A Force of Nature: Patrick O’Connell

by

01/06/2008

Bronx, New York 10468

Neighborhood: Bronx, East Bronx

A few years ago in my father’s eighty-first year, my brother Patrick and I went to his house to spend Thanksgiving. My father lived in the Bronx at that time. We are the only children in the family still living in New York. Neither of us particularly wanted to spend the day in my father’s unkempt, dusty place, but he didn’t want to go out to a restaurant, so to please him, we went. My father had long ago lost the battle to keep his apartment clean. It smelled of old socks, mildew, and beer. On countless occasions I’d tried to straighten up for him, but he would become so agitated that I finally would give up. His independence was precious to him and to me, too.

We were always happy to see each other and bask in that unique flavor that belongs to the O’Connell clan: we share a way of looking at the world that seems almost biological. When the entire family is gathered, the party goes on for hours. My brother Chris, the now-debonair lawyer, reverts to the Bronx idiom, and then imitates with hilarious precision the peculiar mix of self-pity and lyricism that is Irish as he voices the familiar peasant’s lament, “Ah, it’s a terrible thing what the British have done, a terrible thing….”

Today, it would be just us three. When I arrived, my father told me, “The chow is in the oven already.” He gave me the bear hug that always made me nervous as a child and then, later, as a young woman. He said, “Ah, Mary girl, you look great, you look great.” Then he waved his big farmer’s hand in the direction of the living room and said, “I cleaned the joint up. Have a seat, have a seat. Big Pat should be here soon.” Big Pat was so-called because my sister’s name was Pat also, ‘Patricia,’ and because Patrick, determinedly turning fat into muscle with weight-lifting, had grown quite strong.

Soon after I arrived, Big Pat rang the bell. When he came in, carrying a six-pack, my father called from the kitchen, “Pat, good man, good man.” Pat said, “I brought beer, Dad.” And my father answered, “Right you are, right you are. You’re a good man, Pat.”

We all sat together in the dimly-lit living room, Pat and I on the ancient green couch that had ceased to be comfortable sometime in the ’70s. It emitted a cloud of dust as we sat, first with me, and then with my brother, more dust. My father sat on the green vinyl recliner that had a huge hole in the seat. When my husband had started to make money, we offered to buy my father new furniture. But “No,” he said. “Be dead in a couple of years. Never get the use of it.”

It was his ability to look so squarely into the face of reality that made me admire and respect him. He never feared death. He feared only living an ungraceful life. I always remember the story of my grandfather’s death that my father had told me when I was young: “Death’s nothin’ much, Mary girl. It’s part of the natural process. Well, for Chris’sake, you can’t avoid it: animals die, plants die, trees die. Your grandfather, may he rest in peace, worked in the field till the last day of his life. He came in in the afternoon, complained of a stomachache, and lay down. Little by little, the feeling stopped. First, in his feet, then, in his legs, then after awhile, he just went to sleep. He wasn’t afraid. Had the whole family around him: he was 89.”

That story entered my life and became a part of me: it’s the reason why I, without any question, know that I am strong, and that I will be able to conclude my life with dignity.

We sat in the living room, and my father was as happy as if we were in a palace. He always was the most incredible storyteller. But that day, strangely, his timing was off and the punch lines were not as uproariously funny as they usually were. He began the one about the two Irish housewives commenting on the new man in the neighborhood. They were talking in front of their children, and so spoke in code. One said to the other, “And what does the new gentleman look like?” Her friend answered, “Oh, he’s a fine-lookin’ man, six foot six.” After a moment’s hesitation, she added, meaningfully, “And built accardingly.” He got lost in the middle somewhere, and was embarrassed. “I used to be able to drink all night when I was your age. Now I have one beer and I get a headache: makes the doctor happy. He says I have high blood pressure and shouldn’t go near it at all. Ah, well.”

He got up to check the fresh ham in the oven and announced it was ready. Then, uncharacteristically, he called Pat and me in to do the rest of the preparation, because he suddenly felt tired. Then he left the kitchen, and asked us to call him out of the bedroom where he would be lying down when everything was prepared.

So Pat went to the oven to take the ham out and when he opened the oven door to look in, fell into a fit of laughter, motioning me to come over. My father had neglected to remove the saran wrap from the ham and had cooked the meat with its price tag intact. On the table were a few empty beer cans. “The old man must’ve been high when he put it in,” Pat said.

When we got hold of ourselves, we decided what to do: take the chance that we might get sick eating it rather than hurt our father’s feelings or spoil his day. Somehow we both knew without even mentioning it that my father would not get sick: his stomach was made of cast-iron and we had seen him eat every possible combination of food and alcohol through the years. In fact, at his age, he was stronger, healthier, and more good-looking than Pat and I put together.

During dinner, my father had another beer. He got up to get something from the kitchen and swayed a bit and landed in a heap with the small end-table shattered beneath his weight on the floor. We jumped up, horrified, thinking immediately of the broken hips and joints that old people suffer at the slightest fall. To our profound surprise and relief, he started laughing and sat there quite comfortably, announcing, “Ah well, the old gray mare just ain’t what she used to be.” Then he looked up at us and said to Pat, “And what did you say your name was, young man? Is that your wife with you? You’re a handsome couple. What’s the name of this fine establishment anyway?”

He was not pretending. We realized that he thought he was in a bar somewhere and he had just met us.

We got him up from the floor and sat him on the couch. For the few moments that that took, he was in another place, mentally, and we were with him. Then, ever so gently, Pat said, “Don’t you know me, Dad? It’s Big Pat and this is Mary.”

He came out of it and for a second sat startled. He did not quite seem to realize what had happened, just that he had been out of control somehow. Then we just continued the day as if nothing had happened, undisturbed and free at heart.

It was afterwards that I realized how extraordinary the whole thing had been. For a second we had glimpsed what might very well be our father’s and our own futures: what was supposed to be the most horrifying and daunting experience: witnessing your parent’s mortality. And it had been funny, even pleasant, like some wonderful trip into another lifetime when we were not family, or like a game of make-believe. There was no morbidity about it at all. And on reflection I knew that that was a testament to the strength and joyousness of my father’s life. Although his circumstances had often been tragic, he was never so. He never gave in to self-pity or despair.

Other people speak of the horror of watching a creative mind slowly fade away. But my father’s life was so triumphant, so fulfilled, that in his case it was more like a brilliant sun setting, slowly sinking in majesty and returning to its source. He had raised seven children, virtually on his own, on a window-washer’s salary. He had struggled and established his family in a country where they could fight for their future and make their life what they would. He left through his example a legacy for future generations to draw continual sustenance from.

My father lived most of his later years on Havilland Avenue in the Bronx. I used to take the #6 train to Parkchester to visit him. I used to ask him, “Dad, don’t you miss Ireland? Don’t you want to go back there?” “Why??” he would ask. “Well…don’t you miss the beauty, the nature, the trees?” “Trees? There’s plenty of that in New Jersey!”

The old man was no saint, certainly. There’s a line from The General’s Daughter that always puts me in mind of how I feel about him. When asked about his feelings for his ‘old man’ the protagonist, a real smart-ass, quips, “My old man? He was a gambler, a womanizer, and a drunk. I worshipped him.”

My father no saint, but he was a force of nature: Patrick O’Connell. His life was big, like him. It reverberates through time and space, like every life, an incredible cosmic event.

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