[NOTE: The Pulitzer Schmulitzer! countdown is taking a pause to honor a man who was better than me in many ways. OK, all ways.]
Joe Horton, my dad, passed away early Saturday morning in his sleep. It was expected and it was peaceful and it was painless and I was there. In other words, he died in the easiest way possible for everyone else, which was certainly consistent with the rest of his life. (If you want to know why he’s a “Horton” and I’m an “Orta,” buy me a drink and I’ll tell you the story. I promise it will be worth your while.)
A little bit about my dad. He was selfless. Certainly more selfless than I am, albeit a low bar. I’m sure part of this had to do with the fact that he grew up poor in Los Angeles during the Depression, which is like being really super über poor during any other time during the last century. He once told me a story about how he and his twin brother Sam cried one Christmas morning when they didn’t get a new bicycle they were expecting. His father, my grandfather, went out and sold the one piece of jewelry he owned of any value, his watch, and bought the bicycle. My dad never stopped feeling bad about that, and never asked for much after that. I, on the other hand, once pouted because I had to share a birthday cake on my birthday. I was 35, and the other person on my cake was my 1-year-old daughter. Selflessness counter: +1 to Joe; -1 to John.
But it wasn’t just that he didn’t need at lot. It was that he also gave a lot. My mother died when I was 12 and my brother was 10. A single father, he got us to school, doctor appointments, sports practices, piano lessons, play dates and birthday parties, all the while somehow feeding us and working full-time. But it was more than his ability to complete parental mechanics. On top of the driving/cleaning/cooking/everything-else-kids-need, he always made time to pay attention to us whenever we asked.
For example, when I was 12 or 13, I loved music and felt that certain songs were SO BRILLIANT that I needed to share these wise words with my dad. So nearly every day, I would make him come to my room to listen to Zeppelin, Hendrix, Floyd, the Stones, Bowie, Queen, or whatever else I happened to think was SO BRILLIANT at that very second. And he would. He’d stop what he was doing, come and stand in the doorway of my room, nodding his head to the beat. He’d stay until the end of the song, say “that’s great,” and go back to whatever task was at hand (which in all likelihood was something for my brother or me). Knowing his musical tastes now, and knowing how hard it is to get everything done in a day, I’m pretty sure he didn’t love the songs I played for him, and I’m positive he didn’t have the time to stop what he was doing to listen to them. And yet, I remember hearing him, on Sunday mornings in particular, while making French toast, singing AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap).” I can’t even make French toast. Selflessness counter: +1 to Joe.
It wasn’t just selflessness that he bested me at. He was also nicer, braver, and more handsome. He fought in a war. Listening to his stories about going out in LA in the mid-1940s, I’m pretty sure he was also a better dancer. And I’m absolutely sure he was a better athlete. Despite throwing me endless grounders and tight spirals, there was no way I could match his natural ability. My dad played football for UCLA under Harry “Red” Saunders. I regularly smoked cigarettes while playing rec basketball in high school. Like during the games. Another +1 to Joe.
Although playing football was his passion, my dad was a true fan of all sports so even though I never excelled at sports, I do excel at watching sports on TV. He let me, at 7-years-old, stay up to watch Gar Heard in the famous triple OT Suns-Celtics game in the NBA finals. We watched Nadia Comanici get a perfect 10 at the Montreal Olympics. We witnessed the Immaculate Reception, Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in three swings in the ’77 World Series, Leon Spinks upset Ali for the heavyweight crown, Bird’s Indiana State v. Magic’s Michigan State NCAA Championship Game, the Miracle on Ice, Borg-McEnroe, The Catch and the last two Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed. I’d give Joe a point for this, but allowing me to watch this much television, mostly past my bedtime, was questionable parenting.
As kids are prone to do, I grew up, moved to San Francisco, became a lawyer and started a family. We spoke less, not because anything came between us, but because life is busy. Then, a few years ago, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.
He battled the cancer – and battled it well – for a long time. True to form, he didn’t talk about it much, didn’t ask for much, choosing to battle it on his own. But cancer plays the long con and last summer, I got a call in the middle of the night from my brother. “Dad’s not doing well. You should come home.” I told him I was in London. “Am I going to make it?” “Not sure,” was his response.
So I got on the first flight I could get the next day and flew from London to San Francisco, took a cab home, unpacked and repacked (there isn’t a ton of overlap in summer UK and summer Phoenix wardrobes), went back to the airport and flew to Phoenix, the entire time wondering if I was going to make it on time and trying to figure out the last conversation we had and whether I told him I loved him. I needed to tell him what a great dad he was. When I arrived in Phoenix, I grabbed my rental car and drove straight to the hospital, raced up to his room and found….
