My dad was a meticulous guy. When he went to work later in his career, the only part of his career that I remember, he always looked sharp. When I was a kid, he wore a hat to church. One of those sporty-but-gentlemanly things that Dick Van Dyke would have worn. He used an electric razor even when they were going out of style. He never let anything go to waste. I think he had every electric razor he ever owned in a sort of razor graveyard in one of his dresser drawers. He kept them for spare parts.
He had his own bathroom. We could have used it when he wasn’t around. I’m sure we did, but it really was his. There were three bathrooms in our ranch style house and one was definitely his. He was a rather typical dad when I was growing up. I don’t think he ever changed a diaper on my little brother Dan. That was normal for the times. He was the provider. He was a hard worker. He was pleased when we did well, stern when we needed it. We were a good Catholic family. I had six brothers and sisters. My dad was proud of us. He loved my mom and showed it. He was a really great guy. He rarely said it, but he loved us all.
Things were tight around our place. Seven kids and my folks started out with next to nothing. They were pregnant within a couple months of being married and less than a year after my sister Maureen was born, they had identical twins. Three kids in diapers in two years. My mom was a coupon clipper, a bargain hunter a sale shopper. She had to be. Nine mouths to feed.
My dad worked at Inland Steel Company in East Chicago, Indiana. He was a management guy, but he started out working in the mill itself. It was hot, hard work. It was work that he enjoyed. He moved into a sales rep job after some years (I think it said Technical Service Representative on his business card) and that was work that really agreed with him. He was a friendly guy. Great smile. Interesting conversationalist. Warm handshake. You WANTED to know him.
We had a wonderful life. Every family has its ups and downs. Maybe we had a few more than most, but looking back, it all worked out. Now my folks weren’t money geniuses by any means. They bought a house cheap in the 40’s and made $5,000 in a few years. Of course that was a lot of dough back then. And, of course they turned it into another nicer house. But they weren’t tycoons. They were thrifty. Our clothes were hand-me-downs, especially the younger kids. We wore our shoes until we wore them out or outgrew them. If we did, we passed them down the line. My mom sewed and knitted. She canned vegetables and cooked huge pots of pasta and stew so we could eat leftovers. We bought apples by the bushel. We were never hungry and we ate plenty and healthy. But it was clever and careful planning that allowed us to do so.
In December 1989 my dad was diagnosed with cancer. By the time they found it, it was too late and he only had about six weeks to live. He had only been retired for a short time. He was young. 64. He was very brave about the whole thing. I never saw him feel sorry for himself. Never saw him whine. That last bit of time was precious. He died around Christmas time. We were there to spend time with him, to see him off, to say goodbye. To say, “I Love you.” And, “I’m sorry for the crummy things I did when I was young.”
The end came very fast for him. He had been sore and his appetite had been off for a while. He had lost weight, but he was still him, Jack O’Keefe. With the ruddy Irish face and pale blue eyes and beautiful brown hair with just a touch of gray. His friends were envious of that hair. Once later I wrote in a song, “When I look at my hands, I see my father’s hands, and in the mirror, my father’s eyes.” And it’s true. And I’m lucky for it.
During that Christmas when my dad was dying, he wanted to make sure that my mom was going to be all set. He wanted to assure her that she wouldn’t be short on money. They invited their accountant and neighborhood friend Tom Roberts over to go over their assets and the stuff they kept in the safe. They had a modest stock portfolio, some t-bills, a deed to some land in Kentucky, my dad’s retirement account, the house, a little of this, a little of that. Honestly, during that conversation with Tom Roberts, it was clear that money-wise, they were well off. Quite well off. I don’t think that it ever really occurred to them just how their saving and scrimping paid off. When Tom had added things up and included their house, which was already paid for, they had it made. Rather, my mom had it made because my dad was not going to be around much longer.
That was one of the moments when it really hit my mom. My dad was not going to be around for very much longer. But they had taken care of each other all of their adult lives. They had raised seven kids, had a bunch of grandchildren. My mom was going to be OK. I could see relief in my dad’s tired eyes. Calm. I witnessed pure panic in my mom. She fought back tears, unsuccessfully. Neither Dan nor I would let our feelings show at that time. It would just have made things harder for Jack. This was really happening. My dad was dying. There was nothing any of us could do about it.
When the business meeting was over, Tom and my mom and brother Dan headed upstairs. My mom was broken. Her life and love were changing forever. Dan and I were sadder than we had ever been. Tom, our business friend was satisfied, I think. He had brought some peace of mind to my dad. There were about ten stairs up to the living room. My dad was walking with great care. He was using crutches as the cancer was dissolving the bones in his hips. I walked behind him, wondering if he would be able to make the stairs. He’d only had crutches for a few days. As it turned out, he would only need them for a few more.
I walked behind him, arms ready to catch him in case he tipped back or slipped. The others were already up. My dad had carefully, painfully managed to climb three or four steps when he stopped. I wondered if he would be able to finish climbing up. Maybe he stopped because he needed help. He turned around slowly. I backed down and he gingerly started back down the stairs.
“Yeah, just a second.” He continued down the stairs and slowly crossed the large room to the other side. It took a lot of effort. He was dangerously unsteady on those crutches. Then he flipped off the light switch. That was it. He just wanted to turn off the light. To save that little bit of energy. Those few cents. He crossed the room again and paused at the foot of the stairs. “Oh, boy,” he said a little nervously. “Here goes.”
He made it up the stairs that night.