What Jack Knew
Saturday, April 4, 2009
April 5th, 2002 began as a gorgeous spring day. I will always remember the sky of that day.
A sky so blissfuly blue the color of jewels, it made the day feel like it was bursting in
endless promise.

The phone call came while I was at the mall. My girls were on Spring Break and I was
enjoying a leisurely day in their little girl company. I didn’t notice my phone was on silent mode
until I glanced at it and saw I’d missed 18 calls.

It should have been my first clue.

I noticed my hubby’s number amongst the calls, so I called him while in a dressing room. It
was to be my last few seconds of innocent oblivion.

His words froze my heart. He thought he was talking to my sister. He answered the phone in
a strange, twisted sort of calm saying, “Has he regained consciousness?”

When he realized it was me, he had the heinous duty of telling me that my father was on his
way to the hospital in an ambulance. That my 66-year-old vibrant father, who prescribed to
a healthy, rigid diet-who was a runner; who was in excellent shape; who had never smoked
a day in his life; who spent every moment of his life on this earth treasuring the time he had
with his family, had been found on the roof of my parents’ home, unconscious, by my mother,
three days short of their 45th wedding anniversary. He was up there, doing what he did best,
what he had done all the years of his life, patching a hole in the roof, taking care of his family.

He never woke up.

I will not go back to the rest of the details of that day. I will tell you though, that I learned a
few things on that day. I learned when you receive news of that sort of devastation, your
knees really do buckle, refusing to support your weight. Your body collapses as if it too,
must surrender to forces mightier than your own. I learned the absolute depth of sorrow, a
grief so acrid and decimating, I didn’t know if I would ever be able to find my way back.
And, I learned how fierce and abiding my love was for my Dad, my darling wonderful Dad.

But, the one thing I did not learn, that I still find unfathomable, is how the world has gone on
with heartbreak of this kind of unendurable loss, without people dissolving into bits of nothing, swallowed whole by their grief. To this day, I have never known such untenable loss.

Enough now of the sadness.

My dad would have never have had that. He lived life, each day as if it was a birthday present
waiting for him to unwrap. He found infinite joy in the everyday of things, most importantly in
his wife and family. He was a great listener, a wonderful conversationalist, a magnificent father
and grandfather, a true friend.

He thought of himself as an ordinary man. He was humble in that way.But, what he didn’t
seem to realize was how extraordinary he was to everyone who knew him.

He lived an exemplary life, raising a brood of seven, wild Irish-Catholic kids, a tough task in
itself. He loved us with a passion. And as we grew older, we realized how lucky we were to
have a father of his caliber. And we passed that love on to the next generation. His
grandchildren adored him.

The pictures here speak volumes of who he was. In fact, they are so much him that on the
day he left us, I had to turn them face down, unable to face the life that was captured in those
photos, unable to cope with the grief. It took me over a year to be able to look at them again
with a smile.

In the first, he is at my Victoria’s pre-school. The preschoolers each got a special day,
devoted to them. On their day, they were allowed to bring in their favorite thing in the “whole,
wide world.” The children brought in stuffed animals, robots, dolls, their dog, the things that
make up a 4-year-old’s adoration.

My girl brought her grandfather.

I remember reading her the note of instructions when it came home from school. When I got
to the part about the show and tell favorite item in the whole, wide world, without a moment
of hesitation my 4 year old piped up, “I want my Grandpa.”

It's how we all felt.

He was a singer of songs. From the time I can remember, he sang to us all the songs in his
extensive collection. In his clear, beautiful voice he would croon for us, “Rockin, Rollin,
Ridin,” “Skinny Marink a Dink a Dink”, “A Bushel and A Peck,” and of course, the classic,
“She’s got Freckles on her Butt.” My childhood was filled with the sound of my father’s
voice. He did the same for my girls.

My Tori girl wanted her favorite thing in the whole, wide world to come in and sing for the class.

He is singing in this picture, Tori’s favorite Grandpa song, “A you’re Adorable,” as she and
my curly girl, Julia, look on in rock star awe.

Julia and her grandpa had a special relationship. He retired temporarily. But, he was a man
who needed to be constantly active and he found retirement just didn’t sit well with him.
His temporary retirement happened conveniently right around the time Julia was born. Since,
Dad was home, he was forced into the title of babysitter. Their bond was immediate and
irrefutable. It became a well-known joke that Julia was Grandpa’s favorite.

This picture is of them, the inseparable twosome they became. He, as usual, in rapt attention,
she spilling out the details of her curly girl life. It is one of the greatest sorrows I carry with
me, that the two of them only had three years together. But, they were three years of grand
moments, filled with the pleasure of each other’s company. Each other’s biggest fans.

I want to share two little memories of my dad to try and erase the sadness that will forever
haunt this day for me.

The first one: My Hubby and I were going out. We only had Olivia then and being
overprotective first-time parents, we hadn’t left her with anyone but her grandparents.
We told them not to wait up. We would let ourselves in, grab our Olivia baby and slip out
so as not to disturb their sleep. We came with baby monitors, the Pack and Play, and all the
other hundreds of essentials required for babysitting a first-born.

We got back late and tiptoed into the spare bedroom where we had set up the Pack n Play.
There was our baby, slumbering away and right next to her on a little twin bed, lay my
father, softly snoring away.

