Thursday, July 8, 2010

"Unexpected Gifts" by Charlene O'Sullivan Distefano

“I wasn't there that morning when my Father passed away. I didn't get to tell him all the things I had to say. I think I caught his spirit later that same year...I just wish I could have told him in the living years.” – from the song “The Living Years” by Mike Rutherford and B.A. Robertson

I sat in my childhood home in New Britain, Connecticut, in Dad's 1960s-decorated kitchen, counting his weekly pills into morning and evening doses, and reflected that I was now taking care of Charles “Chappy” O'Sullivan, who had taken care of me his entire life. We had just returned from making pre-paid funeral arrangements for both him and Mom, whose debilitating stroke had left her in a nursing home, never to recover or return home. Dad would be waked from the Irish funeral home in town, Mom from the Swedish.

My year-long layoff from Aetna from dried-up project funding would gift me with time to enjoy Dad's company as never before.

Dad and I reviewed the contents of their safe deposit box, including details of how my birth parents gifted me to my parents, and Mom's letter to the adoption agency presciently recounting what a wonderful father Dad would make.

I took Dad to lunches, and once ordered a pricey wine just to “get his goat.” Sure enough, he said, “Are you crazy?” and then enjoyed the wine immensely. That bottle remains a treasured memento.

Dad ate suppers with us, wearing his royal blue spring jacket (as our home's cool temperature did not mix well with his poor circulation). He told bad jokes and entertaining stories, mainly about serving in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps during the Great Depression. He had asked for a tour in the Pacific Northwest, but when the trains unloaded, the young men found themselves in Vermont and later Maine.

Dad and Dave once put lobsters in a pot, and we heard a high pitched moan. Dave and I cringed, thinking the lobsters were crying out for mercy. Dad's Irish eyes twinkled; he had made the noise himself.

My uncles drove Dad to the dog track or casino, right after he got “tanked up” from his monthly transfusions.

Dad devotedly visited Mom every day, shuffling down the hall while shouldering his portable oxygen tank. The staff gently said he did not have to come every day, but he did. The day Dad said, “I will never golf again,” I denied it vehemently, but he was right.

Six weeks before my cousin Father Mark Jette Mark married me and Dave in 1977, Dad's heart attack had sent him into disability and retirement. Doctor Takata performed five heart bypasses and assured Mom that Dad would not only walk me down the aisle, but dance at my wedding. Doctor Takata's gift was a further 18 years with Dad.

Pneumonia finally brought Dad to Hartford Hospital's emergency room, where we chatted and Dad sat reading the New Britain Herald. His congestive heart failure stemmed from years of smoking and welding around asbestos. The covering cardiologist arrived, questioned Dad's symptoms, then asked if he had a living will. Either that question confused him and triggered something in his brain, or it was sheer bad timing, but Dad never spoke coherently again. Over the next three days, the only word I could understand was “Mommy.” I asked the cardiac nurse if I should bring his clothes, and she abruptly said no.

I was not with Dad the next morning when he died. Our close friend and Dad's tenant Steve was the last friend or family member to see Dad alive. Father Mark celebrated Dad's funeral Mass, and read Chappy jokes from his handwritten joke notebook found in his bureau drawer. An Irish small farmer was touring a Texan's huge ranch. The Texan says, “ I can drive my truck all day, and only be halfway across my land.” The Irishman says, “Sure, and I had a truck like that once meself.”

A woman once asked why I seemed so sad, and I said, “I am worn out taking my Dad to all his doctor's appointments and monthly blood transfusions.” She replied “Enjoy him while you can. My dad died seven years ago today, and I still miss him.” I took her at her word during Dad's last year.

We continue to celebrate Dad's life and spirit. His blue recliner has pride of place in our living room. The hand-forged nutcracker of a lady's shapely legs reclines in the holiday nutbowl.

Dave now uses the Chappy method of fire tending, after years of overthinking. When would Chappy toss a log onto a fire to keep it blazing? Now.

We recite punchlines from Dad's bad and sometimes incomprehensible jokes to each other. “You know what the Irishman says? “I don't like to eat meat, but I love ham [pronounced hahm].”

I treasure this handwritten note found in Dad's car glovebox: “I love you both.” When did he write that? When did he think we would read it? It does not matter. Dad, I love you back always, with all my heart.

I married my father. There is no higher compliment I could give my husband.

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