For Tuyet, Katrina, KaSandra, and Luc
Albany, New York, December 1966
My father died quietly early on Saturday morning while we were sleeping. It was only a couple of weeks before Christmas, old man winter had just brought us a good snowfall, and Shannon was beside herself with anticipation. My little sister awakened me on that day. She was standing next to my bed brushing out the tangles from her long auburn hair.
“Are you awake now?” she asked sternly. I managed to mumble something inaudible, and she swatted me with her brush.
“ETHAN, you have to get up, something’s the matter with Daddy!” she said, stamping her feet for effect. That was all the push that I needed, and I jumped up out of bed.
Shannon jumped up into my bed to take my place, after retrieving Buster from underneath it. I made a mental note that maybe it was time to give that teddy bear to her anyway. This was a drill I had become accustomed to, especially these last few months. It had been a little more than three years since we found out about Da’s cancer. To be honest, the first year did not bring all of the ghastly changes I had prepared myself for. In fact, we were beginning to believe that maybe we had dodged a bullet, but the luck of the Irish caught up with us, and what had been brewing inside my father began to boil over. In no time at all, the man that had always been larger than life to me wilted like a cut flower, right before my eyes. And, like cut flowers, no matter how carefully that you tended to them, their days were numbered.
I walked into my parent’s room through the open door. Mother was sitting at her dressing table brushing her hair (which was beginning to show streaks of gray), slowly and methodically. I stopped just inside the doorway and looked over to their bed. Dad was laying on his back, his head and shoulders elevated slightly by two pillows. I glanced back over at my Mother and saw that she was watching me in the mirror. She had had put her brush down and was fidgeting with her crucifix while she looked at my face. In her eyes, I could see a question hanging on the moment. As strong and stoic as my Mother always tried to be, in truth she was just a softie, a small town girl who had been transplanted to this country by her ambitious beau. I could sense her uneasiness and knew that she was holding back her urge to cry, trying to retain some semblance of strength for me and for Shannon. I looked back at my Father and moved the last few steps to his bedside. His features were familiar, but I knew immediately that he was gone.
“Ah, Da,” I said softly, a weak smile breaking across my face.
I knelt beside their bed and took his hand from atop his chest. It wasn't too cold, but it wasn’t warm either. I pulled it up to my face and rubbed my cheek back and forth, letting the hair on the back of his hand tickle me slightly. The sensation made me think for a second that he might still be here after all. A tear dropped from my eye onto my forearm, and I returned my father’s hand to his still chest. Composing myself, I got up on my feet and went over to Mother. She watched me approach her in the mirror. When I reached her, I put my hands on her shoulders and she placed her hands on mine.
“It was only a couple of hours ago Ethan” she said softly.
“I woke around 3am when I didn’t feel him next to me.”
“I never have been able to sleep well without his arm around me. He always said he was my dream sentry, imagine that, my dream sentry,” she sighed.
My mother had already shared more in these last moments than she ever had before about their personal life. I couldn’t think of any words to say to her, even though I desperately wanted to comfort her somehow, I just felt helpless. She turned in her chair and took my hands in hers. She looked directly into my eyes, so deeply that I could not look away. She pulled my hands to her lips and kissed them tenderly.
“Ethan, son, your Da loved you so very much” she said in a broken whisper.
“I know that at times he was cross sounding, and that maybe he pushed you harder then was necessary. But he always loved his babies” she said with a stronger voice, emphasizing her point by squeezing my hands tightly. There was a minute of silence, and then she spoke again.
“This will be hardest on Shannon, she’ll be needing us both to be strong, to be there for her. To be as normal as possible in all the chaos that will be surrounding this house in the coming days. I’ll be needing your help Ethan, can you do this for me boy?” she asked, her eyes glistening again.
“Yeah Mom, you know that I will, I swear,” I said with conviction. She smiled now, and wiped her tears away with my hands.
“OK then son, for your Da, remember we’re Kelly’s, no tears, no fears,” she said, smiling through her contradicting tone. My mother got up, and retied her gown. She hugged me and tussled my hair.
“Ugh, what a frightful mess you have on top your head boy! You better be fixing that pretty soon,” she said wrinkling her nose and sounding like herself again.
“You go make some breakfast for you and your sister, I’ll be along soon.”
“We’ll tell her together Ethan, OK,” she said as she walked past me to her bed.
