The Luck of the Irish
As some of you know, in September 2011, my father passed away after a short battle with brain cancer. At his funeral, I gave the following eulogy, and some people have asked for a copy of it. My father’s funeral was at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, in Jacksonville, FL, where he worked for 4 years. All the school teachers, many children, his neighbors, friends and family were all present. Thanks to everyone who was part of that.
The Luck of the Irish
Some people would consider my father, Patrick, to have been an unlucky man. In a way, they’re probably right. My father was Irish, and bad luck is so common for us that in the United States we sometimes use the expression “The Luck of the Irish” to refer to someone unlucky.
Well, I’d like to say today that, yes, my father had “The Luck of the Irish”, but not the bad kind. Let me give you three examples:
For those who don’t know, my father came to the US twice. First for a stint in the 60’s and 70’s, and then again in the late 80’s. From 75 to 87 Dad moved back to Ireland to pursue his dream of being a farmer. We worked hard at it for years, trying cattle, chickens, goats, turkeys and rabbits at different times. While the economics in European farming were brutal, in the end the economics didn’t matter. You see each year we were there, Dad had been getting progressively sicker due to a rare disease he had called Farmers’ Lung. That disease is an incurable allergy to the molds and pollens on a farm, and if left untreated is fatal. At the end of his time in Ireland it was apparent that we were bust economically, and that Dad would die if he kept trying. I think that counts as bad luck.
Of course, the story doesn’t end there. During his earlier stint in the US he had gotten US citizenship in Chicago and made a bunch of friends there. In 1987 he moved to Fort Lauderdale where an old American family friend, the Kelly family, gave him a free place to stay. They took Dad in when we had nothing and needed the help most. A year later my mother managed to sell the farm in Ireland and the rest of us joined him in the States. Once in Fort Lauderdale, my father met people like John and Joyce Curran, Father Tom O’Dwyer and Chris Fazio at Little Flower Catholic Church in Hollywood, Florida, and many others. These complete strangers took our family into their hearts and made us their friends. They made introductions on our behalf, took us places, and guided us through our new lives for no reason other than love. With their help, my mother and father got their feet back under them, started building a new life, and achieved a level of prosperity they could never have imagined in Ireland. They got to watch their four sons graduate high school, get their first jobs, and find and marry their true loves. On behalf of my father, I want to sincerely thank each of them here today and those who unfortunately can’t be with us right now. We owe them our lives – they helped turn Dad’s first big run of bad luck into one of his biggest successes.
The second run of bad luck happened in the early 2000s. By this time Dad was in his sixties. The company he worked for decided cutting costs were in order, and just like that, Dad was out the door. When many other people contemplate retiring, he had to find another job. He got one working for an oppressive supervisor, constantly outside in the summer sun scraping bubble gum off of sidewalks. Sixty two years old. Starting over. Scraping bubble gum in 90-degree summers. I don’t think I ever saw him as unhappy as during that period.
But again, through the help and love of others, good luck returned. Dad decided to move to Jacksonville to be closer to his grandkids who live here and asked his friends for help. Father Tom at Little Flower church sent a letter to Father Cody asking for help, and Father Cody introduced Dad to Rhonda Rose at St. Joseph’s school. For some reason that I will never understand, but will be eternally grateful for, Mrs. Rose decided to hire Dad at the school.
To say Dad was happy working at St. Joseph’s would be an understatement. I would say St. Joseph’s school was the fourth greatest love of his life.
(Now before those of you here today get too upset and say “only fourth?”, allow me to put that in perspective. His third greatest love was his children and grandchildren. His second greatest love was his wife of 45 years. And his greatest love was, well, baseball. We all took a backseat to baseball. So fourth is pretty good.)
Anyway, Dad loved that job, loved working with all of you, and loved being the closest thing to a real life Leprechaun the school children were likely to ever meet. He loved everything about St. Joseph’s school. Without St. Joseph’s, my father would never have been able to move to Jacksonville, would not have had the house with the pond in back where he fished each day, and would not have had the last five happiest years of his life. Thank you to Father O’Dwyer, Father Cody and Mrs. Rose for making that happen. You helped give our dad a preview of heaven right here on earth.
Which brings us to the last run of back luck. In February, as you all know, Dad found out he had a golf-ball sized tumor in his head. There is no way to call that anything but what it was – the worst of all possible luck. That type of cancer was made famous by Ted Kennedy but it’s very rare – fewer than 1 in 30,000 can expect to get it. It’s aggressive. It’s debilitating. And it’s almost always fatal. But like going bust in Ireland and losing your job when you’re in your sixties, it was a fact. And once you accepted that fact, and put it aside, you can’t help but notice how incredibly lucky and blessed Dad was.
