Isn’t life funny, Mark Messner thought. He held a spoonful of malted shake up to his father’s lips, which were black and peeling, burned from the chemotherapy. “Here you go, Dad,” he said. His father rolled his eyes and made a “mmm” sound, like a child. Mark smiled, pulled the spoon out and dug it back into the cup.
Isn’t life funny? A few weeks ago, Messner, 22, was a rookie linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams. He was getting paid to play football. He was living in sunny southern California. Then the phone rang. “You’d better come home,” his sister said. He knew what that meant. He left the team, without pay, and boarded a plane for Detroit.
When he first saw his father, lying in the hospital bed, Mark bit his lip. Then he went out in the hall and began to sob. He showed the nurse an old photo, before the disease, and she said “Oh, my God.”
Now he sat by the bed and fed his father, the way Del Pretty had done for him when he was an infant. Of course, technically, Del was his step-father, but Mark never cared for that phrase. He figured if the man raised me, fed me, spanked me, hugged me, took me to school, wrote me poems, came to all my football games and made me feel like the most important person in the world, well, the hell with it. He is my father.
And I am his son.
“Have some more, Dad” he whispered. He looked at the blotches of red along Del’s arms and legs. He saw the blood stains on the sheets where the skin had peeled away. He thought back to a year ago, when life seemed so carefree. He was heading to the Rose Bowl with the Michigan Wolverines. There would be Hawaii after that and Japan after that. And then came the NFL draft. The Rams took him with a low-round pick. Then in training camp they had him carrying the red cones up and down the field, like some equipment boy.
“Dad,” Mark said one night in a phone call home. “You’d better pull my resume off my computer. I can’t compete on this level.”
“Just keep plugging,” Del said.
“But they got me moving cones!”
“They didn’t draft you to move cones.”
What does he know? Mark thought. He’s never been in the NFL. He owns a piano store, for pete’s sake. But eventually the Rams did come around. He stopped moving cones. He played in the exhibition games. He made the team. His father had been right. Again.
Mark looked at him. The room was quiet. He dug the spoon into the melting chocolate.
Take the chemo, they had told him.
“No,” he had said.
“There’s no alternative.”
“There’s got to be an alternative.”
Del Pretty had been diagnosed as having lymph node cancer in 1980. He fought the very idea, as if it had somehow insulted his pride. He scorned chemotherapy, because he felt it would deteriorate him. Instead he searched for other methods. He tried special diets and experimental drugs. And eventually he beat the illness into remission. Who had time to be sick? There was the business. The family. And Mark’s football games.
“He never missed one,” Mark recalls. “He came to all the home games at Michigan and a lot of the road ones, too. There was this game in Indiana where the weather was horrible. He sat there in the rain the whole time.”
Not that he was one of those jock-hungry fathers. On the contrary. Del Pretty was not a very athletic man. Silver- haired, dapper, with glasses and a gentle but disciplined expression, he looked more like a well-placed accountant. Which he was. But he loved his children. He would show his feelings quietly, in notes that Mark found in his college mailbox: “Dear Mark, I want you to know how proud you make me feel.”
Mark’s friends would tease him sometimes about how close he was with Del. It was almost corny. He had chosen Michigan over UCLA because he wanted Del to be able to see him play. Before he left for the Rams, Mark gave his Dad a record. “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler. He told him to listen to the words, because that’s how he felt.
“Did I ever tell you you’re my hero.
“You’re everything I wish I could be.”
It was the stuff of sappy movies. Unless you know the whole story. Mark was the son of divorce, several times, his mother married and remarried. His natural father (Max Messner, a former NFL player) also remarried. The one constant in his life was Del. He was there when Mark had problems. He was there when Mark wanted to talk about life, or girls, or football. He gave honest answers. Strict, but from the heart.
When Del and Mark’s mother divorced, it tore Mark apart. His Dad had to live alone in some apartment in Northville. Why? It’s not fair.
And then the cancer came back.
Take the chemo, they told him.
“No,” he said.
Once again he tried experimental drugs. He flew to Houston for a new pill. He flew to California for a procedure in which animals are injected with samples from the patient’s tumors, then the antibodies formed are injected into the patient.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “The process takes six to eight months.”
