A Year Without Dad

Today marks the one year anniversary of the day my Dad died. It’s also the day that fundamental family architecture we come to rely on to provide firm footing as we bounce around wildly into the early stages of the adult world finally crumbled, or, at least, lost a load-bearing pillar.

When I got home last summer to be there for the last few days, he was mostly already adrift in a sea of semi-consciousness, hounded by the reality of the leukemia only when the hospice nurse arrived to change the sheets or rub lotion onto his flaky skin. “These people are vultures, Tim,” he’d say, floating to the surface of coherence for the brief moments as he was forced over onto his side while the nurse ripped a sheet from under him in what he portrayed as an extraordinarily painful and unnecessary manner.

At night, after mom and Lauren had gone to bed, I’d sit up for a few more hours reading next to his bed, its ugly metal railings and the whirr of its hospital-height adjuster crammed awkwardly between bookshelf and computer desk into the small room that was once the dining room, before becoming my father’s personal study or lounge or something after his retirement. His head rolled sleeplessly on the boiled white pillows, not far from the window, the same spot where on Thanksgiving nights he’d sit at the head of our nut-brown dining room table, the extensions put in for this rare occasion of company and celebration at 920 Cable Ave.

At night, my Mom left a small TV in the corner turned on so Dad has some company, always tuned to Turner Classic Movies and the volume of the cowboy pistols and noir taxi-cab engines kept just above a whisper. In healthier times, Dad loved those movies — the men who always dressed sharp in fedoras and tall coats; the women who always primmed to the expectation of some great social outing, high heel shoes of impeccable polish walking across gray city streets. And everyone had a cigarette in their hand, he’d note, when smoking still was a mark of sophistication and not the poison my mother made it out to be by forcing him and his Parliaments onto the front porch many years ago.

He was mostly a ghost already, brittle skin stretched across a tired and defeated body, his gray hair sharp and short, the faint echo of a goatee left to roam on his chin, the army-green Playboy bunny tattoo looking on with wrinkled ears and sad eyes.

The last thing Dad said to me, actually, the only real coherent thing he said during this week, was a few days after I got home, when he shifted in the bed to look at me and momentarily broke free of the dark fog of cancerous decay, a candle of his personality still burning somewhere deep. He said “hi” to me in his fatherly casual tone and looked glad, maybe even surprised, that I was there. Then he thanked me for the electric blanket I had sent to the house after my last visit home after his return from the hospital, when he drifted slowly from room to room searching for some unknown solace, always in want of a warmer blanket or thicker robe. “That was really thoughtful,” he said. Of course, Dad, I replied. That night I sat by the bed, some Spencer Tracy picture mumbling in the corner, me deep into the pages of Andy’s copy of “Into the Wild,” hoping my company was noticed as he stirred, occasionally deploying a tiny bit of muscle strength to shift a pillow or wipe his dry lips.

As Thursday approached, his eyes became milky white slits discerning only shades of light and his speech shriveled to a low, soft groan. When the girls got back to the house, I stepped out for some air for a little while, and got the call from Mom that the moment we’d been awaiting with compassionate anxiety had finally come, and he had died.

I was at the boardwalk at the time, awash in its circus of neon pizza and the tinny metal smack of the pinball machine, the barker’s pitch, the screams from 80 feet above as the freefall slammed back to earth, forcing a great rush of air up into the bennies’ hair and through the planks of my memory. There inside the pane of a carefully preserved moment still brighter than its fading photographic version, Dad and I threw ourselves down the hard plastic bumps of the Fun Slide for the hundredth time, the burlap sacs wrapped around us suddenly ruffled by a new blast of air.

As the family journalist, I wrote the obit for the Asbury Park Press. The composition of it received a startling amount of praise and applause from family members and friends, which I shrugged off as inconsequential, having encapsulated the lives of reams of faceless strangers in short inches over my career. I was pleased by the catharsis found in exercising this Journalism 100 assignment to mete out emotions over our own loss.

