#42 – Bury My Stepdad

I was watching Abby Lee Miller have a mental breakdown in the middle of the bank when my Mom text me.

“Baber passed away at 3:25pm…”

That’s how my Mom broke the news to me that my stepdad died.

I don't know how long ago this was, but I am sure it was early on in their relationship because my Mom hadn't made him grow a beard yet. Everyone agreed that the goatee looked a lot better on him than what he had in this picture.

I don’t know how long ago this was, but I am sure it was early on in their relationship because my Mom hadn’t made him grow a moustache yet. Everyone agreed that the goatee looked a lot better on him than what he had in this picture.

I wasn’t shocked. She and I knew it was coming. Just hours prior, arrangements were being made to put him on hospice, because the doctors couldn’t do anything else for him. My initial reaction was more of relief than anything else. It’s not easy watching a family member suffer. I don’t know how my Mom and sister did it for two years. I had already been in LA for six years by the time he got his diagnosis, so I only occasionally saw him at less than 50 percent of what he used to be.

It was Thursday July 2, 2015. On a normal Thursday I would’ve been at work in Culver City for another three to four hours, but because we had the Friday off before the fourth of July, my boss told everyone we could leave early. So I went to visit my girlfriend Zoe at work at her bank. Last fourth of July weekend I was in Las Vegas at Encore Beach Club watching Macklemore and Ne-Yo perform. Zoe was also in Vegas at Encore Beach Club. We weren’t together. We hadn’t met yet. This year our plan was to go to Marina Del Rey. Our friend Michael invited us on his boat to party down there.

I didn’t want to tell a lot of people. I told my oldest friend Matt because Matt pretty much grew up with me in our house. I told my oldest LA friend Chris, because he almost lost his Dad last Christmas. I told Michael because we were going to spend fourth of July with him and he’s a good friend and I didn’t just want to be a no-show. Beyond that, I didn’t speak to anyone, which is not easy for me. In the days coming, I had to tell more people, because I was M.I.A. and people were inviting me to do things, and I had to explain why I couldn’t.

I don’t know how I would have reacted if I was still at work. I probably would have walked outside until I gained my composure before asking to leave early. Instead, I was in a very public place watching a very public figure cause a very public scene. Who knows what the “Dance Moms” star was on but every other customer in the branch was trying to figure it out as she bellowed at the top of her lungs for employees to “do their job.”

I couldn’t ignore the irony of what the past 2 months had been like. Television is my life. I will do anything for it. You have to have that mentality if you work in it and want to be successful. I put a temporary hold on that mentality by turning down great jobs because of things in my personal life. My stepdad’s cancer came back vigorously in April. I got an offer from “Storage Wars: Miami” the day after that news broke. They wanted me to work in Miami for three months. I was also offered my first showrunner gig in New Orleans around the same time. They wanted me in New Orleans for way longer than three months.

I felt I couldn’t leave Los Angeles, not only because my stepdad and Mom are only an hour and a half drive away in San Diego, but because I also moved in to an awesome new place with my girlfriend and upon my return to LA didn’t want to see freshly painted pink walls and a new puppy. The pink walls and puppy aside, I knew he was on his way out, and I had to be there for my family.

We didn’t have a close relationship. That wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t hate him. He didn’t hate me. He was quiet, and I am loud and opinionated. He didn’t like being the center of attention, and I work in entertainment. We had a common love: my Mom, his wife. And we had respect for each other, but that was something that grew with time.

Here we are as a family at the Grand Canyon.

Here we are as a family at the Grand Canyon.

He came into my life when I was around ten. I still had memories of my real “Dad.” My little sister Jamaica didn’t. She took to Baber much quicker than I did. He had to deal with the horrible teen years of me leaving a room and saying, “Bye Mom, Bye Jamaica,” and then closing the door without saying bye to him. I’m sure he felt uncomfortable or pissed or some sort of disrespect when I did shit like that, but he never expressed it.

Here I am being an annoying teenager, making a face during one of our family trips.

Here I am being an annoying teenager, making a face during one of our family trips.

