He struggled to lift his arm and place his hand over my badge. At about three o’clock in the morning, I decided to visit him in the hospital. He was seventy-nine years old and he would die in three hours. I was on my way home from a late night at work, still in my uniform. At the time, May, 1998, I was a Deputy Chief. Six months earlier, he attended my promotion, assisted by a portable oxygen tank. When I got to his room that night, I was surprised that he had visitors at that late hour. My niece Christie and my nephew Michael were visiting my Dad, their grandfather. We all spoke for a bit. At one point, my father barely lifted one of his hands and as he pointed his finger at each of us, he said, “Phone Company, fireman, cop – that’s good.” In his eyes, Michael, Christie and I made it in life. We had civil service jobs. We were successful. I moved a little closer to my father’s bed. Christie and Michael whispered something to each other, and they said goodnight.
Then we were alone, my father and I. It was difficult for him to speak, and he could barely move. He labored, while smiling softly, “That priest says thank you.” I answered, “I know.” He was at the end of his battle with a terminal lung disease. As he placed his hand over my badge, he looked at my medals. He smiled, and seemed to be admiring them. He said, “You’re a good son.” I bent down and kissed him. I don’t remember doing that before. Then I said, “You’re a good father. I love you.” I had not told him that since I was five or six years old. We played a silly game then. He would tell me that he loved me. I would tell him that I loved him more than he loved me. He would answer that he loved me more than that. I would come back again, saying, “I love you even more than that.” We would go on for a long time with that “game”. Those words were not spoken again for many years, until that night, three hours before my father died.
The priest my father mentioned with his last few words, was the subject of another sort of game we played over the last thirteen years. One spring afternoon in 1985, as a newly promoted NYPD sergeant, I responded to a job on Ocean Parkway, Brooklyn, a man perched on the ledge of a six-story apartment building threatening to jump. I got out of my patrol car, me closer to the front of the building, my driver on the other side. I looked up and saw a man sitting on the roof ledge, looking down at me. I looked up at him and yelled, “Can we talk?” He looked down, held up his left hand with one finger extended, and said, “Only one.” I told my driver to wait in front of the building, to direct the responding support units, while I went into the building lobby. I made my way up onto the roof, and engaged him from about fifteen feet away. It was just him and I. While his body faced away from the building, ready to jump, he occasionally turned his head, looking back toward me. I asked him what his name was. “George, George Watson.” He said.
I was alone with him on that roof, with no training or experience to qualify me to talk this man leaning off the roof top ledge. But I had an experience a week earlier that could influence his decision whether to jump or not. As no one other than him and I was there, and I could not be criticized if my words had the wrong effect, I decided to share my insights with this poor man. I told him that a week earlier, in Brighton Beach, the next neighborhood over, a man jumped from a building the same height, but he did not die. In fact, his body wiggled in excruciating pain before the ambulance took him away. Then the man on the Ocean Parkway ledge turned from me, leaned over, looking down over the ledge, down toward the ground, shifted his body a little, almost sliding off the ledge, and said with a determined voice, “I’ll die. I’ll jump head first!” I quickly changed the subject. And we spoke some more.
As we spoke, I saw the emergency service officers taking concealed positions on that roof. And then, a priest appeared. He came out of the stairway. He joined me, engaging the man sitting on the ledge. He got closer to him than I could. George Watson had to divide his attention between me, the ground below him, and the priest. Then, out of nowhere, the ESU cops charged. They grabbed our jumper, pulling him to safety. The two ESU officers, the priest and I walked the George Watson off the roof, down the elevator, and into an emergency vehicle to be taken for help.
A few days later, there was a picture in the local paper of the building, our jumper on the roof and me and Fr Dominick Cutrone. As usual when I was in the local papers, I bought several copies and brought one to my mother and father. My father, who had retired from a twenty three year career as an NYPD officer in 1966, nineteen years earlier, adamantly pushed me, that I get some type of formal recognition for Father Cutrone. I told him there was no such kind of recognition. Besides, I already thanked him. And, he was recognized, by being on the front page of the news. In fact, I made sure his name was included in the article. I gave him full credit for his involvement in bringing George Watson down from the roof.
My father and I argued. He thought I could do more to recognize Father Cutrone. I believed there was nothing more I could do. We argued a few more times during the months to come. They would often end with heated exchanges, with me saying, “You’re off the job twenty years. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” After a year or two there were no more arguments, but my father would frequently tease me, saying, “By the way, that priest who helped you says thank you for the recognition you got him.” I would smile, and not respond. About ten years later, when I became a precinct commanding officer, I learned of a simple procedure to acknowledge a member of the community for helping with an arrest or lifesaving operation. A one-page report prepared and forwarded through channels would result in a certificate signed by the police commissioner being presented by the precinct commanding officer. After years of arguing, I realized my father was right, back in 1985.
Looking back years later, it seems like it all happened so quickly. That night, that one hour conversation, the phone call that he had died and yes, his whole life, and my relationship with him. So much I wish I could’ve said then, so many times I think back and wish I would have told him how much I admired him and how much I loved him. How can we live so much of our lives without telling the people closest to us how much we appreciate them? But we do. We don’t take all of those opportunities to express our gratitude to the people who mean the most to us for their place in our lives. How often do we look back and wish we could do some of it over again? This is not me lamenting on a poor relationship with my father; our relationship was wonderful. But I wish I could have championed that relationship more. I wish I told him more times that I loved him and that I admired him and thanked him for the influence that he has had, and will always have on my life. I wish I told him that I loved him more often.
As I write this I am asking myself, how often do I tell the people in my life I appreciate them? How frequently do I tell the people I love that I love them? Well, I will do that, more often. Thank you Walter, thank you Dad. I will do that for you.