Chapter 3 – Somethin Callin Me Back Home
My return to Chicago in October of 2018’d been the first time I’d seen my dad since my family came down to Texas for my graduation from Air Force basic training back in May of the same year. It was also the first time I’d seen him since he’d fallen off a roof less than a week after having come down for said graduation. And god damn, lemme tell ya…what a blow that was. When I got the call from my mom who was reluctant to even tell me the news in the first place, she told me not to blame myself for it happening. Despite her initial hesitation, I thanked her for not tryin to protect me from reality and assured her I wouldn’t blame myself. But realistically – bein who I am and knowin the things I know – I couldn’t see how I could possibly NOT blame myself for such a thing happening.
Ya see, I’d been workin with my dad on-and-off since I was fifteen-years-old. The first couple years it was just here and there. One of my earliest memories from these days was at this monstrous house in the Wildwood neighborhood of Chicago. We showed up there to wash the windows, but the homeowner’d also requested we change out the bulbs of the floodlights protruding from the soffit under the eaves of their lofty roof. My dad said we’d take care of it. After extending and setting up the 28-foot ladder (“Big Mo” as he called it) next to the first set of lights, my dad said somethin like, “Alright, get up there.” At first I thought he was joking, but quickly learned that that hadn’t been the case. So, not wanting to disappoint, I shakily but surely made it to the top of the ladder and unscrewed the lightbulb and was about to make my way back down with it when he said, “Just drop it down, Tim.” It didn’t seem like a good idea to me, but he insisted. I dropped it down and he caught it and I again started to descend, this time to go get the new bulb to put in. “Hey, stay up there,” he said while takin the new one out the box. “Here!” he said and tossed it up at me before I had time to contest. Nervously clinging to the ladder with one hand and using the hand-eye coordination my dad’d spent years developing in me during the mindless hours of catch he played with me out on the front lawn, I managed to reach out and snag the flying bulb with the other hand before extending an arm upward and screwing it into place. My heart was racing and I wanted to punch my dad in the face. It was a baptism by fire in Dan Lally’s world of window washing and gutter cleaning.
Yep, that’s right. In spite of my natural hesitation to do so, my dad had me – and my younger brother Danny as well – getting up on roofs and ladders right from the start. To further highlight this, during our most recent gutter cleaning season – gutter season 2020; the first since my dad’s passing – my brother and I were about to do a job over in Edgebrook when the homeowner came out to talk to us. He was stoned. He stunk of weed and his eyes were puffy and flaming red. He said to us, “Man, I was very sorry to hear about your father. He was a good guy. Hard worker. I remember he brought you guys here when you were in high school for the gutters and windows, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, Dan brought his kids to work, that’s cool. Maybe he’ll have ‘em rakin up the gutter stuff from the lawn and doin the first floor windows or somethin like that.’ And then I just happened to look out the window a little after you arrived and I see one of you guys climbin up a ladder to the second-story roof with a blower in your hand and I was shocked. I was like, ‘Man, I sure hope those little kids don’t come fallin down offa my roof.’”
Just for the record, we didn’t fall off that guy’s roof. But anyway, junior and senior year of high school, ya know – weekends, breaks from school – I was out there more and more often. Every time I worked I was learning more and more – mostly through trial and error – about how not to get hurt while walkin steeper and steeper roofs, while doin more and more dangerous shit. I was there during all my breaks from college and, since I only had two evening classes a week second semester of my senior year, by that time I was workin with him pretty much every day. After graduation in May 2010, window washing and gutter cleaning became my full-time job. And during the three or four years leading up to my 2018 inscription in the military, when my dad’s old fireman buddies started workin with him less and less, I’d become my dad’s right-hand man. I was always there to help him with whatever he needed. I was always there to do all the more dangerous stuff to make sure he wouldn’t get hurt. I did everything I could’ve done to make things go as smoothly as possible for my old man.
