“David, Floyd’s had another heart attack; Mom and I are with him at the hospital.”
It’s Lisa, his oldest stepchild, with his ex-wife.
“How bad is it?”
“It’s bad. He didn’t want to go back to the hospital, but Mom talked to him and he quit resisting.”
“Yeah, he told me he was ready to die and didn’t want CPR — he was sore for weeks after that.”
“You know Mom! She wanted to see that he got the last rites before passing. She wanted us to be able to say goodbye, too.” Lisa paused. “She even talked him into getting a bypass.”
“Oh, that must have been a battle of wills. He didn’t want another surgery after getting the stent.”
“Yeah, but it doesn’t matter now. The doctor said Floyd’s heart is too far gone — he won’t live long enough to even prep for surgery.” I hear rustling. “I’m holding my phone to his ear so you can say goodbye, okay?”
My mind is back in 1959, seeing our dad as he was dying of lung cancer.
Mom is saying, “Tell Daddy you love him.”
“But he’s asleep!”
“He can hear you, just get close. He wants a kiss, too.”
I have to be careful to not touch the oxygen cannula lying across his cheeks and on his upper lip, directing the life-preserving oxygen into his nostrils — but I doubt that he hears me and he shows no response.
Jackie, who’s taken me to the hospital, does the same. I don’t see if Sunny does, too.
Jackie takes me home with her.
She wakes me, where I’m lying on her sofa, and tells me Sunny phoned. Dad’s gone (only 52 years old).
“Hey, Bumble (our joke inspired by a cartoon character from MAD Magazine), Lisa tells me you’ll stop hurting soon. You won’t have any more surgery or CPR, so you can relax. I love you. See you on the other side, Buddy.”
Lisa again, “Thanks, David. I’ll keep you posted.”
The next morning — Lisa, “David, Floyd passed peacefully shortly after you spoke to him.”
* * *
He was named Floyd after our dad’s middle name. But having light blond hair and sky-crystal irises, Marcia, barely able to talk, called him her “little sunny bunny.” Sunny stuck.
He was a normal, active youth of his time, climbing trees to emulate cinema Tarzans or scaring girls with his jar of fish eyeballs. When measles left him needing glasses he became the stereotypical “brain,” — the skinny kid with thick glasses and his nose in a book or comic.
Sunny was a voracious reader with a near-photographic memory and his head was full of facts. He could sing songs flawlessly after hearing them once. He could recite the longest poems, word for word, after one reading.
He couldn’t understand why the rest of us didn’t remember things as well as he did. More recently, he was unbeatable in games of Trivial Pursuit. “Oh, come on — everybody knows that!”
But he was a terrible tease and would tickle our sisters and me mercilessly. It got him countless whippings from Dad. He got comfort from his dog, Smokey.
In his Freshman year of High School, Sunny was afflicted with a disease (Bronchiectasis) that damaged his bronchial tubes. He was prescribed Aureomycin Powder, which he had to inhale orally through a plastic device. Aureomycin, in powder form, is now only used for animals, but at the time was highly praised . . . until it was shown to cause heart disease, as it did to Sunny. His heart was so weakened that he was unable to return to school.
My earliest memories included him lying in bed, singing and playing a guitar or reading. I don’t remember any visits by a tutor, but he read everything he could get his hands on.
By the time Sunny was eighteen he was fed up with Dad’s earlier whippings and more recent shouting that he should “be a man!” He tried to enlist in the Army, but failed the physical.
He watched wrestling matches on TV with Dad and focused on wrestlers who were strong. He told me, “The only way to have Dad’s respect is to be stronger than him.”
He began lifting weights. I remember him sliding a broom-handle through holes in bricks and curling/pressing it like a barbell. When that became easier he added bricks until he had to replace the broom with a pipe.
Six months later he tried again to enlist, but again failed the physical.
Still, he continued his weight training and in July of 1956 he passed and became a soldier. He only came home once, for two weeks after training.
While Sunny was overseas, his dog got loose and was killed by a car and Dad was misdiagnosed with tuberculosis, then found it was really lung cancer and was waiting for surgery.
When Sunny’s enlistment as a diesel mechanic was up, he came home and bought a used Pontiac.
Dad threw a fit, “Why didn’t you take me along; I know cars.”
