Friday, February 23, 2018

2017: In Memoriam

If you asked most Americans about 2017 they’d probably agree it was a rough year. I mean, there was the whole Trump thing and that idiotic Szechaun sauce deal and the release of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1, which was about as well received as the news that McDonald’s was out of Szechaun sauce.

It was basically sweet and sour mixed with BBQ sauce okay?

But 2017 was also a difficult year for me personally which is one of the reasons why I didn’t update this blog much (#sorrynotsorry). The next three posts are going to highlight three of my big experiences, and I’m starting with the biggest, which is actually three experiences in and of itself.

In 2017 I lost my three biggest paternal figures: one in the first week of the year, one in the middle, and one in the last week of year, in what really felt like the universe giving me a big “FUCK YOU” for no discernible reason. My father, my grandfather, and my godfather all passed in 2017 and they will be missed, and going to funeral after funeral was emotionally and financially draining, much like trying to acquire Szechaun sauce.

If you don’t like serious posts then I recommend not reading any further since I think, from here on out, it would be difficult for me to inject any tasteful humor into the subject matter.

And this blog is all about tasteful humor. Wubba lubba dub dub.

Here is my overview of three great men I lost in 2017.

December/January: Lionel “Julian Ernest” Roy

In December of 2016 I was informed that my godfather and namesake, Brother Julian, was in hospice. I always knew him as “Brother Julian” because he was a Marist Brothers monk. He was my namesake (“Julianne” ring any bells?) and my father’s best friend. He was very present in most of my childhood as a sort of uncle figure. I had been discussing a trip to Chicago to visit him; hearing he was in a care facility was a rude wake-up call that, if I wanted to visit him, I’d better be quick about it.

Sadly, I could not be quick enough. He passed away on Christmas morning. Thanks to the messiness of the holidays, his funeral was delayed until the third of January. This gave those closest to him, including my family, the opportunity to travel to New York, where he had passed.

My father had met him at Mount St. Michael’s academy in the Bronx, where Brother Julian was a teacher. Theirs was a lifelong friendship/mentorship.

Andrew and I boarded a plane on New Year’s Eve, literally during the countdown. There was no countdown. 2017 came silently and uncelebrated while we were struggling to cram our carry-ons into the overhead storage bins.

New York was bitterly cold as one would expect. We stayed in a motel in the Bronx. The funeral was a small affair held in the Chapel at the Marist Brothers’ monastery. My family is Catholic (as you might have guessed by now). My father gave the eulogy, which was titled “Saying Good-Bye to My Best Friend.”

After the ceremony, we followed the casket outside, down an ice-packed drive toward the brothers’ cemetery, where identical gravestones stood in severe, precise rows. I needed m cane as the cold stiffened my knee. We stumbled back to the luncheon, where there were hundreds of pictures of Brother Julian set out. Many of them featured him with me and my brother. It was looking through those pictures that I saw evidence of the family-bond we had, the thing Brother Julian has (supposedly) disavowed in his decision to become a monk. And there was something sad about that, to me, seeing evidence of such a rich life that had ended after eight decades with an identical, unadorned gravestone that would soon be lost to the rows of other gravestones.

As a young man.

As I knew him.

It did not capture the man he had been, the guy who climbed onto the roof to fix TV antennas after another another one of the brothers had already broken his leg doing so, the guy who one used sanctified BBQ ashes for Ash Wednesday because of a locked sacristy, the guy who has a small sign in his garden identifying it as the “Garden of Weedin’.” Brother Julian was a grounded man with a good sense of humor and a fiercely practical sense of stewardship. He spent his life teaching, mentoring, and caring for the other aging brothers. He was generous with his time and his wisdom. The Catholic church was lucky to have had him.

August: Vincent Paul McGinn

My father was both a complex and a simple man. His tastes were easily summarized but his person was not. He liked helicopters and cats. He was a devout Catholic. He sounded like Donald Trump and, according to Andrew, looked a little like Tom Clancy.

