June 17, 2007

Dear Dad:

On Father’s Day, I think it is fitting that I share with you how thankful I am for all that you have meant to me as my father. I wish I had done this sooner and more often, but better late than never. Please make yourself comfortable and accept my gratitude by reading this.

The obvious place to start is to thank you and Mom for giving me the priceless gift of life. I am grateful for your choice to create me and for all of the work and sacrifice that you invested in nurturing me into adulthood. In a very real sense, I owe everything to you for this gift. Every joy that I have experienced, every lesson I have learned, every success I have had, and every blessing that has come my way are all the result of your gift of my life. It is the greatest of all gifts. It is a gift so dear to me that I have chosen to pass it on eight times myself.

There are so many experiences in my life that are connected with you that it is quite a challenge to put words to them all. I’ll start with my childhood and work forward from there.

I am thankful for every football you ever threw to me, for every baseball you ever caught from me, and for every hockey puck you ever passed to me. With every game you played with me, with every encouragement you gave me, with every suggestion to hold my glove this way or to skate that way, I developed a lifelong appreciation for sports. It is a joy that has stuck with me my whole life, and one that I have passed along to my kids. These seeds that you planted in me have become so much a part of my life that it is not possible for me to smell the leather of a baseball glove or feel the threads of a football between my fingers without thinking of you. It is a bond that perhaps only father and son can know, and I know it very deeply because of you. One of the images permanently seared into my brain is you looking out from a window of the American Seating Company above 9th Street field as I practiced football. I felt your presence then in such a profound way, that I am sure I will always feel your presence looking over me.

I am thankful for the way that you encouraged me to learn. I am so grateful for the sacrifice you and mom made to send me to a private school and give me the opportunity to excel. Riding with you every day as you took us to school on your way to work is an experience that has stuck with me so vividly that I can close my eyes and it will spring to life in my head as if it happened just yesterday. I can’t listen to a Johnny Cash song without thinking of your car radio. I can’t ponder how to correctly spell a word without recalling the impromptu spelling tests you gave us in the car on the way to school. I can’t even drive home from work in traffic jams without reliving the seemingly endless hours that we spent in your car after school waiting for you to be done with work. I can’t write a well-crafted sentence without thinking of the Latin that you inspired me to study. I can’t hear the snap of a clicker without thinking of playing Jeopardy with you. Sometimes you tell me that you respect my intelligence and knowledge. You might as well compliment yourself, because that is where the credit is due.

I am thankful for the camping trips that we took as a family. They say that the memory of smells persists longer than any other kind of memory, and I think it is true. I can smell the Coleman stove and the lantern as if you are trying to light them right next to me now. I can smell the musky tent and the peanut butter sandwiches. I can smell the silt of Arbutus Lake and the gasoline of the boat motor. I can smell a fire crackling in the darkness. I can even smell the sound of your harmonica. Those things were so special to me as a child that I have made sure to pass them along to my kids. When we pitch our tent up north, I see you pounding a stake. When we light a fire, I see you stoking the embers. When I watch my young son swing an ax in an act of nascent manhood, I see myself as a boy hoping I grow up to be like you.

I am thankful for the home that you provided us. I had everything that a young boy could wish for. I had a sandbox in which to build castles. I had a swing upon which to swoop and soar. I had trees to climb and hills to slide down. I had a creek teeming with frogs and snakes and crabs and a thousand other adventures and mysteries. I had a field across the street in which to play baseball and football in summers that will always go on forever in my mind. I never wanted for anything. I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anyone else’s.

I am thankful for your passion about Notre Dame football. My first memory of it was when you promised to give me a quarter if Notre Dame beat Michigan State in 1966 in what would become the game of the century. You were very excited about something I didn’t quite understand yet, but I remember being excited about the twenty five cents. Strangely, whenever I see a quarter now, the scoreboard numbers “10-10” flash in my mind. From there, it didn’t take me long to understand what you made you so passionate. There are so many great memories of Irish football that we have shared since then. It’s not possible to separate you from any of them. When I see replays of the Rocket running back two kick-offs for touchdowns against Michigan, I can feel the smack of your hand against mine. When someone mentions Eric Pennick’s long touchdown run into the student section against USC, I can hear you shouting “Go! Go!” (and a dog barking and a lamp crashing to the floor). When they talk of Tom Clements hitting Robin Weber on a long pass from the shadow of his own end zone to beat Alabama for the National Championship, I can feel your jubilant hug. I am so glad that you had an opportunity to be an usher at Notre Dame Stadium. You were meant to do that, and I am meant to cherish the image of you in the yellow uniform and the Golden Dome in the background. I know that whenever I go to a game there, you will always be with me in the stadium.

I am thankful for our trips to Ireland. The adventures we encountered as we researched our heritage are stories that I will tell my grandchildren. Whenever I think of our family tree, I see you following me through an endless series of Irish cemeteries. I see you paging through church archives that are two centuries old, helping me decipher the scribbled Latin on crumbling pages, in search of John Keena’s baptismal record. I see you smiling quietly as I tell Catherine O’Flaherty that we didn’t come three thousand miles to be told ‘no’. There are so many images etched into my memory from our trips. The Ghost of Durrow Abbey, the breathtaking Gap of Dunloe, the winding drives down narrow mountainous lanes on the Ring of Kerry, the glistening of heather after a light Irish rain, and the smell of peat smoke pouring from the chimney of a thatched-roof cottage all haunt me in a way that is indelible, and in a way that is inseparable from you.

I am thankful for your ability to build things and to repair things. There have been countless times in my life when you have come to my rescue by fixing my car, helping me build a deck, remodeling an attic or a bathroom, doing repairs on our condo, among a thousand other things. I have always admired you for this skill, but I will never equal your ability. I try, though. In every nail that I hammer, I feel the strength of your forearm. With every wrench that I twist, I feel the scars on your knuckles. With every board that I measure and cut, I am guided by your unerring eye. There is something infinitely reassuring about all of this. Perhaps it is the comfort of living amid the handicraft of my father. Perhaps it is the security of knowing that if something goes wrong, my dad will help. Or perhaps it is simply the joy of being loved by an unselfish father who would do anything for me.

I am thankful for your music. Perhaps this is the way that I have experienced your fatherhood most deeply. There is a joy that emanates from you when you play. The cares of the world melt away when your harmonica rings out and your guitar reverberates and you sing the songs that echo back to my childhood. It is then that I realize one of the great lessons in life, that no matter what the hardship, life is meant for fun. It is meant for singing. It is meant for Jimmy Crack Corn and She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain. It is meant for images of you and Grandpa playing music as if it might be alright if tomorrow never came. It is meant for those moments when time stands still and memories are born. I love music. I love it because of you.

I am so thankful for all of this, and yet there is one thing that I have failed to do. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s not manly to do it, or because I am not equal to the ways in which you have loved me, but I haven’t told you I love you nearly as much as I should. So, let me say it now. I love you, Dad. I love you for everything you have ever taught me, everything you have ever done for me, and every time you have loved me unconditionally (and I know that some of those times were challenging for you). I love you for the character you have shown throughout your life, and your courage in the face of the challenges that confront you now. I love you for showing me how to be a father. I try hard to apply your lessons with my own children, but I will always stand in the shadow cast by your example.

Happy Father’s Day.

Your loving and grateful son,