You guys would've hated me in the late eighties. I was heavily into self-help and recovery lingo. I even had a teddy bear that represented my inner child that I would hold and console. My everyday conversations involved telling anyone who would listen what a bastard my father was. He died in 1988 of a heart attack after a long struggle with the world, and I spent the next few years convincing myself that I didn't miss him. I remembered all the horrible things he'd done over the years, how much he yelled and what contempt he had for my sexuality. I had spent most of my childhood hating him for looking like, but not being like, Brian Keith from Family Affair. He wasn't even close to being as cool as Brian Keith. He dressed all wrong and was always yelling at Nixon on the TV. He did do some cool stuff, like get us in places. He was a pretty big deal in the Pipefitter's union and he always knew a guy. You know, like the guy who was in charge of some kind of construction at the Shriner's circus who would take us backstage to see elephant shit or whatever. He always let us take St. Patrick's Day off school so we could go to the parade and even ride on the float from the Pipefitter's union. He'd call the priest to get a dispensation if St. Patrick's Day was on a Friday during Lent. He was very good in groups, but you never wanted to be alone with him. Since I'm the youngest, I was the only one at home for a number of years. Good news: cool vacations, my own bathroom. Bad news: alone with Ma and Dad.
Ma was a manic-depressive, or as we called it in those days, "dramatic." She killed herself when I was twelve, leaving me alone with my father. I think the dread I felt being left alone with him could only have been matched by his dread at being left alone with me. I was a very unattractive adolescent, lots of acne and very femme. Big time. Had been since I was two and wanted to wear a chapel veil to church and ruined my aunt's wedding because I wanted to carry an umbrella down the aisle as ring-bearer. (I had recently seen Mary Poppins.) So here's poor Dad, left to raise a young fag, having been left by the dramatic wife.
My father got things done. He was immensely admired in the Pipefitter's union. He had stopped a wildcat strike on his own, out on the steel mill grounds, standing up on his car and using a megaphone. He was an operatic tenor who sang "Ave Maria" at everybody's wedding. He was also the one who got involved first. Like when the anti-Catholic John Birch Society was taking over the precinct, he ran and became the precinct captain; he drank whiskey with the priests and got them to build the new gym at St. Bede's, and when somebody's kid fell in the lake he jumped off the pier with his clothes on to save her, totally embarrassing me at eleven. Quite frankly, you'd rather see a toddler drown than see your dad coming out of the lake with wet Sansabelt slacks from Sears. Of course, when everyone in Ireland thought I was a girl that same year I'm sure he wasn't as proud as they get. But we tolerated each other. He was pretty hip for his generation, never hitting us with a closed fist like my uncles did to their kids, always had a job, even said I love you and kissed and hugged (his best friend was Italian). When my mother was having an episode and she'd lock herself in the bedroom and cry for days at a time, he'd make dinner. He showed me the locks at the Chicago River and explained how they worked, that was kinda cool. And we used to go out on his friend's boat and he said I was a good sailor. So whatever. I guess no matter what, he was my father and he was there. As lame as I sometimes thought he was, which was most of the time, he was there. No episodes for him. Years of therapy taught me the value of someone who's just there and who gets the job done. But I never knew in my heart that it was all okay until Cardinal Bernardin died.
After getting sober and going through a really shitty and abusive five year relationship, I had done the therapy thing. I didn't hate my father anymore, had actually mourned him, and I didn't even hate the Catholic Church anymore. I'd come to realize that everybody was just kind of doing the best they could in those days, so what the hell. I had done lots of work on my spirituality and realized that it's all metaphor anyway. Cardinal Bernardin was the archbishop of Chicago in the nineties and he'd been accused of sexually molesting a guy, but the guy was like all fucked up and dying of AIDS and recanted. He had lied about it because he hated the Church so much. And Cardinal Bernardin, after all the hell he'd been through, said Mass with the guy at the altar. So I was kind of like, okay, that's putting your money where your mouth is, okay. And he was really into the gay and lesbian community then, trying to heal all those wounds. Pretty hip. Then he got cancer and shared it with everybody, like can you help me die here? I need my family. Again, big whoa going on there. So when he died I told my friend Michelle that I'd go to the wake with her at the Cathedral.
The man had to die during one of the coldest winters in Chicago history. Freeze the buggers in your nose cold, and of course there was a big long line and we had to park blocks away, actually right near the Shriner's Auditorium. So we're walking all bundled up, and we pass this family-mom, dad, two kids-running, one kid crashed in his dad's arms, holding mass cards from the wake, and then the unthinkable happened. After we passed them, we heard a shriek of brakes, and looked back to see one of the kids, a little boy, flying through the air. He'd been hit by a car, and Michelle and I, God love her redheaded self, we ran into traffic, stop the cars, does anybody have a phone, call 911. And then I ran over to the mother, do you want a priest, cause the kid wasn't moving, and she says yes, and I run the three or four blocks, who knows, to the Cathedral, and I grab a priest and of course, there are no young priests left, so this guy is ancient and just to make the movie more classic he's got an Irish brogue, I swear to God, and he can't run very well, he's like 102, and he blesses the kid, who it turns out just broke some bones, and we give our statements to the police, and then we walk back to the Cathedral with him, but of course he's lost his place in line. So I go to the back door, where these security guards won't let us in, but then there are real cops, so I say hey, this old priest just gave a sacrament, let him in, and the one says, "I'm a Catholic, Father, go right in," and the other one says, "I ain't gonna stop no priest from goin' in a church," and the priest says, I don't go anywhere without Jimmy Doyle, so that's how my friend Michelle and I got ushered into Holy Name Cathedral by two Chicago cops in dress blues, with a priest. Ushered in and brought to the altar. And as I stood there, I thought of the line from the Gospels: "This is my beloved son, listen to him." And in that moment my dad and I were even. He had taught me how to be a stand up guy and know right from wrong. An old priest doesn't wait in line for the Cardinal's wake, not with Red Doyle's kid around. We were sitting in a pew later, Michelle and I and the priest, and I showed him my dad's rosary. There was a great choir singing, beautiful men's choir, and the priest told me that it was the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus and Cardinal Bernardin had specifically requested that they sing at his wake. And it was all okay for me and my dad and our God.