Friday, April 24, 2009

My father's death this morning

Layne wrote eighteen months ago about her father's death. Now it's my turn. At 92 1/4, the man who I called dad died. He was found in the morning around 5:30 by the attendants at his nursing home, to where he'd moved the past couple months after a series of slips led him too long to be stranded on his own, dangerously, alone. I wonder if a fall did him in this time, but his emergency button pendant was not pushed, so the end may have been sudden, or I hope in the way we hope, peaceful during his last night on earth.

I had been up at 3:30 a.m., and I had to set to work on the computer for work before driving to work to do more work when work would open, as I ended one eight-week incessant session teaching today. After giving a final, doing grades, and calculating the entries to hand in, I had to immediately start planning for next week. A new session, with a class that had been re-assigned with little warning to me after my regular gig had been pre-emptively cancelled. This setback necessitates a series of complicated electronic platform shuffles far above my access level set by my employer under the Panopticon process I've been lamenting lately. I had to get in motion, literally, right away so I could tell the 25 students already enrolled via the on-line system of the changes in teacher, syllabus, and approach. Such alterations in the future will diminish to nearly none, but for now-- despite the hassle-- I relish the ability to at least keep some autonomy in how I'm able to pick and choose at least what I want to assign out of the assigned literature anthology we must use.

Such restrictions make me naturally bristle. I had a performance review preview last evening and I tend to tense up and snap out when put under authority. It's always been a stumbling block for me: while seemingly mild-mannered, there's an introverted side combined with a perfectionist make-up and an dissenting spirit that I must have inherited from some Fenian malcontent, some hedge master. While I take eerie sadness and strange delight in the fact unearthed (only two years ago) that my biological great-grandfather was a Land League agitator found "drowned in mysterious circumstances" in the Thames while in London in 1899 on a mission from Roscommon, my more mundane notions of a humdrum upbringing by ordinary folks leave me often wondering what makes me tick: is my nature as well as my nurture that of frightened begrudgers, emotional withholders, people too scared to say they love and yearn? That brings me back to now-departed dad.

I had written two days ago about the fact I have no idea who my biological father is or was, only knowing that he was apparently no architect as I'd been led to guess in the scanty suggestions given me when grown up-- at 22!-- by my parents, who had adopted me as a "special needs baby" but who waited until my sister's marriage to give me much of the little data the County Adoption Agency had provided them. Luckily, my (adoptive) mom had peeked in the pile of papers when they were left momentarily unguarded, and was able, twenty-one-odd years later, to recall the name left accidentally inside the papers, not on their front page. I was able to confirm this first and last name when, about twenty-two years later still, I matched these to the Public Records Office birth records I had hunted through in my detective work in Dublin, where I figured out then the combination that led me about twenty months ago to find my birth mother.

Anyway, now I wonder. Not at my true paternity. I may never know it. I don't think those of us who are adopted probably care as much to find out about our fathers as our mothers, most of the time. Unless we're rumored to be the heirs of Ayn Rand's capitalist architects! That leaves me now backwards glancing. At people who never looked like me, at an also adopted sister who does not resemble me, at a mirror that until recently never gave me a look at any relatives except my sons. This can be, as my wife often cautioned me, a blessing in disguise, given her own parents and sister.

Am I, at my advanced age today, finally an orphan? This afternoon, coming home from work, I found out that my dad died. My wife told me as I got out of the car. I recalled how I heard from my dad over twelve years ago the death of his beloved wife of fifty-five years. He called me when I'd gotten back from the hospital. I took the call in the upstairs bathroom, two days after Christmas. "That's the end of the story." His typically terse, blunt exchange with me on the phone announcing his wife's death after much pain.

I remember how my wife waited for me almost six years earlier outside the gate of our little cottage to tell me she was pregnant-- the first time. The second revelation was doubtless less romantic. Probably an admission mumbled after she came home from the doctor or drugstore, amidst the cries of The Firstborn.

The man and woman who chose to raise me, both in their mid-forties in an era when people had kids in their twenties, were often mistaken for my grandparents. They never could have kids on their own, so they adopted, although why they waited so long I never could fathom. Nobody I knew had parents that advanced unless they were the youngest of eight-- a once-familiar event pre-Pill in Catholic circles. My folks gave me my woefully too-common first and last name, combined with the ungainly, uncommon middle one I avoid although I respect for the legacy it represents for me. Ironically, I'm last of a maternal line to carry a family name that ties me by no genetics. The uncommon name-- thank God for those Irish clans that still tend to cluster around ancestral townlands for we nosy genealogical Yanks-- I had at birth exists only in my mind and perhaps on the inner pages of those sealed adoption records. Thanks to that uncommon surname, the lack of white-out and a clerk's oversight, I was able to unlock after long investigation a secret that perhaps I was not supposed to reveal. But, as in my past often I hesitated to tell people what I really wanted, how I really felt, what I really believed, in my middle age I have tried, with middling and hesitant and sporadic success, to be a bit bolder.

I grew up being told no. I grew up being told my place. My parents were raised in such a way by such a Church and such parents and such institutions. Their plain saint's first and stereotypical Irish surnames repeated generation after generation. They lacked the stories of any Fenian forebears-- or any architects. They worked in factories and on railroads, drank or swore off the bottle, always grumbled, and always went to Mass. That was their life. There wasn't more asked of it or of each other. Nobody had curiosity. My dad's dad played with him-- only once. He threw him a ball.

They did their best for me. They never had to have me. The skinny pale guy with thick glasses who the other ones marveled at and gawked at, the kid from Mars who read about the Diet of Worms and tributaries of the Danube in the back seat of a hot car in the Valley at five years old. I could have been retarded, blind, and/or doomed to a short and painful life. I was a risk. They adopted me and while like any other ungrateful brat I bitch and moan, I realize that those who volunteer to have children may gain a greater merit than the 90% of us who spawn and breed without much initial choice or awareness in the matter of paternity and maternity.

