TORONTO - Into the telephone, Leo Cahill whispered the word “goodbye” and it was at that moment he began to cry. “You’ve always been a good friend,” he said, having trouble getting the sentence out. “I’ll talk to you soon.”
A second later, we both hung up and I wondered, maybe he wondered: Is this the last of our conversations?
For I don’t know how many years now, I’ve made it a point to keep in touch with Leo Cahill, who was once the brightest light, the biggest star on the Toronto sporting scene. Once, twice, three times a year, we talk on the phone. Mostly he talks, I listen. He would tell stories. I would prod him. He would tell more stories, solve the world’s problems, forever entertain: They have been my favourite phone calls to make.
The one on Tuesday was a little more difficult.
“It’s a miracle I’m alive,” he answered, as I asked how he was doing. Cahill, the former Argo coach, general manager and Canadian Football League rogue, is 83 years old and struggling. “The doctors didn’t think I would live through this,” he said. “You know I’m a tough son of a bitch. But what the hell, you’ve got to fight, right? I’m not going to lie to you, though. It’s been a tough go.”
Cahill went in for heart surgery in London about a month ago and four hours into what should have been a four-hour operation, the surgeon came out to talk to his son, Terry. The doctor had bad news. Cahill’s aorta had ripped during surgery. They were going to try and replace it. They weren’t sure if it was going to work or if the patient was going to survive. The surgery ended more than four hours later.
“It was touch and go for a while,” said Cahill, who lives in Sarnia, and was operated on at University Hospital in London. “But I’m home now, I’m up and walking around a little. I’m still pretty tired every day. They say it’s going to be a slow process. That’s what everybody says. I’m a little bit slow in my thinking and a little bit tired in my walking, but what the hell, I just keep plugging away at it.”
Earlier in the day, Tuesday, another phone call came in that had buoyed his spirits. He hasn’t been very conversive lately. At times, he admits, he’s been confused. But the call that came in the morning brought some clarity and enthusiasm to his voice. The call came from Peter Martin, the former Argo linebacker, commentator and football historian, who wasn’t alone at the time. Former Argos Dave Raimey, Bill Symons and Gerry Sternberg were all at Martin’s house. Each took a turn on the phone talking to their old coach.
“That was a helluva backfield, Symons and Raimey, two Hall of Famers,” said Cahill.
“Should have been three Hall of Famers,” I said.
“Who’s the third?” he said.
“You know I changed Raimey from running back to cornerback?” said Cahill. “He was an all-star at both positions. He was one of those special athletes. Hearing from those guys really meant something to me.” It may have been 40 years ago he was coaching them all with the Argos. On this day, it seemed like yesterday for an old man with remarkable staying powers.
Life has a way of being cyclical in nature. Cahill moved from outside Toronto to Sarnia years ago, ostensibly to take care of Terry, who has had some personal issues and difficulties in life. At the time, Cahill’s ex-wife lived in Atlanta and Terry lived with each parent. Cahill moved to Sarnia because it was easier to drive Terry back and forth to Georgia. Now, he’s the one in need of help and his son is there for him — as have been his daughters, mostly on long distance lines, albeit actively.
“If it wasn’t for Terry, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d have been lost without him. He’s just been great,” said Cahill. “It’s been kind of a struggle because we go out to eat, get some sandwiches or something, and it’s tough enough for me to pay for myself let alone pay for Terry too. My daughters have helped. They sent people in to clean the place up and other things. It hasn’t been easy. But Terry’s been there whenever I needed him.
“I’m actually getting too many calls from (my family). They’re driving me a little crazy. But I know why they’re doing this. Some days you just don’t feel like answering the phone.”
Externally, the heart trouble all began about a month ago. Cahill was home in his apartment, getting ready to eat a hamburger, and something didn’t feel right. He started to walk to the bathroom and halfway there he felt a bang in his back and his chest. He fell but continued on. “I grabbed a couple of aspirins, called Terry, and said I think I’m having a heart attack.
He said: “I’ll call an ambulance.”
“I said ‘To hell with the ambulance you come and get me.’”
Terry made his way to his dad’s apartment and grabbed the cab outside and took his father to the hospital. At the hospital, they asked Cahill for his health card. “I’m having a heart attack and they made me sit down and check my cards. I’m lucky as hell to have lived through that.”
After the operation in London, alone in his hospital room, Cahill’s active mind went to work.
“You start thinking about what’s happened in the past and things like that,” he said. “I’ve got an inquiring mind. My mind’s always working. I wasn’t really in any state of fear or frenzy of anything like that. I don’t know if I had the sense to know how bad it all was. Thank God I had the doctors I had.
“Now that I’m out of hospital, I’m kind of an amateur physician. I check my pulse. I check how I’m doing. I had someone coming in every few days but now she comes in every week or so. I want to see how I’m doing every day.”
So far, so good. Day to day is like that. You live, you hurt, you hope. “I watch a lot of baseball on TV,” said Cahill. “I sleep a lot. I get up, Terry takes me for short walks. I’m not totally incapacitated. I still have to stretch my legs every day but I realize I can’t do too much. I want this to happen fast, I want to do more but the doctors tell me you can’t expect anything better than what’s going on. I do the best I can. It’s the only thing I can do.”
At that point in our conversation, I could tell he was getting tired. It was time to say goodbye. I held in my tears until I hung up the phone.
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