“Yes?” said Del.
“Well. Quite frankly, I don’t think you have that long.”
What do you do when a doctor tells you that? Already the disease had changed him physically. The tumors were stealing nutrients from his food and releasing lymph fluid instead into his abdomen. He was bloated like a pregnant woman.
“He couldn’t sleep in a bed anymore,” says Messner. “His stomach was so large. But meanwhile, the rest of his body was suffering from malnutrition.”
Alone, out of options, he went to doctors in Ann Arbor. “Chemotherapy,” they said. It was early fall. Football season. Mark was in L.A., getting paid. It was as if Del had held out all this time, just to make sure his son could handle adulthood.
“All right,” Del said, finally. “I’ll try the chemotherapy.”
They put the needle in his arm.
The blotches began after the second treatment, they looked like a rash. He asked his doctors. “Must be a skin condition,” they said. “Have you changed your soap recently?”
Another round of chemo, an increased dosage. Now the skin began to puss and fester. Like a horrible sunburn, it would die and peel away. His back. His legs. Around his mouth. Without so much as a match’s flame, he was burnt all over.
“It was the chemo,” says Mark now. “And what was happening outside was happening inside him as well. The organs were being destroyed.” How could this be? Wasn’t chemo supposed to help him? You would touch his back and the skin would come off in your hands. One time, a nurse tried rubbing ointment on the sores. Del began to moan in pain. Mark came running in.
“What’s wrong, what’s he saying?” the nurse asked.
“He’s saying don’t rub, don’t rub,” said Mark. “It hurts too much.”
This was the horrible reality: Del Pretty was dying, one layer at a time. Few of us could witness such a thing.
But the love between son and father is like God’s muscle. So while his teammates worked out back in Los Angeles, Mark Messner came to Harper Grace hospital every morning, 10 a.m, two hours before visiting time, to bathe his father.
He would lift him with his powerful arms and slide him gently into the tub. Sheets of bloody skin would stick to his hands, get under his fingernails. He did not flinch. He poured cool water over his father’s body and comforted him. While Del could still speak, Mark held the phone to his ear
and let him talk to the office at Hammell Music, the piano store which he owned in Livonia. Together they went over the books of the church, where Del was treasurer.
When Del’s vocal cords no longer worked, Mark did the talking. When Del’s eyesight went, Mark would tell him what he was missing.
On Nov. 25, they put the Michigan-Ohio State game on TV. Del stayed awake for the entire thing. When the final gun sounded, Mark said “Hey, Dad! How about that? They’re going to the Rose Bowl!”
Del raised his arm and made a soft fist. He shook it once.
Two days later, he died.
Mark knew as soon as the phone rang. It was 4 a.m. His mother was crying in the other room. “Mom,” he whispered, “they said Dad expired.”
“It makes him sound like a license plate.”
At the funeral, Mark read a poem Del had sent him this fall. And when they closed the casket, Mark’s Rose Bowl watch was around his father’s wrist. Before it was always Del taking care of business matters, but now Mark handled the arrangements. He signed the papers. He went through the bills. He re-read the old letters and thought about their final moments together in the hospital, the feeding, the bathing. The circle was complete. The child had become father to the man.
“You know,” Messner says now. “I was never embarrassed in the hospital. All that blood and skin, that was just his body. It was his heart that I was dealing with. I would have done anything for him. Anything.”
Today, Mark will play a football game for the Rams, the regular season finale. When it is over he will go to call his father, as he always did. And instead, he will have to close his eyes and imagine. “I know he’s watching,” he says without sadness. “He used to joke about having a beer with God. I’ll bet he’s doing it now.”
You hear about the decline of the American family, how the old are tossed aside by the young. And then you hear of a kid who left pro football to tend his dying father. These are the last words of the poem Del wrote, which Mark read at his funeral:
“If all else in a man’s life added to zero, no greater success than to be counted his son’s hero.”
Isn’t life funny? It takes us and leaves us. And love endures. Monday is Christmas, and that means this: Count your blessings, everybody, count them all very carefully. One precious person at a time.