“All right maam, OK,” I replied, wiping my own eyes dry. I walked towards the door and then looked back. Mom had crawled back into bed and pulled Da’s arm around her like a blanket. She allowed herself to let go and as I closed the door behind me I swear I could hear her whistling softly to herself, ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’.
The next few days were busy, busy beyond belief. All of the arrangements, the telegrams, the phone calls, and the visitors (all bearing food), produced the chaos that Mom had spoke of on that morning. Uncle Liam and Aunt Jo (Josephine) had come in on Sunday to help Mother with everything that needed doing. Together they handled nearly everything without major incident. Although, there had been a slight commotion when Uncle Liam took on the Great State of New York. It was over the planning of my Father’s viewing/wake in our living room versus the funeral home. In the end, my Uncle capitulated but not before he accused the Governor of the State of planning to steal the pennies from his dead brother’s eyes! To say the least my family was colorful, to say the most we were certifiable!
I had to take Shannon into town for ice cream and new shoes so she would not be there when the mortuary came by to pick up Dad’s body. Mother was settling into her “take charge” personality, keeping everything and everyone at bay. However, whenever we caught each other’s eye she gave me the look that reminded me how fragile the ground was beneath her feet. I did my best to keep the mood light by telling as many of Da’s silliest stories as I could remember.
By Monday, the oldest of my Father’s brothers arrived to lend a hand. Uncle Chuck (Edward Charles really) and Aunt Debbie (Deborah Ann) had come all the way from California. He was Da’s favorite, because he could make us all laugh until our stomachs hurt. And, on occasion, he would unleash his comedic timing on an unsuspecting Uncle Liam and cause him to spew beer from his nose, always a crowd pleaser! Uncles Glenn, Richard and Robert came in on Tuesday from the city. These were the three youngest, still out trying to make their fortune, and still unattached as far as we knew. Each day more and more family arrived, some squeezing into our house, but most billeted at the Holiday Inn near the expressway.
The Mass had been scheduled for Friday morning at St. Kate’s (Katherine), with a viewing and a reading set for the night before at the funeral home. The wake, minus the guest of honor thanks to the Governor of New York State, would be here at the house after the burial service at the Church’s cemetery. My Mother had planned the entire event herself, every detail, and had chosen the most moving music for the march from the Church to the grave. Since I was too small to help carry the casket, Mother had decided that I would walk ahead, leading the way. Mother and Shannon would follow behind Dad and his pallbearers, and everyone else would trail behind them. My Uncles and a close friend of Dad’s would have the honor of carrying him to his rest. My Dad’s friend looked a little surprised when he learned the details of the processional, discovering that he would be required to wear the traditional Irish kilt and frock coat as a pallbearer. Mother whispered to him discretely as he listened, warning him not to refer to the kilt as dress lest there be a need to carry two bodies that day!
By Wednesday, I was quite tired of the smell of ham, cabbage and boiled potatoes. I longed for a plate of spaghetti and meatballs or some macaroni and cheese, or better still a chilidog from Nathan’s in Atlantic City! Just when I thought that the only answer would be a hunger strike, Uncle Chuck came to the rescue. He showed up at the door with bags and bags of cheeseburgers and fries, and a box full of chocolate milkshakes from some new hamburger place called McDonald’s. And, just before bedtime, Uncle Chuck came through again when the house erupted in laughter during the retelling of my Father’s flatulent episode during his christening back in Ireland. Uncle Liam lost control and spewed beer from his nose when Uncle Chuck did his impression of the bubbles surfacing from the Holy Water in the presence of His Eminence. I could hear my Mother laughing loudest of all, and I took this smile to my room with me and had the first restful sleep in days.
We spent most of Thursday preparing for the viewing and reading scheduled for later in the day at the funeral home. Uncle Liam was planning to recite, ‘Johnny we hardly knew ye,’ and Mom had a poem by Emily Dickinson that she wanted to share. I had struggled all week with what to share myself and finally settled on my Father’s favorite Psalm (23), the one that began, "…The Lord is my Shepard, I shall not want..." I knew it was short, but I wasn’t certain I could get up in front of God and family without breaking down, so short was good, very good. As it turned out however, it was at the viewing and the reading service where most of the tears are shed at a typical Irish ceremony. So nobody really noticed me blathering through half of King David’s beautiful Psalm. The Mass and burial are usually where everyone wears a stone face and walks through the ceremony with the dignity of royalty. The wake afterward is where all the emotions come out, but then that’s because most of the people are good and pissed by the time all of the toasting, remembering, and story telling is done.
