Ed. note: Mike Martino wrote “Dry Martino” for the Long Island Press for four years, starting in 2006, and for all that time, the column was one of the paper’s most popular features. Both Mike and his column left the Press in January, 2010, when he took a job as press secretary for then-newly elected Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano. Mike’s family was always a theme in his writing, and many of his readers came to feel as if they knew that family. Mike’s father passed away, on Oct. 3, 2010. The Press is honored to publish this one-time-only new installment of “Dry Martino,” penned by Mike in the immediate days before his father’s passing.
He’s restless. It’s been this way for a couple of weeks, getting worse every day. His eyes will dart around the room, occasionally catching an image that will jar his mind. More frequently, they come to rest on the television, mounted on a wall across the room only a few inches from the ceiling.
He’s not really watching whatever show is on. It’s just a focal point. His thoughts seem to keep him preoccupied.
He turns to me.
“Mikey, hide the diamonds over here,” he says. “Next to my arm.”
“What diamonds, Pop?” I ask. Maybe the old man has a bag of diamonds somewhere in the house? That would be cool. But I doubt it.
“The diamonds. Put them right here.”
He turns back to the television. The Giants are looking pitiful. One year ago he would have been cursing with me, waving his hand in disgust in a manner that he could patent. Nobody could wave in disgust like he could. Today, though, he does not really sound off on the game.
It is the third week of the season. On opening day, we watched the game together at home. He slept most of the day. My sister and I watched his breathing as he slumped over in his recliner. They were labored, deep breaths. His chest rose high, then crashed down. We knew.
That’s when we knew.
The next day, he went back into the hospital. He is not going to make it home. For six months, he has fought a losing battle with lung cancer—the small cell carcinoma kind—and he hasn’t caught a break since the day we found out.
During my life, I have watched other people live the cancer nightmare. I have been blessed and never had to directly face the onslaught this disease brings to its victims. We have lost family and friends to cancer, but within my tight circle, in my immediate family, we’ve been lucky.
And now the luck has run out. We are losing him, and it won’t be long.
My personality is such that I talk a lot, but if I were to dissect all of those conversations and ridiculous preaching, I don’t say a whole lot. I seem to have more luck when I write it. I have grown weary of hearing myself talk.
Seven months ago, Dad’s mind was sharp. He always had a great sense of humor, with perfect timing for long-form jokes and one-liners. Today, he is telling me to hide the diamonds next to his arm, on the hospital bed. The cancer has moved from his left lung to his brain. Small cell is like a frag grenade: It explodes all over the body and moves fast.
The day he was diagnosed, my mother and I Googled small cell carcinoma. There was no good news to be found. None. The websites said victims of the disease generally die six months after being diagnosed. It is coming up on six months, and he is right on schedule.
I don’t know if he really means diamonds. Maybe he is hiding something else, and they are his diamonds. In this state, something else could be a diamond to him. Maybe my mother, who has taken care of him from LBJ and Lady Bird to Obama and Michelle. My sister, his only girl, the youngest. She is most like him. My brother, who has been a constant thought in my father’s head since he was born.
Maybe his memories are his diamonds, and he struggles to save them from being destroyed by the insidious disease he knows is taking him over. Maybe that’s it.
He needs to protect his memories. They are all someone has when they are dying. And if your life really does flash before your eyes in an instant when a car almost hits you in a cross walk or before you get broadsided in an intersection, perhaps it is an exhaustive Ken Burns-like documentary if you are lying in a bed for weeks or months. When Dad does not have his memories, his diamonds, then all will be gone.
He will be gone.
I know there is no hiding spot that is safe enough to stop that reality. But I will try to find one, starting with the place he suggested, right next to him, where we all stand: his wife, kids and brother. We’ll find a place.