A year ago

One year ago today, my Dad passed away. His was one in a series of deaths that happened in rapid succession, so when I went back to look at my blog post about it, I realized I never wrote one. I think I set up his memorial website (http://www.johnvgilhooly.com) and linked it on Facebook, and that was about it for social media. It’s interesting living in an age where I have dead friends on Facebook.

We had just lost my wife’s Aunt in December, and I had created a website, helped write her remembrance, help choose readings for the service, and was just back from the service when Dad died. So, in a way, the death checklist cycle just started over, and I never really thought much about it – I just went through the motions again. A death can be surreal, especially when they happen close together. (From December 2013 to February 2014, we lost my wife’s Aunt, my wife’s cousin (a beneficiary in her Aunt’s will), one of our friends from baseball, and my Dad. So much for deaths in threes.) 

I lost a Dad and gained a Mom, since I’ve now spent more time with my Mom in the past year that I had since I left for college. My parents were a true partnership, and duties were divided, which meant when one partner left, the other may or may not have any idea about how some parts of life’s enterprise operated. Luckily, my Dad was an attorney and everything was pretty well documented. He even wrote his own obituary. This was someone who pays attention to the details.

So, a year later, I’m re-reading my eulogy, and I’m trying to remember the day.

I do know that I had been in St Thomas Aquinas Church hundreds of times – I had even served Mass there for years, but that day was the first time I was ever in the pulpit. I remember my brother and I were both frantically trying to find the lectern – he’d never been in the pulpit, either. So, I spoke from the pulpit. How we were spared fire from the heavens raining down is still a mystery to me. 

I tend to find something to obsess about during times of extreme stress, since if I have something to concentrate on, I won’t freak out about whatever is really happening. It’s the mental version of biting your lip to keep from laughing or crying. Distraction. I was actually obsessing about trying to remember which of my friends from work I had seen before the service, so I could thank them later, and I was obsessing about having addressed Abbot Peter Verhalen from Cistercian as “Fr Peter” when he is actually “Fr Abbot”, but I think he forgave me. It helps that I knew him before he was even “Father”, since he graduated right after I started there.

I’m not sure why I remember all that.

Here’s what I said that day – although I’ve been told that reading it was not as funny as seeing me deliver it. I don’t really like saying “deliver it” because it makes a eulogy sound like a sketch, which it should not be, unless I’m delivering it. Then, all bets are off. However, the best (and easiest) laughs are produced at times of crisis or sorrow, because nothing is funnier than when it is inappropriate to laugh. I really hoped people would laugh. I hate crying. I also thought echos of laughter in an acoustically sound Church would sound really cool. They did.

I said:

Reverend Fathers and Deacons, family and friends,

For those who don’t recognize me, I’m Kevin John Gilhooly. My Dad didn’t want a “Junior”, so I have his name as my middle name. I realized this morning, that had I been a Junior, people would now be saying, “Look, it’s Littlejohn”, so, my Dad was a wise man. For those who thought I was Stephen, he’s my younger brother. He’s next.

My memories of my Dad are very distinct moments in time, rather than a wash of almost 53 years, which is how long we knew each other.

My Dad was a first-generation American. My Grandpa Gilhooly emigrated from County Leitrim, Ireland early in the 1900s, and settled in Providence, RI. So, since this is about someone of Irish descent (and technically an Irish citizen), it starts with a drinking story and it ends with a drinking story.

This is the story of my first official drink. I was already 18 and I was working in a liquor store, so it was not my actual first drink, but this was the first one Dad bought me.

Dad had invited me to lunch, which was a bit unusual. We went downtown, which was a bit unusual. Since we were downtown, and the restaurant he chose was next door to St Jude Chapel, he suggested I go to Confession since we were “in the area”. I’ve always wondered if tricking someone into going to Confession was a sin. Probably not.

We went into the restaraunt and he ordered a bourbon and Coke. Dad asked me if I would like a drink. I said, “I’ll have a Jamesons and water.” He hadn’t realized that people that work at liquor stores get discounts, and that causes rather expensive taste. I think he was secretly impressed. It was a very good drink.

Now, some random moments.

My Dad and I did one “traditional” father-son activity together. The YMCA had a program called “Indian Guides”, a father-son activity. I was most excited since we got to choose Indian names for ourselves. After much consideration, I chose “Running Deer”. When the leader asked my Dad for his Indian name at the meeting that night, he just looked tired, and said “Walking Deer”. At least we sounded related. It was either about a six-week summer program, or that was how long Dad needed to discover he was not Native American. (Surprisingly, my brother Stephen was never an Indian Guide.)

There are many occasions where at the time, it seemed we didn’t understand each other at all, which is probably common with parents and children. These are the moments life lessons are passed down. Sometimes.

Two life lessons about food.

When Stephen and I were growing up, we usually attended 9:15am Mass on Sunday. As a special treat, some weeks, we would go to Kip’s Big Boy after Mass. On one of those visits, I was told I couldn’t have my original order because it was too expensive. So, I changed my order. (This was all before the waitress arrived, since orders were generally pre-approved.) Then, Dad ordered himself ten Silver Dollar pancakes. I was incensed. Ten dollars worth of pancakes after denying my reasonable request for extra bacon? (Or whatever it was.) Then, our breakfasts arrived. My Dad was paying a dollar each for some of the smallest pancakes I had ever seen! I finally had to ask why they were a dollar each. Dad had to explain they were the size of silver dollars. I had never seen a silver dollar. So, life lesson: never assume your parents are insane until you do the research.

Another morning, Dad made English muffins and asked how many I would like. I said four. Moments later, he arrived with a really large pile of hot breakfast treats. More than I had ever seen. I wasn’t sure I could finish that much. So, I asked, “Why are there so many English muffins?” He said, “You asked for four.” He counted muffins pre-slicing. I never realized I had been eating half muffins. Important lessons a parent can teach.

