June 21, 2019

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Lifelong bonds: Father’s gifts and friends’ understanding give comfort in toughest time

Doris and John Shaughnessy show their joy on their wedding day in 1952. (Submitted photo)

Doris and John Shaughnessy show their joy on their wedding day in 1952. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

When my dad died recently, I reached out to friends that same day, feeling the need for their support, their prayers, even their sadness.

They all delivered, quickly and compassionately. And then there was the depth of emotion that poured from those friends who have lost a father, too.

“My Dad died three months before my son was born. I often think how much my Dad would have loved knowing Sam. Glad you had more time with your Dad.”

“I still find myself thinking I’ll call Dad and take him out for dinner. Then I realize it can’t happen.”

“I know how hard it is to lose a parent.”

A similar level of emotion flowed at the funeral home, from people who came to pay their respects to our family—people who had a wistful, far-away look in their eyes as they talked about the impact of losing their father, whether it was a few months ago or a decade or more.

All these reactions reminded me of the tremendous influence that a father has in the life of his children, at any age.

It also reminded me that one of the “gifts” of my father was that he knew the influence he had on his children. So he worked hard for us and when he returned home, he played with us and cheered for us. There were also the times when he challenged us to try harder, dig deeper, be better. And that influence continued long after we left home.

And so on this past Father’s Day—the first one when I couldn’t give my dad a gift—I spent time focusing on some of the gifts he gave me. As I share my thoughts about my father’s gifts, maybe you’ll see connections to yours.

The gift of time together

The best gift a parent and child can give each other may be the bond that is formed in time shared together. Maybe it happens in a face-to-face visit, a trip together or a shared project. For me and my father—John William Shaughnessy—the bonding took root with a crazy dream.

My father was known as “Shaggert” by his friends, a nickname given in his youth for the way he gracefully raced across baseball diamonds to track down balls in the outfield.

So baseball was the game he wanted to share with his oldest son, me. And that was fine with me, since my earliest dream as a child was of becoming a major-league baseball player, as an outfielder.

In looking back on my childhood and youth, I still remember the approach that my father had in the board games, card games and one-on-one basketball games that we played. His approach was basic: Never let his son win. Make him earn it. Then he’ll know what success means. Then he’ll savor the feeling of accomplishment.

At the time, that approach was difficult to understand: Can’t he ease up once in a while? Yet the passing years have taught me to appreciate and see the value of his approach.

Still, what I savor more are the memories of our time together sharing a baseball dream. It all started in those backyard sessions with a bat and a ball, a time when any connection of bat and ball brought smiles to both of us.

And that bond stayed constant even as I grew older and he kept challenging me to expand my skills. In practice sessions just between the two of us, he never hit fly balls straight to me. Instead, he sprayed them in front of me, over me or farther and farther to my left and my right, testing my range, testing my reflexes, testing me. And I loved it.

I also loved walking off the field side by side with him—and the feel of his arm around my shoulders.

More than anything else, that desire of being there for his children was the dream that guided my dad through the years, just as it does most fathers.

The gift of faith

The connection to the University of Notre Dame—and its football team—created a lifelong bond between father and son. (Submitted photo)

The connection to the University of Notre Dame—and its football team—created a lifelong bond between father and son. (Submitted photo)

One of my favorite photos of my father captures him on Christmas Eve, a time of the two greatest joys of his life—his faith and his family.

In this photo, taken in my parent’s living room, my dad is in full-volume song, belting out “O, Holy Night” with his sons, his grandsons and his sons-in-law—a performance that reaches its climatic moment when everyone drops to their knees as they sing, “Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angels’ voices!”

Never mind that there were no angels’ voices in this choir. My father embraced the moment completely, in the same way he always embraced his Catholic faith, his devotion to the Blessed Mother and his trust in God.

One of the only sacraments he missed of his children and grandchildren was when he was too weak to travel from the Philadelphia area to California for a grandson’s wedding.

Still, it was in his weakness that he showed the great strength of his faith.

When he suffered a stroke, the only words that came out of his mouth before his recovery were “Hail, Mary.”

As he was hit by waves of cancer, diabetes and other physical threats in recent years, he prayed faithfully to St. John Neumann, a bishop of Philadelphia, to intercede for him.

Even when the former star athlete and lifeguard could no longer walk and needed to be lifted into bed, he didn’t question God. Instead, he said an Act of Contrition every night.

The faith that he lived every day—the faith that he gave all his children—helps me during this time. So do his belief and my belief in eternal life with God.

And so do the words of a friend who has also lost his father. The friend wrote, “On eagle’s wings, he looks down at you smiling, bro. They are with us. We just can’t hug them, but we can speak to them. You are never alone.”

The gift of blessed lunacy

I smile now when I think that one of the strongest connections I have with my dad is a bond of “blessed lunacy.” I’m not sure there is a better way to describe that particular bond that is formed with a dad who is a loyal fan of certain pro and college sports teams.

Consider my earliest memory of the long-ago day when I first joined my dad in a lifelong passion for one team in particular:

When I walk into my family’s home on that autumn Saturday afternoon, I feel the complete joy that comes from being 6 years old and having just spent a major part of the day tossing a football, jumping into piles of leaves, and tormenting the neighborhood girls with your best friend. So I have no hint that my life—and especially all my autumn Saturday afternoons from that moment forward—is about to change forever.

The change starts when I try to pass through the living room and hear my father groaning in agony as he sits in his favorite chair listening to the radio. Moments later, he erupts from the chair and pumps his fist into the air as he shouts, ‘Atta baby!’

