Sunday, January 3, 2010


When I grabbed my cell phone from the guest room at my in-laws on Christmas day, I noticed several "missed call" notifications, all from my Mom and brother, Jack, in Ohio. Mom was pet sitting our dog Trixie at Jack's house until we joined them the following day for the family's Christmas party. As I quickly dialed my mother and listened to the rings, only one thought entered my mind: Trixie's dead. I tried to prepare myself for the absorption of these words once my mom spoke them, and gripped the phone tighter. Mom's first sentence? "Trixie's fine." I love that woman. I exhaled, then asked what was up. "It's your Dad. He's in the hospital. We think he had a stroke. He can't move his right arm." It's funny, you'd think that my reaction to this news would be deep concern followed by enormous weeping. This was not the case. Instead, I listened as Mom gave the details: Dad arose in the middle of the night, unable to move his arm and feeling disoriented, but didn't want to wake anyone. When he fell trying to get to the bathroom the following morning, my brother heard the crash and insisted they go to the ER immediately.

I calmly thanked her, asked her to keep me posted, hung up, and took my place at Alan's family's Christmas dinner table. I told them "Dad had a stroke. It's just his arm. He'll be OK," and passed the potatoes. I was confused by how everyone at the table stared at me, forks poised, mouths open, as I took another bite of Christmas ham. Then it hit me, they were concerned about my Dad's condition. I reassured them all that my Dad was going to be just fine. Clearly, they didn't know what a tough, tenacious man my father was. "He's going to bury us all, don't worry!" They seemed to remain unconvinced.

Here's a brief synopsis of the life of Jack Donnelly, and why I wasn't worried about my Dad:

John Edward (Jack) was born and raised in a tiny house in Maple Heights, Ohio, the oldest and only boy of five children. His is the typical tragic Irish family story; that of a father who was a hopeless alcoholic, drinking away his weekly paycheck, and a saintly, over-burdened mother who cried and screamed at her good-for-nothing husband, holding the family together as best she could. I'm no psychiatrist, but I'm positive that at one point during his tumultuous childhood, my dad vowed he would never be the disappointment of a man his father was. He has spent the remainder of his life fulfilling this promise to himself and to those he loves.

I think he began working when he was around fourteen, performing jobs too numerous to mention. Even today, when we're sitting around the Thanksgiving table trading stories, Dad will talk about a job he held that I never knew about before, "I remember that one summer I worked as a garbage man..." He did it all, anything that paid. He worked at first to help his mother, then, when his father finally sobered-up and re-joined the employed world, Dad worked to pay his way through college. This didn't stop him from participating in his high school athletics, however. Even though a bad bout with scarlet fever in his youth stunted his growth, his 5'8" frame never kept him from lettering in baseball, basketball, and football at Maple Heights High School. He did make enough money to earn an education degree from Kent State University, and after a brief stint serving in the army, he was hired to be the new shop teacher (he preferred the term "Industrial Arts") at his old alma mater, Maple Heights High. He later became the department head and taught there over thirty years. It was at Maple that he met a pretty student teacher, Sandy. After a brief courtship and my mother's conversion to Catholicism, the two were married.

Dad coached baseball and football at the school, refereed basketball games and even started his own carpentry business on the side to provide for his rapidly-growing family. I'm sure it was exhausting, but because he was so driven to be the provider his father never was, Dad pressed on. And on. Jack Donnelly was all about routine, everything the same every day. His two best friends to this day are two men he met the first day of Kindergarden in 1940. He awoke at the same time every day, ate toast and coffee for breakfast, went to school, ate a bologna sandwich on white bread for lunch. Every. Day. Bowling night was tuesday, basketball referee season was in winter, carpentry jobs took up weekends and summers. We never, ever missed Sunday mass, even when we were on vacation. Each year in June, at the conclusion of the last day of school, he and a gang of fellow teacher buddies would take their boats up to a cabin on the Key River in Ontario, Canada and do nothing but fish for one straight week. I truly believe that single week was the only time when my father completely relaxed.

But mostly, Dad was about work and discipline. And not drinking. Dad never had a sip of alcohol. Ever. He kept the fridge in our basement stocked with Budweiser for his buddies when they visited, but Pepsi was as hard-core as he ever got. It was imperative to Dad that his children turn out the same way. He knew we carried Grandpa's "drinking" gene, and he was determined to protect us from it. I distinctly remember he and Mom returning from a New Year's Eve Party with his fellow teachers and picking us kids up at Grandma Simmon's house the next morning. In the car on the way home, he told us, "You know, your Mom and I didn't have ANY alcohol last night at the party, and we still had a TERRIFIC time. You don't have to drink to enjoy yourself, remember that!" We did. Although some of us enjoy a glass of wine or a beer at the Browns game now that we've reached adulthood, none of us did it until long after we were out of school. For me, it just seemed too important to Dad that I abstain, so I did.

But Dad was far, far from what you would call a saint. I must state with deep honesty that he wasn't a perfect father. He had a terrible, nasty Irish temper that could be set-off with the simple act of spilling your milk at the dinner table. He is the most impatient human being I've ever known. Waiting in line, even for a few minutes, is unbearable for him and he quickly lets everyone around him know of his supreme distaste for it. He never missed a bowling night with his buddies, but he never (NEVER!) gave my mom a break from us to do the same with her friends. Although he and Mom worked intensely hard to raise respectful, rule-abiding children, Dad never seemed to trust the strict lessons he taught us. He always seemed convinced, when we were out on dates, that we were all out boozing around and becoming pregnant. The thought drove him crazy and he made life a living hell for any boy that dared to try and ask us out (Someday I will ask Alan to post an entry about HIS experiences with my dad!).