Here is the what I wrote for the funeral, labeled the extended version of the obit. All I can think of to do today is to post this here.

I miss you Dad. More than I ever thought was possible.

Paul Donnelly, 59, of Beachwood, died Aug. 30 in his home after a yearlong battle with leukemia.

He was born in New York and moved shortly after to New Jersey. But he was never far removed from the city, returning often later in life to go to Yankees games, see shows or get dinner. He once brought his children sightseeing and recorded all the day’s expenses in a tiny notebook. He didn’t understand all the hoopla surrounding those elaborate Broadway productions but did, years ago, take his son to a live version of the Muppet Babies and bought him a T-shirt he wore to bed every night until the seams threatened to give out.

He graduated from Keyport High School in 1967 and enlisted in the Army that summer.

He never liked talking about his time in the war, except for a few entertaining stories. His discharge papers say he was awarded the Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal, among other honors. He said he also received a Purple Heart, though the medal itself was left at some ex-girlfriend’s house and never seen again.

His stories from the Army were weightless, like the time his unit attached a bush where they thought an enemy was hiding, only to find their knives had sunk into a fat Vietnamese pig. Once a jeep ran over his foot — not during combat. Another time he broke his arm, forcing him to learn to light matches for his cigarettes with one hand. This trick he later passed on to his son, who would use it to impress girls in bars and nearly light his dorm room on fire freshman year.

He later told his 23-year-old son his friends and family thought he was crazy for reenlisting so many times during the war.

“You don’t understand, Tim,“ he said. “The Army was different then. The way I looked at it was, if I was enlisted, that’s one less person they had to get to go over there.”

His children knew he was injured in the right ear during the war, which forced them to always walk on his left side at the mall so he could hear them talk. He finally broke down and got a hearing aid a few years ago.

In the end, he never wore the hearing aid anyway and his family again had to speak loud and slow beside his bed so he could hear.

With an eye for men’s fashion, he spent nearly three decades in the men’s clothing business, working for various companies until retiring from the Men’s Wearhouse three years ago. While working in stores under the bright lights of Atlantic City casinos, he crossed paths with the rich and famous who passed through the casinos, including Joe DiMaggio, who he said was a jerk in real life. Before work in the mornings, he would sometimes dip peanut butter covered rye toast into his morning coffee while working on the crossword puzzle.

He married in 1978. Twenty-eight years later, he would be told by doctors he had myleofibrosis, a disease no one could easily pronounce and did not really understand at first. Then it was upgraded to leukemia, easier to pronounce and more well known.

He had two children, Tim and Lauren. He was a coach on their little league teams, though neither was terribly gifted on the field. He helped his son lobby successfully for a puppy in eighth grade.

He rarely wore socks outside of work and sported a tattoo of the Playboy bunny on his left arm. He went through three rounds of chemotherapy. This summer, when the leukemia seized control of his body and continued its steady march from heart to head, he became thin and weak and his tattoo became a shriveled ink blot on his flaky skin.

He loved a good steak dinner and never really quite understood what it meant when his son became a vegetarian in college. Even at a fancy Italian restaurant, he would sometimes order spaghetti and meatballs to the frustration of his family, but always say “Well, I bet they do a damn good spaghetti and meatballs.”

He tried unsuccessfully to quit smoking several times, but he was too stubborn to ever really give it up. Earlier this year, he bought his first convertible, a sporty, fast little car with satellite radio and leather seats. He drove it a spare handful of times before going into the hospital again.

He was notoriously private and tight-lipped about personal issues, until the end, when his dependence on medicines and doctors and the comfort of others caused him to open up. He came from a generation of men that were proud and self-reliant and never wore hats indoors. In the end, the look on his hollow face betrayed the fact that he absolutely hated being a sick person that needed to be taken care of. He was appalled by the rudeness of the disease.