So, I face tonight a bit differently than I woke up very early today. Sometime before dawn, my dad left this life. I last saw him almost a month ago, by myself. This was rare lately, as usually Niall or Leo went with me to visit. He and I had a longish talk, if around ninety minutes writing down words for an old man to read and then to hear him half-shout back to you is a conversation in the normal sense. He was in good spirits, no harsh words were exchanged, and when our small talk had run its course, and he needed a rest, he asked indirectly to go back to his nap.

I had entered the room with the nurses' help. He could not hear me knock, of course, so I needed them to open the door. I had to wait while he was roused gently, boyishly, from his noontime, post-lunch nap. We talked as best we could for awhile. When I left, I returned a moment later. I had forgotten, when last with Niall, my old raincoat in his room. It occurred to me suddenly to look for it. I asked him, but he told me he had thought it was left in his room accidentally by an attendant. He had given it to a workman to take to lost and found. (It was not there, but that's not really the point of the story!)

I thanked him, smiled, kissed him again on the cheek as I always have, and waved bye a second time. As with my mom, in the hospital whom I had also gone back a second time to kiss the day she died-- I was the last family member to see her alive a few hours before-- I had a second chance to reopen a door and go back to repeat my gesture of departure. I'm glad I took the opportunity.

Image: He was never much for snapshots, so I have this illustration of the Palmer Method of handwriting once inculcated in schools here. "American Penman, March 1932." He was fifteen then, not much older than Niall now and not much younger than Leo.

P.S. By message inscribed or punched into medium, we tap or scrape our fragile message to whomever comes along to survive us. He was old enough to remember meeting geezers who'd fought in the Civil War. The circle of living memory, they say, endures about that long-- a hundred and fifty years of history, no more. It reached to me. No matter how far we stretch our lives, the outer edges that pull us back into time do snap at about that same limit, this side of a century's weary and amazing ambit.

He wrote me a few postcards and letters when I was young, and sent the same to my boys, especially Niall, about their shared love of baseball. He had lovely penmanship, a lost art of the now-nearly vanished generation that grew up in the 1920s and 30s. Now we Tweet and peck.


AM said...

A very moving and serene piece. Our thoughts are with you in this most trying of times.

Anthony & Carrie

Bo said...

I'm so very sorry. I know there's not much that can be said--and what there is you have written most beautifully, as always--but you'll be in my thoughts. Bo

Layne said...

I called you from a payphone at a gas station on Olympic to tell you that you had knocked me up again. How lovely, my sweet writer, that as your father grew more and more deaf, you were able to make him the gift of your words on paper. Both of our souls seemed so indelibly etched with no. How wonderful it is that God has brought us together to this place of yes. I will. Yes.

alanindyfed said...


Sorry to hear your dad passed away, albeit at a good age.
Mine passed away at the age of 94.
I hope to supercede that figure.
I am in Ireland now and a buying a house in a beautiful area of West Cork, near Bantry and Skibbereen.
If you ever get the chance for a vacation in this country you are most welcome at my abode.

alanindyfed said...

An Chuillainn

Oh say, did you see her, by the gloamin' o'er the sunrise
As she stepped, like a fawn in Bal' nagher,
Or sang far sweeter than the lark or thrush at eventide.

Red-ripened her cheek is, like a berry upon the tree,
And her neck, more graceful than the swan is;
Her lips like petals from the red rose smile on me.

When she was a little girl, and I a tender child, I loved her,
But our parents money placed between us,
So farewell my Chullain an chuil fionn, fair flower of Bal' nagher, jas mochree.

Wait for me forever, by the place where we lay alone
Through the night, where the elf and storm winds rustle,
And the old ash tremble in the dark, and fear for morn.

I will come to my Coolin, ere the life from my corpse will wander,
And will hold, as I did when in our childhood,
My little jewel flower of Bal' nager.

Fionnchú said...

Thank you to all for your own eloquent comments. Anthony & Carrie, for your own exemplary roles as committed activists who craft a variety of methods for transformative, thoughtful, unconventional expression; Bo, for your incredible erudition leavened with humane insight and unpredictable wit; Alan, for your wise appraisal of pan-Celtic (I've never been to Cork!) causes and social commitment that sustains the spirit of Avalokiteshvara; Layne, for your truly undying love.

In this trying week, coming here online to find a community of support from my friends renews my spirits for my return to the challenges of our "real" world.

vilges suola said...

Very sorry to hear of your loss. Wishing you strength. S.

Tony Bailie said...

John belated commiserations.
Go ndeanaidh Dia trocaire ar a anam.

harry said...

I too love the idea of you writing to your father in that last meeting at the edge. And the continued image of penmanship, letters formed, and something lost.

A father's death must bring up thoughts of history, heredity, knowing what is real, what is claimed, how we fit into our life's story. To quote badly what was probably already mis-quoted... history is a battlefield. Maybe especially in our own heart.

Fionnchú said...

Thanks, too, to S., Tony, and Harry-who-is-also-Bob (and Chris) for your responses. It's hard to resist clichés at such moments, but they, perhaps if we upgrade them to proverbs, serve us well enough for conveying deeper, inarticulate, emotions. Peace to you all, friends!

Chris Berry said...

John...I'm (again) short on much other than cliches...but saddened to hear of your Dad's passing and... glad for your opportunity to explore this rite of passage and his release from that which is the pain and suffering of modern life.

Of course I'm also wondering what Ms Manners would say about the propriety of Facebook and blogspot condolences...

Regardless...Peace to all at Casa Murphy.