Wednesday, April 28, 2010

For Jack, Again

I have been thinking about my dad a lot lately. I've been sort of wondering how he would deal with the kinds of teenage things - natural situations, I'm sure - that Heidi and I are dealing with. We have two teenage boys. They are such wonderful people. Challenging to be sure in their individual ways.

My folks had 7 kids. They would have had more too but for some serious physical issues for my mom when they were young. 7 kids. That's a lot by today's standards. I know that when I was a kid I dished out a lot of grief to my parents. So I guess I've got it coming.

Anyway, Jack O'Keefe has been on my mind. Here is a memoir about him I wrote a while back. He died in January of 1989. I was teaching a grad class at USC. This was my family story written just a couple weeks after Jack died.

For Jack

When we got to the hospital, my dad was in a coma. I heard the news before I left home that day, making my way to the Chicago hospital where he lay dying. I reached his room around 9:30. My mom and most of my brothers and sisters were already there and even some nieces and nephews, most of whom were too young to understand what was going on, that their grandpa was dying. I knew that he was going soon. It was inevitable. Soon.

In my mind I knew that a quick end would be better for him and for my mom and for all of us who loved him. In my heart I wanted to see him just one last time, to look into his eyes and make contact, to tell him just once more how much he meant to me. To tell him once again that I loved him. I hadn’t said that often enough.

As I pushed open the door of the hospital room, my family’s sadness hit me like a wave. I cried. The man I knew as my dad was no longer there, or if he was, he was so deep inside that communication wasn’t possible. I cried – more for myself than him. I cried. He was no longer in pain, no more aware of the body that had betrayed him after just a little more than 64 years. He’d never hear me say that I loved him ever again. I never told him that enough. I cried for all those times I never told him. I cried the selfish tears of one who realizes too late the power of words never spoken. I cried at the realization of how fleeting life is. I cried for opportunities lost, for conversations cut short, for him never seeing the family that Heidi would have some day.

I sat by his bed and my tears fell into the sheets. I stroked his soft brown hair, something I had never done before. I looked into his eyes that were open, but didn’t look back.

Memories emerged as they still do, all these years later. Images of my childhood and young adulthood. Pictures of my parents as the younger, energetic couple they were when I was a kid. I remembered.

My two older brothers and me wrestling with my dad on his warm Saturday morning bed. He was the biggest, strongest man in the world. If he could take us on, he could beat an army. Shrieks of laugher as one of the “Three Stooges” fell out of bed.

“You snore like a lion!”

“I’ve never heard myself snore.”

“How could you?”

My father driving the boat with my little brother Danny skiing behind. “Hang on, Danny!” Dan couldn’t have more than five or six that summer he learned to ski. He had the most incredible mixture of fear and joy on his face. That old yellow boat rode low in the water. My dad’s back and arms were hairy and freckled. Dan, whose nose was covered in summertime freckles did hang on. For miles. My dad beamed with pride. I was a little jealous.

My dad drove the boat like a crazy man at times. We loved it if someone else was skiing. We were a little afraid when we were the ones behind the boat. The sun sparkled on those Lake Michigan waves and the sun was hot on our feet on the beach. My dad’s sunglasses were horn-rimmed. The hair on his arms was golden, I remember. His hair was wavy when it was long. His hair was brown and never really turned gray. His eyes were pale, watery blue.

One summer when I was about 11 my father and I built a porch on that old summerhouse. It was pretty amazing. We used scraps of wood and some used windows he had scavenged somewhere. He could have asked my brothers to help. It would have made the project go much faster. But that didn’t bother us. He was on vacation and he was spending it with me building a porch on that old wet basement. We took plenty of breaks and drank cold root beer on those sweltering summer days. I pretended it was real beer like he used to drink. He made me feel like a man doing a man's work.

