had a third of his pancreas cut out. I even dared to hope he was on the mend. Then, a couple of days after Christmas, he asked if I wanted to drive his new Cadillac STS down to the Eagle diner where we'd find the best milkshakes in the county. The weather was warm for the Colorado high country, the sky a saturated blue. It was not a day for bad news, and my dad tried to deliver it as gently as possible.

"The horses are out of the barn, Joe," Vince said as we gained speed and lost altitude cruising down the valley. "I don't think they're going back in. I can feel it. It's running wild."

My dad went on to explain that the cancer he'd been diagnosed with the previous summer had metastasized despite the drastic operation. His CA19-9 markers (cancer activity in the blood) were climbing the charts. He rattled off the meager survival statistics, the chemo protocols and the grim prognosis. I stared out the diner's windows and told him he was going to be fine. There had to be some exception to these rules, and I was sure my dad would be that. After all, he'd lived his life being the exception. Growing up in a household weighed down by poverty, alcoholism and old-world Catholicism, he still managed to get out, get educated and become a successful business owner. He had survived colon cancer twice in his early 50s, and several years ago he'd brushed off prostate cancer as if it were the flu. I'd been conditioned to expect him to walk out of life's burning buildings.

As he spoke, my mind wandered back to Los Angeles, where my own trajectory away from the past had run out of turf. Vince had visited me there recently and appreciated all of the things that we residents take for granted--the light, the architecture, the action, the intelligence. We talked about spending more time together in L.A. I thought better times had arrived for my dad and me. We had both survived near-death encounters with booze and the things that drive men crazy. He was lucky to walk away from a drunken head-on collision with a truck. I was lucky to have called a friend instead of pulling the trigger of the gun in my mouth. We'd both gotten sober since and had even become optimistic.

Now this: the two of us in the rain at Pittsburgh International Airport, loading three bags into the white Lincoln--one for my clothes, one for my dad's, and one for the syringes, saline solutions, antiseptics, enzymes, anxiety reducers and chemo pills that have become my dad's constant traveling companions. Pittsburgh, the town where I more or less grew up and where my dad's working life finally paid off, is the first stop on our trip--a journey that will retrace our steps to Syracuse, N.Y., where my family started.

As I navigate the rain and slippery roads toward the city, I wonder what the hell we're doing. The figure in the passenger seat is a hollowed-out version of my dad that is alien to me. His jokes help remind me that it's still him and that he is still alive. The white Lincoln radiates against the black skies and brown buildings of the city. I'm glad my dad chose white. It's heavenly.

just a year before, my dad could bench press 200 pounds, leg press 500 and swim, hike and ski laps around athletes half his age. At 68, Vince Donnelly was in the middle of an astonishing physical renaissance when the cancer in his pancreas erupted.

His strength had helped him survive an operation at Johns Hopkins to remove a large chunk of his pancreas. Soon after, though, tests showed cancer in nearby lymph nodes. Opinions varied on whether my dad was treatable. The operating surgeon suggested that he just go home and live his life as best as possible, not concern himself with things such as CA19-9 markers, CAT scans, chemotherapy and all of the other ways people try to corner and kill the beast. It was the doctor's way of saying that fighting probably was a waste of energy. But fighting is in my dad's blood. I didn't expect him to stop now just because cancer was in there too.

The following spring, my dad's hopes for survival took a severe blow. PET scans ordered by my father's oncologist in Vail showed cancer spreading throughout his upper spine and sternum. The images also indicated increased metastasis in his liver and near his kidney. The Vail oncologist told him he could reasonably expect to live four more months.

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