Life lessons about music.

In 1974, Joe Cocker had a hit song called “You Are So Beautiful”. There are not many more lyrics in the song than those in the title. Basically, “You are so beautiful to me. Can’t you see? You are so beautiful to me.” For a 14-year old who had been writing poetry in English class for homework, it was a moment of clarity – pure emotion in a minimum of words. For a 44-year old corporate attorney in the middle of a seven-hour drive to visit his in-laws, it was not. He said, “You think they would have bought a few extra lyrics.” To each his own, I suppose.

My first concert was the second Texxas Jam in 1978 at the Cotton Bowl. It was an all-day show, with multiple bands. My Dad was my date. Actually, he invited himself so I wouldn’t be maimed or murdered. I had never smoked pot, but I did recognize it when the guy next to my Dad tried to pass him a joint. (He declined). In fact, later on, Dad mentioned in a rather loud voice that he really didn’t like the smell of marijuana. We had more room around us after that, since I’m pretty sure everyone thought he was a narc.

The only band Dad liked was The Little River Band, and that’s because they closed with “Return To Sender”, a song older than I.

Fleetwood Mac closed the show. As Stevie Nicks sang, “Rihannon”, Dad leaned over and said, “What is she saying?” I was in the middle of a “You Are So Beautiful”-poetry moment, but I managed to answer, “Rihannon. She’s a Welsh witch.” That was the last time I got the “You kids these days” look. I suppose the lesson is that some music does not cross generations.

Some life lessons about business.

My Dad was part of the Bob O’Links Homeowners Association. In fact, he was the President for a time. That was the group that successfully fought to keep Bob O’Links Golf Course zoned for single-family homes while the owners were trying to get the City Council to change it to allow apartments. So, if traffic is a bit heavy on Abrams at times, think what it would be like if the area from Abrams to Wendover and Bob O’Links to Sondra were all filled with apartments. Thanks, Dad. Fight the good fight, because sometimes, you win.

I worked at TI for a couple of years after I moved back to Dallas after college. My Dad actually helped get me in the door. I was on a small team that produced ad hoc reports for people – in the days before PCs, only the IT staff could access information easily.

I had a report requested for someone in the legal department, and had done a number of iterations, but I couldn’t get what they wanted. I finally asked who the report was for. In a hushed voice, I was told “John Gilhooly.” So, I went over to my Dad’s office and asked what he was trying to prove. A couple of hours later, he had his numbers. So, find out who is in charge, and ask them. That was actually a real life lesson. Also, you may never know how important your Dad is until you see the level of fear in his people’s eyes as a deadline approaches.

I will close, as promised, with a drinking story. This one happened last Monday night, the day before Dad passed away. My wife Virginia and I went to visit him while my Mom was teaching her grief counseling class. Technically, we were Dad-sitting. He was asleep when we arrived. Since he was on pain killers, I thought he might sleep the entire time we were there.

Mom showed us where everything was (which was in the same place since 1972 when they bought the house.) She said he could have orange juice to drink if he wanted something. She wasn’t sure he would want food.

A few minutes after she left, I heard Dad calling me. He was awake and wanted to get out of bed. I helped him into his wheelchair, and brought him into the living room, so he could be with us.

I asked if he wanted something to drink and he said, “Yes. A Bourbon and Sprite, but only half a jigger of Bourbon.”

I thought for a moment. On one hand, here was a cancer patient on hydrocodone asking for alcohol. On the other hand, it was only half a jigger, and he’s Irish. Plus, he had a twinkle in his eye that meant “I know I’m being bad”. So, I made him a drink.

He said he was hungry. My (Italian-American) wife Virginia made him some dinner. She also gave him a piece of cake she had brought over.

So, the last thing I did for my Dad was fix him a drink, and the last thing Virginia did was feed him. Somehow, that seems appropriate. I am very thankful for that evening.

Goodbye, Dad. See you on the other side. I’ll have a Jamesons and water.

Thank you all for being here with us.

Short and sweet.

It’s interesting to read that piece again today, because the first time I re-read it, I realized that almost everything in the eulogy happened before I was eighteen or the day before Dad died. There was a long period of time where we were at odds with each other, over any number of issues. However, as the elder son, it was my job to fight all the battles, so my younger brother would know which battles to fight and which to pass.

I remember that almost being”Littlejohn” actually occurred to me as I was walking up to the pulpit, so I wasn’t exactly focused before I got started. The question about tricking someone to go to Confession is much, much funnier if there is a line of priests and deacons on the other side of the Sacristy that you can pause and look at, inquiringly. That’s when everybody laughed.

I don’t think I really cried until the piper started playing at the cemetery. I never knew my Dad wanted a piper at his funeral. In fact, obsessing about why an Irishman wanted a Scottish player at his funeral almost kept me from crying, but some songs make me cry.

It all seems like a long time ago, now. In a way, it was.

When you’ve been estranged from someone for a number of years, losing him is actually very awkward. Everyone expects that you had the same relationship with him that they did, but nobody else was his eldest son. It’s different.

My wife still thinks “I should call Mom” constantly and her Mom’s been gone for over five years – but they were very close. She thought about calling her Aunt for advice on doing her Aunt’s estate. My family does not have this type of closeness, for good or bad.

I haven’t thought “I should call Dad” very much in the past year, since I wasn’t thinking that when he was still there to call. We had managed to get from “estranged” to “distant” or “formally cordial” by the time he passed, so we were making progress. We just weren’t there yet. I guess we’ll finish on the other side.

He was still my Dad, estrangement, arguments and all. He’s still gone. That still sucks.