Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Big Fellah

RIP Patrick Deenihan, 1931-2012.
My mom called this morning.  "Dad's gone home to Heaven," she said.   

Dad would have been 81 next week.  He's struggled with Alzheimer's, heart troubles, asthma, and a host of other ailments for years now.  He passed peacefully in his sleep; a blessing given how frail and disoriented he'd become.  

My dad was born in Ballybunion, Co. Kerry, Ireland in 1931.  He came to America in 1960, and he and my mom were married in 1967. I think it was hard from him always being so far from his family.  He and my mom worked very hard to make sure my sisters and I felt connected to our Irish family as much as we did our family in the States.  

Mom used to tell us, "All the kids think their dad is Superman.  Yours really is."  He was a brick wall of a man with what my friend Josh coined "Popeye arms," a former boxer who had worked farms and construction his whole life and could lift 50lbs. in each arm the way most of us could lift a baseball.  He was a titan with a thick Irish brogue and a voice made gravelly from years of smoking.  My friends would call the house and hang up in fear if he answered, and would stare at him with a mixture of fear and awe when they met him.  But once people got to know him they were always charmed by his witticisms ("Don't get smart, stupid;" "A shut mouth catches no flies."), his kind heart, and his generous nature.  He was a teddy bear wrapped in a grizzly's body.  

Which isn't to say he wasn't tough.  But he possessed the very Irish dichotomy between gruffness and sentimentality.  

One of the most important things I ever realized about my father was something I learned after he took me to my first baseball game.  Every kind of food that walked by in a vender's hands got bought and handed to me.  And I realized that while my dad wasn't always great at expressing himself verbally, he'd let you know he cared in other ways.  I spent 35 years listening to my dad bark at me about how I don't eat enough, and "I can see light through 'ye," and I'm probably starving to death up here in Connecticut without him to cook for me.  But that was how he showed love.  

Dad and me at my wedding in 2001. 
He loved that top hat.
He and his best friend Mr. Clancy were the primary cooks for every event at the Central Islip Fire Department where he volunteered for years.  (He was made an honorary chief two years ago and served for 48 years.)  He made the very best potato salad, baked ham, and sausage stuffing I will ever have had the privilege to eat in my life.  He was constantly worrying over whether those around him had eaten enough – to the point that "Didja eat?" became a running joke among our family.  If my dad ever cooked for you or fed you, he loved you.  He cared about you and wanted to take care of you.  

Dad was stubborn, and as I've gotten older I've realized just how much like him I am and how it affected our ability to communicate with each other.  I inherited his depression, and we both get wounded easily and can tend to lash out when we're hurt.  We both have a tendency for histrionics but neither of us has ever been much good at truly burning bridges.  He and I had our fights, and I wonder a lot whether I disappointed him by not becoming a lawyer like he wanted or by getting divorced or by being flaky and weird.  But I know he loved me.  I hope he knew how much I love him.  

We knew this was coming.  Dad had been steadily declining for the past few months.  But nothing really prepares you.  My dad has always been a sort of demigod to me; it doesn't seem right that the world should be without him.  He should be immortal.  But when I saw him last week he was so frail I could barely reconcile it as reality.  

My mom said today, "God gave us all we could ask for," and she's right.  We all got to see Dad before he left us and he went peacefully.  And we always knew we'd been given a gift of time with him anyway. 

Ten years ago, Dad had an abdominal aortic aneurysm ("triple A").  This kills most people before they ever see a surgery table, and Dad was the picture of a bad risk.  But after several weeks in ICU he pulled through and remained strong as an ox ("Strong as a team of oxen," his doctors would tell my mother in awe).  He got to see three more grandchildren born and watch all four of his grandchildren grow and develop their personalities.  He got to play at teaching them to box and let them play with his dentures, to our dismay.

Ten extra years, and a peaceful death.  We can ask for no more.

My mother has shown exceptional grace in the face of all of this, and I listen to her in wonder.  She speaks of gratitude and peace with a strength I can only hope to possess half of someday.

I said already that there's a lot of my dad in me.  There's a lot of my mom too.  And though the cliche says you're supposed to dread turning into your parents, I find myself smiling when I do something I know comes from either of them, even if it's a bad habit.  I smile because my parents are truly good people whom I admire and I know I am lucky to be their daughter.  Because they've always given all they had and more, and worked hard to raise my sisters and I to be kind, strong people.  They taught us to cherish our heritage and value our family, to work hard, and to treat others with respect and generosity.

