Dear Switchback fans,
On Wednesday, January 5, I drove out to Woodstock. Since Mom’s death, life with Dad has been quite a roller coaster ride. For the third time since her passing, Dad was back in the hospital. At the farm he was tended to by my brothers Robert, Joseph, and Peter, who stayed up through the nights with him, took him to the bathroom, fed him his meals, and changed his clothes. Occasionally some of us would relieve them, but the heavy lifting was theirs. Since July, when my Mom was admitted initially for a hip replacement she would never return from, my Dad was never alone, night or day.
Mom’s death was a major shock for all of us, but most of all for Dad. He did not expect Mom to precede him in death. Not long before Mom’s death, Dad was diagnosed with stenosis of the heart, commonly known as congestive heart failure. Two of his valves were not working properly. At the time of his diagnosis, doctors said he had anywhere from three months to two years left. His identical twin brother Jim had died of complications related to a surgery to correct the exact same problem a couple of years earlier. As my uncle lay dying, I couldn’t fathom what Dad was thinking as he looked at a reflection of himself, knowing he had the same condition. Dad decided that he would aim for quality of life and spend his remaining days with Mom.
Years before, Mom and Dad had purchased a grave plot in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, right next to Mom’s parents. When Mom died, a burial date was carefully selected according to when our far-flung family could regroup and get out to Wyoming: October 3, two months after her passing.
But as it turns out, God had other plans.
The story begins back in 1953, when Dad had over 70 percent of his stomach removed in an attempt to control ulcers. It was a very dangerous and life-threatening operation; he very nearly died. Death seemed pretty certain and Mom was worried that she would be a widow after a year of marriage.
But Dad did survive. Now, over half a century later, the warranty had run out on the operation. It turned out his stomach had shifted over time, and he could no longer keep food down or get food out. In October my Dad was hospitalized. The doctors said an operation would be needed to correct the original surgery, but that chances were high that he would die on the table as his heart valves probably couldn’t take it. But Dad was insistent to have the operation because he wanted to be there when Mom was buried. So at age 90 he went under the knife. It was a severe operation, and in recovery he called out in pain for Mom and prayed aloud for the pain to subside. As it did, he reinstated his determination to get out West and see his wife laid to rest.
My Dad did get out to Wyoming. My brothers and sister drove him out in a friend’s RV, complete with wine, a bed, and bathroom. He loved the trip, and incredibly by November 4, with a break in the weather, he did see his wife of 63 years laid to rest.
That a man over 90 could pull this off was incredible. But Dad was not your average man. He married my Mom, which was a feat in itself, and they stayed married through all the trials of 10 kids, a farm, and a career as a dentist. But backed by his Irish Catholic faith, Dad was up to the challenge.
And Dad had this way of facing Death and saying, “Not now.”
Long before we McCormack kids were born, Dad joined the Army Air Force as a tail gunner in a B29. His basic training over, he was ready to ship to the Pacific Theater. Life expectancy was about 30 seconds during battle for a tail gunner. My Dad caught pneumonia, which delayed his deployment, and by the time he was en route to his unit, the war had ended.
When he was about 60, I watched him from the front window of the farmhouse. He had just put a foot in the stirrup of our Arabian horse Arky when it bolted. Across the yard came Dad and Arky. Dad, with one foot in the stirrup, one hand on the saddle horn, and the other on the cantle. No look of fear, no thought of death, just a natural born horseman as he swung into the saddle and brought the wide-eyed, nostril-flaring horse under control.
And of course there was the time he and my brothers Joe and Fran were caught in a freak storm while on a Boundary Waters fishing expedition. Dad was in his 70’s at the time. In a canoe out on the open water, the October gale capsized them and left them treading water for over two hours. Hypothermia had set in and death looked like it was going to take three McCormack men that day.
They ended up washed up on an island with no belongings. A little butane lighter found on the beach helped them create a fire. Some packs floated in and once they were able to push back the hypothermia, they feasted on water and cake mix. A Canadian Coast Guard boat found them the next day and took Fran back to where they got the canoe. He came back with a bigger canoe and they finished the three week fishing expedition.
At age 75, Dad fell two stories while painting a house we had in town. He lay on the grass with a broken ankle, leg and other injuries. A neighbor who happened to be looking out his window when Dad fell called the paramedics. After operations to set pins, Dad was confined to a chair at home. My Mom lovingly cared for him, but mainly through “Irish Therapy.” She was so mad he was up on a ladder at his age in the first place that she would thrust a rosary at him and growl “PRAY!” After about a week of that, my Dad willed himself to walk.
My Dad was a quiet man. Mom more than filled up the airspace in the house with ideas, orders, and exclamations. Dad had a way of speaking just one line and that would be all I needed to hear.
For example, as I was agonizing over whether I should take the leap into a full-time career of music, I was out fixing fences on the farm with Dad. He had heard Mom telling me what I should do and how I should do it for a good chunk of time (mainly by finding some cast doing the Sound of Music and touring as Rolfe, the telegram delivery boy who becomes a Nazi). He could tell I was pretty frustrated. We worked silently for a while and then he said to me, “You know, there’s a guy here in town named Mario who plays accordion for a living. Has a nice house out west on South Street. Seems like he can raise a family on music.” And that was it.
Or the time we were out loading pigs for market. He was backing up the truck when I accidentally caught my hand between a steel gate post and the tailgate. Although I managed to pull it out almost in time, my left index finger was ripped by the force. I stood there holding it and bleeding. Dad looked a bit pale and said, “Oh, no, that’s your guitar fingering hand!” I was amazed that he knew and cared. It was all I needed to hear that he believed in what I was doing. We went to the ER and I was so grateful that I didn’t lose a digit that day.
All of this came back to me on January 5. I sat all day with Dad, not eating or moving from his side. Through the clouds of confusion, bits of sunshine:
We talked about Áine. “She needs a companion,” he said.
We talked about him first meeting Mom on the west side of Chicago.
“Did you like her right away?” I asked.
He grinned and purred, “Oh yeah.”
We reviewed his life. He told me his one regret was that he never flew a plane.
He was happy he traveled to the farm in Ireland. That he would love to see Wyoming again.
He wanted to get sheep back on the farm in spring.
He teased me about music.
“Good luck with that,” he said. “I’m just kidding you.”
And then, he would drift. Some nonsensical talk about buying a tractor or fixing the fence.
“Dad, we’ll get that taken care of later. Try to rest,” I would say.
I knew he was dying.
By Sunday he was not responsive. We brought him over to hospice. Annie remarked that it was like watching someone in childbirth, the idea of being surrounded by loved ones, but having to go through the process alone in some other realm to create this new life.
On Monday, Brian and I drove out to Woodstock. We brought our guitars and gave Dad a last concert of our music. Fran, Tony, and Robert joined in as we sang "Bolinree,” “Take Me Home to Mayo,” and favorite cowboy songs. I told Dad it was OK to go and be with Mom. That we would play him to the other side. I told him that if I didn’t see him the next day, I hoped to see him in heaven.
Tuesday was a blustery, Irish weather day. A perfect day. As my brother Tony said, “A Good Friday type of day.” Rain in sheets and a stiff wind from the West. Dad died around 8 a.m., quietly telling Death that they needed to get going.
Mom, I suspect, was waiting and probably mad that he was taking his time.
American Roots & Celtic Soul