Chapter 20 – The Service
During the height of covid, I don’t know whose idea it was to start doin all these drive-by birthday celebrations, but the concept caught on like wildfire. All throughout the spring and summer of 2020, I’d hear nonstop horn-honking somewhere in the distance and instinctively knew that it had to be somebody’s birthday. Now, I’m not gonna sit here and try to pretend like I didn’t participate in a couple of these things myself because I definitely did, but that doesn’t mean that I’m above admitting how god damn stupid of an idea I think it is to tell someone to come out of their house and stand on the sidewalk as everyone they know drives past in their cars honking their horns and yelling their birthday wishes out the car window. It’s fuckin retarded – there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. But I mean, if that’s the way things were all of a sudden for birthday celebrations – if that really was the “new norm” as they say – then why not also have drive-by baptisms, drive-by weddings and – most pertinent in our case – drive-by funerals? Like, both my mom and dad’s sides of the family are very big, right? I got lots of aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides. And in May of 2020, our local parish was closed due to covid, so we couldn’t have a mass for my dad there, and the funeral home we planned on using had a limit of like ten people in a room at a time which is just a god damn disgrace compared to the way Irish wakes are supposed to be. So, like, fuck it – ya know? I didn’t understand why we couldn’t have me, my mom, my brother and my sister just dress up in all black and stand out in front of our house with dad’s urn in our hands while everyone he ever knew drives past honking their horns and yelling their condolences out the window at us like, “BEEP! BEEP! Sorry for the loss of your husband, Mrs. Lally! BEEP! He was a good man! BEEP! BEEP!”
In spite my lobbying for the aforementioned scenario, the way we decided to manage the big family/small gathering dilemma was to have a two-hour-long visitation for my dad at Cooney Funeral Home in Park Ridge – the first hour was supposed to be for Mom’s siblings to stop in and pay their respects, and then the second hour was for Dad’s parents and seven siblings to come and say goodbye to their beloved son and brother. And then at the end of that second hour, since we couldn’t go to the church, we decided to bring the church to us, so to speak. We arranged for the pastor from St. Juliana to come in and say a few prayers and then that’d be it. My mom’d also told Dad’s side of the family – minus my grandparents, who needed to get back to the retirement center – to bring a change of clothes and shoes because we thought it would be neat if we all went straight from the funeral home over to the Bunker Hill forest preserve to walk a group lap on my dad’s normal route over there in his honor.
So, that first week after Dad’s death was a total blur and next thing ya know, the day of his service was upon us. For me, it just wasn’t a very emotional experience – no tears, no grief, no intense feelings of nostalgia. I think it was too soon after the fact to seem real or somethin like that. I dunno. But I didn’t have all that much to say to anyone and passed most of the time just standing to the sides of the room, walking around and looking at the poster boards full of photos showing my dad at all the different stages of his life that my brother and sister and mom had put together for the event. At one point during that first hour, my cousin Matt – about five years older than me on my mom’s side – came up to me to offer his condolences. I mean, we didn’t even invite any of the cousins on my mom’s side of the family because we were worried about exceeding our covid limit, but it was pretty cool that a few of ‘em showed up anyway to show their support, and it was also pretty cool that the funeral home director wasn’t a dick about us being over the limit at any point even though we clearly were. But anyway, after he told me how sorry he is for my loss and that typa stuff, Matt took a look at the poster board I’d been staring at just before his approach. On it had been about four or five photos of Dad chopping his crotch solo and a few more of me and him doing it alongside one another.
“What’s that?” he laughed. “Your dad did ‘suck its’?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Only because I liked doin em though.”
“That’s pretty funny,” he said.
“Yeah,” I responded, “I think it is.”
“Did you used to watch a lotta wrestling as a kid?”
“Ya know, I actually didn’t. It was definitely popular with all the kids in my grade when I was growin up, so I knew some stuff about it, but I always thought it was kinda gay, ya know what I mean? Like, I thought Stone Cold chuggin beers then kickin guys in the crotch and givin em stunners was funny and all, but beyond that…like, a buncha sweaty jacked dudes rollin around with one another wearin nothin but speedos seems like the typa thing I’d wanna jack off to if I was hot for dudes or somethin. I dunno. But yeah, I always thought that those guys tellin one another to ‘suck it’ and doin that gesture was hilarious…even if, technically, tellin another guy to fellate you clearly adds to my ‘wrestling is gay’ theory. Not that there’s anything wrong with it bein gay,” I added.
Matt didn’t have anything to say about that. He was just kinda lookin at me.