His ability to not bring down others is something I grew to admire, especially in his two-year battle with cancer. He never once complained, even after he had surgery, was confined to a hospital bed, lost his ability to walk without assistance, because the surgeons removed several inches of bone from his leg. And eventually when the cancer returned he still didn’t want to burden anyone with a peep of depression or anxiety. He never once took a painkiller. He never once complained that life was unfair. He never once asked, “why me?” Anyone would have understood if he did any of those things, especially because he pretty much went his whole life without illness. Even when my Mom bought him a bell to ring in case she wasn’t in his vicinity and he needed help with something, he only used it once. I’m sure my smart-ass would’ve rang it at least once as a joke, but he was much stronger than that.

As I mentioned, you couldn’t have met two people who were more complete opposites than us. The one thing we did have in common was sports. He worked for the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club for nearly four decades. Horseracing became a huge part of my life when he became a part of my life. He worked at the starting gate every summer during the Del Mar race meet. My Mom took us every Friday to the races. She would place $2 bets for my sister and me, and we would watch the races and she would watch Baber at the starting gate. We would all wave and he would sheepishly wave back. I’m sure his friends would tease him, because none of their families were there waving at them. I frequently talk about how I grew up in comedy clubs. The other place was at the racetrack.

Baber to the left standing where he used to stand for nearly four decades.

In retirement, Baber still made time to visit the racetrack. It was probably odd for him to be in the stands, so he always made his rounds to his old stomping grounds to visit his friends. In 2012, he took me down to the starting gate where he used to stand for nearly four decades. That’s his head to the left.

I didn’t realize it at the time, and I don’t even know if he realized it, but he had an impact in me becoming a writer. When I was 11 or 12 he signed me up for a subscription to Sports Illustrated. That’s where I discovered a writer named Rick Reilly who showed me that I could make a living writing about sports. Six years later, when I turned 18 I started making a living as a sportswriter. I still have the subscription to Sports Illustrated because he renewed it every single year without saying anything to me. I never understood why he initially bought me that as a Christmas gift, but I’m glad he did, because sports writing led to comedy and TV. I don’t know how else I would’ve discovered my passion and ability to write.

I always wondered how I would react when he passed away. I didn’t know if I would cry. I’m not a super emotional person. I didn’t know how involved I would be in the burial. After all he did have his own kids too. I didn’t know if my family would expect me to talk at his funeral, because after all, I am the one who is good with words. To me, many things were up in the air, especially since I had never gone through this before.

Zoe and I drove down to San Diego a couple hours after I got the news. We met my crying family on the balcony of my childhood home. That was only the third time I ever saw my Mom cry. The first time was when she told me she was divorcing my real “Dad.” That was on the balcony of the same house when I was six. The second time was when I was around 18 years old when she told me she had breast cancer. This third time was especially rough, because I knew she wasn’t just crying about him dying, but also because her breast cancer just came back about two weeks ago. It was the first time I saw her cry in front of a group of people. My Grandma, Grandpa, sister, and girlfriend were all there this time. The other times it was just she and I.

Any question I had about my involvement in his arrangements for the afterlife went out the door when I saw my Mom crying. It’s an unbearable feeling when you see a parent cry. They’re not the ones that do that. They’re the ones who comfort you when you’re crying. I told her I would go with her to anything she needed help with.

Because of the holiday, July 5 was the first day she would have to start getting things in order. I had been to Eternal Hills Mortuary in Oceanside numerous times. Baber’s parents are buried there. His brother is buried there. My Grandpa’s Mom is buried there. My cousins are buried there. Our families have a lot of real estate there. I had never been there for someone I really knew well though. Baber was the closest person in relation to me who has died. For God’s sake, I had only been to two funerals before. Once for my great Aunt Antonia when I was really young and another time for comedian Marilyn Martinez.

July 15 was the day of the burial. I was overwhelmed by how many people showed up to the cemetery. There were at least 200 people. There would have been more, but not all of his former co-workers could make it since the next day was opening day at the Del Mar Racetrack. My Mom totally understood since she remembers Baber’s schedule between mid-July to the beginning of September each year. I think it’s a pretty common thought to wonder how many people will be at your own funeral. I don’t know if he had those thoughts, but I’m sure he would’ve been embarrassed to know so many people showed up, because he never liked the spotlight. It really was a testament to how many people loved him when he was alive. The one thing I am sure he would’ve loved was the people wearing Chargers hats and jerseys. I feel like he was always wearing either a Chargers shirt or hat for most of his life.

