I’ll never forget sitting on the side of my bed, with my dad next to me, bawling my eyes out about how I didn’t want him to go; this was a few weeks before he died. He was a very strict disciplinarian, having been raised Irish Catholic in Cleveland, and the oldest of three brother and one sister. Up until that point in my life, Dad was much more of an authority figure and provider than a friend, as our relationship simply hadn’t matured to that stage yet. I loved him, just like my mom and brother both loved him, but he was still the guy who you didn’t want to get punished by so better not to be bad, or at least not get caught being bad.
But on that day, father and son sitting side-by-side in a child’s bedroom and struggling to understand the reality of death and its impending effect on our family, we shared a moment of admiration and sorrow and love that I’ll never be able to properly describe to anyone, because it was something so personal.
Dad’s dying devastated me and the sense of loss was more than profound. That day in my bedroom, he’d implored me to take care of my mother and watch out for my kid brother, but after he was gone I couldn’t even watch out for myself.
I’d always had a fascination with bicycles, even though I had no idea that there was an entire sport built around racing them. It was my dad’s death that opened a door for me into the world of cycling – in the weeks following Dad’s passing, my Uncle Jimmy, Dad’s younger brother by two years, bought me a black 12-speed Schwinn World Sport from Baker’s, a shop in our town of Bethel Park, Pennsylvania.
While I truly liked cycling, I pursued it so vigorously for two other reasons: it was a faster means to get away from the sadness and emptiness that Death had brought me, and I found several surrogate fathers through the sport who – perhaps unbeknown to them – helped me to experience some of what it must have been like to grow into young adulthood with a dad.
Alas, even the strongest cyclist on the best bike – even one who dopes – can’t outpace Death forever…even if the chase takes place across continents.
When I left Italy in 2006, it was with the hope that I could quickly replace the support and sustenance I’d sought from cycling with something healthier and more stable: my own family. And by that I mean a wife, who I knew loved me very much, and eventually children. Unfortunately, as has been chronicled here and throughout the media, the high-stakes gambit that Yuliet and I made failed miserably at the hands of Fidel Castro, leader of one of the most evil totalitarian regimes to ever hold power in the modern era.
To say that didn’t go according to plan would be an understatement, and it further catelyzed the reaction that culminated on the 31st of August this year, when my Uncle Jim died. Despite almost always keeping my head down and pushing the big ring, Death finally ran me down and delivered his package.
Sitting in St. Francis de Sales Church on September 6th, with the few remaining members of my immediate family needing only a couple of pews to accommodate us all, I listened as Rev. John Vrana presided over James S. Papp’s funeral mass. While the day was horrible enough with Uncle Jim’s being gone, it was during mass that Death caught me, and ended a chase that had started a little more than 19 years and three months prior.
One of the scriptures read during the liturgy was Lamentations 3:17-26:
“My soul is deprived of peace, I have forgotten what happiness is; I
tell myself my future is lost, all that I hoped for from the Lord. The
thought of my homeless poverty is wormwood and gall;
remembering it over and over leaves my soul downcast within me.
But I will call this to mind, as my reason to have hope: the favors of
the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent; they are
renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness. My portion is the
Lord, says my soul; therefore will I hope in him. Good is the Lord
to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him; it is good to
hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord.”
I’m admittedly a wayward Catholic, but at that moment, the last lines of defense that I’d established to “protect” myself from the grief of my father’s passing were broken. Death recognized his moment, which came when Rev. Vrana spoke the names of those family members who’d died before my Uncle Jim – including, of course, Joseph Papp. Suddenly I was a boy of 14 again.
I’m so sorry for not taking better care of my mother, for not being as supportive a brother as I might have been otherwise and for generally growing apart from my family as I raced around the world on a bike. But I now understand and can acknowledge that my own father’s death nearly two decades ago haunted me, and influenced so many of those decisions that I made both consciously and subconsciously.
If I could have just one last chance to speak with Dad, I would tell him how much I miss him and love him, and how sorry I am for not having been a better man since he died.
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