My dad was Tom Clancy's inspiration.

He worked a job he loathed to provide for me and my brother. He wore a yarmulke to my wedding. He did not understand my (gay) brother’s relationship nor my lifestyle, but our relationship with him in adulthood was good.

Circa 1986.

Complex man, simple tastes. He liked cats and engines.

In early August I got a call from my mother that Dad had had a heart attack. He was admitted to the ER in the wee hours of the morning with chest pains and was in the hospital. I was assured he was getting taken good care of and that I should not be worried about buying a plane ticket or anything like that.

The heart attack had, seemingly, come out of nowhere. My father was in his seventies, overweight, and suffered heart problems. This was his second heart attack. However, he had been cleared by a flight surgeon recently and was actually one week away from moving out to Torrance to work on his commercial pilot’s license. He also had a deal with Robinson helicopters. Having flown since the sixties, it was a dream come true for him.

My dad in the '50s. Farthest kid on the right.

My dad in the '70s.

Within a week I got another phone call. My father would need a triple bypass. The doctors had attempted to remove the blockages in his heart using a stint but were unsuccessful. He’d been airlifted to a long-term hospital to await surgery.  (Note on this: he was airlifted by helicopter.  We all joked that, come hell or high water, he'd found his way into a helicopter even after having a heart attack.)

Then another call. His kidneys, in response to the medication he was on while awaiting the bypass, were failing. He was on dialysis. My brother and I were summoned. We went.

We spent four or five days in the family room of the hospital. In the ICU, only three people were permitted at a time. My father had a slew of visitors. He seemed in good spirits. When my aunt came to see him, the first thing he declared was, “You got fat.”

He laughed uproariously when Andrew said, “Dr. McGinn, I’m a Jew who works in a Beverly Hills hospital and even I’m impressed by this place!” He repeated the joke to his fellow professors and grad students who came to visit him. They brought us take-out.

After a week, seeing he was stable and cheerful, we were sent home.

My dad in 1978 at St. Brigid's chapel. The smokin' hot lady on his left is my mom.

My father spent his time learning about LVADs, which you might recall is what Dick Cheney had instead of an actual heart. There was talk of putting him on a transplant list.  My father, not Dick Cheney, although if you'd like to feel justifiably outraged right now, you should know that Dick Cheney got a heart transplant in 2012 at the age of 71 after suffering 5 heart attacks.  Also, you've been pronouncing his last name wrong all along.  It's pronounced "Chee-nee," not "Chey-nee."  Go ahead and Google it.  I'll wait.

So.  A week after we’d returned, he took a turn for the worst. Systemic organ failure. I was told, over the weekend, to plan accordingly. I went into work on Monday morning and during lab meeting explained to everyone I would be leaving to see my father again. I had a plane ticket for that afternoon.

As I was leaving that morning, I got a call. My father had passed away. I returned home to add one item to my already-packed bags: a dress for the funeral.

The next week is a bit of a blur. It was spent mostly sleeping and drinking in a motel, two rooms down from my brother. Scattered throughout the rest of the hotel were my aunts and uncles who had come to support my mom. We went out drinking together at the Texas Roadhouse across the street from the Motel 6; late at night, my brother and I watched Mystery Science Theatre and shared memories.

Circa 1998.

During the day, Nate, my brother, helped my mom with much of the planning for the funeral. A funeral is like a wedding in that, because it is very emotional, everything costs extra. Unlike a wedding, it is planned in a week; it is a rushed affair of trying to get flowers and select a coffin and speak to a priest and buy a burial plot. And, of course, to inform everyone.

My brother and I went through the house. My brother got a safe-cracker to open my father’s safe and remove the handguns from the house. There were 8, along with a bunch of Peruvian and Nicaraguan money. (?) I found his uniforms in the basement but they had molded. He would be buried in the same tuxedo he wore to my wedding, instead.

This was less than 1 year before his passing.

