Dad was healthy as long as I could remember, because he quit smoking the year I was born.
He'd been a lifelong smoker, the kind who lit the first one before getting out of bed in the morning. His doctor had noticed that Dad's blood wasn't circulating through his fingertips and gave him a choice: continue smoking or watch your son grow up.
My father took the harder choice and lived until I was 31, seeing me wed. He loved Alisa — and that he never met our children is the incurable bittersweetness of my life. They would have loved each other so.
Dad craved cigarettes the rest of his life. "Whenever I see someone get off an elevator and light a cigarette," he would say, somewhat wistfully, "I want his cigarette."
A year before his death, there was a hospitalization for pneumonia. Dad recovered and came home soon enough, but he didn't much enjoy the time at the hospital.
They woke him up once in the middle of the night, cheerfully telling him: "We think we've figured out what's wrong with you."
His sound sleep (a rarity in a hospital) interrupted, my father asked, "What makes you think you know?"
They told him, "We realize that the fellow down the hall has the same thing."
Dad: "Is he still alive?"
Big Pharma: "Yes."
Dad, turning back to his pillow: "Then tell me in the morning."
Anyway, about a year later, on Friday morning, Dad called to say, "I'm not feeling so well. Would you play for me in my tennis game this weekend?"
"Sure," I said. The tennis game was a familiar delight: Bob, Bob, Bill, Fernand and others in a men's doubles game whose membership had evolved over the years. These were men who I usually saw in our living room with Scotch on the rocks and beautiful wives at their sides. It was always a treat to see them dressed as boys in white shorts.
I played in his game that weekend.
Six Days Later
The next Friday, after the funeral, back at the house, the tennis boys surrounded me to bring me up to date on the game: "Your father probably isn't going to play this weekend either. Do you want to take his place?"
I played in the game for the next two years. It was a delight. I learned how to play tennis like an old man. Young men work to win, hitting the ball as hard as they can. Old men, however, can't be beat, always placing themselves where the ball is going next. They practice spin, not power, slicing the ball thin like pastrami.
I remember chasing down a lob, sprinting from the net to the baseline. One of the men called out, "Your father wouldn't have run for that one."
I've always thought of those two years on the tennis courts as my inheritance.