Just like him, my Mom is also someone who doesn’t like the spotlight, so my sister and I made attempts to be with her while hundreds kept offering their condolences. We cried a lot. Most people were bawling during two parts in particular, when one of his oldest friends Al shared an anecdote of how Baber went to Hawaii with him to help him pursue his eventual wife. The other time people felt connected and a bit more comforting amidst tears was when his longtime friend Junior had his daughter Susan read a letter about Baber cruising in his GTO’s, tailgating at Chargers games, and hitting the Indian casinos every weekend.

I made this memorial card that we handed out at the funeral.

I made this memorial card that we handed out at the funeral.

I think I cried more, however, when we actually picked out the burial spot 10 days prior. That was more real to me than anything. That day was a bit more intimate and cryptic, because it was selecting where his final resting spot was going to be, and eventually my Mom’s final spot too. I never had to go through the burial process before, and it’s horrible for many reasons but none more so because it forces you to realize your own mortality.

Here's one of the pictures his daughter April made for the funeral. The lei was appropriate given his love for Hawaii.

Here’s one of the pictures his daughter April made for the funeral. The lei was appropriate given his love for Hawaii.

Over the past couple months it wasn’t all sadness though. Zoe got to meet him and understand my childhood and see the full family dynamic for a few months. I got to jokingly take Baber’s side a few more times when my Mom would complain that he could never give her a straight answer about what he wanted when she would present him options on anything. He was so agreeable and a go-with-the-flow person that he was always happy with whatever my Mom wanted, and that would get on her nerves sometimes, so I’d see that as an opportunity to make fun of her on his behalf. After I was done it would always leave the two of them laughing at each other.

This is the last picture we took with Baber. He got really sick after this. I don't even know if he knew that he was in the picture, because it was on Mother's Day. It's not the greatest picture of me, Zoe, and my Mom but we are glad we have it.

This is the last picture we took with Baber. He got really sick after this. I don’t even know if he knew that he was in the picture, because it was on Mother’s Day. It’s not the greatest picture of me, Zoe, and my Mom but we are glad we have it.

This picture is simply for my Mom and Zoe since we all look better in this one.

This picture is simply for my Mom and Zoe since we all look better in this one.

Over the final two months we also shared a lot of stories, laughed a lot about some of his tendencies, and reminisced about the time Baber did this…like how he couldn’t handle rides at amusement parks, but he would take Jamaica on them when she was little; how he would eat only half of pretty much any food, except beans which he hated; how he would take the coast for the view of the ocean instead of the freeway if both routes could take you somewhere; how he would take forever in the lone bathroom in the house to get ready in the morning while the rest of us would be pounding on the door for him to hurry up; and how for every Chargers home game he was first in line at the entrance to Qualcomm Stadium to get in to the parking lot.

This is one of my favorite pictures I have. It's from the starting gate. Baber took me down to the turf right before one of the races during the 2012 meet. For him it was nothing, because he spent nearly four decades in that spot, but for me it was a real treat to standing between those gates.

This is one of my favorite pictures I have. It’s from the starting gate. Baber took me down to the turf right before one of the races during the 2012 meet. For him it was nothing, because he spent nearly four decades in that spot, but for me it was a real treat to standing between those gates.

I remember life before Baber, life with him, and now life without him. Life before him was rough. I was young, but I remember how trying it was for my Mom. He made her a happier person, which trickled down to Jamaica and me. The last day I saw him was on Father’s Day and the last words I said to him were, “Happy Father’s Day.” He was in bed and hunched over to one side with not enough energy to lift himself up. He replied “Thank you,” and gave me a look that we both knew it was going to be the last time we spoke. We didn’t need to say more, because we both knew that was not going to be our lasting memory of each other. Life with him is what I will remember.

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2 thoughts on “#42 – Bury My Stepdad

  1. Paula Ortega says:

    All i can say is thank you.

  2. NINA KANE says:

    Very Moving Josh … sorry for your loss and you just gave me a n insight to life, childhood, and how our parents truly affect us . Take Care of yourself . NIna K

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