My father, Jack O’Keefe, died about 20 years ago. Too young in my mind. He was 64 and just recently retired. We think of a person who has just retired as having a lot of years ahead to kick back, to enjoy their newfound freedom from the daily grind. Certainly when I thought of my dad when he was getting close to retirement, I imagined him swinging a golf club; spending a lot of time in Mexico where he and my mom managed to spend several lengthy vacations among expatriated Americans. I imagined him really growing old (although 64 was quite old to me at the time). I imagined him awkwardly holding my children, not yet born. I thought he would read a ton of books, as he was just becoming a reader before he died. I imagined him growing out his beard and perhaps his redbrown hair finally turning gray.
I loved that big man, although I never told him early enough in our lives, or often enough.When I would call home after moving away, he would hastily give the phone to my mom or tell me quickly that she was not there and expect that to pretty much be the end of the conversation. It’s not like we were scared to talk to each other, more like we were comfortable with the silence that stretched between us, comfortable with the distance. It’s hard to describe.But I still miss that those watery blue Irish eyes, that ruddy face, that wavy brown hair that he was so proud of. I still miss my dad.
A lot of my family was there when my dad passed on. It was tearful, but we got the chance to say goodbye and to tell him that we loved him. We had recently spent Christmas vacation at our parents’ home in Indiana. His doctors had the good sense to let my dad go home to spend those last precious days with his family. After the farewell at the end of the vacation when Heidi and I were heading back to our home in South Carolina I never saw him again until he lay dying in the hospital. At that point he was too far gone to respond. We stroked his hair, held his hand, held each other, cried. It was not a bad way to send off Jack O’Keefe. I hope that I can get out of here with that much dignity.
The following Christmas, Heidi and I poured through many family photographs, old and recent, and pulled together one of those video photo albums that were popular back in the day. It was a videotape about 45 or 50 minutes long, almost 600 photographs. We worked hard at selecting songs for the soundtrack that seemed to fit the chronology. There were elementary and high school photos of my folks when they were kids, photos of them with those big old round cars in the background from when they were dating. There were pictures of my dad in his navy uniform, wedding photos, pictures of my grandparents with my folks, pictures of my Mom when she was pregnant, baby pictures of all of us through the years, pictures of our old neighbors, our old neighborhood, girlfriends, boyfriends, school pictures, vacations pictures, graduations, weddings, babies of our own, our early homes when we were adults and on our own. It was about 50 years of history condensed into less than an hour.
We made copies of the video back in 1990 and gave them to all of my siblings. It was cathartic, and bittersweet. It seemed right.
So, 20 years later I found that old VHS tape with all that music and all those pictures and decided to make a DVD out of it for all my siblings and my mom again. This time I made enough copies for those nieces and nephews who remembered Jack. No one had seen it for most of those years. The time seemed right again.
Dubbing it over from VHS to DVD had to be done in real time. So I watched it. I was alone, nearly in the dark, sitting on the living room floor, sifting through all of those memories from before my childhood, those old songs pouring into me, my parents as kids, my brothers and sisters growing up, my Heidi as a college coed, our wedding. My dad. I missed him so bad. And I was doing all right too, until Heidi walked into the room. She sensed my quiet intensity and didn’t say anything. She just ran her hand through my hair on her way through and it was enough to start the tears. For the next 20 minutes as the images of my long ago past flew by, I had to blink back tears.
I made about a dozen of the DVDs and gave them out at Christmas but I never got the chance to watch it with my family. Our time together was short this year.
But when we got back from our lengthy adventures on the Christmas road, I had a dream. Probably because I had seen all those pictures of Jack O’Keefe, probably because I spent a long time one morning over the holiday reminiscing with my mom about how she and my dad met during the war, about how shy he was, and how she was not going to let that shy man out of that kitchen at her parents' house, before he headed out for war, without kissing him on the mouth. Probably because my sister Ruthie gave me a family calendar with this picture dated 1945 of may parents creeping out of the USO club where they first met, my dad looking scared and sneaky and my mom looking so young and pretty in her formal clothes and a flower in her hair. Probably because I had been thinking about Jack O’Keefe and missing him and thinking how great it would have been for him to have met my boys and for him to see our home in the South Carolina country woods. But I had this little dream.
It was a soft dream. Nothing alarming, no big deal. In it, my dad came into our bedroom. I was feeling awake. I sat up in bed. He walked in as I remember him from about the mid 1970’s. He was trim and ruddy and his hair was longish as were his sideburns. He came into my early morning room and told me simply that he was all right. That I wasn’t to worry about him. That he was just fine. And that he missed me.
That was all. I woke up feeling like I just talked to him. I was left with this lonely feeling, this feeling that it had been far too long. At the same time, I felt like he had just touched base with me. There was comfort in that.