Thursday, December 10, 2009

Proud Democrat - Proud Hibernian

I attended the wake of an old friend's father this past weekend. I had grown up across the the street from him and our families knew each other both from the proximity of our habitations and having attending the same Catholic school.

He had a fairly big family. A wife, 2 sons and 2 daughters, alternating in male-female as the ages descended. The final two were twins and, although older than me, we grew up camping out in their back yard, playing in their back woods and, of course, building things in the sandbox behind the garage.

Their father was an American Irishman through and through and both he and his Irish wife even belonged to the Ancient Order of Hibernians. I spoke with him seldom, but will always remember him purposefully waddling down the back stairs onto the driveway, dressed in his overalls and on his way to work at 3M. He would say hello, perhaps a short word or two to my friend and then off he would go.

It was the early childhood days I most remember being there, and then again during the High School days, as me and my friend became close once again. My friend would be working out all night in his garage on one of his cars or, at times, helping me with mine.

My friend gave them some hell-raising to contend with during the High School days and then he was off to fight in the Gulf War. When my friend returned, he was different. No one could quite put their finger on it, but he was. Perhaps partially due to Gulf War Syndrome, my friend began to show signs of schizophrenia. His family would end up looking after him ever since as he faded away into somewhat of a reclusive state, once he remained faithful to his medication.

So, almost a decade had past when I learned that is father had been diagnosed with lung cancer and given 6 months to live. Three months later, he died. Before the end of his life he got in as much fishing in as possible! When he started to fade, he remained at home. The family was able to spend his very last hours, together.

The visitation was at the funeral home near the water tower that we once played in and around as kids. I approached the coffin and never saw a man that looked so much like the man I always remembered. With union and party pins upon his lapel, arms folded across this broad, round, yet diminutive frame, I knelt, made the sign of the cross and gave my last respects to the man.

After speaking to the family, who had forgotten who I was with the passage of time, I spied my old friend standing at a different part of the room. He was short like his dad and began to become round himself. I was proud of him though. To have had to contend with a crippling mental illness and yet be there around so many people.

He immediately recognized me. I shook his hand and gave him a quick squeeze about the shoulders with my arm. It was a relief for both of us, I think. I had spent many years extending my interest in correspondence, but knew that he mostly lived a solitary life and would contact me if it was healthy for him to do so. His way of speaking was slow and seemingly calculated, but he recalled old names and acquaintances with ease. He said that things had been good, he had been sticking to his medication, practiced guitar for 2 1/2 hours a day, had dinner with his folks once a week and got his sideburns and ponytail trimmed once a month. He even went out of his way to write down his name and phone number on an envelope. He rejoined his family and I made my way to see the display of his father's life.

First there was a board full of fishing pictures. Some of these were quite recent. There he was with his boat and friends holding all varieties of fish proudly in his hand. Then there were pictures of him as a little kid, in a rowboat, in his Air Force Uniform and with his parents. He had been a cook during the Korean War and there he was in his long, white, cook's uniform.

Later boards had family pictures, a letter from a proud Irish in-law, a picture of their old dog Duke, who once peed on my leg and whose doghouse we used to climb into, next to the garage. But the board that seemed to be the most proud, even more so than the Irish one, was the one that shouted: "Proud Democrat!" Upon it were campaign buttons that went back into the 1950's and pictures, bumper stickers and memorabilia that reminded you of the essence of being a DFL'er in Minnesota.

Those last images, of my friend's dad, waddling down the driveway with his overalls, his conductor's hat and lunchbox in hand, will be the ones I always think of when I think of Vern.