Chapter 15 – Big Boys Ain’t Supposed to Cry
One of the doctors from Resurrection Hospital called us on the evening of Monday, May 11th to let us know my father passed away shortly after being taken off the respirator. We were sitting in a big circle in the living room looking at old photos. It was me, my mom, my brother, his girlfriend, my sister and her fiancé. There was a lotta crying goin on. Lots of hugging. We’re not even really all that religious – we’d go to church as a family maybe once a year, on Christmas Eve – but somehow we ended up joining hands and saying a spontaneous Our Father and Hail Mary. The whole thing was very surreal. Perhaps the sleeplessness of the night before and the emotional exhaustion of the final visit I took with my brother to the hospital earlier that afternoon were to blame for the haziness of the memory. Not sure, but the whole thing seems like somethin that normally takes place in the typa bad dream from which you normally wake up covered in sweat.
I don’t remember personally having done much crying that evening. As much as I hate to admit it, what I felt in the moment we received the news was a sense of relief that my dad was finally gone and that I could finally stop worrying so much about him all the time. Secondarily, right after that, I was feeling very guilty for feeling that sense of relief. I mean, what sorta monster did that make me? Like, the guy wasn’t even that old, ya know? He was only sixty-four. I also remember feeling helpless and hopeless and scared, but not really sad. All the sad shit – and whatever other components make up this emotional cocktail people call grief – wouldn’t end up hittin me until sometime later. I mean, I didn’t have time to sit around and cry right after my dad died. I had his business to run. I had to be strong and get out there and carry on. So, that said, I’d hafta say the majority of outright weeping I did for my father was during the summer that followed his passing. My emotions would most often overwhelm me at night when I’d be sitting down in his basement by myself. I’d be down there making calls to our window washing customers and scheduling jobs that he and I had done together for years and I’d just fuckin lose it. I’d just slump there on his couch and start flailing around as helplessly as a fish outta water while bawling my eyes out for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Like, what made it really hard was that nothing down there in the basement had been cleaned up yet. Every day, seeing everything exactly as he left it – everything down to the very fucking outfit he had there laid out for himself on the back of the loveseat that he tried to start putting on after his shower but couldn’t finish because he was struck down by that occlusion in his carotid artery…it all weighed very heavily on me. And nothing would end up being cleaned up down there until almost a year later when I couldn’t fuckin take it anymore and had to do somethin about it.
“That was supposed to be a group activity,” my mom said one evening a couple days after the fact. Although she didn’t openly express it when I first did it, I guess she was secretly pissed off at me for having cleaned the basement by myself and decided to let me know about it once she got a few drinks in her system. “Your brother and sister woulda liked to’ve gone through his stuff too and it wasn’t fair of you to do that.”
I told her to chill the fuck out. It’s not even like I threw any of his stuff away. I washed all his clothes and put ‘em in big plastic tubs and stored ‘em all in the attic. All his books and papers and whatever other shit he had scattered all over the place, I stacked into neat piles and put it all into the drawers of the dresser I’d just emptied when washing his clothes, and then proceeded to scrub the place from top to bottom – like, even more thoroughly than she and I had right before Dad got his hip replaced, which’d been the last time anything down there was cleaned. It’s much better now, I told her. It’s no longer a museum to a dead person where you’re not allowed to touch anything, it’s an area for living people to exist in and enjoy. Like, I had no problem with all the poster boards housing a lifetime worth of photos that my family had put together for my dad’s service remaining down there on the tables, shelves and TV stand to remind me of the good times, but all his stuff…like, c’mon – that shit had to go. And it had to go right when I did it. Like, I literally couldn’t take another day of seein all his shit all over the place down there. It was fuckin killin me inside. Unfortunately though, drunk Mom didn’t agree and kept nagging about how I’d screwed over my siblings. I held it in for as long as I could, but ended up getting so irritated that I got up close and started yellin right in her face the way my dad used to.