Thankfully I found his undisturbed officer’s hat in the room I’d had in high school, which was set up during the wake as well as at the reception afterwards, along with other personal items that represented the life he’d lived: a ham radio speaker, a bottle of Drambuie, his childhood teddy bear named Theodore, et cetera.

The funeral was traditional, and Catholic. My mother did the first reading, and I the second. The priest delivered the homily which did not quite capture my father’s relationship with God, who Dad always maintained “loves everyone but loves me a little more.”

Andrew helped serve as a pall-bearer; one of his grad students did, as well, with red, wet eyes.

The funeral was religious and the burial military. Here’s a link to the video taken by my Uncle Tony of the seven-gun salute my father received:

Afterwards, the reception was in the town’s local Irish pub.

Left to right: Andrew, me, Aunt Theresa, Cousin Stephen, Aunt Cece, Aunt Kim, my mom (in blue), Uncle Jon (Cece's husband), Uncle Michael, my brother Nate, and Aunt Katie (Michael's wife.)

I went home with my father’s hat.

I’ll probably have more to say on this subject later, but at present, I am still digesting it. My father was a larger-than-life figure with many contradictions and his mortality seems almost offensive to me.

He was buried on August 21st, 2017, during which Andrew and I had had plans to be in Oregon to see the total solar eclipse. My father was buried under a blacked out sun, a fitting symbol and one he would have appreciated greatly.

End of a legacy.

December: Herman Joseph Richarmé

Herman Richarmé was known only to be as “Grandpa.” We were penpals when I was a kid. Born in Louisiana and occasionally called the Ragin’ Cajun, Grandpa was a product of the Depression through and through. He was remembered for his frugality, practicality, and innovation.

He dropped out of school in third grade to help feed his family. He worked in a bread factory, bringing home the squished loaves. When was about 15 or 16, he lied about his age and went to fight in World War II. Later, he would go on to fight in Vietnam. On this point, there is disagreement in the family about whether he won one or two Purple Hearts.

This is Grandpa getting one of his many military distinctions while stationed in Shu Linko, Taiwan.

Without a formal education, Grandpa was a jack of all trades. He drove a taxi, and he kept bees. He decorated cakes and he tried his hand at plumbing (which resulted in blowing up the family’s living room). Every house he had expanded under his own patient hand. He had eight children and he kept a roof over their heads and food on their plates, even if that food came from his own garden.

Grandpa with my mom.

I had been pen-pals with Grandpa as a kid. He called me Miss Julie and sent me stories from his childhood along with tiny trinkets: bits of Spanish moss ("Just put that in water and it'll grow."), mummified frogs in tiny jars, pressed flowers, piggy banks homemade from V8 jars and filled with foreign coins. Grandpa, like Brother Julian, was someone Andrew and I had been planning to visit. We knew he had Alzheimer’s and may not recognize us, but that didn’t matter. I still wanted to see him. He passed the same way Brother Julian had: hospice and, before we could hurry down, passing.

Like my father, Grandpa was a military man and so he was entitled to a similarly decorated send-off. He was not an officer so the funeral was different but nonetheless moving. The flag was folded by two young men while a third played “Taps” on the trumpet, and presented to the eldest child, my Aunt Cece, who had been the one most present in taking care of him in his later years.

Grandpa having a chuckle, in a Penn State shirt from my Mom. 
She was was the second person in the family to get a Ph.D, if I recall correctly.

If there was any positive to this third death in an already difficult year, it was that it brought the family together. All eight of his children were together for the first time in twenty or thirty years. My brother and I got to spend Christmas with my mom; previously, the three of us were planning on spending it separately, divided by state lines. I don’t know that I believe in fate, but many of my (very religious/superstitious) family agreed that this was Grandpa’s final gift to his child: my mother’s first Christmas without her husband of thirty years was spent surrounded by family.

In conclusion, 2017 took from me three of my most influential patriarchal figures. And I wish it hadn't.

I really wish it hadn't.

Brother Julian, Dad, and Grandpa: I miss you.

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