For Robert J. Shea, Jr. (January 4, 1959 – February 5, 2013)
My father used to say that nothing of consequence would mark his passing. He was a simple man from Brookline who never left a mark on the world around him. A letter carrier and health insurance associate with a difficult past and an unfortunate disease. His was not the kind of story for bestseller lists or the silver screen. No one mourned the common man.
He used to grin when he made those kinds of comments. They were meant to mock his typically middle class life, not yearn jealously for a better one. The grins faded after his diagnosis. His jokes about death without tribute carried a dark and bitter edge. He felt that he could and should have made more of his life before its end.
The end came swiftly. A two year window narrowed to months and then weeks, days and then hours. He was gone before I had really come to terms with the possibility of losing him. The most painful realization was that the hand I held that frozen morning no longer belonged to my father. It belonged to a corpse.
Months passed before I could really think of him without losing myself in grief. I had to leave the room when a film explored cancer or the death of a parent. All the promises I had made about strength and resilience evaporated. I didn’t want to persevere. I didn’t want to shoulder on. What was the point?
“Life goes on,” people told me. And it did, albeit slowly. I began to understand my father’s bitter jokes, how the world mourned the few and forgot the rest. We learn their names and measure their legacies, trusting that their lives deserved our time and attention. That same calculus determined that the life of a simple man from Brookline did not.
Born to a working-class family on the outskirts of Boston, he learned early and often that his imperfect world bred imperfect people. His mother the homemaker spewed hate at the dinner table. His father the policeman drank to violent excess. It made for a difficult and trying childhood, to say the least.
While his wealthier relatives lived “proper” lives in white suburbia, he made friends of darker skin tones and different sexual orientations. He was beaten and disowned, but he never gave in to the hatred that defined mid-century Boston. A lover of King and Kennedy alike, he longed for a better world and fought to his final breath to see it through.
He raised me on Tolkein and Star Wars, hoping I would dare to dream and reach for the stars. Difficult as it has been, I’d like to think I’ve honored those hopes in the two years since his death. He would have loved to visit me at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa. His would have been the first and loudest phone call after learning Seth Moulton had won election to Congress. And he would have demanded I use my position with the Boston City Council to make lasting, positive change in my community.
Whatever his personal faults – and there were many – my father lived and died by the American Dream. He came from nothing to build a better life for his family, starving his ambitions so I could realize my own. At twenty-four, I have more education, life experience, and financial security than he could have imagined at that age. I only wish I had better understood that when I could have thanked him myself.
Time will rob me of precious details like the sound of his voice or shape of his smile, but I can at least preserve the essence of who he was and what he believed. My blog may not shake the world like a winning film or timeless novel, but I know he would appreciate the effort. He won’t be forgotten. I won’t allow it.
One day, I’ll tell my own children the story of that simple man from Brookline and the son he left behind. The story of a father taken far too soon, the brightest light in a wild world.
In my opinion, the greatest story ever told.