Sunday, June 21, 2009

Thinking of Dad ...

Boston, more rain ...

Today, on Father's Day, I find myself torn between generations. On one hand, I'm looking ahead to the coming challenges I face as a dad (my girls are 10 and 12; life is unlikely to get any easier in the foreseeable future). On the other, I'm thinking of my own Dad. It's been almost four decades since we lost Dad, a victim of a smoking habit he just couldn't break. I say "we" because, by all accounts, Dr. John Joseph O'Connor Jr. was an immensely popular man. That was doubly true under his own roof, with a beautiful wife and six kids who adored him. He finally succumbed to his Camel-induced cancer in the summer of 1971, just before I began 8th grade. I can't begin to describe the upheaval that loss caused, in part because I probably never fully dealt with it. We O'Connors are pretty crafty when it comes to compartmentalizing our feelings, though some are better than others.

Now that I'm past my own half-century mark, my own memories of Dad are somewhat faded, like the edges of an antique, sepia-toned photograph (similar to the one above, of Mom and Dad on an early date in New York City). I remember watching the ambulance leaving our driveway, not understanding that I'd never see Dad again. And I remember bawling my eyes out at the funeral, when the stark sight of his casket brought home the full impact of our new-found reality: Dad was gone, and gone for good.

The years that followed brought a rough-and-tumble road of highs and lows. Mom, a truly remarkable woman, managed to keep our clan together when a number of her kids – myself included – threatened to veer out of control. Later in life, after I began my career, it slowly dawned on me that Mom had been both a mother and father to all of us. The burden must have been immense, yet Mom never flinched (or, if she did, she never let on to us). So I suppose that, on this day, she deserves credit as well. But she had help. Just before Dad went in for exploratory surgery in January, 1971, he wrote us a letter, parting words of wisdom from a man who knew full well that no one is guaranteed to wake up from the operating table. Mom saved the letter, and made sure we each got a copy after Dad passed away. I wish I could say Dad's words always kept me on the straight and narrow, but I've made too many mistakes. But those are mine, not his.

Still, for a man who understood that he might be looking the Grim Reaper straight in the eye, his words were kind, supportive, almost soothing. Here's an excerpt:

"As for loving and helping each other, this is the greatest gift you can give me. Sometimes it's hard, I know, but it can be done, and once done is a great and warm feeling and a wonderful thing. And you bigger children, watch over and guide Pooken especially – he's awfully little and will need all of you.

"Always stand straight and honest – work hard, hurt no one, enjoy the really good things in life. Look at trees and the sky and flowers and really see them as God's gift to us. Be fair in all your dealings with people. Try to see and understand their side. Don't get into arguments over unimportant things – rise above that – but be strong and steady in your principles. If you have to stand all alone for what you believe to be right, do it! And somehow know I'll be beside you always. "

Over the ensuing 38 years, the simple, straightforward 400 words in Dad's letter have buoyed me, nurtured me, and sustained me. They've comforted me, and motivated me. I still cannot read his line about being beside me without my eyes watering. Clearly, the words don't replace the man, but they've kept his legacy alive. There was no better proof of that than the spring of 2008, as my Mom was in the final stages of her own struggle with cancer, and my five siblings and I gathered in Manchester, NH. Our spouses later commented on just how moving it was to see the bond that the six of us have, how close we are, how much we care for one another. This, again, is part of Dad's legacy. He would have been proud, I'm sure.

For the longest time, I was convinced that I'd never have children of my own, due in part to my own fears of what the future might hold, and the possibility of leaving them prematurely. Then I met an amazing woman, one who had maternal instincts in spades. Fatherhood no longer seemed so daunting, not as long as I had Lauri to share the load. We've been blessed with two terrific daughters, Maddi and Brynne. Neither are perfect, but given the fact that I'm their dad, that would be an unfair expectation.

I've now lived longer than my Dad, though my girls are younger than I was when he died. That responsibility sometimes scares the daylights out of me, even now. In those moments of doubt, I still talk to Dad (and Mom), asking for advice, and for patience. I know they're both beside me. More than anything else, they taught me that family come first, no matter what pitfalls life throws in our path. But I also need to find the strength to avoid disappointing them. That's not a burden. It's a blessing.


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