Zach Parise touches a white friendship bracelet on his right wrist. He turns it over and reveals the special inscription: “la vie a ses bons moments.”
“It means, ‘Life has its good moments,’ ” Parise says, staring intently at the words. “My mom made it for friends and family.”
With sad eyes, the Wild forward looks up: “Growing up, that’s what Dad always told us when things were going a little wrong.”
For the past seven months, J.P. Parise, the popular former North Stars forward and proud father of Zach and Jordan Parise, has been in the toughest battle of his life. Last winter, while Zach was captaining the United States in the Olympics, J.P. woke up with kidney stones.
“I went to the doctor, took a CT scan and the doc said, ‘There’s a black spot on your left lung that I don’t like,’ ” J.P. Parise said, recalling the words that turned his life upside down.
Days later, he would receive a diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer, the most advanced form of the disease.
The day Zach returned from Sochi, Russia, his mother called and asked if she could come over to see her twin grandchildren. When she arrived alone, Zach, her then-29-year-old son, instantly knew something was wrong.
“It was, it was, it was honestly one of the worst days of my life,” Parise said, his eyes wet. “Worst part, I called him right after, and I couldn’t even speak. The doctor gave him two years. After he was diagnosed, my mom got in the car crying and he said, ‘Donna, if I’ve got two years to live, I can’t sit here and watch you cry every day. This is just life. This is how it’s going to be.’
“He said the same thing to me as I cried. That’s just how my dad is. He said, ‘My goal right now is to watch you play in the next Olympics.’ When you hear that, I don’t know, it kind of made it worse. I mean, not that it wasn’t real already, but that made it more real.”
The next day, Parise had to leave for Edmonton for a two-game road trip with the Wild.
“I told [wife] Alisha, ‘I don’t want to go.’ I did not want to go on the trip,” Parise said. “I did not want to leave. It was horrible. I was just numb to everything. My body was numb.”
J.P. Parise hates chemotherapy. He beat prostate cancer in 1999 and didn’t want to go through chemo again. But he had no choice.
“You never know how you’re going to react to this kind of news,” J.P. said. “I said, ‘OK, we have a problem.’ That’s the oldest statement in the world, but I have what I have, so now I have a challenge. How do I solve that? I don’t know if I’m different than anybody else, but when you play hockey, you’re constantly challenged.
“So now I get up in the morning and say, ‘Here’s the problem, how do I solve it?’ ”
The chemo has resulted in J.P. being hospitalized a few times, including earlier this month.
“I lose my strength, my durability, my stamina,” Parise said. “But the senses are still there, thank God. I do a lot of reading, crossword puzzles, Sudoku problems to make sure I still function. My energy, though? Gone.
“But I am not complaining. At the end of the day, I am still alive. I am still alive, and tomorrow I will still be alive. I am not dying tomorrow. How long this will last, I don’t know. It depends on my attitude, it depends on nature, it depends on how I attack it.”
During his NHL days, Parise, who played 976 games, was one of those smokers who couldn’t wait for a cigarette between periods. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, that was common.
“In 1973, Dec. 24th, we went out to a party and I smoked and drank and the next morning I woke up so violently ill,” Parise said. “I never smoked again. People who say it’s hard to quit smoking, it’s not hard. Just don’t smoke.
“But we are in 2014. I had my last puff in 1973. I told the doctor, ‘Don’t tell me that last puff has anything to do with what I have.’ It’s crazy. I’ve basically lived a pretty good life. I’m an athlete. I don’t blame anything on anything. It’s nature. Somehow I got lung cancer.”
“I’m 72 years old. The average life here is, what, 75, 76, 77? I might end up in the middle of things,” he said, laughing. “That’s life. If someone was to tell you today that you’re going to be going at 77, 78, you’d say, ‘Boy, that’s not bad.’ I never think of this shortening my life, this shortening anything I’m going to do. I’m still going to travel, I’m still going to watch hockey.”
If you’ve ever met J.P. Parise, it should come as no shock that his spirits are great. He’s still cracking jokes, still talking hockey all the time with Zach and Jordan, a former goalie who is 22 months older than Zach and lives in Fargo.
This past summer, Zach went on a Lake of the Woods fishing trip with his dad.
“Just him and I for two days on a boat,” Zach said, smiling. “Hopefully he lives for 20 more years, but I want to spend as much time with him. Things happen for a reason, and with us deciding to come back here and play for the Wild, I can’t imagine if I was playing somewhere else and he was going through this. It would be horrible.”
When Parise says “us,” he is talking about his friend and teammate Ryan Suter, who in a cruel coincidence suddenly lost his dad, Bob, at the age of 57 on Sept. 9.
Remember that road trip that Parise didn’t want to go on?
“When I got on the plane, I sat next to Ryan and wasn’t speaking to anyone,” Parise said. “Ryan was trying to find out what was wrong, and I finally told him. He was so good to me. He went right to [GM Chuck Fletcher] and said, ‘You need to let Zach’s dad come on a trip.’ Ryan was the one behind the scenes that did everything for me, and now this happens to him, oh my gosh, it’s terrible.
“From what we are going through, I cannot physically imagine how their family is feeling right now. It’s devastating. Absolutely devastating. All I can do is be there for Ryan the way he was there for me.”
Changing for the better
That road trip that Suter helped get Zach’s dad on was March’s 2-0-1 trip to Phoenix, Los Angeles and Chicago “that saved our season.” At Phoenix, Parise scored twice, including his 239th goal, which passed his father’s career goal total.
Afterward, the two took a joyous picture from the bench.
“This might be hard to understand, but because I know he watches every game, from now on it’s just really important for me to play my best with him watching,” Parise said. “That sounds weird. I don’t want to say this is motivation. But it puts what’s important and what’s not in perspective, and honestly this has changed our lives.
“I can’t wait for the season to start because he loves coming to games so much. Everything about the game, the way I play, he has taught me everything. Every kid’s dad is their role model, but it goes beyond that with him. It’s so much more. The life lessons he taught me have been unbelievable.”
Here is the biggest:
“Ray Cullen was my best friend on the North Stars,” J.P. Parise said. “Him and I used to play cribbage on the plane. This one time, we’re taking off, and the stewardess said, ‘Can I get you something to drink?’ I gave her some wisecrack answer, you know, not nice.
“My friend Ray Cullen, my best friend, waits ’til she’s gone and says to me, ‘Why do you have to be such a jerk?’ I said, ‘What?’ He goes, ‘Why do you have to be such a jerk?’ I am totally shocked. I said, ‘I’m not a jerk.’ He says, ‘Yes, every time you turn around, you look at people, you always have to come up with some wisecrack jerk answer, so you’re a jerk.’ I look around and look at myself and start to have an inside look.
“I mean, I could have destroyed him in one slap. But those words changed my life. I became the person I am today because he had the guts. From that day on, not that I was ever perfect, but my attitude took a 99 percent turn. He told me to shape up and I became a pretty good guy. So that’s the story about me. Not many people have a good friend like that.”
“La vie a ses bons moments.” As J.P. Parise says, “Life has its good moments.”