In the later years, my dad wasn’t as sharp as he’d been when he was a younger man. I mean, yeah, sure – everyone gets older. But in his case it happened too soon. And to an unfair extent. Well, that’s actually an ignorant thing to say on my part. I know that in this life, no one is owed anything. Ya get what ya get and that’s it. But like…I dunno. Even understanding that concept on a rational level never made any of my dad’s stuff any easier to deal with. It’s like…well, here, look – I’m not gonna sit here and rehash all the shit that happened over the years that led to a father/son role reversal between me and my old man, but what I will make clear is that, in the years leading up to his death, he wasn’t even close to bein the same patient, capable, quick-witted, in-control firefighting boss I always remembered him bein back in the day. Over time, a lot of his thinking became irrational as his life became more and more dictated by this weird OCD routine where he had to do all the same shit in the same order every day or he’d flip his shit. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I cared about him any less. What it meant is that I’d get worried sick about him – even more sick than I’d get when I was a kid and he’d get fall-down drunk then insist on gettin behind the wheel of a car and/or yellin at my mom, callin her a buncha filth. I just…I dunno. I just always clung onto the image of him as my childhood hero. And I would never let it go no matter how many times I was hurt or disappointed, no matter how blatantly clear it was that the guy I once looked up to’d left and gone away a long time ago.
Lookin back at these home videos we got here, my dad was my best friend. When I was a kid, he’d follow me around with the video camera and play with me and indulge every stupid idea I’d spout off out my smart little mouth. One of my favorite moments from those tapes is when he’s got me and my younger brother Danny – ages four and two respectively – in the bathtub at our old house on Melvina and he says, “Now Tim, I want you to fill up that water gun and give it to your brother so he can spray you in the face.” This gave me pause and I hesitated for a second but then dutifully began to carry out my orders. Right around then, Danny stands up to do god-knows-what and exposes his little winky to the camera in the process. Dad goes, “Okay, sit back down now, Young Daniel. You’re gonna be embarrassed about this later in life.”
One day during that same era, when my dad was on duty he showed up in front of our house on Melvina with the firetruck to surprise us – and surprised we were. Of course, I was too young to be able to remember, but if the expression on my face from the photos that day is any indication, I’d hafta say I was pretty excited. My mom said she was blown away and worried he’d get in trouble for bein there with the firetruck instead of returning to quarters after whatever run they were out on, but as always he just said it wasn’t a big deal. I guess the satisfaction of seein his first-born climb all over that big red machine in front of the first home that he and his wife’d purchased together not too long beforehand was worth the risk of whatever punishment he might receive for personal use of city equipment.
I mean, the things that I just said don’t even scratch the surface of what I’m tryin to express here. They’re just two very quick snapshots of the thousands of beautiful memories and belly laughs that that man’d given us over the years. I just don’t understand – or more accurately, I just don’t ACCEPT – why things had to turn out the way they did. Having had to bear witness to my dad’s struggle with depression, his drunken self-destruction, and the premature physical and mental decline that ensued did nothing less than leave me in complete emotional ruin. But, like I said, I couldn’t ever let go. I couldn’t ever detach myself from what was happening before my eyes. And by the time high school came around, I started to feel like my dad was my responsibility. And I always did whatever I could to prevent the bad things from happening.
Let’s go right ahead and make clear that taking responsibility and harboring guilt for the actions of another person – especially a parent hell-bent on self-destruction – is a fool’s errand through and through. As a kid – and even as an adult – I couldn’t ever stop the nightmarish drunken episodes from occurring. And as a coworker, there was nothing I could do to prevent the accidents. I couldn’t stop the shitty old triple track storm windows from coming down like guillotines and smashing his fingers. I couldn’t stop him from setting the extension ladder up in an unsafe way and having it slip out on him when he’s twelve feet up. I couldn’t stop him from placing the six-foot step ladder on top of yet another dinky plastic basement window-well covering, thinking it could support his weight and never dreaming that he and the ladder’d go crashing right through it five or six feet straight down like the time before. I couldn’t stop those things from happening even though I was there. But the big one…that fall from the roof that occurred while I was in the military – it somehow felt different. Like, a couple days after the incident occurred – a couple days I spent brooding around Lackland Air Force Base during my Aircrew Fundamentals training – I wanted to get a better understanding of what happened. So, I called up this dude named Jim who’d been workin with my dad the day of the fall. From what he told me – at the risk of sounding like Mark Wahlberg sayin 9/11 wouldn’t have happened if he was on the plane when the hijackers took over – I just fucking know in my heart of hearts my dad’s fall wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been such a selfish ungrateful piece o’ shit who abandoned my family and ran off to go play stupid little war games with the USAF. If I was there like I shoulda been, I woulda been keepin a more vigilant eye on him than Jim or any of the other guys were capable of doing. I never woulda let him step off onto a roof that we, in all our years of doing that house, had never walked before.
