TO THE WINGS, HE WAS SIMPLY DARREN’S DAD

DEATH SHOULD never take a holiday. Especially not Thanksgiving. Not the one holiday devoted to families. This is not a time to die. This is a time to bounce your grandchildren on your knee, to pass the cranberry sauce to your wife and smile, to put your arm around your son, tell him you’re proud of him.

That is what Craig McCarty should have been doing today with his family, with his wife, with his boy, Darren, the Red Wings forward. Instead, because Craig could not stop for death, it unkindly stopped for him. He is gone. The good fight, so public these last few years in Detroit, has been lost.

“I’m going to beat this,” he once told me, on an “up” day in his battle against multiple myeloma, a rare form of bone marrow cancer that had struck him at age 46. “I’m gonna be the first.”

“I’ll bet you will,” I said.

And I believed it. At least I wanted to believe it. Never mind that the life expectancy with this awful disease is a mere four years. Never mind that Craig underwent difficult bone marrow transplants, that he endured the burn of chemotherapy, that the treatments left him so bloated at times his face appeared as round as a cartoon.

Never mind. There was such a great spirit to this man. I don’t usually get to know the parents of athletes. They are sometimes, quite frankly, only interested in how much their son is scoring, or how much money he’s getting.

But this man was different. He had the firmness of a high school vice-principal and the gentleness of a grandpa who feeds pigeons in the park. His son, one of the most popular players on the Red Wings, was a kid who reflected well on his father, and wasn’t embarrassed to have “Pop” sitting next to him near his locker-room stall.

Craig McCarty was his given name, but he was always “Darren’s Dad” in the halls of Joe Louis Arena, where he spent so much time these last few years.

“Have you seen Darren’s Dad?” people would say. “Did you talk to Darren’s Dad?”

And later, “Did you hear about Darren’s Dad? Is he gonna make it? . . .”

Death takes a holiday.

The words we dread

It was in the summer of 1995 that Craig McCarty first felt a shot of pain in his chest. He drove three hours to a doctor, never telling his wife that he thought he was having a heart attack. An examination revealed nothing wrong with his heart, but something amiss with his blood. A few months later, he got the news: cancer.

This is the moment of which we all live in fear, the moment fate pushes us off a cliff and tells us the expected date that we crash into the ground. Most people free-fall. They are confused. Angry. Depressed. They often think they have nothing more to offer, because the whole world is so black and gloomy.

Not Craig McCarty. In a certain way, he found more life in dying than many people find in living. He fought through his grueling treatments. He fought the fatigue. He wrote a book, started a magazine, ran a foundation. He soaked in the support of his family and even got a new dog, a golden retriever, for extra love, both giving it and getting it.

When Darren revealed an alcohol addiction in the summer of 1996, Craig insisted that Darren get treatment. He said father and son would fight their afflictions together. “You have a disease, I have a disease,” he said. “Let’s try and beat them.”

From that point, they became unified in a way few fathers and sons ever do. They revealed their stories. They visited TV stations and radio stations to tell about their battles, to inspire others with similar problems. A year later, Craig watched with tears in his eyes as Darren scored the clinching goal in the final game of the Red Wings’ first Stanley Cup in 42 years.

And later, in the locker room, Craig had an even bigger moment. As the Wings drank from the Cup in celebration, he watched Darren take his turn, dump out the champagne, pour in a soft drink, and swig that instead.

“I was the proudest parent in the room,” the father said.

It doesn’t surprise me that this disease attacked Craig McCarty’s bones; it wouldn’t have had a chance against his heart.

A way to help others

In the final months of his life, I would see Craig in the Joe Louis Arena hallways, or sitting in the locker room waiting for Darren to finish his interviews. Craig was always smiling, his eyes dancing wearily behind his glasses, his white hair and cheeky visage suggesting some kindly uncle who happened to like hockey.

He never had a negative word. Never complained about his affliction. The only help he ever sought was for his innumerable projects, such as the book he wrote about his and Darren’s experiences, called “Rinkside,” or the foundation he and Darren started to raise money to fight the disease. That foundation, the McCarty Cancer Foundation, has already earned well over $500,000 through fund-raising events and black-tie galas. I was asked by Craig to be the emcee for the first of those. It was more than an honor. I said a few words about Craig’s courage, and his love that was so apparent for his son.

That night, Craig McCarty began a new tradition with me.

He hugged me.

And every subsequent encounter began with a hug. Hello, then a hug. See you later, then a hug. This is not always the norm for sports families and strangers. But it is for people who are dying. I learned from a wise old dying teacher once that just as babies need to be held and comforted when they enter the world, so, too, do the dying need to be held and comforted as they’re leaving the world.

Craig and I hugged all the time.

And now he’s gone. He was 50 years old. And, like everyone who swallows hard at the news of a death, I only wish we could hug again.

Farewell to Darren’s Dad, who’ll have a permanent place in that locker room now, on some invisible stool, next to his son, smiling at his effort, soothing his bruises. It won’t be the same. How could it be?

The sad truth is, death never takes a holiday. But it sure ruined this one. Perhaps the only way to fight back is to find someone you love today and hug them hard, hug them as if you’ll never let them go.

A private memorial service for Craig McCarty will be held Saturday in Leamington, Ontario, for family and friends. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to the McCarty Cancer Fund, 27387 Woodward Ave., Berkley, MI 48072. Craig McCarty’s book, “Rinkside: A Family’s Story of Courage & Inspiration,” is available from Benchmark Press for $14.95 at most bookstores.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 6:30-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760). Albom will sign copies of his books from noon-1 p.m. Saturday at Borders in Novi. Other signings: 7:30-8:30 p.m. Dec. 8 at Little Book Shoppe On The Park in Plymouth, 7:30-8:30 p.m. Dec. 15 at Barnes & Noble in Toledo, 1:30-2:30 p.m. Dec. 18 at Borders in Ann Arbor, 4-5 p.m. Dec. 18 at Barnes & Noble in Bloomfield Hills, and 7:30-8:30 p.m. Dec. 20 at Barnes
& Noble in Troy.

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