My father loved Saint Patrick’s Day, though as befitted his Black Irish smoldering good looks and erratic temperament, I don’t recall ever celebrating it in any obvious way. No parades, no crowds, no corned beef and cabbage; Saint Paddy’s was day to drink whiskey with more purpose than other days.
Jack Fallon died in 1992, or maybe it was 1993; I can never remember the year. He died in February, that much I recall. It was cold and grey and the drive from Boston to Hackettstown, NJ was long each way.
I left about four in the morning to drive to the funeral so that I would be there by ten; plenty of time to have lunch with two of my three brothers, my sister, and my father’s widow Lani. After lunch there were a few awkward hours hanging about the small apartment where they lived, going to the funeral home, settling accounts, wondering who else might show up.
A few people wandered in for the late afternoon service. I read a piece I wrote about my father, something about baseball, which he loved. I sang Judy Collins’ anthem, My Father, which I love. It was raw at the cemetery; bitter winds came off the side of the hill where he laid to rest on a hillside with a better view than life ever afforded him. We ate another meal in another restaurant with a group of ten or so, and then we went back to his place, Lani’s place now, for a few more hours of beer and recollection.
I had a long drive back that night, but I did not feel in a rush. I had to pick up my young children at seven the next morning. Their mother and I were on brittle terms, not yet divorced. Neither of us dared to ask for or bestow any flexibility on our child care arrangements; both playing perfect parents-in-exile while under the microscope of the legal system. Burying my father four states away did not seem adequate excuse for being tardy to pick up my children before their mother went to work.
Still, I lingered. After all, my father would only die once. Finally, about 10 p.m., I left. Five miles along Interstate 80 east towards New York traffic came to a complete halt. We sat for four hours in the middle of the night for a reason I will never know. A pitch black, raw February night, clear as the Ezra Brooks bourbon I poured my father every day growing up. Everyone said I would be a priest, but they prepared me to be a bar tender.
As suddenly as the cars stopped, they began to move again. I reached the GW Bridge around 3 a.m. and had been awake a full 24 hours before I entered Connecticut. I pulled into my driveway at 6:45, washed my face and picked up my children.
I remember so much about my father dying. I just can’t remember the year. That’s how it is with some people. Our relationships are so complex, our idiosyncrasies so integrated into out habits, that the details obliterate the larger picture. Twenty years on, more or less, I remember all these fragments. What eludes me is what we meant to one another and how we loved each other, yet how little we knew each other. That is why the details cling so dear to me, and that is why Saint Patrick’s Day, that most Irish of holidays, is such a contradiction. All the carousing is a bluff, for we Irish are a solitary people. We call it a holiday, but for some of us, like my father, what we savor is the gloom.