[This post is entirely personal. A special prize goes to anyone who can divine a publishing lesson from it.]
My father, Francis X. O’Leary, passed away peacefully in Florida on Sunday. He was 81, a good age for a man who had lived a varied and occasionally complicated life. In his last hours, he was surrounded by all of his children, his wife of 31 years and a grandchild representing the 14 others whose lives trace back to him.
Dad was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts and raised in Milton, one of the first suburbs on Boston’s South Shore. I later came to understand that Milton was an enclave of “lace-curtain Irish”, its small closely spaced homes a walk or a bus ride away from the trolley to Boston.
Growing up, my father attended Boston College High School, graduating when he was 16. In elementary school, he had skipped a couple of grades, a parental decision he apparently came to regret.
In my formative years, I was a somewhat bored student, and my teachers wanted to advance me to a new grade. Dad repeatedly said no. Challenged by my teachers, he’d answer, “Give him something else to do. He just needs to be busy.”
“Busy” soon meant that I’d be excused from class early each morning and assigned milk duty, where I’d help divide a daily shipment of Hood milk cartons into classroom sets. The quantities varied by the number of students who’d ordered milk that day, and the adults struggled to fill the 16 classroom sets in time.
I remember watching the adults prepare individual crates for each class, placing a single carton for each order. On my own, I counted the number of cartons in the full crates we received from Hood, soon confirming that they each held the same quantity.
When the adults were all detained one day, I started just subtracting to the ordered quantity, holding the extras for the last classroom alone. By the time folks came back from whatever school crisis had consumed them, the milk was sorted and I was reading a book.
Nearly five decades later, I’m earning a living as a workflow consultant. My father was right. I just needed something to do.
He probably could have talked his way into a desk job; he could talk his way into almost anything. But he went to Korea, serving full-time until 1954 and in the reserves for nearly two decades after that.
Shortly after he came home, he married my mother. She was 21; he was 23. By the time he was 25, I’d been born. Barely two years later, just after my mother turned 25, they already had two boys and a girl.
We were living in an impossibly small two-bedroom house in Wakefield, Massachusetts, a quaint town on Boston’s North Shore. The kids were piled on top of one another like puppies in a litter, just squirming to find space, food or maybe warmth. I still have no idea how we fit a Christmas tree in that house.
In the woods behind our house laid raccoons in wait. I grew up fascinated by their persistence in raiding a below-ground garbage bin. Each night, they’d emerge and ravage the bin, leaving the back yard strewn with everything from egg shells to banana peels.
To thwart them, my father tied a string to the lid of the pail, so that any movement would rattle a host of soup cans at the other end. I was never quite sure what we’d do with a raccoon if we caught one, until Dad explained that the noise from the cans would scare them off, something that was true for a while.
When the raccoons realized that the cans were just a distraction, they came back in force. One day, I asked what else might scare them off. My father told me that lights would work. Soon, I’d used strings to build a Rube Goldberg apparatus that might turn a light on when the lid was raised. In the days before motion-detection units, that scheme sadly never took hold.
When I was 5, a fourth child (a third boy) was born, prompting a move to an emerging suburb in West Peabody. In succession, we all started to attend Catholic school in Lynnfield. Dad worked in the insurance business, variously as an underwriter, a programmer and the appropriately vague “systems analyst”. He continued to serve in the Marine Corps Reserve, even as the war in Vietnam grew in intensity.
We lived model suburban lives in West Peabody for about four years before all hell broke loose.
Families fall apart for as many reasons as there are families, and while I can point to the symptoms, I may never truly be able to tell you the reasons. Here’s what is known: with a few days notice, our mother left, moved to Las Vegas, filed for divorce and remarried. Dad fought for custody and won, in a contest that started bitter and got worse. He also fought against visitation, a battle that spilled over into hearings and closed-door testimony from kids 11 and under. To call it a mess would (as they say) do a disservice to messes.
While the fight might have been one Dad would call necessary, in the end it was truly pyrrhic. Concerned about custody, he retired from the Marine Corps Reserve rather than risk being called up at the height of the Vietnam War. The Corps was not all of his identity, but it was part of it, and the loss hurt.
By the end of the decade he was remarried, and we soon welcomed a sister and a brother, six of us in all. But the normalcy that may have characterized his first 36 years was gone. With it went whatever stability might have sustained him in his 40s.