First off, there are 7 cancer hospitals in the United States that specialize in his form of cancer. Your odds of being near enough to one to go are very low. Jacksonville’s Mayo Clinic happens to have one of the seven. That’s improbable. On top of that there are only about 200 doctors in the US who specialize in this cancer. His daughter in law, and my wife, Jenny is one of them. That’s not improbable – that’s miraculous. Our family got great access to the best people in the world at treating the disease. Thank you Jenny and thanks to the Mayo Cancer center in Jacksonville for all they did to try to help Dad.
And when it became apparent that the treatment could not alter the course of the disease, Community Hospice of Florida stepped in and allowed my father to spend his final weeks at home in comfort. They were amazing – taking care of all the small details so we could concentrate on caring for Dad in his final months. If anyone here ever goes through a similar experience, we cannot recommend them highly enough. Thank you to them and all their staff.
Next was the army. And I don’t mean the US Army. You see as I mentioned, Dad loved St. Joseph’s, but St. Joseph’s loved Dad. As soon as the school found out what had happened, the St. Joseph’s School Army was mobilized. Thank you cards, get well wishes, and gifts poured in. After his surgery, different teachers and parents from the school brought food to Mom and Dad every week for months. So much food. Our freezers at home are still full of leftovers that we’re working through. Really. Wow, you people can cook!
Every time Dad, or anyone in our family, saw the cards the kids made, we would smile a little inside. Anytime Dad got to talking about St. Joseph’s he would light up a little. Your school truly does God’s work. Thank you to everyone from St. Joseph’s – our family cannot express our gratitude enough.
And then there were our neighbors. In Ireland everyone knows all their neighbors, and there is a real sense of community. But everywhere else we’ve lived in the US has been different – distant people who live next door but do not care or look out for each other or even get to know each other.
My parents’ house, a few blocks away from here, was different. As soon as Dad was home after surgery, Cindy from across the street and Lisa and Taylor from next door were constant companions. As Dad got worse they were always there to help. When he fell in the bushes, they picked him and Mom up, brushed them off, and returned with flowers a few hours later. When he collapsed at 5 in the morning, they were the first people at the scene. When it came time to find hospice, Cindy’s advice and guidance was pivotal. When Mom needed extra help at home, Cindy’s sister Lisa (a different Lisa) would come by every few days to give Mom a break, to help clean Dad, and to provide a desperately needed lifeline. Thank you Taylor, Lisa, Cindy and Lisa – you were guardian angels on earth for Dad.
Next, the sons and the wives. To be very frank, I think our Dad, and I know our Mom, was surprised that all four of their sons survived childhood. Most of us bear scars on our heads from where we’ve hit each other which large metal bars and other stupid things. And we haven’t always been incredibly nice to each other. But when push came to shove, all helped to the most of their ability and then some. Brendan took charge of managing Dad’s rental properties. Michael and Kevin, who lived, locally were saints – stopping by every day, helping wherever they could. No task was too small or too large, and all was done without hesitation. And the wives pitched in. Robin, Kevin’s wife, took care of all the Medicare insurance, Kim helped her husband Brendan and myself as we worked through all the finances, and Michael’s wife Geraldine stopped by constantly, took my Mom out places when needed, and with her Dublin ways kept her Cavan husband Michael under control – which, if you know Michael, is no small feat. Thank you Kim, Robin, Geraldine, Kevin, Brendan and Michael. Some families break apart at moments like the last six months. Some come together. I’m so proud we were one of the latter kind.
But finally there is our mother. If my father ever had one piece of good luck, it was the day he somehow convinced her to marry him. She prayed for him in Vietnam, gave him four sons and raised them with him. She was his partner in all things in life. She amplified his strengths and dulled his weaknesses, and he did the same for her. And when it came time for him to die, she was amazing. She took him to and from the many many trips to the hospital. She kept track of a complicated medical regime that even experts in the field have trouble keeping track of – ask my wife, she knows. As he lost the ability to walk, she became his legs. As he lost the ability to feed himself, she fed him. As he lost the ability to bathe himself, she bathed him. And as he lost the ability to hang on to life, she gracefully let him go. Thank you Mom.
So yeah, my father had has his share of bad luck, no doubt about it. But bad luck was a small thing compared to the love that the people in the world had for him. You can see that in this church today. My father loved each and every one of you, and you loved him. When he was down, you lifted him up. When he needed you, you were there. And when all in the world seemed lost, every last one of you reached out to him. That is the true definition of the Luck of the Irish. Dad was the luckiest unlucky man in the entire world for knowing each and every one of you. Thank you.