"We're equals, friends," the son says now.
It turns out that 60-year-old Joe Berardoni Sr. doesn't need a new right arm, but the lifelong diabetes sufferer does desperately need a new kidney to stay alive. Berardoni's two sons, Joe and John, did not have to think very long or hard before volunteering one of theirs. But with a certain inevitability, Joe Jr. says, "I always knew I was his best shot."
Sometime in the next couple of weeks, father and son are slated to check in together at Lankenau Hospital on the Main Line for the belated Father's Day gift, arguably the ultimate one, an organ donation. The two toy sellers are approaching the life-changing experience in typical fashion — with jokes.
"Joe said it puts pressure on John to get a good Father's Day gift," said the grateful father, who lives in Havertown.
But Joe Sr.'s transplant transcends fatherhood. In fact, it felt more like the finale of It's a Wonderful Life when word spread through his extended clan as well as a second family of loyal toy shoppers that the small-business owner needed his second kidney transplant in 10 years.
In the end, seven relatives and friends offered their own kidney, and more were considering donation. They couldn't imagine Bryn Mawr's main shopping drag without the affable Berardoni behind the counter of the store he bought in 1996, peddling stuffed animals and board games while a model train chugs overhead. Much of the remarkable goodwill between the store and its devoted customers begins with the great rapport between father and son.
"It's a beautiful thing," said Charlie Waters, who owns Suburban Hardware across the street and plays golf with both Joes. "They're great people. ... They can't do enough for their customers."
Marveled Joe Sr.'s wife, Terry, whom he married six years ago: "They're almost like twins."
Twins, but separated by 27 years.
Joe Sr. grew up in Havertown, with diplomas from Cardinal O'Hara High School and St. Joseph's University. He worked several jobs, including one with his own father, who ran dress shops on Broad Street in Philadelphia and in Havertown, before discovering the career that he loved, selling toys. After 16 years running the toy section at Paoli Hardware, he seized the opportunity to buy Pun's Toys from its original owner.
By then, family ties were forged by tragedy. Berardoni's first wife had just turned 37 when she succumbed to bladder cancer.
"Obviously, I clung to him," said Joe Jr., who was 11 when his mother died. "He had to work, but he was always there for us. He'd leave for an hour to go see a soccer game, basketball game."
Joe Sr. is just as close to his elder son, John, who was 13 at the time of his mother's death and today teaches math at Haverford Middle School, but their relationship is different. The elder son acknowledges he was traumatized by his mother's death and "I kind of went into a shell for a little while."
"He's more like my mom," Joe Jr. said of his big brother. "He's quieter, low-key."
Joe Jr. began working in the toy store during high school, and a job there seemed a natural fit after he earned a marketing degree at St. Joe's. When he married, he moved three blocks from his father in Drexel Hill.
The bond between father and son was made even stronger by the struggles that Joe Sr. faced after losing his wife. Diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 15, the senior Berardoni required both a kidney and a pancreas transplant a decade ago.
"I don't know how he's gone through what he's gone through," Joe Jr. said.
Then in May 2011, Joe Sr. suffered a heart attack, which led to bypass surgery, and his transplanted kidney began to fail. Four months ago, a doctor at Lankenau told him he should ask family or friends for a kidney, because otherwise the wait for a donor might take three to five years.
"I said, ‘No, I can't possibly do that,' " he recalled. " ‘I would rather be on dialysis.' "
But his wife, Terry — whom he'd met while getting blood work at Bryn Mawr Hospital, where she'd been an admissions supervisor — knew there would be no shortage of volunteers. She told him, "You'll be surprised how many people will step up for you."
She was right. The list grew quickly to include sons Joe and John, a stepdaughter, friends, a cousin, and his daughter-in-law. But Joe Jr. was always the front-runner.
"Joe was the first one to actually call," his father said. "They start with the first one and run them through tests until they get a no. Unfortunately for him, he's been a match all the way through."
But it really wasn't a very hard decision for Joe Jr., now himself a father with an 18-month-old son. He received encouragement from his wife after she did research and learned that his remaining kidney would grow to take on roughly 80 percent of normal kidney function, and that there usually aren't any major restrictions on resuming a normal life.
As Joe Jr. got closer to becoming a match, Joe Sr. said he felt "pride and panic," telling his son, "As a parent, I don't want you to do this." But the ever-dutiful son stood up to his father. "It's not your choice," he said.
"He wouldn't let me do it if it was too much of a danger," the son said, adding with a laugh, "But he didn't put up a fight."
If all goes according to plan, Joe Jr. will be in Lankenau a couple of days while Joe Sr. will be hospitalized a week or so; he plans to return to work part time in two to three weeks. Of course, many of the same friends and family who offered a kidney are volunteering to keep Pun's open while the Berardonis are out of commission.
One is Stuart Fishman of Blue Bell, a toy salesman who's known the senior Berardoni for 25 years and regularly attends Phillies games with him. "Thankfully, I was No. 6" on the kidney donor list, he said, joking. Like everyone else, he says the relationship between Berardoni and his son is truly special.
"It's not the easiest thing to work with family," he said. "They've been able to make that work really well, and I think it's because not only are they parent and son; they're friends, they have respect."
They also have, for want of a better term, shtick — and already they seem to be rehearsing for their return to work after the Father's Day kidney gift. "I gave him height," said Joe Sr., looking up at his lanky son and his nine-inch vertical advantage. "He gave me a kidney."
Contact Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123 or firstname.lastname@example.org.