From all accounts it was my father’s last word, and he uttered it as paramedics struggled to lift his large body from his bed onto a stretcher thirty-one years ago last month. He died on the way to the hospital of a massive heart attack. He was fifty-five, and he’d been expecting it. I’m left with the dilemma of how to interpret his last remark.
Was he summing it all up? His had been a difficult life. Was he afraid of death now that it was finally visiting him? He said too often that it was imminent. When I objected, he’d say, “Every Irishman is born with one foot in the grave,” and I think of that whenever I hear someone singing “Danny Boy.” Or, it could have been just a casual remark, as you might say when the alarm goes off for work after going to bed too late the night before and you sit up on the edge of the bed. You’re not really ready, but you’re resigned to go anyway. Guess I’ll never know for sure why he said it.
He visits me in my dreams some nights. The last time, I was going into a cafeteria and I saw him sitting at a table in back by a window. He was looking at me. His face was peaceful and he smiled a bit as if he were glad to see me. That wasn’t typical in life. I don’t remember him smiling much and he seldom seemed peaceful, but it looks like he is now and I’m glad for him.
My mother told me they’d gone out to dinner that last night at the Harvard Club in Boston. On the way home, they drove around Charlestown where he grew up. He pointed out the many places around the Bunker Hill Monument where he had lived. He was the oldest son of an alcoholic father who often drank away his paycheck instead of paying the rent. Often they had to move to a different apartment late at night to avoid the landlord. With five younger brothers and sisters, he shouldered the responsibility that should have been his father’s - and he resented it. For the rest of his life, that accumulated anger was always just below the surface and it permeated the atmosphere of the household in which I grew up.
The last time I’d seen him, he passed me the research project he typed up for me. It was the final piece of my master’s degree program and he was proud that I’d finished it. He was sad too because he knew I was moving to Maine soon. As I was leaving I told him my wife, Roseann, was pregnant with our third child. “Hmm,” he said - not “Congratulations,” or “That’s great.” I’m not sure what he meant by that “Hmm” either. Was he afraid I was following his pattern of siring children in rapid succession? I’m the fourth of eight. I’ll never know because my not-quite-three-year-old daughter, Jessica, was pulling on my finger and telling me “Come on!” She wanted to go home and play with her one-year-old sister, Sarah. My father would have loved his granddaughter Annie though, who was born that December after we had moved to Lovell.
It was a busy winter - new job, new house, new child, new state - but I thought a lot about my father and what made him the way he was. When school was out the following June, we went back to Massachusetts for a visit and I looked up my father’s Uncle Bill - my alcoholic grandfather’s younger brother. We’d never met, but I wanted to pick his brain about my great-grandfather, James McLaughlin Sr., who immigrated here from County Donegal around 1900 and who had been a notorious alcoholic as well. At his request, I met Bill in the parking lot of a windowless American Legion Hall in Medford, Massachusetts. We shook hands and he invited me in for a drink. It being 10:00 am, I suggested a cup of coffee somewhere else instead. He agreed, but then he opened his trunk of his Cadillac and took two snorts from a half-gallon bottle of whiskey first. Later, he took me to visit his brother, James McLaughlin, Jr. and his wife because they’d been in contact with the McLaughlins who stayed in Ireland, and knew where they lived. I wanted to go there - to Isle of Doagh in Donegal - but it would take thirty years before I’d be ready.
When I go in August, perhaps I’ll learn something about the source of the addiction that has plagued the American McLaughlins for more than a century. I’ve learned more than I ever wanted about what comes with it - summed up succinctly by my father’s last utterance.