The next day he told us, he didn’t trust that new fangled baby monitor and he’d been worried
he wouldn’t be able to hear her if she cried. So he kept watch alongside her playpen, the
guardian of the night. And what a guardian he was! We gathered up Olivia and she began to
wail, none too happy about being roused from a sound sleep. My Hubby packed up the playpen,
not a quiet feat in itself, accidentally dropping it with a crash, on the way out of the room,
causing the baby to wail even harder.

The watchmen of his precious grandchild kept on snoring throughout the whole ordeal.

Then there was the time, my Hubby and I had been out to dinner with friends. It was late,
well past the witching hour. Well, well past the time my parents would still be awake. My
Hubby said, “Hey, let’s go wake your parents up. Come on, you know your dad will love it.”

My Hubby, another brokenhearted casualty of my dad’s passing.

They were the best of buds, a tribute to both of these stellar men of mine. One who was
impulsive, always ready for the next great adventure. The other, steady and calm, a steadfast
anchor in my life.

An unlikely pair.

But, oh how they adored each other! Comprades, when it came to knocking back good red
wine, completing home improvement projects together, both respectful of each other’s
craftsman talents, and laughing the day away together.

Against my protests, we stopped and knocked on my parents’ door, well past the middle of
the night. My Dad opened up the door, still bleary from sleep, with a concerned look on
his face.

Hubby said, “Hey, we thought we’d stop by and see what’s up.”

My dad’s concern melted into his easy laughter, his grin so infectious. It didn’t matter the hour.
It didn’t matter that they’d been sleeping. In fact, it made the story better. We were there. It was
all. He opened the door with a wide swath of welcome and ushered us in.

Wine was poured, his beloved music was turned on and we laughed and talked until the sun
was almost upon us. He had on his massive Best of the Eagles CD collection and with every
new song, we’d race to see who could guess the lead singer. Every song, no matter what, he’d
blurt out, “Glenn Frey.” And we laughed so hard, for the joy of it, for the fact that we were
together in the middle of the night playing the Eagles and drinking wine, impulsive and fun,
making a memory.

I believe that certain people know deep inside they are destined to live too few years. You
can see it in the way they embrace life. And after they go, people marvel, “Now, that was a
well-lived life.”

I think my Dad knew. And in his own way, he tried to prepare us. He was always saying to
me, “When I’m gone . . . ”

But, I didn’t want to hear it. No one did.

He tried to show us that he wasn’t destined here for long by the giving of his heart, by the way
he listened, really listened with his whole being, by the way he pushed aside his duties so he
could play with his treasured grandchildren, by the smile and kiss he always had, even if you’d
only seen him five minutes before. He treasured all the riches of his time on earth and he
showed us the way to a contented and meaningful life.

I wrote and delivered my father’s eulogy. At the end of it, I read a guide to Jack Cleveland’s
lessons of life. I’d like to share them today, to remember, a great man walked this earth. I was
blessed enough to be his daughter.

JACK’S LESSONS (Use them well.)

Eat chocolate every day. Live with no regrets. Pray while on your knees. Don’t play with
fireworks. Even on dark days, find the bright spot and laugh. Fix the broken things. Believe in
noble causes. Wear a hat. Raise the flag, Take pictures. Don’t wait for some day, now is all
we know. Always send Valentines. (Until the year he died, my father sent me a valentine.)
Buckle up your seat belt. Write love letters. Have a dog. Vote. Say the phrase, “Don’t you just
love it?” and really mean it. Play cards honorably. Make to-do lists. Carry a handkerchief. Sing
and dance for all your life. Have a cold beer or a glass of wine whenever you feel like it. Say
I love you again and again and again. Don’t get too hung up on schedules, go with the flow.
Watch the children’s necks when they’re doing headstands. Keep the romance alive in your
marriage. Hold your family close.

And lastly tonight, do one of his favorite things. Gather your loved ones, your kids, your parents,
your spouse, whomever matters to you, and take them outside to gaze at the infinite stars spread
out above you. Forget about the TV or the dishes or your busy life and just fill yourself up with t
he wondrous perfection of the night sky, remembering that this life is full of sweetness. It’s all
around you. You just have to take the time to treasure it. And if you remember, say hello to my
dad and his giant heart. He’ll be watching from the heavens with a smile.

I love you Dad, a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.

Today’s Definite Download: The magnificent Louis Armstrong’s, “What a Wonderful World.”
My dad’s anthem for life. Thank you Dad for giving me the music.


Carol said...

Amazing...I just finished telling Beth that this is the first time in seven years that I didn't break down or even shed a tear on this date. She stated, "you didn't read Joanns blog". As I sat here reading your description of that amazingly beautiful day the ache in my heart came rushing back like it was yesterday. I sit here sobbing so hard that it is hard to compose myself. Thank you for this beautiful tribute for this beautiful man. Thank you, Thank you!

Kelly Cochrane said...

Joann - As always, you write so beautifully. I know your dad is proud of you and touched by this tribute. I am so happy to have had the chance to know your dad. He was so much fun to talk to and always welcomed me; this despite our political differences, which turned into several pranks we played on each other over the years. I really wished he was here after this past election so the pranks could continue...I owed him one, or three.

My thoughts are with you all. With love, Kelly

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