Tortured Irish Fathers

Clint Eastwood, my father and going the distance.

“Please kill me. I don’t want this anymore. Please kill me.”

Three years ago, just a few weeks after my wedding, my 74-year-old mother spoke those haunting words to my father while she struggled to recover from a risky surgical procedure to repair her colon. Doctors had only given her a 25% chance of surviving and after the surgery, her recovery was slow and depression loomed large. She spent her days in anxiety and tears while my father watched her lose her will to live. Still, he traveled every day to be by her side. He slept little and worried much.

My mother’s words rang in my ear this past weekend as I watched Clint Eastwood’s gripping tale, Million Dollar Baby (spoiler alert: Stop reading if you have not seen it yet. This story will give away the ending). Until that moment, I don’t think I really understood what my father had gone through.

In the film, Frankie Dunn, a down and out old-school boxing trainer (played by Eastwood), trains and slowly becomes a surrogate father to Maggie Fitzgerald, a 34-year-old waitress (played by Hillary Swank) who is determined to make her mark in the boxing ring. When an accident during a championship bout leaves Maggie paralyzed from the neck down, she asks Dunn the same question my mother asked my father.

Like Dunn, my dad (below, right) is proudly Irish. He
came to America when he was only 19. A young man with a quiet faith and little education, he eventually met my mother, settled down and raised two kids while working as a custodian in the public schools in Yonkers, NY. My father also loves boxing and, as a young man, he sparred at his local parish center with some fighters who were in training for the Golden Gloves. As I grew into adolescence, he passed on his love of the sport to me–and, in the process, helped keep me from getting my butt whooped on a regular basis by neighborhood bullies. We watched all the big fights together and grew close through this common interest.

In the film, as Fitzgerald asks to die, Dunn shudders and tries to grapple with the morality of her request while she sinks further into a determined death wish. He even reaches out to a young priest, who advises him against taking action. “It’ll kill you,” the priest counsels him. Ultimately, though Dunn grants her wish.

While my mother’s illness was far different from Fitzgerald’s paralysis, it didn’t take much for the tears of my father’s Irish melancholy to rise in my own eyes while watching Frankie Dunn come to terms with this woman–whom he has come to think of as his own blood–and her request to die.

My father certainly knows that pain. And while he depended

on his faith, it seems that faith alone was not enough for him. As he tried to dismiss my mother’s wish for mercy, he kept his family close by for support, he asked a lot of tough questions of the doctors and nurses and he valued the fact that my mother’s life was precariously resting in his hands. The sleepless nights and the haunting words he heard from her lips became all the more frightening each day as he watched depression consume her. As she sought his help to end her suffering, my father replied with the tough love of a street fighter and the tenderness of an old Irish softie. Asking himself the questions: Where is God calling me? Why am I the one who needs to make decisions? What decision does love make? How can I comfort my wife when she asks me to do something so unthinkable?

Good movies ask the hard questions. I don’t condemn Frankie Dunn for the decision he made; in fact, I think Million Dollar Baby deserved to receive the Oscar. My story, though, has a different ending.

Fortunately, my mother is alive today thanks to many people–including
great doctors and a wonderful counselor–and even some wonderful anti depressants. But, ultimately, I know that it was the tenacity of my Irish father that let his conscience guide his decisions in doing a heroic nothing when it would’ve been much easier to succumb to fear and pain during that torturous summer.

In a world of easy answers, we sometimes consider any life that’s less than perfect disposable. Each time I recall my dad’s Irish melancholy from that summer, I thank God for giving me a father with the hearty soul of an Irish boxer capable of going the full fifteen rounds.

And today his grateful wife, now fully recovered, blesses her husband of over 54 years, who was smart enough to know not to throw in the towel.