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updated: 12/24/2010 8:37 PM

Ron Santo's last gift to his family

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All the stories said it was Thursday night.

All the obits have it as Dec. 2.

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And all the year-end tributes will repeat it as such.

But Ron Santo died on Friday morning, Dec. 3, 2010.

So what's it matter now, right?

"It matters a lot," said Ron's son Jeff. "It matters to me. It matters to my family."

But what's a few hours difference, when Ron lived 70-plus years?

"I'll tell you why," Jeff insisted. "I'll tell you why it matters."

Ron Santo was being treated again for bladder cancer, for the second time in seven years.

Despite the odds against him, of being physically able to fight through it after dozens of surgeries, amputations and life-threatening scares in the last decade, he was up for another fight.

"It was something he believed he could do," Jeff Santo says. "He didn't have to. He could have had another six months if he didn't try the treatment, but he wasn't ready to give up. He was fighting for his life."

The first chemotherapy treatment came the Monday before Thanksgiving. His blood sugars were high, but he was otherwise in good spirits after the first round.

The second came the Monday after Thanksgiving.

"If I can get through this one," Jeff Santo recalls his dad saying, "I'll be OK because I get two weeks off."

There was some thought that if it didn't go well, Ron might chuck the treatments.

"He was still feeling strong," Jeff says. "He thought it might buy him two more years, maybe three. He had a lot to live for.

"I drove him home from the treatment and he was just like always, telling me where to turn at every street as if I hadn't done it a thousand times before."

Jeff stopped to laugh, and added, "He was doing OK. He was just wiped out. Exhausted. The next day, Tuesday, I talked to him and he was still very tired."

On Wednesday morning, Ron tried to put his legs on but collapsed back onto the bed. He was too weak to move.

"I rode in the ambulance and sat in the emergency room with him until he was admitted," Jeff remembers. "We thought he might be in the hospital two days.

"I stayed with him until 10 o'clock that night and we had a good talk about things.

"He was really tired so I decided to go. When it was time to leave, I said, 'Do you want the TV on?'

"He said, 'No, turn it off.'

"He said, 'Don't worry, son. I'm just tired.'

"I said, 'I love you.'

"He said, 'I love you very much.'

"He doesn't say it that exact way a lot. That 'very much' grabbed me a little bit. But he was very calm. He seemed OK."

Jeff Santo left his father at the hospital at 10 p.m. Wednesday. His phone rang at 2 a.m. Thursday.

The chemo was starting to affect Ron Santo's kidneys. There was too much potassium. His kidneys failed and that put his heart, previously pumping at only 30 percent, into cardiac arrest.

He went into a coma and was put on a respirator. The family gathered at the hospital.

Ron Jr. flew to Phoenix. He joined Vicki Santo, Jeff, and his sister Linda, herself having battled cancer, at Ron's bedside.

By Thursday evening, all the tests had been done. The family was told. The reality was setting in quickly.

Ron Santo was never going to wake up again.

"At 8:30 Thursday night, we all said our goodbyes," Jeff explains. "We were all with him and a wonderful preacher came in. He had no idea who my dad was, but he gave a great sermon. It was awesome.

"Then, they took out the breathing apparatus."

And then Ron Santo did what the doctors said was impossible.

He refused to die.

"They said he could not breathe without the machine," Jeff said. "Not only was he breathing but his blood pressure was perfect.

"We were like, 'What's going on here?'

"I kept saying to the doctor, 'The brain tells the body to breathe. The brain isn't working. So how is this happening? What's making him breathe?'

"It was very draining. Vicki would say, 'Ron, it's OK. You can go.' We'd say, 'Dad, it's time. Let go. You can rest now.'

"My sister Linda had been through a lot and my dad and her had such a strong bond. But she was drained. We had to get her out of the room.

"After about three hours, Vicki and I talked about it, and she was right. He wouldn't want us staying there staring at him.

"He'd say, 'Get the heck out of here.' So we all agreed that it was time to go. We said our goodbyes at 12:30 Friday morning."

Ron Santo died at 12:40 a.m., Friday, Dec. 3, 10 minutes after his wife and children left his bedside.

Believe what you want to believe, but Jeff Santo says he knows exactly what happened.

"He obviously didn't want us to have to see it," Jeff said. "It was for our benefit. That's how he was. He wouldn't want us standing around him like that. I think he waited for us to leave.

"There was a lot of energy in that room, a lot of spirit and soul. That man had a big one. It was waiting to go somewhere.

"That I do know. I witnessed it.

"And I'm thankful that I have the thought of him that night, for that four hours he stayed alive."

On Christmas Eve, the family gathered at Ron Santo's house, but it was much more formality than familiarity.

The life of the party was not there.

"It's only now starting to set in," said Jeff, sounding completely exhausted. "We haven't had a minute to sit down and rest since it happened because it's been such a public process.

"You go from thinking he'll be out of the hospital in a day or two to saying goodbye 24 hours later."

And they all fell victim to thinking the man could overcome anything.

"I'm looking at pictures from my wedding, from 10-10-10," Jeff said. "He was my best man, and he looked so good, so happy.

"He gave us so much and he was so compassionate. He would want us to be strong and move forward with all he's instilled in us, and he wouldn't like it at all if we struggled.

"So we have to live. That's what he would want, but now it's Christmas and he's gone. We were always together on Christmas. As a kid, I have wonderful memories. As an adult, we were always with him in Arizona.

"He was looking forward to it this year, too. I think he knew it was his last because he said, 'This is gonna be a good one.'

"I don't know what he knew but we weren't expecting this, Christmas without dad."

Still, Jeff Santo is grateful.

"He survived much longer than anyone expected, overcame so much more than any man should," Jeff said. "We had a lot of extra years together. That was the greatest gift of all."

brozner@dailyherald.com

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