As you can no doubt tell, this post won’t have anything to do with classic films. Back when my father passed away in April, I wrote a brief post about his own film fandom. That, of course, was a wholly inadequate look at the man himself. So on the date of his birth, we’ll part aside films for a moment to tell a little bit about his story.
Tell his story is no easy task. To define my dad by his career, he would have first mentioned his over thirty years working at the airport. One of his greatest thrills in life was to guide back the airplanes. But even that is an incomplete portrait of his career, since he usually worked two or three jobs at one time, ranging at various points from unloading trucks to being a bartender (intoxication engineer, he called it). He was also incredibly proud to have served in the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army.
And as for stories about his life, well, that could take a long time to. He loved to tell colorful stories of his life, seemingly movie-like tales like trying to hitchhike across the country and nearly getting run over by a boat somewhere in Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve committed some of these to writing, and will do more of that later. But for now, we’ll keep things a little briefer.
My dad can probably best be understood through two things: his relationship with my mother, and how he handled his illness in his final years. To know these things is to know a lot about him and his character. So please, indulge me for a moment as I tell a little bit about Daniel M. Bliss.
Of all my dad’s stories, none can match the love story of Daniel and Janet. It began a way that sounds almost too far-fetched, too fictional. But every bit of it is true. To my dad, Janet was truly the girl next door, since they were neighbors. Their families lived right across the street. My dad was close with his future father-in-law before he really even knew my mom, walking the very short distance to watch football games. Maybe that’s the key to a successful marriage: scope out the potential in-laws first. Eventually they started dating, and remained together nearly 39 years later.
Although their interests were often different, my parents’ marriage thrived on one thing more than anything else: talking. When still living separately with their parents, they would stay in the kitchen talking until all hours of the night, using the stove as a feeble light once all were asleep. (Don’t try that at home, kids. Just use your cell phones for illumination.)
Talking for hours was not always an option during my dad’s illness. He often couldn’t stay up very late, feeling tired, fatigued or in pain. But they did have one more night together like that, just weeks before he passed.
The day before, we had all gotten the bad news. Chemo just wasn’t an option any longer, as my dad wouldn’t be able to handle it any longer. Things were too severe and his pain was too much. All that was left was to wait. He was given heavy pain medication, a hope to make him more comfortable at home. Lately the pain had become so bad he could hardly move.
The next day, my brother and I went as planned to a baseball game. When we stopped at the house after, sometime after 10pm, we expected to go upstairs and see dad, where hopefully he was now feeling able enough to still be up, watching a movie. Much to our surprise, he was still in his chair in the living room, talking to my mom. “We wanted to wait up for you guys,” he said.
In the three years of his illness, my dad had rarely been like this. Even on his good days, he still usually found himself too fatigued at the end of the day. But thanks to the medication pushing all of that pain to the back burner, he was more like himself again. He didn’t feel any pain. And the whole time we were gone, the two of them had talked, just like the old days. In all the shock and sadness of the previous days and weeks, my parents were so happy that night. For one final time, they were just the same as they were 39 years ago.
Only months before his death, my dad told me a story I’d never heard before, one of something he did when he became very serious about my mom, when he knew she was the one. He wanted to surprise her with something, a bit of a cute gesture. And he had just the right idea.
At a local saloon sat a jukebox. My dad knew of an old song in there that he badly wanted to give my mom. How he knew about it, I don’t know. By this time it would have had to be over a decade old, and the song charted at #125. But boy, was it ever a fitting song to give my mom: “Just Across the Street” by the Del-Rios.
I’d sit and I’d watch from my window
Just wondering about a true love I’d some day meet
But I never thought the one I’d love
Lived just across the street
First, he offered the owner what the cost of a 45” would have cost then, and the owner wasn’t interested. The haggling continued, but the owner still wouldn’t budge. With no options left, my dad made an announcement.
“I’m going to leave $20 and I’m taking it.”
And so he did. It wasn’t the best financial decision, but sometimes other things are more important.