That porch looked a little rough. None of the lines were straight and the angles were far from ninety degrees but it was functional and when we painted it, the little walled off porch didn’t look half bad. It was my dad’s vacation project and I was proud that he had spent so much time with me. I should have told him how I felt about that time; how happy I was and how much I enjoyed laughing with him and watching him measure and draw lines with the flat red carpenter’s pencil. I should have told him that it was the best part of that summer for me. But I never did. Maybe when he thought back on that time, he remembered it the way I did and wished that he had told me how much it meant to him.

When I was in junior high, my family gave my dad a beat up Model A Ford for his birthday. We thought that restoring that it would make another nice project for him. He seemed pleased with the car and began restoring it right away. We hauled it to the summerhouse and stored it in the garage. That old timey garage was too small to hold a real car anyway. It had a wooden floor and I was always a bit afraid that the car would fall through. It never did.

I remember going with my dad to pick up an engine that someone had rebuilt. He paid the man $35 for it. My dad pinched the bills as he plucked them from his wallet. He always did that to make sure that there weren’t any bills stuck together. He never did get around to completely finishing the Model A project. We kept it for a few years but he did finally get it to run. I don’t think I ever saw him more pleased than when he finally got it going. It sputtered, backfired and shook as he drove it around the block. I can still see him in a grungy old t-shirt, gray-blue smoke billowing out the back, that big old Irish grin on his ruddy face, looking like the cat that ate the canary.

One time I went on a business trip with my father when I was a junior in high school. It was during my spring break. My dad did a lot of driving for his job. He was really good at it. He was a representative for a big steel mill in northwest Indiana, Inland Steel Company. He made lot of calls to deal with concerns about the steel. When I was younger I thought my dad drove for a living. In a way I guess he did. He had the most amazing sense of direction. He rarely looked at a map and seemed to feel his way around new places. He was one of those guys who never asked for directions, even if it was probably just the right thing to do. A matter of pride I suppose.

We were on a dusty Indiana country road in LaPort County when my dad recognized the area. I’m not sure why we were country roading, surely there was a more direct way home. Maybe he just wanted to spend more time with me. I like to think that’s what it was. I was bored from riding in the car all day. But it had been fun – just the two of us. He took me out to lunch at some greasy spoon out in the country. I felt very adult, very special. As we left the restaurant, he put some dinner mints in his pocket for my brothers. He often did that.

I perked up a little and looked away from my book when I saw him becoming enthusiastic. “Somewhere around here,” he mumbled as we drove by farmhouses in the hazy Indiana evening. “There!” he said with excitement. “I knew I’d been here before. That’s where my father was born. This is the farm where he grew up!”

I didn’t realize at the time just how important that moment was. I didn’t know all these years later that I would remember that sunset, that dusty road, his ruddy face and wind blown hair. It was one of the few times he ever talked about his family. But he did talk that evening. It was as if a door to some part of him had been opened. He told me about his grandfather who was killed on that farm, kicked in the head by a mule. He told me about going there when he was a kid. He hadn’t been that way for so many years that he couldn’t even remember. There was a light in his eyes, a sparkle. I wish I had tapped into his energy more, asked him more questions.

My father dropped me off at college my freshman year. I was exited about leaving home. And more than a little scared. One of my best friends from high school was living in the same dorm. So was my girlfriend. It was the independence I had dreamed of. But I was frightened as well. I grew up in a big family. Seven kids. There was always someone to hang around with, someone to tease. I was used to being surrounded by siblings and my boys from the neighborhood. It was scary to think of living hours away from home. To talk to my mom and my little brother it would be long distance. Long distance.

We talked about the old days on the four-hour trip. It’s funny how there could even be “old days” when you’re 18 and starting out on your own. I sensed that he was sad at seeing me leave home. I would be back of course. I planned on working in his steel mill the next summer, but this was the first real step toward my being on my own. He helped me move my few possessions to the sweaty dormitory room.

“You’ve got your meal ticket, right?”

“Sure,” I said, starting to get choked up.

“You’ve got some spending money?”

“A little. I don’t need much.” I was trying to act brave but on the inside I was falling apart. I was missing my dad already.

