Willie Mac was a nickname from his boxing days in the Navy. Area legend has it, he never lost a fight.
Willie Mac ran a popular restaurant in an old working-class section of New Haven. A place where you might hop on a stool and swivel while listening to petty gangsters exaggerate their latest capers.
The regulars that frequented his business daily resembled characters out of a Damon Runyon musical. Their names alone could give a writer ideas for a great Netflix series: Pei Pei, Jimmy Dogs, Hollywood, Louie the Monk, The Rabbit, Sally Piles, Johnny Pick, Midgy Renault, and Cipolla.
The kitchen was the epicenter, filled with great smells and the regulars walking in and out stealing his legendary meatballs as he fried them. I loved sitting at the end of his long maple work table, on a rusty old stool that rocked when I moved.
One day while helping him peel potatoes for his Manhattan clam chowder. (The chowder his customers said he made by pulling a single quahog through the broth on a string) I asked, “Dad, where did Johnny Pick get his nickname?”
He turned towards me and said, in a matter-of-fact tone, “during a fight, someone stabbed him in the neck with an ice pick.” Every-time I swallowed that day, I thought of Johnny Pick.
Willie Mac had another nickname, one I gave him as he got older, I called him Poppi du. I just loved the way it sounded, and sometimes when he put on his glasses with thick black frames from the VA, I called him Mr. Magoo.
Around this time, his heart began to show signs of wear. During a cardiology visit, his doctor told him to stop smoking while holding a lit cigarette. His doctor died a year later from a heart attack. Willie Mac knew this, but he kept right on smoking. I don’t remember him without a cigarette in his hand and a coffee cup nearby.
My father’s restaurant closed in 1986 due to dad’s health, which was declining rapidly. The two packs of Chesterfield unfiltered cigarettes, and 8 cups of coffee a day might have had something to do with it. His lungs were holding fluid, so we had to take him to the VA often.
On one visit, his doctors decided to admit him. I walked into his room to find him sitting under an oxygen tent, not a good sign. He pulled back the plastic curtain and said in a chipper voice, “Hi Lu, would you go down to the convenience store and pick up two packs of Chesterfield unfiltered cigarettes for me? I looked at him in disbelief. I think, he thought, if he asked me sweetly, I wouldn’t realize what an outrageous request this was. “Absolutely not; those cigarettes put you in here in the first place.” He wasn’t happy, but I held firm.
To change his focus I asked him to tell me a story. I curled up next to him on a turquoise leather side-chair, with my legs tucked under me, waiting to hear the story he chose. I’d heard them many times but loved to look at his green-gray eyes twinkle in the retelling. I stayed for a while more, then told him I’d see him tomorrow; “do you need anything Dad, I asked?” No cigarettes.”
The next day I walked into his room, put down the food mom sent on the dresser, and when I looked up, my father was sitting outside the curtain, oxygen valve off, holding a lit cigarette. “DAD! what are you doing? I exclaimed, you’ll blow up the hospital, and where did you get those cigarettes?” With an impish grin, he said, “I bribed the guest visiting the drunk in the next room with twenty dollars; he bought them for me. I rolled my eyes.
During every visit, I noticed his breathing become more labored; one visit was incredibility painful. Before walking into his room, I stopped at the door to take a few deep breaths to quiet my nervous system and relieve the pressure in my chest.
With a heavy heart, I walked in. Willie Mac looked so slight from his robust frame. His eyes closed, I leaned near him and said, “Hi dad, it’s Lu, His eyes opened slightly. His arm, resting on an IV board, felt chilled, so I covered it with his blanket. My heart was breaking. Whispering near his ear, Dad, you know how much I love you, right? He opened his eyes slightly and gently nodded; yes, I kissed his forehead. telling him I’d see him tomorrow. Once out in the hallway, my hand on the wall to ground me, I began to sob.
Three days later, his doctors told us to come to say our goodbyes because they didn’t think he would live through the night. We all met at the VA and stood around his bed to keep him company while he slept. We were so happy his oxygen nose clip was helping him breathe easier. Looking down at him, my sadness was crushing, knowing every time I thought of my father’s last day, I would feel a deep sadness.
He opened his eyes, happy to see us standing around his bed. He turned to my mother and asked, “Lyn did anyone bring me a coffee? We stood looking at him in disbelief, Willie Mac is asking for coffee now, is the expression going around from one relative to another? His sister-in-law raised her hand as if in school and said, “Willie, I brought you coffee.” She handed the thermos to my mother, who poured some into the red Thermos cap, raised my father’s bed so he could sit up, and handed him the cup.
He took a big sip, then with the speed of a Ninja throwing a Shuriken, spat it back into the cup. “between breaths, he said, “Is this the best coffee you could make for a man on his deathbed? They give better coffee to prisoners of war.” We all started laughing until tears came because of the wonderful absurdity of this scene. An hour later, he left our world.
This is the image I’ll remember when I think of Willie Mac’s last day. My father gave me a gift he’ll never know how precious.