And now you are mine and I’m so happy
I feel I’ve got the world at my feet
And I thank the stars for sending me along
Just across the street
Yes, I have found my love
Just across the street
It goes without saying that the three years of my dad’s illness were not easy. The tough moments or days were too many to name, but the good and special moments far outweighed them. We all knew how tough, resilient and courageous he was, but it was more apparent than ever in those three years. Those moments are the ones worth focusing on, and the ones to learn from.
After he starting chemo, my dad was determined to still work at his very physically demanding job. And he did: with the fanny pack that fed the chemo into his chest still attached to him. The idea of chemo possibly spilling all over him and his coworkers was more than a little alarming, but luckily biohazard was never called in. Only when he encountered a debilitating exploratory surgery a couple months in did he stop working. And even then, he still thought and hoped he would get back one day. It was over two years later when he officially retired with a heavy heart.
There was something else going on in those first few months too, the time before his big emergency surgery. As he trudged through lots of chemo and doctors meetings, he assured us that the cancer hadn’t spread, that it was isolated in the one spot. “We just have to be prepared for in case it does spread.”
But it already had. Just before the surgery a couple months later, we found out that it was stage four cancer, and had been the entire time he’d been diagnosed. My dad protected us from it, at least for a little while, not wanting to drop that news on us. All the while, he’d carried that weight alone. That he kept this information from us originally was never brought up to him, and he never spoke of it. There was no reason to. We already knew the reason why.
The surgery altered his life forever and ravaged him. Gaunt and under a hundred pounds, his doctor later revealed she only gave him two to three weeks to live. But of course, that wasn’t the end of the story in 2014. We were lucky enough to have a lot more time.
The road to recovery was long, arduous and seemed never ending. He still could hardly eat and being constantly dehydrated, he never sounded like himself. Slowly, changes started to happen. As he became able to eat again and get his voice back, his world opened up and he was finally able to live again.
And live he did. Every meal became a joy. He found a new favorite restaurant with a new favorite dish. He paid off the mortgage on the house, holding a cookout to celebrate (and many more after that). He mowed the lawn, walked the dog, painted inside the house. He bought a convertible (complete with fuzzy dice). He went on drives often, sometimes with my mom, and sometimes alone. He watched movies all the time, having discovered Netflix. He attended a final college football game, one of his most beloved activities. He saw one of his sons get married. He lived.
When faced with constant adversity, more medical complications to name and insurmountable odds, he lived. He found a way to live again and squeeze as much enjoyment out of life as he could. That’s a measure of perseverance and strength I’ll never forget.
This belief that you can fight through anything was most clearly shown to us then, but he always told us about it too. My dad always reminded us of what he’d been told back as a member of the 101st Airborne Division. I would be facing some obstacle that worried me, and he would always say “remember, you’re a member of the 101st. And what’s our motto?”
“We have a rendezvous with destiny,” I’d reply.
And then the day came when the roles were reversed.
It was probably some time in 2015. The first chemo he’d been on was no longer working, and it was time to switch to something else. This second chemo would cause him to lose his hair, although it would come back during later treatments. In a moment of raw vulnerability my dad didn’t often show, it became clear he was very worried about handling a new and possibly grueling type of chemo. I thought I knew just the thing to make things better.
“You’ll be okay,” I said. “Remember, you’re a member of the 101st.”
He rose to his feet, assuming a very proud and official stance. He saluted and said the familiar phrase, but then he added something that he’d never told me before. The way he explained it, whenever faced with a great form of adversity, they would all shout “airborne!” as a sign of strength and encouragement, that they could get through anything.
“Airborne!” he said and returned back into his chair.
Throughout my life, my dad was always trying to teach lessons to my brother, from the big things to the small things. Sometimes it was just a reminder of what his dad warned him about football games, and how the real game starts in the fourth quarter. Sometimes it was a reminder of the quote “time waits for no man” as a reminder to not put off your tough situations, to just get them over with. But he taught me his most valuable lessons in those last few years, even if he didn’t know he was doing it.
Faced with constant adversity, uncertainty and his own mortality, my dad never wavered. He continued to live every day as fully as he could. And he always put on his bravest face, ready to face and confront whatever waited him next. In seeing that, my dad passed along the most important lesson of all: that I can match his courage and face anything that confronts me. If he could do that, then I can too. And I’ll always be okay.