At the last minute, I skipped the Nextel Cup banquet this year to drive up and see my parents in Pennsylvania. Mom is battling cancer and spending a couple of days with them seemed liked a good idea. Turns out it was, for all the wrong reasons.
The three of us spent three days together, doing little things - shopping for Christmas presents for my kids, driving out in the country just to have some time together alone, eating out at a couple of their favorite dives.
I left on Dec. 1 and was almost back to Charlotte when I got the news over the cell phone from my wife: Dad had suffered a stroke during what was supposed to be a routine and minor surgical procedure. She told me he was going to be alright, that the doctors said the prognosis was good but, somehow, I knew it wasn't. My wife had lost her father to a stroke three years earlier and both our fathers would have made horrible patients. Neither man had a lick of patience and both were fiercely proud and independent, rotten candidates for prolonged therapy with uncertain results.
And so, with my father as with my wife's, the end was inevitable. Eight days after Dad suffered his stroke, he died in a hospital in suburban Philadelphia. His brother, Butch, and I were by his bedside when he took his final breath, and his passing was remarkably peaceful. To my eternal gratitude, we had nothing unsaid between us, no issues that we hadn't managed to work out years earlier.
Anyone who knew John Jensen knew it wouldn't be a stretch to call him a great man, fascinating and complex in both his achievements and flaws. The oldest of 13 children in an impoverished Chicago Catholic family, Dad grew up fast and he grew up hard, the way people did when born to the working poor in the middle of the Great Depression.
He started working for a living at the ripe old age of 7, riding the trolleys in Chicago as he delivered flowers all over the city. Some days he'd drop off a floral arrangement to a cancer patient in Cook County Hospital, then a dozen roses to a dancer at one of the many burlesque theaters that flourished back in the day.
Even as a kid, he was a fearless brawler, afraid of no one and deeply disdainful of people and institutions of power and privilege. At the long-shuttered St. Mel's High School, he occasionally got in trouble for his pranks, including once teaching obscene and creative idioms to a visiting French-Canadian priest who spoke no English.
After somehow surviving his Catholic education, Dad left for the military. On his very first night in Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., Dad picked a fight with his drill instructor. The first night. That was a big part of who he was: A warrior and a fighter, someone who never backed down from anything, a man as tough as nails. He was classic Old School the way Bogie and Earnhardt the elder were.
When you grow up the oldest of 13 kids in the Depression, you get tough or you don't survive. In Dad's world, things were either black or white, right or wrong. There was no room for gray, no ambivalence. He was sometimes wrong about things, as we all are, but he was never in doubt, nor was anyone around him ever in doubt about where he stood.
Along with the warrior mentality, Dad was a passionately devoted family man. When he was a kid, anyone who picked on one of his brothers or sisters picked on him, and God help the occasional dolt who thought it was a good idea to challenge a Jensen. To the very end, Dad regaled us with stories of the days as a kid in Chicago, stories he told with great flair and aplomb. They were almost always hilarious, frequently outrageous and sometimes featured subject matter that couldn't be repeated in polite company. Not only was Dad tough, he was one of the funniest men I'd ever met.
Dad and Mom got married in 1952 - he was 21, she 20 - and they stayed married for 54 years. Less than a year after their wedding, Dad's own father died and for the rest of his life, he would be the go-to guy in his family, someone who could always be counted on to take care of his own. When he needed to, he put the family on his back and carried them.
Dad and Mom raised six kids, three of their own and my older sister Eileen's three, after she died in 1995. In times of crisis, Dad was a rock. When Eileen died, he and Mom flew to California the same day, took their three grandchildren aside and told them that from that moment forward, they would always have a warm, safe home and would never want for anything. And that was that.
Dad had a successful business career and retired at age 59. Over the last 15 years, he and Mom traveled the world, visiting Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. He loved to travel and he loved muskie fishing, single malt scotch, playing golf and, of course, the Chicago Bears.
Most of all, though, he loved his family. On the night before his stroke, he pulled me aside just as we were supposed to leave for dinner and told me he was going into the hospital at 6 a.m. the next morning to have a clogged artery unclogged. He swore he'd be out in a day or so and that, if the operation went perfectly, he might even be released the same day. I knew he was lying and I didn't have the heart to call him on it.
The last conversation we ever had was just before he left for the hospital, when he asked Mom if she had finished her Christmas shopping for all the grandchildren. When she answered, "Yes," he asked again, naming them individually. Then he turned to me, held up his index finger to his mouth and said, "Don't say a word." He kissed me on the cheek and he was gone, just like that.
Eight days later, I held his hand in the hospital bed and told him it was time to go home, that the fish were biting and that there was a tall scotch waiting for him. Then he took his last breath.
All eight of Dad's living brothers and sisters came to his funeral, and afterwards we did what working class families do: We ate, we drank, we laughed and we cried, telling stories and closing the circle.
And as the year winds to a close, my father is no longer with us and for that I am indescribably sad, sad for myself and sad for our children, whom he loved so much. But at the same time, I'm a rich and lucky man for having grown up with him as my father.
Rest easy, Pop. From here on out, I've got your back.