I woke up early before everyone else on Friday morning. Today we would lay my Father to rest. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and swung my legs out from under the covers. Uncle Robert was sleeping soundly and snoring softly on the rollaway bed in the corner of my room. I almost yelled out when my bare feet touched the icy cold wood floor. My Uncle liked to sleep with the window open and December in Albany can get pretty darn frigid! I threw on some clothes and warm socks, grabbed my sneakers and tipped toed out the door. The house was full of sleeping relatives, and I was glad because they kept Mom busy and her mind occupied. Passing through the living room and into the kitchen, I opened the fridge and took a long drink from the milk bottle. I looked around guiltily; wiping my mouth on my sleeve, making sure my Mother was standing behind me, SAFE! Feeling pretty sure of myself, I took another long drink and replaced the cap on the bottle, putting it back into the refrigerator and closing the door silently.
I took a peek out into the back yard and gazed at the spot where Dad used to lay in the grass. This morning it was covered with fresh snow, and I smiled to myself, suddenly having a great idea. Making my way around the sleeping bags and cots, I went into the dining room and opened the sliding glass door. It was freezing outside, and I was instantly chilled to the bone. I closed the door quickly after I went out into the yard, my breath creating a cloud around me as it met the cold air. I stamped my feet hard on the ground a couple of time to jump-start my circulation and then ran over to Da’s spot in the lawn. Hoping I could do this thing without getting frostbite, I looked up into the clear morning sky, and I could see all the way to heaven I thought. Then smiling broadly I shouted at the top of my lungs, “Can you hear me Da?”
“Look, tis for you sir,” I hollered, dropping flat on my back and waiving my arms and legs in jumping jack like movements, making the grandest snow angel ever. This was brilliant I thought to myself! Sure as there is a God in Heaven, my Father and Jesus himself must be dancing a jig right now, arm in arm right, marveling at this grand sight. And my Father would be saying to him.
“Will you look at that Jesus, didn’t I tell you my son was a pistol”
“ETHAN, are you daft boy, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Uncle Liam hollered from the open sliding glass door, standing there in his boxers and undershirt.
“Get your tail in here before you catch your death!” he shouted again, motioning me over to him with his skinny accountant’s arm. Winking at the sky, I waived to my Uncle and said I would be right along. I jumped up to do what I was told, shaking off the cold snow and jogging toward the door. On the way I thought it just may be possible to freeze one’s butt off! It sure felt that way at the moment.
After a truly grand breakfast of eggs and sausages, fried potatoes, and some juice and cocoa, I found myself back in my room trying to figure out how to wear this stupid kilt. I had seen my Da wear them on occasion, but never really thought much about them beyond how nerdy they seemed, and hoping that I would never have the occasion to wear such a thing. I was mostly worried that my knickers would be hanging out for all to see, I mean we would be out in public after all. Uncle Robert was already dressed and fixing the wool cap on his head, studying his look in the mirror. He saw me holding the kilt in front of me with one hand and my clean underpants in the other.
“Don’t worry Ethan, you’ll not be turning cartwheels at Mass, no one will see son, no one will see” I must have had a funny look on my face because he laughed out loud. He walked by me and messed up my hair.
“You’ll figure it out boy!” he laughed as he went by me towards the kitchen for some coffee.
I stood there a minute longer before the light came on. I blushed a little and then smiled to myself, it all made perfect sense if you thought about it in a practical way. So, I went about getting dressed in the heavy woolen kilt, the white dress shirt and the short black frock coat. I sat on the bed and pulled on the long, heavy and colorful wool stockings, and adjusted the orange tassels that fell from the spats. I finished lacing my shoes and then went out into the hall looking for someone to help me with my tie. Mother caught sight of me as she came out of her room, and she quickly put her hand to her mouth, stifling a gasp. Her eyes became wet with tears and she stamped her foot.
“Darn it Ethan Andrew, you look just like your Father!” She walked over to me and smudged my forehead with a kiss. Then she wet a face towel that she was holding with saliva and wiped away the mark. I gave her the tie and she fixed it for me just as she had for Dad so many times in the past.
“Well now, that should do it, are you ready?” she asked, taking the same towel and dabbing her eyes.
“Yes maam, I am maam” I answered.
