When you lose someone you love, as I did last week with the death of my 85-year-old father, your world is forever divided by a new sense of before and after. For me, time is standing still, even though the earth has rotated six times. I now view the world as before and after my dad, the “last man standing” of his clan’s generation, died.
There’s no doubt Dad was ready to go, and his death, while not exactly unexpected, was still a bit of a surprise. Like the EverReady bunny, it seemed he would go on forever, despite failing health and medical setbacks that would’ve stopped lesser beings years ago. So on one level, we knew, I knew, it was coming. On another, parentless at 50, I still feel like an orphan, adrift without my anchors in a choppy and often turbulent sea.
For all his challenges, and they were as legendary in our family as his accomplishments, my dad was the rock of our family. He was the one we went to in times of crisis and trouble; the one we shared our triumphs with as well. A B-24 bomber pilot during World War II and the former vice president of power operations for Missouri’s Union Electric (now Ameren UE), he was a member of that Greatest Generation who forged a life out of nothing with his head, hands and heart.
Loyal to his country, his faith, his company, his wife and his family, he served UE for 40 years. He was a tough man; some would say arrogant. He was also brilliant and complicated. He could be moody and withdrawn at times, full of Irish bravado, wit and charm the next. He negotiated deals with the toughest union bosses and won their respect; he never forgot how it felt to have nothing and made sure that the workers’ voice was heard at the executive table.
Under that tough exterior was a softy who’d tear up at the drop of a hat. While his success in business was impressive — it’s not every kid who watches their father debate a Senator and later vice-presidential candidate on air pollution control policy — what I’ll cherish most was his devotion to my developmentally disabled sister.
He visited Francy, who is blind and mentally retarded, every two weeks and spoke to her by phone weekly. When he could no longer walk, or even bend down far enough to put his shoes on, he still kept going. The attendants would bundle her out to the car and they’d drive through somewhere for lunch and visit. Then he’d drive the windy rural roads back home and get himself, somehow, back into the house.
They saw each other for the last time at Christmas. And while it didn’t seem particularly memorable at the time, they did get to say their goodbyes. Dad died five days later. I’m sure he’s drinking beer and singing Irish songs in heaven with his brothers and sisters while my mom plays the piano and my grandparents smile and nod. I hope heaven likes it loud. The McLaughlins are a raucous bunch. Tall tales will be told and retold, and the truth (as well as a few tenor notes) will get stretched almost — but not quite — beyond recognition. But, oh, how the angels will laugh.