Those hard times with Dad can sometimes cloud the truly good ones, but they were there too. There were family trips he worked his ass off to finance, trips to Canada, Kentucky, and even a six week trek out West with a Shasta camper and Grandma Simmons in tow. There were evening tape sessions where he'd pull-out his reel-to-reel recorder, hold the microphone to our faces, and introduce each of us before we sang our selections for posterity. When we joined a girls softball league, he took us out back, hit us some balls, and showed us how not to "throw like a girl." If you got hurt, he'd tell you to "shake it off," or "quit acting like a pansy." When my sister and I decided we wanted to pursue careers in theater, he was very concerned with the thought of us entering such a competitive field, but he truly believed in our talent. He drove us both to visit several colleges, always stopping by the financial aid offices to see how he could make it work. By the end of my senior year, I arrived home to find that he had sold his beloved boat, all to help finance my education. I was devastated, he shrugged it off.

So, all this in mind, I knew Dad would be just fine when we all piled into his hospital room, presents in hand, on December 26th. He was in great spirits, happy to see his children and grandchildren, and making jokes. His immobile arm was hidden underneath his bed covers, but he expertly opened his presents with his good hand (and our help) and thanked us for each one. We visited for awhile, then left him to get some rest and continued our party at my brother's house (the home in which we all grew up). I was serenely content that Dad would soon be returned to us, good as new, and all would be normal and "routine" once again. Crisis averted, just as I thought.

The next day I arrived just when he was about to begin physical therapy. I sat in a chair at the foot of my father's bed while the nice, pretty physical therapist asked him to push, pull, and wiggle the fingers of his good arm. I watched as he expertly performed all the tasks that were asked of him. Then she uncovered his right arm. She asked him to raise it. With great difficulty, he lifted it, maybe an inch. "Good!" she chirped. Good? Then she held up his limp arm and asked him to make a fist. I watched as this hard-working, disciplined athlete stared intensely at his lifeless hand, pressing his lips together like he was bench-pressing hundreds of pounds. Nothing. She asked him to perform a few more tasks, all with the same result. After a few minutes, I walked to the window, pretending I was gazing at the snow falling outside of it. Truth was, I didn't want Dad to see my tears. I kept thinking about the man that taught a classroom of teenagers all day, then ran up and down a basketball court for hours that evening, all so he could pay for my ballet lessons and trips to Cedar Point. I wanted to run over to his hospital bed and shake him, saying, "Knock it off, stop being a pansy and make a fist, dammit!!" But I didn't say anything, and Dad didn't make a fist, and here we are in this new world of "Post Stroke."

So, together, my siblings, our spouses, and my parents enter this new chapter of our lives, hopeful but uncertain about the future. The funny thing is this: Dad seems to be having no trouble accepting this change. The man who lived life under a strict schedule of routine and order is adjusting to this new challenge with acceptance and dedication. He's never complained since he's been hospitalized, even when asked to undergo dozens of uncomfortable tests at odd hours of the day. His physical therapy is long and intense. He does what he is told. When a therapist once leaned over to help him up, her ID tag dangled in front of his face. He grabbed it and read her name, "Erin Hoolihan, a fellow Irishman!" he exclaimed with a smile. Who is this cheerful man?

Ironically, I'm more like my old man than I like to admit. I'm terribly impatient, quick tempered, and I hate change. Mostly, I hate this change he, and the rest of us, are being forced to accept. I'm trying to learn from the supreme example he is setting and press on, as he is doing. You know, I recently planted pansies in my garden here in my new home in York, PA. I've learned that they are actually incredibly resilient flowers, often blooming in extremely cold temperatures, even when covered with several inches of snow. They're also the first plants to rebound from the cold in the Spring. Don't tell my Dad this, but I think he's an INTENSE pansy!!

Actually, maybe things aren't so different after all. Once again, like in his childhood, Dad's being asked to rise above the difficult circumstances he's been dealt, work hard, and show them who's boss. If that's truly the case, then this damn stroke doesn't stand a chance...

Thanks for Reading!!


Elena said...

Woa! I think my Dad is up in Heaven manipulating the Universe because I just caught up with reading yours and Stasha's blogs. It is no coincidence that my father steered me in these directions because both of you had serious Dad stuff going on. My thoughts are with you. I'm sending healing vibes. Oh, and my Dad sends his strength vibes. Just go outside on a breezy day. That's him. Love ya, mama.

Anonymous said...

No words to add, Joan, other than I'm glad your Dad is doing well. You Donnelly's are made of tough stuff! :)

Mary Ann said...

It's amazing how much of that determination and stubornness is found in all the Donnelly kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. Thanks for sharing such a powerful story with the world. Our lives are more alike than we like to think. Prayers for my uncle and the whole family.

Unknown said...

Great tribute, Joan! I don't know your dad, obviously, but you make me feel like I do. The writing is some of your best!

We'll be praying for him also.

Jen Taft said...

I'd say you captured him especially well. I had the same response when I heard. Dad is nothing if he isn't one resilient man.

This one I will treasure Joan.

Cougar Tales said...

I love these pictures. I have a soft spot for dads. :-) Who doesn't? He sounds like such an amazing father. Sort of like my own. I hope he is built like yours.

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