“Oh, you don’t think it’s fair?! You wanna talk about fair, Mom?!” I shouted. “Danny and Teresa have their own lives. They have relationships with other people. They have their own jobs that have nothing to do with our family. They don’t live here. They never spend time in this basement. I’m down there every fucking day. My life revolved around that man. When I was a little kid, he was my best friend who taught me everything – how to throw, how to catch, how to swim, how to ride a bike. He was my hero. But I also watched that same man get blackout drunk in front of me all the time and treat you like a piece o’ shit hangin off his ass and I did my best to protect the two younger ones from seein the worst of it so they wouldn’t get as fucked up as I did and could go on to have the nice little lives they have for themselves now. I also comforted you and gave you a shoulder to cry on when Dad would come home from the bar and shit on you. When I was a teenager and Dad started fallin apart with his depression and the pills and the twitchy neck, I was always there to help you hold the pieces together. Workin with that man washin windows and cleanin gutters has been the only real job I’ve ever had. So when I’m down there makin calls to his customers, tryin to keep his business alive and I don’t wanna look at his clothes and medication box and old jumbles that I used to rip outta the newspaper for him and bring down to him every fucking morning right before he died, I shouldn’t have to anymore! He’s fuckin dead,” I concluded, “and he ain’t comin back!”
That argument took place in mid-April of this year, 2021 – a few weeks shy of the one-year mark after my dad’s passing. At that point, I hadn’t shed a tear since October of the year before. All those months between these events, I’d felt pretty numb – and not comfortably so, might I add. I just kinda felt like a shitty depressed automaton that from the outside appeared to be functioning normally as I worked hard to keep my dad’s business goin, but was really dying on the inside. I mean, not to say that I wasn’t irritable and moody and generally unwell in the months before and after that window, it’s just…not being able to cry, and not being able to let it all out the way I did when I spoke my piece in that argument about Dad’s stuff, and not getting the sense of relief I feel now when writing about all this stuff – it’s like my soul gets poisoned from the inside and I forget who I am or somethin. I dunno. Anyway, we’ll get to that shit later on. Right now, let’s talk about this last time I’d had a good cry.
It happened when I was puttin together our fall gutter cleaning list in October of 2020. During that time, at night after work and sometimes even after the EMT class that I was takin during the evening at the local community college on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’d come home, go down into the basement and pick up where I left off the night before goin through all our customers’ names alphabetically, makin phone calls to ask ‘em if they’d like me to come out and clean their gutters a month or so later once all the leaves had fallen. This was a task that my dad would carry out every fall. It took me about two weeks to make the 350 calls of which I’d been hopin to get somewhere between 300 and 350 yes’s. A decent amount of customers hadn’t heard that my dad was dead and were confused as to who I was. It was quite annoying having to explain the situation hundreds of times over to total strangers who really don’t give a shit about Dad or me or my family, but it is what it is.
So, I was about halfway through the alphabet when I got to the name of one of my dad’s old West Side firefighter buddies from the 1980s. The guy lives in the neighborhood, belongs to St. Juliana Parish and has kids more or less my age with whom I’d gone to school. My dad’d even been those kids’ baseball coach a couple times over the years. I mean, hell, their family lives less than two blocks away from us. Unlike all those other customers who live in other neighborhoods and parishes and had never at any point in time been one of Dad’s brothers in arms on the Chicago Fire Department…like, the possibility of this guy not knowing that my dad was dead did not even cross my mind when I picked up the phone to give him a call.
When I was kid – before the internet was a thing, of course – my dad used to joke that “the three fastest ways of communication are telegraph, telephone, and tell a fireman.” Might seem like a strange concept to an outsider who can only imagine the stereotypical image of firefighters as being manly men who only do manly men stuff all the time. I mean, ya picture the guys choppin down doors with big sharp axes and runnin with a hose into burning buildings and up on ladders pickin people out smoke-belching windows and shit like that. No one pictures a group of firemen standin around whisperin in each other’s ears like a buncha nosy old bitches at a country club sayin, “Did you hear about so and so…” But that’s the way it is – at least that’s the way it was with my dad’s generation. Everyone on the fire department always knows the business of everyone else on the fire department and, more often than not, they know it right away too. A prime example of this is how on the evening of his death, we were startin to get phone calls from people to give us their condolences on the loss of Dan – get this – before the guy was even fucking declared dead by the hospital. I shit you not, we still hadn’t even gotten the call yet from the doctors when people started blowin up our phones to let us know they heard the news. We figured maybe one of the nurses over at Resurrection who’s married to a fireman might’ve leaked the info and from there the shit just spread like wildfire. Hearing about my dad’s death from people she doesn’t particularly like a whole half-an-hour before we heard it out a doctor’s mouth during an official call from the hospital was nothing short of extremely upsetting for my mom. But that’s just how fast word spreads not only among fireman, but also among our tightly-knit, predominantly Irish-American community on the northwest side of Chicago.
