Like most men of his generation, he didn’t express his love verbally much, and was probably a little uncomfortable doing so, but he showed it by being dependable and providing a platform from which we all could thrive.
I once suggested that he should exercise more often, eat better, etc. He said, “I’m like an old car. The gunk in the engine is holding it together. If you steam cleaned it, everything would fall apart.” Always with the jokes. Maybe his absolute refusal to take life seriously was the secret for his almost zen-like peace. (I have very little of that. I’m a railer, a protestor, a denier of reality.)
He survived a childhood with loveless parents who never even acknowledged Christmas or birthdays, and who never once said “I love you”.
He survived sadistic teachers who beat him with sticks. One kicked him so hard, he fell and injured his tailbone so badly, he felt the pain off and on for the rest of his life.
He survived the mean streets of Belfast as a child, littered with the budding psychopathic children of profoundly dysfunctional adults, one of which launched an unprovoked attack on him, trying to gouge his eye out (literally). He had trouble with that eye for the rest of his life too.
He left school at 14 to support his family by working in an Irish linen factory.
He survived multiple altercations as a B-Special reserve police officer.
He was a semi-professional boxer.
He was a business owner and kept his doors open for 40 years while other businesses run by men with higher education rose and fell around him. Everyone who called his office got more than great service, they got a joke and a story and a laugh, and they were made to feel important as a person as well as a client.
He was an activist fighting to restore peace in Northern Ireland during “the troubles”. He was interviewed on radio and television and contributed many articles on the Irish conflict to the L.A. Times. He received death threats for standing up to terrorism, particularly after the LA Times published an article titled Who Killed Little Michele?
He lost his stomach to cancer when he was 45 but never complained. He just kept going.
He lost his firstborn son, my only sibling, when he was 64 and my brother was 37. He supported him for twenty years of drug addiction.
Despite his lack of education, he was considered an intellectual by all who knew him.
Despite the lack of love from his parents as a child, he never brought up their past with them, took care of them financially for the rest of their lives, and spent his vacations there doing repairs to their home, and he did it all without expectation of reward, because that’s what he was supposed to do. The first time I saw him cry was when his mother died. The second time was when his father died. There was no resentment in him.
None of his problems made him bitter. On the contrary, he sang for the better part of every day, in the shower, in the car, anywhere the need overtook him. The neighbors often thanked him for serenading them every morning too. I spent my childhood listening to Irish songs coming from the bathroom as he got ready for work, and I would wake to a house filled with the scent of Old Spice cologne.
He was the one everyone at the pub called on when they needed a song to help them forget their troubles. My dad enjoyed nothing more than singing and watching his friends dance.
He was hard on my brother and I sometimes, but nowhere near as hard as his father had been on him. But now that I’m a father, I know that there was love even in the moments I was most frightened of him, because he wanted me to grow up honest and strong. Compared to his own father, he was an absolute prince.
Even when Parkinson’s and dementia was starting to erase him, he looked at me one day, probably after noticing that I was troubled, and said, “Don’t worry about me, son. You know I’m a tough old bird.”
And on his deathbed, after a month of hell, flooded with the morphine that would finally stop his tremendous, unconquerable heart, when I thought those hellish diseases had erased him completely, when I was sitting in the corner with my face in my hands, my dear friend Dean, who was praying over him, asked if he was ready to see heaven. He nodded yes.
Then Dean said, “Mark, he wants you.” I looked up and saw him reaching for me. I rushed to him. In a moment of perfect clarity, he pulled me to him and gave me a kiss. Thanks to a thoroughly incompetent Kaiser hospital (Panorama City, California), he was unable to speak the entire month he was there, so that kiss told me everything he couldn’t. (I threatened to blow up the hospital for making his last month so much harder. Apparently, you can’t say things like that anymore. I had a security detail attached to me for the rest of his days there.) That kiss and hug told me, “Thanks for fighting for me, son, but I’m ready to go now if you’ll let me.”
It took 36 hours after that for the morphine to stop his heart. Despite the difficulties we’d had with each other over the years, I cried like a baby on his chest for almost all of his last day and a half on earth.
The doctors couldn’t explain why it was taking so long for him to die, but I knew. They had never encountered a heart like his before. They had no idea who was lying on that bed. They were thinking in terms of ordinary men.