“Sorry man,” I said. “I’m just ramblin here. But anyway, when I was out travelin, I started doin a ‘suck it’ in front of every famous place I visited like the Great Wall of China and stuff like that, and I’d send the photos back home to my family. And one time when I wasn’t around on my birthday, my family sent me a card with photos of each of em doing a ‘suck it’ cut out and glued on the inside as my present – probably the best birthday card I ever got. That one right there of my dad by himself in the kitchen was from that card. And that one there’s from when he and I went bowling together on a rainy day in Ireland. That one of us together in front of the river is up in Milwaukee at the wedding of one of my cousins on my dad’s side of the family. So yeah,” I said, “each of those ‘suck its’ has a story behind it. Obviously not just the ‘suck its,’ but every photo – every one of these photos has a story behind it, ya know?”
We stood there for a minute in silence, each browsing the poster board.
“And this one?” he pointed. “What’s that your dad’s holding up there? Is that a calendar?”
“Oh that?” I said. “Yeah, that’s a calendar. That’s Christmas morning. You know the Channel 9 meteorologist, Tom Skilling?”
“Well, I took this calendar I found that – for every month – has got a picture of a different hot guy with his shirt off cuddling with all these cute little puppies, and I superimposed a photo of Tom Skilling’s face over the face of every one of the hot guys in the calendar. Oh yeah, and I also put Tom’s face over the faces of all the dogs as well just for good measure. It was called the ‘Hot Tom and Baby Animals 2016’ calendar. And then, yeah…I gave it to my dad for Christmas.”
“Ha,” he smiled. “But why though? Why Tom Skilling of all people? Why would anybody do such a thing?”
“It’s kind of a long story,” I said, “but it’s because my dad always needed to know what the weather prediction was gonna be for the following day because of his window washing business. I mean, now we got the internet and smart phones and shit like that, right? But when I was growin up, he’d religiously read Skilling’s section in the Tribune and watch him on WGN news so he could know if he’d be able to set work up for the following day. He called the guy Skillet Head. He’d say, ‘I didn’t set up work because Skillet Head’s callin for rain tomorrow.’ Or, ‘Skillet Head says it’s supposed to be a pretty nice day.’ And all this mentioning of Skillet Head all the time led me and my brother to joke that my dad was gay for Tom Skilling. So, one day, a few days before Christmas in December 2015 – I didn’t have any more work to do because we’d just recently finished all our gutter cleaning for the season – I decided to take some acid and go to one of those jack-shack, Asian Massage parlors near my house for a rubdown with a happy ending. It was a pretty weird experience, but that’s a story for another time. So anyway, when I was walkin back home from the rub ‘n’ tug, I was still trippin and decided to make this calendar for my dad once I got back to my house.”
“I see,” he said. “But were you already planning on doing this before you went to get a massage? Like, I mean, did you already have the calendar at your house or did you go and buy it right after the massage?”
“Hmm, ya know…good question. I actually don’t remember, but would hafta say that I’d already bought the calendar beforehand because there’s no way I was gettin in a car and drivin anywhere when I was trippin out like that. So, I guess it was premeditated. Er, ya know, maybe Teresa got it as a gift or something, but wanted nothing to do with it. I really don’t know where the calendar came from to tell ya the truth. But, the point is that it was then – right after I got the massage – that I decided to fire up the family computer and finally sit down to turn this idea I had into a reality. And to make sure all the photos I was gonna superimpose looked somewhat natural, I found pics of Tom in all different sizes and with his face lookin in all different directions – ya know, to match the faces of all the guys in the calendar – and then printed em all out, and cut and glued em over the face of every last hot guy and pooch in the thing. And then I wrapped it up and gave it to my dad a couple days later.”
“That actually sounds like a lotta work.”
“Oh yeah, for sure. Took like four or five hours or somethin.”
“How’d your dad like it though? Would you say it was worth the effort?”
“I mean, he was a good sport about it. He laughed while he was flippin through the pages. Said stuff like, ‘You’re a fuckin pervert,’ and, ‘Oh wow, Tom’s got such a nice bod,’ and, ‘I love it. This is what I’ve always wanted.’ Ya know, shit like that. But he refused to hang it up anywhere down in his basement. He didn’t wanna be lookin at it every day, he said.”
Aside from Matt and the other few of my twenty-something cousins from my mom’s side that decided to show, we did have a couple other uninvited guests at the party. One of them had been this Hispanic guy in a fireman jacket who walked in the room and didn’t say anything to anybody. Doing his best not to disturb anyone, he crept to the front of the room and knelt before the platform on which my dad’s ashes had been placed. He was praying and he was crying. After he was done, he tried to sneak out as quietly as he snuck in, but me and my mom were curious about who he was and decided to intercept him. My mom introduced herself and he said he was sorry for her loss. She asked the man what his name was.
“I’m Corky,” he sniffled. “Corky Ortega. Your husband and I went to the fire academy together back in 1980. We used to carpool there every day. He and I and Johnny McDonaugh and George Polson.”
“Ah okay,” my mom said. “Are you related to John Ortega?”
“Yeah,” he said, “that’s my brother.”