The transformation of my normally quiet father captures my curiosity so I sit and watch him as he nervously paces the floor. Then he slumps back into the chair as the radio announcer booms, ‘You’re listening to Notre Dame football!’

So begins my introduction to a heritage that’s both magical and maddening. After a while, I also start spending autumn Saturday afternoons inside, groaning, erupting and pacing with my dad. Today, they’d call it ‘bonding.’ Back in the early 1960s, it was just a matter of an Irish Catholic father welcoming his son to the insanity of being a Fighting Irish football fan.

In the decades that have followed, that connection to Notre Dame continued for us. I saw his pride when I was accepted there as a student. I shared his joy when he visited the campus for the first time. And through the years, he was the first person I called after a game, win or lose.

The gifts of peace and grace

Married nearly 67 years, the couple sang the love ballad “Always” to each other on a recent Valentine’s Day. (Submitted photo)

Married nearly 67 years, the couple sang the love ballad “Always” to each other on a recent Valentine’s Day. (Submitted photo)

The last true conversation I had with my father unfolded in a way I never expected.

It came on the last night of a visit in early May to be with him. In the morning, I would begin the 10-hour drive to return to our home in Indianapolis, traveling about 630 miles from where I grew up in the Philadelphia area, from where my father has always lived.

As my father’s health declined over the past year, the man who once carried his children and grandchildren required the help of others to care for him. Many people rose to the occasion to help, especially my mother, my brother, my sisters, their spouses and grandchildren.

In comparison, my involvement was minor—limited to frequent phone calls, weekly letters and several visits. And at the end of every visit, there was the haunting feeling that it would be the last time I would see my father. Part of that haunting came from the feeling that I had missed too much time, too much of everything with him, by living so far away.

That feeling filled me again that night as I stayed in his room after everyone else had said good night to him, and he had fallen asleep. There in the darkness, as I held his hand, I told him again that I loved him and that he was the best role model I’ve ever had as a husband, a father, a grandfather, a son, a brother and a friend.

I didn’t expect him to hear me because he was sleeping. And I never expected him to respond because he had hardly communicated with words during those past few days. Yet he opened his eyes, smiled at me and shared several sentences, reaffirming his love and his pride in me. And, almost as if he sensed my haunting feeling, he smiled again and added, “No regrets.”

Even in his weakest state, he was lifting up one of his children again.

The gift of family

Five days before my father died, most of our family crowded into his hospice room in the home of one of my sisters. We came together to watch a video that was made seven years ago to celebrate the 60th wedding anniversary of my parents. The video starts with moments from both of their childhoods—where they grew up on the same street—and proceeds through their then six decades together.

As my father watched it with my mother by his bedside, it was one of the last lucid moments of his life. He took in all the images, all the scenes, all the memories with a smile and a light in his eyes.

He saw again his parents and his four older sisters who adored him. He saw some of his friends. He saw himself and my mom on their wedding day and during their honeymoon, both of them beaming with joy. He saw himself as a young man on a beach—with his wavy dark hair, broad shoulders and chiseled chin—an image that led my mom to smile and say, “And he was all mine.”

He saw the photos of his children on Christmases, Easters and trips to the ocean. He saw their graduations from high school and college, and their weddings. He saw the first of his eight grandchildren, as a baby, riding on his shoulder. And he saw the picture of him and my mom wearing T-shirts that declared, “Together since 1952.”

It was a visual celebration of a shared life of love, faith and family. He savored it all. And we savored watching him enjoy the short summary of their life together.

Five days later, in the early morning darkness of May 29, he died peacefully with his wife by his side, and his children and grandchildren surrounding him. At 94, he made his journey of hope toward heaven.

The gifts of love and loyalty

A sea of small American flags flutters in the breeze across the cemetery as the young U.S. Navy officer in his dress white uniform lifts a gold trumpet to his lips and begins to play Taps in honor of my father.

When he finishes, the officer with the cherub face places his trumpet in its black case and sets it beneath a lush green tree on this sun-kissed, blue-sky day. Then he strides silently toward the bronze casket of a man who served his country during World War II and the Korean War.

At the casket, which is covered with an American flag, the young officer takes hold of the flag’s edges and begins folding it into a series of triangles. Before completing each tight fold, he meticulously removes any speck of lint or dirt and softly smoothes that section of the flag.

When the last fold is made, the young officer presents the flag to an older Navy officer at the other end of the casket. The older officer examines the flag, tucks in the last fold and approves of its worthiness to honor a man’s commitment to his country.

The flag is then presented reverently to my mother, the love of my father’s life for nearly 67 years. In fact, their union was so complete that on a recent Valentine’s Day they sang the love ballad “Always” to each other. As she accepts the flag, tears fill her eyes and the hands of her five children are either already on her shoulders or reaching out to comfort her.

Our touch is still with her moments later when the priest sprinkles the casket with holy water. Then the priest gives one more blessing for my father, a man whose legacy begins with his loyalty and his love.

Loyalty and love for his wife, loyalty and love for his family, loyalty and love for his country, loyalty and love for his faith and his God.

As we leave the cemetery as a family, I know in my heart that my father—and we—have been blessed beyond measure by the years he had, by the time we shared, and by the love he gave and received. And I know he is in us and with us. No regrets.

Still, later that day, I find a touching note that a friend has sent. His words about my dad include this thought, “Even though you were fortunate to have him here on Earth many years, I’m sure you will miss him.”

In the toughest times of our lives, it’s a gift to have friends who understand. †

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