“Here.” He pinched out two twenties. “Don’t tell your mother I gave you this.” It was funny. My mom was by far the more generous one. “And call us if you need anything. Anything at all. Person-to-person for yourself and we’ll call you back.”

“Thanks, Dad.” I wasn’t going to cry in front of him. It was hard.

“C’mon, Bub,” he said. Then he hugged me. Tight. He wasn’t a very hugging guy. I didn’t ever remember him hugging me. Maybe that’s why it meant so much. Maybe that’s why I still remember it. I walked him back to his car. When his car turned the corner I cried.

A few months before he was diagnosed with cancer, my mom and dad visited the first grade classroom at R. Earle Davis Elementary in Cayce, SC where I taught. He was very sick and didn’t know it yet. His hips were sore and his appetite was down. He was looking thin but his color was good. “Just feeling my age,” he said, almost apologetically.

I can see him now, sitting in one of the tiny first grade chairs with the children gathered around my mom and him asking questions. “What kind of naughty things did Mr. O’Keefe do when he was little?”

“Mr. O’Keefe was a pretty good little boy,” my dad answered. “He’s a good son.” There were times I had not been such a good son, such a good little boy. I knew. By then we had grown to love each other in the quiet way that grown-ups do. In the way that fathers and sons do when they can forget the arguments and the angst, the disobedience and the lack of respect.

I am so thankful that he forgave me for my teenage transgressions. When I think of him in that little tiny chair, I am so proud of him. He had just retired from the mill and looking ahead to a long and happy retirement.

At Christmastime we knew that my dad had cancer. We knew that he didn’t have much more time with us. We knew that the end would not be pleasant. He came home from the hospital for Christmas. It might have been because my sister Ruthie would be there and that she was a doctor and could deal with the IV that he had to keep in the whole time. Or his doctor might just have had the good sense to see that what this man needed most was his last few days at home surrounded by his family. We played cards. We laughed precious laughs. We exchanged gifts. We looked into each other’s eyes.

He and I watched a movie together in his bedroom. Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And we laughed. My big brother Pat was asleep in my dad’s leather easy chair. He was snoring lightly. I was on the floor at the foot of the bed. My dad was in his bed, the IV on a pole next to the bed. We laughed. I’m glad that it was just the two of us awake. For a while, reality was suspended and we gave ourselves up to the movie. When it was over reality came crashing back over us. We didn’t have much time left.

That night I told my dad that I loved him. It was probably the first time since I was a little kid. I said that I was sorry for the ugly way I had treated him when I was younger and that he had to know how I felt. He said he was sorry for some things too. I think it was then that we admitted to ourselves that the end was close.

The evening before my dad went into the final coma I spoke with him on the phone. We talked of all the tests he had to have and he joked weakly about the awful hospital food. He had no appetite. My mom told me that he wasn’t eating. He sounded tired. The last thing I said to him before we hung up the phone was, “I really love you, Dad.”

“You too, Bub.”

I still picture him on that rickety old porch, a glass of wine in his hand. I remember sneaking into the house as a teenager and walking up the stairs in the dead of night. My father in his leather easy chair, asleep, snoring like a lion. Now when I look at my hands I see my father’s hands and in the mirror my father’s eyes. I am so blessed to have known this big, gentle man. I hope that some of his goodness has been passed down to me.

He died with relative peace and dignity. His pain was blessedly short. Most of his family was at his side. He never gave up. He was a strong man.

My dad was a simple guy. I think he had realistic expectations for us. Though he never said them quite this way, I think they were these: Do the best you can with what you have. Be honest. Earn your pay. Be as happy as you can be. I hope that I have lived up to his expectations.

1 comment:

Chris Hass said...

What great memories. I can completely relate to your wish that you had spent more time telling your dad how much you loved him and how much you appreciated special times together. I have many regrets concerning missed opportunities with my own dad. However, because of this I find that I spend a lot of time thinking about my relationships with my own kids in hopes that we'll always feel comfortable sharing our feelings. Will it work? I sure hope so.