“Okay, yeah. Ya know, John built the back deck on our old house when we used to live on Melvina.”
“Yeah,” I chimed in, “I was just a kid back then at our old house – I mean, I musta been like five years old when that deck got built – but I love the story behind it. Have you ever heard it?”
The guy shook his head no.
“Like, I guess my dad was helpin your brother with that project one afternoon and they were out in the backyard drinkin a buncha beers while they worked, and all of a sudden they disappeared. My mom said the back door was still open, the basement door was still open, the saw horses were still set up out in the yard and the saws were still plugged in, but they were suddenly nowhere to be found. And my mom’s like, ‘Where the fuck did they go? Did one of em have an accident out here and need to go to the hospital or something?’ And it turns out the two of those guys – my old man and your brother – musta gotten bored building the deck or ran outta beer or whatever, then just bailed on the situation to go to the bar. I think that’s such a funny thing to do, ya know – to just not put anything away and say ‘fuck it’ and go hit the local watering hole like that. Like, isn’t that the funniest shit you ever heard?”
Corky didn’t think so. Or if he did think so, he didn’t express it. He was still crying a bit. The guy seemed kinda anxious to get outta there, and me and my mom didn’t know what else to say, so we thanked him for coming and asked him for his contact information so I could reach out to him regarding details for a “celebration of life” party that we planned on having for my dad that upcoming September to make up for this half-assed wake/funeral combo we had goin on there. Of course, covid wasn’t gone by September of 2020 as we’d been wishfully thinking, so we didn’t end up throwing Dad a party like we planned. And now – more than a year after he’s been gone, even though the covid situation is somewhat under control now that the vaccine’s out and all – I think one of the last things my mom wants to do is organize and throw a formal gathering for a buncha my dad’s old friends and acquaintances to come and get drunk at on our dime. Like, at this point, we’ve already heard from everybody to whom my dad was a good friend or mentor on the fire department and all that typa stuff – we’ve already heard from everybody who matters. I mean, if I randomly happen to meet anyone else in my day-to-day that used to know my dad and they wanna tell me somethin about him that I’d never heard before, of course I’ll gladly listen to what they hafta say. But as far as havin another formal event to commemorate Dad’s passing…nah. That shit’s not happenin. I mean, I feel like the service we had was perfectly fine given the circumstances. There wasn’t much more we coulda done. It was short and sweet, and the group walk afterwards was like icing on the cake.
So anyway, that said, after I saved his info on my phone, we said goodbye to that Corky fellow and he was out the door. After a while, the first visiting hour ended and my mom’s relatives began to leave, making space in the room for my dad’s family. The nursing home where my grandparents lived were givin ‘em a hard time about lettin ‘em come to Cooney’s for the service. They wanted every last resident on total lockdown and to not interact with anyone from outside the facility. My grandma told those motherfuckers that there was no way she was gonna miss her son’s funeral – that if they didn’t wanna let her to go, they’d hafta physically restrain her from walkin out that door and goin there. They told her that if that’s the way it had to be, they’d agree to let her and my grandpa go to the funeral home, but only if they agreed to stay locked in their room at the nursing home for one whole month upon their return. Although a month sounded a bit excessive, Grandma accepted and the two of them were picked up from the nursing home and brought over to the funeral home by, I believe, my dad’s older brother Tom. Everyone had masks on and was trying to social distance – especially from my grandparents – but when I saw my grandpa, he stuck his hand out for a shake and I instinctively didn’t leave the guy hangin. With his mind half-gone, Grandpa didn’t know any better about stayin safe during covid, but I did and was paranoid for the next whole week that my little handshake slip-up was gonna lead to the death of both my grandparents. Although Grandma would end up dying before the one-year mark after my dad’s passing, it wasn’t from covid. But let’s not talk about that now. I’ll discuss that stuff in a later chapter.