He was preceded in death by his sister Elizabeth of Atlantic Highlands, father Hugh, and mother, Elizabeth, who once gave a baby outfit to Tim that his mother and father found so atrocious, they dumped apple juice on the boy in the car and immediately changed him when entering Paul’s mother’s house. They blamed the accident on the child’s clumsy juice-handling skills.

He is survived by a brother, Patrick, whom hasn’t spoken to in years; wife Debbie, who took care of him in the end, handled his medicines, changed his sheets, yelled at doctors and lay with him in the creaky hospice bed when he said he was scared; his daughter, Lauren, and son Tim, who both made it up from South Carolina in time to say goodbye to their father.

During his life, he enjoyed telling dirty jokes with punch lines that often involved parts of the human anatomy, bodily functions or blondes.

By the end, he said very little, except to ask for a cigarette and say, “look at my wife. Isn’t she spectacular?”

He was 59.

16 responses to “A Year Without Dad

  1. Amy Bredeson

    Wow, Tim! I am so sorry for your loss. It sounds like you had a great dad and you have a lot of great memories to hold onto.

    Thanks for sharing your story. It was very powerful.

  2. Tim, thank you for sharing this. It is obvious that your Dad gave you a lot, including his sense of humour. My condolences on the anniversary of your loss.


  3. I’m so sorry that you’ve had to endure this. Your words are a lovely tribute and truly paint a picture of how much your dad loved you and Lauren.

  4. This, in a way, is why I decided to try to become a journalist. Never let these memories fade.

  5. Tim, I’m so sorry for your loss. But I think your dad sounds like a pretty cool dude who gave you a lot of unique memories.

  6. Powerful words.

    Glad to know you and, through the post, your father,


  7. Tim, I can say that I am proud that you can express your feelings regarding this family tragedy. As parents we hope that we provide a memorable childhood filled with good times and fun and it seems that we succeeded. Dad will always be ‘with’ us, just not here in the earthly way. No doubt a great man, husband and father and yes missed more than one could ever imagine.

  8. Thank you Tim for writing such a vibrant summary of those last days before Paul passed away. I could hear his voice in the expressive way you wrote about him. He was a wonderful man. His family was all he wanted and loved.

  9. powerfull to say the least ! I didnt know your dad,…but he sure sounds like a great job being your Dad !

  10. Kristin Little


    Thanks for writing this heartfelt piece. I bawled when I read it. I’m certain that your dad loved you just as much as you love him.
    Take care,


  11. Timmy,

    Thanks for sharing not only your talent but also your sincere feelings during a time of indescribable sorrow. Knowing your father was a privilege especially in his world of sarcasm and non-specific road signs.

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  13. I’m unsure exactly how I wound up reading this. Such are the maze like allures of the the internet.

    More importantly, I’m so sorry about the loss of your father. I don’t believe we ever discussed it in the months we’ve worked together; I noticed that the date is creeping up again.

    My Dad, Joel, died in 2000 of a Sepsis infection contracted during his chemotherapy. Although I’d watched him dying for over a year, it was still a shock when he went. After a slow and painful decay, the infection burned through his body like a wildfire. In 24 hours, he was gone.

    As I look back upon this family tragedy nearly a decade later, I still miss him daily. Yet, I have moved towards a place of celebrating that I was lucky to have him in my life at all.

    Your article is beautiful, particularly the way you eloquently express how much you cherished your relationship. I hope that this second year brings you comfort and a lessening of the pain of loss. Clearly, he loved you too.

    Thinking good thoughts for you and your family.


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  15. Hi Tim,
    I hope that someone will remember me as well as you remember your dad. You touched on all of the most important things. He would be proud. THANK YOU for sharing…. I feel like I knew him too.

  16. Tim, you don’t know me, I just stumbled on your blog. But after reading about your dad I feel like I know/knew you both, and I hope that at the end of the day I am as highly regarded by my husband as your mom was by hers. I want to thank you for giving me the chance to “know” your family. Rare pieces of writing such as yours have the remarkable ability to reconnect us in our common humanity.

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