I think it’s important on Father’s Day to not only get a really clever gift that your Dad will appreciate–and probably return if he’s anything like my Dad–but that you take a few minutes to recall all the ways your Dad made you who you are.
I don’t know who gave him the nickname, whether it was one of the funny, tough cops he worked with, one of his seven brothers and sisters, or himself. He was really good with a turn of phrase. But his name was Thomas Joseph McDonnell, so you see where Tommy Mac came from. Born and raised in Philadelphia, for most of his adult life he worked as a police office for the Pennsylvania Railroad. By the time the railroads began to collapse and then merged into Conrail (Consolidated Rail Corporation) in the ’70s, he was still a cop but now he was a lieutenant. Said he never wanted to be a captain because it would have meant leaving the union and being subject to whatever hours administration put to him; hours that would take him away from his family. As it was, for most of my childhood, I remember him working his regular shift while we were at school and then taking on the graveyard shift while we slept. But he still joined us six kids and my Mom for dinner every night and helped us with our homework. He made each one of us feel special. I remember he used to do this thing where we’d all be sitting at the dinner table. We’d needle him about who he liked best. “Okay,” he’d say. “Close your eyes. I’m going to tap my favorite on the head. But you can’t say anything.” We closed our eyes. Held our breath. Got a tap on the head. What a bunch of smug faces when we opened our eyes, each thinking that we were his favorite. In a way, each of us was.
It was during one of those pre-dawn railroad beats that he was chasing thieves down the tracks. They’d broken into a boxcar and were hauling off stereos and some other equipment that obviously didn’t belong to them. At 6’3″, he was fast. Never drew his gun on a suspect, though he carried one. Every year, he was deemed a sharpshooter at the range. But he told me once that he didn’t actually want to hurt anyone. Anyway, he saw he could catch two of the guys if he clambered over the coupling between freight cars. So he did. Right at that moment, one of the cars began to move and pinned him between hookups. Providentially, the car eased back for a better hook and he pulled himself out. Three ribs broken. He came home from work early, but went back on duty the next day.
He didn’t like to take sick time. In fact, I don’t ever remember him calling out sick. He liked to save all his days so that he could take us on vacations. Sometimes, he rented a cabin up in the Poconos, but mostly he took us to the Jersey shore. His sister Helen owned a house in North Wildwood and I think his happiest times were backfloating in the ocean (he could backfloat for an hour; riding the currents until he was just a speck in the distance) or sitting out in the yard by the bay watching us kids catch crabs off the dock. He would sing Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” and then announce to no one in particular, “Oh, I’m a happy man.”
He was happy and that made us happy. He was married to the love of his life. Bridget Ann Kelly from Ireland. His pixie, he called her. Met at the A.O.H. club. The Ancient Order of Hibernians. They were well matched. He was calm and steadfast. She was passionate and headstrong and loving. They both had great humor. She said he made her laugh every day. Often, we’d hear them talking late at night in their bedroom of the three-bedroom, one-bath rowhome where we lived in Philly. And then she would laugh at something he’d said. A robust, full-hearted, throaty laugh that made us laugh.
I only saw him cry twice. The first time was when my 22-year-old sister Christina, his youngest daughter of four girls, drowned in the ocean at the Jersey Shore. The second time was when his “bride”–that’s what he still called her after 40 years together–died at the age of 60 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Then he dried his tears and got about the business of burying them.
He taught me that life is what you make it, so make it good. I remember once complaining about something in my life that seemed unfair or upsetting or whatever. I was a young adult with a full-time job, college education, my own apartment, and a car. He said, “Don’t you see, Kellyann. You’ve got the world by the ass. Enjoy it.”
When I said wanted to be a writer, he just smiled. “Why don’t you get an engineering degree. You can always write.” But I had the bug. I got a journalism degree instead and I think he liked that. He was a writer, as his father was. He was a cop, his father was a fire chief, but they both had poems and short stories published in magazines. We talked about literature. He would recite entire poems by Wordsworth, Keats, and anonymous authors. He had a beautiful singing voice. We mostly heard it when he was in the shower.
He was erudite, spiritual, honest, funny, so intelligent, perceptive, and wise. We would talk for hours about the spiritual journey we take in life. I’m not sure where he got his very Zen-like outlook. He was an Irish Catholic boy who went to West Catholic and did two years at St. Joseph’s College. But he had ideas that I would later learn reached into the teachings of the ancient philosophers. He was widely read. Gave The Painted Bird to me to read when I was thirteen. I think it was his way of showing me what humanity was capable of, and what it is capable of overcoming. His way of outfitting me for the world. I’d never been exposed to literature like that. It changed my world. We talked about Shakespeare, the Bible, magic, science, politics. He taught me to backfloat in the ocean. He taught me that anything is possible.
He taught me that, above all things, to thine own self be true. That’s from Shakespeare. But also from Tommy Mac.
He broke his leg in 2009 and when they operated on him at Holy Redeemer Hospital, they slipped in a couple of superbugs by accident. Bacteria that would steal his mobility, burn through his leg, and ultimately kill him just two years later. Despite having lived decades with ankylosing spondilitis that curved his spine and constricted his chest, and rheumatoid arthritis, he never complained. Not until those last months of searing agony from the infection in his leg. Every once in a while, he’d shift to get more comfortable, wince, and say, “Those dirty bastards.” But then he’d looked at us, and he’d smile.
I was alone with him when the last breath left his body. It was surreal. It was just like it’s ever been described anywhere: a person expelling his last breath. Like a sigh. It broke my heart. But I don’t let it weigh me down. There was another quote from Shakespeare that he liked to refer to: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I’ll see him again.
In the meantime…. Dearly loved. Sorely missed. Never forgotten. Happy Father’s Day, Tommy Mac. Thanks for making me who I am.