“Yeah, so, it went like this,” Jim said. “I was heeling the ladder for him to get up there and just blow all the shit out from the top of the ladder and then come back down and I’d move it over to the next spot for him how we normally do at that house. But next thing I know, I look up and he’s steppin off onto the roof. He didn’t even have his Cougar Paws on. He’s steppin off there in gym shoes. It’s a shitty old slate roof – we don’t walk that shit! And I’m so nervous on the ground watchin him walk along up there. He’s got the blower in his hand and he’s edgin along and he’s not lookin too good. The gutters are loaded too – full of sloppy wet shit which, as he blows it out, is gettin all over the tiles. So then he’s almost to the end and all of a sudden he slips on the tiles and loses his balance and goes tumblin offa the side of the roof. I run over and try to catch him, but I couldn’t get there in time. And so he lands face-first on the cement over there by their back door and he pops right up and starts staggering around and I grab him. His face is ballooning out right in front of me. I yell, ‘Sit the fuck down! You ain’t goin nowhere!’ And then the owner comes out. I don’t know if the guy saw him fall or heard the sound of the blower exploding on the sidewalk or me yellin or…I don’t know. I told him what happened and we called 9-1-1.”
My dad’s face was broken, he couldn’t really walk, and although he didn’t completely lose his memory, he was delusional and confused for several weeks. He was sixty-two at the time. He had no meat on him. He was skin and bones and’d already walked with a limp before the fall. My brother, my sister and my mom would visit him in the hospital whenever they could. From what I hear, he was a difficult patient. Not bein able to fulfill his daily OCD routine was pure torture for him. He didn’t always know where he was, but he knew he didn’t wanna be there. He just wanted to get away from all those nurses he hated who he claimed’d been farting at him all the time. He just wanted to go home. Although my family has some funny stories and quotes from my dad from during the time of his convalescence – during the time he was gettin his memory back and during the time he was goin through physical therapy to learn how to walk again in the halls of the hospital where he was admitted – I know it was emotionally taxing on all of them and I’m sad I couldn’t have been there to share the burden.
My dad eventually recovered more or less and got back to his window/gutter business a few months later. During that time, in August of 2018, one of his good friends from his firefighting days died suddenly of a heart attack. Bob was his name. I think they both came on the job around the same time back in 1980. They both worked on the west side, they both got promoted from the same lieutenant’s test and they both had side businesses cleaning gutters – unlike my dad, Bob never got into the window washing. He lived in the same neighborhood as us and I knew his son Mike, who was a year older than me, from growin up.
When we were kids, Mike used to work over at the batting cages near our house. One time my brother went over there and approached the service window of the hut where all the employees hung out. He knew who Mike was from playing together years ago at some fireman picnic in the woods when we were real little and then attending the same grade school, but was by no means friends with this kid who was three years older than him. So my brother gets there and, requesting some batting cage tokens, slides some money across the metallic counter over to Mike who sat in his blue Niles Park District t-shirt on the other side. He just looked at my brother and said, “You’re Dan Lally’s kid, aren’t you?” “Uh, yeah,” my brother replied. Bob’s boy looked around the inside of the hut and then slid the money back across the counter. He then slid a handful of free tokens and sent my brother on his way. My mom told me that back in the day, when my dad decided it was time to get himself a new truck, he gave Bob his old sky-blue Nissan free of charge to use for his own up-and-coming gutter cleaning business. Sure, it needed a few repairs and all, but a vehicle is a generous gift. My dad didn’t see it as a big deal. He loved his buddy Bob and that was his way of showing it. And I like to think that my brother receiving that handful of coins and goodwill towards our family from theirs was just old Mikey payin us back in kind at the expense of the Niles Park District.