…him sitting in a chair watching the Diamondbacks game and having lunch. “What the fuck?” That may have either been thought or spoken but in either case my brother gave me the “dude-sorry-but-seriously-he-was-on-his-death-bed-last-night” look. It wasn’t his fault. Turns out the cancer had shut down one of his kidneys and was wreaking havoc on the other. The doctors said that despite his recovery from the brink, the end was near and sent us home with hospice and a hospital bed.
Now I had the chance to give something back to him: I could be with him at the end. I flew my wife and kids in to say goodbye. We told stories and went through photo albums and laughed a lot (most significantly about my apparently very poor grades in Religious Studies, which my kids discovered in reading my old report cards that my dad had saved). At the end of the weekend, my wife and the kids said goodbye and headed back home. I stayed to wait for the end. Selflessness counter: +1 to John.
But it turns out the end wasn’t near. After about a week of watching my dad watch the Diamondbacks and eat lunch, I finally had to address the elephant in the room. “Dad,” I said. “I don’t think you’re going to die anytime soon.” “How long is this going to take do you think?” he asked. “I have no idea. How do you feel?” “I feel pretty good.” I said, “Pops, I love you, but I need to get back home. Call me if you think you’re dying and I’ll come back.” Selflessness counter: -1 to John
But THAT call never came. Instead, I got a call that they kicked him out of hospice, which is like getting kicked out of the Hotel California. And we took advantage of it. We met in San Luis Obispo for a weekend. He threw himself an 86th birthday party, and we went to it. My daughter Lily and I met him in LA when he went to his UCLA football reunion in November. My son Sam and I flew to Phoenix over MLK weekend. Six weeks ago my dad went to Barcelona because he had never been. I’m not kidding. +1 to Joe.
But the doctors had said that at some point he would begin to feel bad. And eventually they were right. About a week after coming back from Barcelona he went to the hospital and the doctors told him that the cancer had spread. It was a matter of weeks, not months.
So for the last five weeks I’ve been flying back and forth to Phoenix on the weekends and we did what we’ve always done best: watch sports. I rooted for the Warriors and he rooted for the Clippers (he won). I rooted for the Diamondbacks and he rooted for the Dodgers (I won). We watched Seung-yul Noh win the Zurich Classic, J.B. Holmes win the Wells Fargo, and Brendan Todd win the Byron Nelson. We even watched old guys play tennis on the ATP Champions Tour.
But by far the most fun the last few weeks has been watching California Chrome win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. My dad loved this horse. He loved him because he cost $8,000. He loved him because his owners were first time horse owners and called themselves Dumb Ass Partners. He loved him because his 77-year-old trainer had never had a horse in the Kentucky Derby. And he loved him most of all because he was from California, and a California horse hadn’t won the Derby since 1962.
Thursday night I got a call from my brother that was very similar to the one I received 10 months before when I was in London. “You need to come home.” So I took the first flight home in the morning, again wondering if I had told my dad I loved him when I left the weekend before.
My brother had warned me that he really wasn’t responding, but when I arrived early the next morning, he recognized me immediately. We hugged and I quickly told him that I loved him and that he was a great father. He told me I was a great son. I told him he was a better dad than I was a son and thanked him for listening to all the songs I made him listen to.
Then I asked, “Dad, do you remember the AC/DC song you used to sing when making French toast?” And without missing a beat, he busted into his best Bon Scott imitation and started singing the chorus: “Dirty deeds and they’re done dirt cheap.” “Yes!” I said, and together we sang a few verses. +1 to Joe.
It turned out to be his final point. When our singing stopped, he closed his eyes and fell asleep. That was really the last actual conversation we had. By the end of day, I’m not sure he recognized me anymore and he passed that night.
And if I was looking for some sort of sign, which I wasn’t, I was given one by 97.9 KUPD, the classic rock station that existed when I was a boy and continues to this day. On my way to the airport as I left Phoenix, they played, back to back, “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix and “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult. The only thing weirder would have been if they’d played “Stairway to Heaven” next, and although tempted, I didn’t wait for the commercial break to end and gave the keys back to Thrifty Rental Cars. I had a year to say goodbye to the most selfless man I’ll ever know, and I think I did it well. And if you’re still keeping score (and I am, but remember I’m not that selfless), I’ll take this as my final +1.
Saying goodbye was a dirty deed, but it was done dirt cheap. So don’t fear the reaper, Joe. Climb the stairway to heaven. And if California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes, I’ll know you made it.