I've been crying on and off all day, but I'm still not sure the reality has sunk in yet.  A world without Pat Deenihan in it just doesn't seem real or possible to me.  It doesn't make sense.  I feel like if I call home he'll still be there to scold me about car maintenance or my eating habits or driving late at night.  But he won't.  I can't make sense of that yet.

My brother-in-law said that heaven has a great new chef today.  I hope the Guinness and Johnnie Walker are flowing as he's reunited with his parents, brother, and sisters.  I hope he's at peace after a life of hard work and sometimes difficult daughters.  I hope wherever he is he knows how loved he still is and what an impact he made on so many lives.  And I hope that everyone who knew him carries a piece of him with us for the rest of our lives, so that the titan can truly be immortal. 

My parents, sisters, me, and my nieces and nephews.

*Post title is from a Black 47 song about Michael Collins.


  1. my condolences Tara. i will be keep you and your family in my prayers

  2. Can't offer you anything in the way of prayer as I am no longer a practicing Catholic, I can offer you a common blessing shared:

    May the road rise up to meet you.
    May the wind be always at your back.
    May the sun shine warm upon your face;
    the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
    may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

  3. Being a sentimental shmuck, of course I cried while reading your wonderful homage to your dad. I never met him, but he had a hand in making you the magnificent person you are so, he must have been awesome. My mom left us in february 2011 and she was the greatest person that has ever roamed this earth. I know exactly how you must feel right now. It's cliché, but time does make things better. I never really stoped hurting (and to be honest, I do not want to stop hurting, she was the center of my life after all), but I learned to live with the pain. Hang in there and do all of the crying you want to, he deserves it. It will get better. My prayers for you and your family

  4. I'm sorry for your loss. Your father sounds like a great man, and it's clear you two loved each other very much. I'll be keeping you and your family in my thoughts.

  5. That was a great eulogy.


  6. A beautiful tribute to your father, Tara. The RDA Army is definitely behind you and and your family tonight, and every night, but more so now.

  7. My thoughts are with you and all of your family in this tough time. He truly sounds like an great and wonderful person who would've been amazing to be around. And, being completely honest, I can only wish that, whenever I pass, someone will be there who can convey their heartfelt feelings about me as beautifully and eloquently as you have here. We're all here for you.

  8. I feel for you. I really do. It's always tough to loose somebody you're that close to. But from the way you describe it here, at least it was relatively quick and painless. And he's in a good place now, where he won't have to worry about all this Earthly stuff any more. We'll be here for you.

  9. Tara - This is such a beautiful tribute to the great man that your father was!
    I feel so lucky to have known hime. I am so sorry for your loss.

  10. The words you have written here have moved me more powerfully than anything I have read in a very long time. I'm sure that your father is extremely proud to know that he raised such an eloquent, spirited, and free-thinking woman as you. My prayers and condolences go out to you and your family, Tara. I hope that when you come back to Long Island and see your family, you are all able to lift each other up and find peace in being together. Your dad will always be with you, in your heart and in your fiery independence, I am sure of that.

  11. Hi Tara, I am a friend of your Aunt Mary. She always speaks so proudly of her family and I remember your name specifically(my favorite dog's name was Tara!!) Now I know why she is so proud of her family. You write so well, I feel like I knew your Father. Of course he looks like many of my Irish relatives, white hair, burly and good looking!! It sounds like you both knew eachother so well, even though you didn't communicate it. Your Mom looks like Mary. I am always so inspired by your Aunt. She is an intelligent, tough, but gracious Lady. I hope your fond memories relieve your sorrow in the coming days. I really enjoyed reading your piece and please take care of Aunt Mary, she means so much to so many. Maybe one day we will meet until then take care of yourself, Eileen Dunn

  12. As a fan of radio dead air and radio red hair I feel bad for you. I'm sad for anyone I'm a fan of to lose one of their parents. My dad has ment a lot to me in my life. I can't imagine losing him or what tara is going through.

  13. Sounds like how my father and I were, extremely close. He passed from cancer due to smoking and I quit before he died. I haven't smoked since and never intend to again.

  14. To paraphrase what a colleague of my dad said at my grandmothers funeral a month or so ago:
    "From what you've been saying, it's too bad I never get to meet him, because he sounds like a very interesting and amazing person."