So anyway, the last of the gatecrashers who showed up uninvited to Dad’s private service was this obnoxious, fatass old-timer named O’Connor. He’s a retired fireman whose gutters we’d cleaned out quite a few times over the years. And like, I never remembered the guy bein such a jagoff during any of those past interactions – he always seemed to be a nice-enough guy or whatever – but, I’m not gonna sugarcoat it here, that definitely hadn’t been the case at my dad’s service. He was a total dickhead from start to finish. I don’t know – perhaps he’d gone a bit senile in his old age or somethin. But not only that, perhaps he’d gone a bit homosexual as well. Ya see, the guy’s a married man, but’d suddenly developed some sort of inexplicable fixation on my paternal grandfather. Allow me to explain…
So, like I said, there weren’t that many people at Cooney’s that day because of covid – it was a small private service – and so the room was very quiet. But then outta nowhere, right at the start of that second hour, here comes this asshole bargin in the room, talkin loud enough to wake the dead. Everyone heard every word. And like, this guy didn’t even pay his respects to my old man. He didn’t go to the front of the room and say a prayer before my dad’s ashes or look at any of his photos or anything like that. He just walked in the room and said, “Where’s Mike?!” And then he didn’t even offer his condolences to anyone while tryin to track down my grandpa, he just kept askin everybody in his path, “Where’s Mike?! Where’s Mike?! Where’s Mike?!” And so he eventually finds my grandpa who was just shy of 90-years-old at the time and rather senile himself, and the guy – I shit you not – starts professing his love to him. He says, “Mike, you were the greatest fireman I’d ever known. I worshipped you, Mike. You’re the best, Mike – the best!” He literally used the word “worship.” And at one point, he turns to a couple of my cousins who’d been standin nearby to let ‘em know that, “Did ya guys know that me and Mike used to sleep together?” Now, I’m guessin he just meant in the same room at the firehouse but, given the way he was talkin, I couldn’t be too sure. Grandpa didn’t seem to have all that much to say in return and just sat there lettin this guy shower him with praise.
At one point, my mom went up to introduce herself and see what this guy’s deal was. Like, we were wonderin why he was even there. My theory was that he was sittin at the kitchen table across from his wife at home one day, flippin through the scratch sheet in the Tribune and saw my dad’s death notice in there and was like, “Yes! Alright! Finally!” And his wife asks him, “What? What are you celebrating about?” And he says, “Great news, honey! One of Mike’s kids died, so I finally have an excuse to go and see him now in spite of that restraining order he has against me. Maybe he’ll actually let me suck his dick this time around!” So anyway, Mom goes up to him and says hi or whatever and…
“Who are you?” the guy grumbled, irritated that she’d interrupted his praising of Mike.
“I’m Dan’s wife,” she repeated. “Ya know, the guy whose wake this is.”
“Yeah, okay,” he dismissed her then turned back Grandpa. “So Mike, you remember that one fire we were at when…”
An aunt who married one of my dad’s younger brothers would later comment, “What a bizarre scene that was. The irony of it…that that guy was there at Dan’s wake for no other reason than to praise his father when Dan would probably still be alive today if his father hadn’t been such an asshole to him and his brothers back when they were all growing up.”
She was right – it was ironic. In addition to being a captain on the Chicago Fire Department, my grandpa was a hard-ass Marine that fought during the Korean War and was said to have been unnecessarily rough on his kids back at their house on Agatite. It seems widely agreed upon that Grandpa liked to drink and had a mean streak, but I don’t know of any specific incidents that ever happened in their house because my dad never talked to me or my mom – or maybe even anyone – about such things. That doesn’t mean that I never tried to get Dad to open up to me – I definitely did – but, no matter how hard I tried, he’d never let me in. A couple times I asked him things like, “What happened to you as a kid in your house? What did your father do to you and your brothers?” The most specific he ever got with me had been when he said, “When things were good, they were good. But when they were bad…it was tough.” And that was it.
So anyway, before long, the second hour was up and it came time for the pastor to say a few words about my dad. Before he began, however, that O’Connor wanker was shuffled out the door so everyone could finish off the service mourning in peace. The priest was a relatively young guy and I don’t think my dad had been to mass a single time during this guy’s tenure as head honcho at St. Juliana Parish, so I honestly didn’t give a fuck about what he had to say. I pretty much spaced out the entire time he was talking. Given my surroundings, I began to daydream about death-related stuff and thought how funny it would be if I were at an open casket wake and decided to pick up some little three or four-year-old kid and toss ‘em into the coffin on top of some disgusting old dead person, then shut the lid and sit on top of it and listen to ‘em pounding and screaming and crying from the inside, tryin to get out. I smirked to myself and looked around the room. Everyone had their head bowed in silence and appeared to be listening intently to the prayer. I tried to do the same.
After the priest was done flappin his jaw, my mom walked to the front and thanked my dad’s family for coming. Beyond that, she also had a few words she’d spent the last couple days preparing that she wanted to share with them. She said that, “Back when Dan and I were dating, he used to say to me things like, ‘I wanna be the first one in my family to die.’ And I’d say back to him, ‘Well, that’s kind of a messed up thing to say, Dan. Whattaya mean? Why would ya say something like that?’ And he would always respond to me that, ‘Because…I love my family so much that I just wouldn’t be able to live knowing that any of them are not with us anymore.’ So,” she concluded, “he really loved you guys and I guess he got what he always wanted.” And on that note, my mom handed out a mini urn containing some of my dad’s ashes to each of his seven siblings as well as one to his mom and dad. Grandpa took this opportunity to announce to everyone that, “Dan was a great son. His only flaw was that he was a Cubs fan!” This got a few laughs from the rest of the family – all Sox fans – and, once they’d all gotten their ashes, everybody slowly started creeping towards the exit.