But beyond the pure, raw, unadulterated speed at which hot gossip and the bad news of others can travel in this circle, firemen are also usually quite thorough in making sure that every last man is made aware that one of their brothers has fallen. The Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local 2 announces the names of members that have died during their “Daily Blast,” and although that might not be so popular a medium, the union also sends out some sort of – I don’t know what you’d call it; a magazine, I guess – called the “Sounder” that my dad would receive three or four times a year talking about recent news on the department and other shit like that, as well as listing the names of all union members who’d lost their lives since the most recent publication. I thought that between word-of-mouth and these official CFFU announcements, every fireman with whom Dad’d ever had contact would’ve known that he was dead and gone. After all, all throughout May of 2020, a buncha guys who he used to work with – some of whose names I’d never even heard him mention – had been writing all over the online tribute walls on either the Cooney Funeral Home website or the Chicago Tribune website or on some sort of firefighter groups on Facebook to say a buncha nice things about him. A few examples being…
“His fire boots will be hard to fill,” one guy said. “An honorable and dedicated gentleman who fought fires on the west side when the smoke was thicker, the fire was hotter and the water was wetter.” Not sure what he means by that last part about the water being wetter. “My sincere condolences.”
“R.I.P. Dan,” said another. “Always a class act, fearless fireman.”
“Dan and I worked on T-36 for years. Couldn’t find a nicer or harder-working fireman. Washed windows with him on the off. RIP my friend.”
“I played on the FD softball team with Dan. One of the nicest guys I ever met…and one heck of a fireman too. May he RIP.”
“We are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Dan. He always had a smile on his face scoring from third base or climbing down off a burning building after successfully opening the roof for the Engine company below.”
“RIP Dan. Thank you for passing on your knowledge. It was always a good day with you at the firehouse.”
“T36 back in the day, one truck on a still and you couldn’t tire Danny out!”
“Dan is a wonderful man and his family is the best. He was my husband’s lieutenant when he first started on the job and took my husband under his wing and got him into the gutter and window business along with a great crew of fireman guys. We saw him almost every day out on the trail in the woods, just spoke with him a few days before. Such a shock and huge loss. Condolences to the Lally family.”
As I sat there in the basement in October of 2020 makin the fall gutter cleaning calls, it’d been more than five months since my dad’s passing. I picked up the phone and dialed the number of Al, the aforementioned fireman buddy of my old man, and was ready to run through my spiel. He picked up and before I could say anything, the guy goes…
“Hey Danny, what’s up? How’s it goin?”
I was blindsided.
“Uhhh, hey Al,” I said. “It’s actually Tim Lally. Ya know, Dan’s son.”
“Yeah, sure,” he still had this jovial tone. “What’s goin on, Timmy? Wait…” suddenly his demeanor changed completely, “…where’s Danny?”
“Oh Al,” I said, “I thought for sure you would’ve known. My dad had a stroke and died back in May.”
This man, a big huge six-foot-three-inch West Side firefighting badass, started crying on the other end of the phone.
“No, no, no!” he wailed. “I had no idea! I’ve been dealin with some health issues of my own this past year and have been a bit outta the loop with all the old guys from the firehouse. But fuck…I can’t believe nobody woulda told me this.”
I said I couldn’t believe it either. In between sobs, he just kept tellin me what a great guy my dad was. I was just as shocked as he was, but managed to keep my cool. I thanked him for his kind words and wished him the best with his health problems. I told him I’d be over to clean his gutters in a month or so and would just leave a bill in the mailbox if he wasn’t home when we were there. He said that’d be great. We said goodbye and ended the call. I set the cordless phone down at my side and wept like a baby.