“So do I, now; I knew what to look for!”
“I bet you didn’t even kick the tires,” Dad sulked.
That evening, Sunny told me, “I knew I shouldn’t have come back here, but I can see Mom needs me.”
In the Army, Sunny had been stationed in Japan where he took judo lessons and even became an instructor. After three years he returned with broad shoulders, a deep chest, and tight abs.
He interviewed to become a professional wrestler, but came home dejected.
“They looked at my muscles, had me lift some weights, and interviewed me. One of the head guys said, ‘Kid, I see you’re serious about this. Too serious. Too straight. They’re entertainers. They’d kill you for not playing the game.’ ”
He’d bought a tape recorder in Japan and had a reel of the soundtrack from the movie, Oklahoma, which he softly played for me one evening.
Dad yelled from the other room. “Turn that d__d racket off!”
I thought Sunny was going to stand up and leave. Instead, his face red, he turned the music off and lay down, facing the wall.
A few weeks later Dad died.
Sunny went out every morning to seek employment. He had earned his G.E.D., but with no college still had to accept menial jobs.
The worst was at the Armour meat packing plant. Sunny loved animals and hated prodding them into the slaughter area. He quit when a hog bit his leg. He said, “I don’t blame him. I’d have bit me too.”
He dated a few girls, but none led to an engagement. He got a dog, though, and named him Ogre.
One day he came home and told Mom, “I got a job at a paint factory as a compounder. There’s this lady named Charlotte that works in the office who looks like Marlene Dietrich. If she wasn’t married with five kids, I’d ask her for a date.”
Char and he talked when work allowed and in 1970, she told him she was widowed, and asked him if he’d marry her and help her raise her kids, especially her only son, Mark. He came home from work that day and said, “Mom, I think I’m engaged.”
Sunny married Char and moved into her house in St. Louis. Mom moved to Tennessee to help Jackie with her six kids.
Char’s kids didn’t know what to make of his Mad Magazine/Jonathan Winters sense of humor. He would often make inappropriate comments, but he and the kids loved animals and through that they bonded.
When Tina, Char’s second child, died from a heart attack, Charlotte left her younger daughters with him and dedicated herself to raising her grandchild. After ten years with Sunny, she divorced him.
Sunny changed jobs and went to work at a pharmaceutical company. When I asked him what he did he said, “I push pills,” then smiled and explained, “I press powder into tablets.”
He bought a mobile home in Illinois, near Marcia, and Mom returned to keep house for him.
On a visit in 1985 I asked him, “Think you’ll marry again?”
He replied, “No, I vowed ‘till death’ — I’m still married to Char.”
Mom developed senile dementia and died in 2001. Sunny said the worst part was that the day of her funeral was stormy. “The cemetery was so wet they couldn’t carry her to her grave beside Dad. I had to drive away with her casket laying there beside the lane. I could imagine her ranting about getting no respect.”
He had stayed close with Lisa and her husband and began dating Char again.
I visited him in 2010, after he moved back to St. Louis. His pup, Killer, wouldn’t let anyone close to Sunny and tried to bite me when we hugged hello and goodbye. He’d had a heart attack and a stent was inserted in a blood vessel. I saw that he’d gained a lot of weight. I asked, “Are you okay here?”
“Yeah, Lisa keeps an eye on me.” He paused, in deep thought.
“You know I’ve been atheist for a long time.”
“Yes . . .”
“When my dog, Buddy, got sick and was in a lot of pain I was holding him and crying. I couldn’t take it, so I said, ‘God, if you’ll stop his suffering I’ll believe in you.’ Right then, buddy relaxed and died. I have to believe again. I promised. But I’m not going to go to church!”
I asked him, “Are you okay?”
He said, “I wasn’t going to have another dog, but Lisa gave me Killer. He’s just what I needed.”
I returned the next year and the next. He took me to see Char each trip. We three would go out to eat and they called each other “Dear” and “Sweetie.”
* * *
February, 2013 (the next day)
Lisa called again. “Mom and I were with Floyd when he passed. He went peacefully. I picked up Killer and brought him home with me.”
In 2015 I returned for my 50th class reunion and visited Sunny’s grave. White-tail deer grazed above him. He would love that.