I sometimes think that it is in the nature of fathers to disappoint their sons. Whatever the cause – rivalry, a sense of duty to push the younger ones out of the nest, or a more complicated dance to avoid visiting the sins of the father – the contention shows up in prose, in poetry, in film and in families often enough to make me more than imagine its roots.
Certainly, it felt that way in the second decade of my life. For my father, addiction took hold; jobs dissolved; dreams got put away. As his second marriage faltered, three teenagers worried about things like paying the mortgage and buying enough groceries to feed the family. I took out applications to the service academies, thinking I would have to give up applying to Harvard or M.I.T.
Across 12 years, he crashed, and rallied, and crashed, and rallied, and crashed again. We can’t remember any more how many times we thought we’d lost him.
In the fall of 1979, with the house gone, an apartment evicted and children relocated in a North Shore diaspora, we’d made a limited peace with letting him go. Through the kindness of strangers, I’d made it to and through Harvard. With the ink still wet on the degree, I tried to act as the adult I was supposed to be.
And then, Dad found a way back.
There’s a line in “Suzanne”, the Leonard Cohen song, in which Jesus comes to realize that “only drowning men could see Him”. By the time he was ready to head back, Dad was hardly religious, but I’ve grown to believe he knew he was drowning. Strangers reached out and offered life vests. One saw the person lost in his 40s as a kindred soul, someone she would marry, cajole and support for the rest of his days.
It’s hard to reconcile the father I had for 36 years before and 33 years after with the one I had for 12 years during. Some time back, I stopped trying to reconcile things. I figured that it would either come to me or grow less important over time. It never grew less important, but in the end, I think it came to me.
Bernard Malumud’s book, The Natural, includes a conversation between Roy Hobbs and Iris Lemon. Roy is lamenting what he might have been, and Iris responds, “We have two lives… the life we learn with and the life we live after that.”
So what did Dad learn in those years apart? I think he realized that he needed structure and limits, a land mass always in view. Some of us can maintain our bearings when we set sail toward unseen things, but not all of us. Lost coastlines, “where nothing we’ve actually seen has been mapped or outlined”, can be a scary place.
Those 12 years had weakened him, and as he aged, he’d had his health challenges. Dad had certainly been struggling for the last couple of years, battling fatigue, memory loss and in the end a failing heart. As the symptoms grew more pronounced, all of us tried to stay in touch more often, calling, visiting and writing whenever we could.
I’ve traveled almost 300,000 miles by air in the last three years … my own lost coastlines. On most of those trips, I’d write to him about the place I was going to or had been … London, Berlin, Bologna, Geneva, Frankfurt, Charleston, San Francisco, Banff, Ottawa, Toronto, Austin, Den Haag, and more. In my last letter, written in December, I told him about the coast of Greenland, something I was seeing for the first time as I flew home from Amsterdam. I was going to show him the pictures this week.
I’m told that with each letter he would bore his friends with tales of my world travel (I apologize to those affected). Whenever I came to Florida to see him, he’d look at me sideways and ask, “Just how much DO you travel?” And when I told him, he’d shake his head and walk away, as if the notion of being somewhere else was impossible to grasp.
Of course, it wasn’t. Last year, when his memory seemed more taxed than not, he took our conversation by surprise, announcing almost apologetically, “I shouldn’t even be here.”
I was worried, and I asked him what he meant. He repeated himself: “I shouldn’t even be here.” I hesitated for a moment, not sure what to say, and he picked up with a story I’d never heard him tell before.
“I stepped on a landmine in Korea. We were out on patrol, at night, and I stepped on it. I heard the click, and I did what they taught us to do. I just stopped. Everyone stopped.”
I asked him what happened next.
“I ordered my men to disperse. That’s what you do, so that no one else gets hurt.”
I watched his eyes for a while. He stared straight ahead, past me, as if he still had a boot on the firing pin. I tried to imagine a Marine lieutenant, barely 21, halfway around the world, leading a group of men his age and younger across mine-laden battlegrounds. I wondered what I would have done.
After a moment he looked back at me. “It was a dud.”
“Yeah, it didn’t go off. I lived.”
He lived, and because he lived, so do 6 children, and 15 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren. We children still struggle with those years apart, and that’s understandable. Some things can be hard to reconcile.
Maybe we’ll never really know what madness intervened in those middle years. But these days – now – I am starting to feel I had a father who just needed to stay close to shore, if only to raise a son who lives where nothing has been mapped or outlined.