We walked into the living room and everyone was either standing or sitting, all of them waiting for the word to start off to the Church. My sister Shannon was sitting on Uncle Glenn’s lap, uncharacteristically silent with so many available people to pester. She was dressed in her Sunday school clothes, complete with a black scarf and little black handbag. She also had Buster with her, and I looked back at Mother and she nodded approvingly. I was glad, I would be busy at the service and would not be able to sit with her and keep her quiet.
“Shall we all make our way now?” Mother said to one and all, as she pulled the black veil across her face. With that being said everyone started for the door and out to the waiting cars.
The Mass was long as usual and hard on the knees with all the praying and genuflecting. I was sitting with the pallbearers, my Uncles and Dad’s friend, in the first row on the left side of the Church. The knee rest on our row squeaked every time we knelt and rose, and I was certain that Father McKenzie would be frowning at me whenever I looked up, he was. I looked across the aisle and made eye contact with Shannon who was sitting with Mother and all of my Aunts and cousins. She stuck out her tongue and wrinkled her nose, so all was well with her anyway. I knew we were nearing the end when the good Father walked around Dad’s casket sprinkling it with Holy Water.
When he finished his laps, Father McKenzie walked back up the steps to the altar, and turned to face the congregation. He raised his outstretched hands slowly, palms up and invited us all to stand. From the balcony high above the altar, a ‘bodhran’ sort of a tiny kettledrum began a slow steady beat, soft and light. Then a lone violin began to play a slow, soft, melodic tune, the drummer keeping time softly in the background. Uncle Liam tapped me on the shoulder lightly and pointed to the aisle way, indicating that I was to take my place at the foot of Da’s casket. Butterflies began to fly around in my stomach, and I fought the urge to retch. I walked calmly into the aisle, catching my Mother’s eyes as I did so. She smiled at me and all of my strength returned.
The violin continued with its beautiful melody and now a lone fife, whistling the same melodic tune in unison, the drummer still keeping time but just a little louder now, joined it. The pallbearers filed out behind me and took their places on either side of the bier. They all looked so grand in their kilts and frocks, standing around the coffin draped by the flag of Dad’s homeland. Everyone was watching us, and I suddenly realized just how many people were here today, I could feel those darn butterflies again. The music became louder still, as a few more instruments joined the others playing the same sweet melody. The fifes, penny whistles, and piccolos were haunting as they enhanced the sweetness of the strings, there were two drummers now and the music was becoming a march.
I looked back in time to see Da’s brothers and his good friend lift up his casket, and place it onto their shoulders. Each of them then folded their white-gloved hands in front of their bodies and Uncle Liam nodded at me to begin the slow march up the aisle leading the way to the waiting hearse. I turned and looked at all of the people, swallowed the lump in my throat and started the one step, pause, next step, pause march, keeping in time with the music that was filling the Church. With every step the music seemed to get louder, fuller, and richer. I was there and I was not there, it felt more like a dream than real life. I looked ahead at the stained glass in the front of the Church, and the sunlight made all of the colored figures come to life. As we passed row after row, I felt everyone’s stare, and I thought I might pass out right then and there. When out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of my mates, all them dressed in their Sunday best, and none of them laughing at me, or pointing and making faces. Kenny reached out and touched me on the arm reassuringly as I passed, and that steadied me enough to finish.
The pallbearers loaded Da into the hearse, and we all followed in a slow walk to the cemetery. Shannon and I stood on either side of our Mother, each holding a hand. She wore black gloves and I remember thinking, well, it’s cold out today. The snowplows had cleared a path from the drive to the gravesite, and mercifully, the weather was supportive. After the pallbearers set the casket next to the hole in the earth, Father McKenzie continued with the graveside service.
It was short and sweet, and my Mother accepted the folded Irish flag as well as the American flag for Da’s service in Korea. Shannon touched his casket with her little gloved hand and then blew him a kiss skyward. Each of my Uncles took their turn saying their goodbyes, and then all five of them knelt beside the grave, held hands and prayed the rosary together, my Uncle Richard’s voice cracking slightly. Finally, it was my turn to say farewell, and I walked over to him and placed both hands on the coffin. I leaned forward, kissed the shiny lacquered wood, and could not resist the temptation to knock lightly on the top, just in case. Then from the inside pocket of my frock coat I pulled out three cards. I held them close to me and then whispered something that only my Father could hear. When I finished whispering my secret message, I placed them all on top of the coffin in this order, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Berra. I could let go now; I knew he wouldn’t be alone. I walked back towards my family, whistling softly to myself, I knew I would not be alone either.