Almost every fall when we’d be out there cleaning gutters, we’d run into Bob’s crew of guys here or there – ya know, see ‘em with the ladders set up on a roof and the blowers running – and we’d honk and wave as we drove past on the way to our next job. Every time I saw him, Bob had a cigarette in his mouth. One time I remember pullin up next to him somewhere in our neighborhood. It was me and my dad in our truck, and Bob and his go-to guy Fred in theirs – pretty sure they’d gotten rid of Old Blue by this point in time. If my memory doesn’t deceive me, Bob was wearin a flannel jacket. He had his arm hangin out the window with a smoke burning between his fingers. His thick Chicago mustache was as prominent as ever. I don’t have a complete story here or anything like that, I just remember this image of him lookin over at my dad and sayin in his raspy voice somethin like, “Leaf season’s always hectic – ain’t it, Danny?”
I was in my barracks at the Defense Language Institute layin on my bed one evening talkin to my mom on the phone when she told me the news. I’d already had my mental breakdown at this point and was just waiting in limbo for my discharge paperwork to get processed. I didn’t yet have any concrete plans for when they released me, but I’d been considering the idea of tryin to get a job on a farm picking fruit or somethin like that out there near the base in California. Anyway, the conversation with Mom went somethin like…
“He’s pretty bummed out about it,” she said. “Tre (pronounced “tree” – our nickname for my younger sister, Teresa) went with him to the wake. She said it was pretty cool to see Dad interacting with all these old fireman guys she’d never seen before but’d heard him talkin so much about over the years.”
“Yeah? That’s cool. Glad she got to see that side of him. I feel like she never really got to know him that way – not as much as me and Danny did, at least. How was the service?”
“Yeah, it was good. Tre said it was good. It was a nice service and all that, but I guess Dad said somethin kinda goofy when he was there.”
“Really?” I laughed. “What’d he say?”
“Well, we heard that Bob had a heart attack and died at home while sitting in his reclining chair. And it’s nice to go peacefully while at home – at least I think it is. I think it’s better than what both my parents went through havin cancer and wasting away to nothing for months at a time in hospital beds. So I made some comment to Dad like, ‘At least he died while sitting in his favorite reclining chair.’ And then at the wake, up by the coffin when paying his respects to the family, when he got to Bob’s wife – instead of sayin somethin like ‘I’m so sorry’ or ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ – he repeats to her, ‘At least Bob died while sitting in his favorite reclining chair.’”
“Oh no,” I put my palm to my forehead. “That’s…so fuckin stupid. I’m cringing imagining this right now.”
“Yeah, I know – right? It’s like, c’mon – you don’t say somethin like that to a guy’s wife at his wake. He just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get anything anymore.”
As I sat in my barracks at the DLI after having finished that conversation with my mom, I began reflecting on the information I’d just received during that phone call.
“Ya know, Dad didn’t look that good at graduation,” I thought to myself. “Sure, he doesn’t smoke quite as much as Bob used to, but he’s still easily ripped through a pack of smokes a day for at least forty years now with no intention of stopping anytime soon. Factor that in with all the fires he’d been in over the years, and all the drinking and the anti-depressants, and…fuck – God knows how many years that fall may’ve taken off his life. But like, even if nothing sudden and tragic were to happen to Dad the way it did to Bob, given the overall shape he’s in, he really can’t keep doin the windows and gutters that much longer. Like, sure, in recent years it’s been a pain in that ass workin with Dad, but remember how it used to be? Remember what an honor and privilege it was when he first took your teenage bitch-ass out to work with him and the rest of the guys? You didn’t belong out there with the men. You were a fifteen-year-old wiener that had no idea what you were doing. You were an embarrassment, but he kept takin you out there anyway until you got good enough to hold your own. Well,” I wondered, “why the hell did he do that? Well,” I mused, “he’s always been a tough man to get to know who didn’t like talkin about his emotions or opening up to anyone, but don’t you think it coulda been because he loved you? Was it not his way of saying so? After all, actions speak louder than words. And as much as you hate him sometimes, don’t you think deep down you really love him too? And think about it…when he’s gone, he’ll be gone for good and you’ll always regret not having spent as much time with him as you could’ve while he was still here. Like, do you really wanna stick around here in California and pick fruit on a farm with a buncha hippie douchebags or would you rather go back home? Like, however many more years Dad wants to wash windows and clean gutters, wouldn’t you wanna be there at his side to help him keep the business running? By all means, take some time to think about it, but I think the answer’s pretty clear.”