As 2011 opens a new window for me - I will live alone for the first time in my 53 years of being surrounded by parents, siblings, roommates, my kids, I'll wake up for the first time to an empty house. I'll admit, it's a strange transition.
Today, when I woke up after proclaiming to friends at a holiday party last night how I am embracing and celebrating my "freedom," I realized I'm a bad liar. I'm going kicking and screaming into the shedding of my Martha Stewart role of cooking and serving up favorite meals of chicken and rice, Mac and Cheese, and being on call for the "mom, can you bring me/buy me/send me" cries from my offspring.
So, I did what I sometimes do when I am feeling in need of a pick me up, and fled to Barnes & Noble where surrounding myself in a sea of books and magazines miraculously recharges my battery.
Suddenly, I felt embraced, comforted and calmed. And that is when it hit me. Today, New Years Eve, is or would have been, my father's birthday. I had fled to the world that he introduced me to, the world he loved: books. And, I knew I was not alone, I knew he was somehow there and that all would be well.
My father Paul's story is a story about stories, one that doesn't necessarily leap off the pages of a sensational novel, but a truer, authentic story of a guy who lived with a book in one hand, always, and his eyes on what was most important, his family.
My dad always told me, "If you have a book, you will never be alone," and he opened that world of literature and great authors to me. During his dying days, when he was determined to finish his latest novel, he asked me one favor: "Mary, would you read to me." For the next week, when he was moved from ICU to a hospice bed at home, I stood at his bedside. He held the book, and I bent over his bed and read from the pages of The Bourne Sanction, and swabbed his mouth with root beer, his other favorite vice.
My father, Paul went home to as he calls "God's Heaven," on Oct. 3, 2008, at 3:30 p.m. in his home, held in the love of his children, my mom and his grandchildren - his book in his hands.
He would have loved to know the sun was shining, friends from the retirement community stopped by and his favorite song "On the Street Where You Live" and all the others (including the Notre Dame Fight Song) played throughout the course of the day. I wrote his obit for The Chicago Tribune. Like my father, I read books always and I write books now to make a living. The gift he gave me has become the avocation and vocation that has become a lifeline, keeping me financially afloat while raising three teens on my own.
My dad told me to find the Christmas in everyday. The image I will carry in my heart of my dad forever is him always carrying two bags-one in each hand-with food or clothing for "the poor." And of course, a book tucked under his other arm when he would come to babysit for my kids, so I could go live one of his dreams and write for a newspaper.
Through books, my dad lived his dreams and taught me that books, the inspiring stories of others, always give us hope. He always wanted to be a singer, and as kids we always rolled our eyes thinking "yeah right."
But, in his late 70's, while volunteering to count money at Old St. Patrick's Church in Chicago, my dad's voice was discovered by the choir director who happened to be sitting next to him at the Christmas luncheon for volunteers. He was invited to take the stage with the choir and the Metropolis Symphony Orchestra for the annual for Siamsa na n Gael and make his singing debut at Symphony Center in Chicago.
Shortly after his passing, while helping my mother pack up some of my father's things, we made several discoveries. He had 22 golf shirts, she pointed out. And, despite her urgings that it had become tattered, his Notre Dame hoodie was hidden (along with the cane he refused to use) in the back of his closet
But "it" was resting on the top of the sock drawer. That's where I spotted the only thing I wanted-his little blue notebook. It contains in his writing a list of hundreds and hundreds of books-by author, listed in alphabetical order-that he had read in the last few years. And, in the back of the notebook, there is a list of books he wanted to read-he had dozens of them listed. They were my dad's next adventures.
These days, I carry his little blue notebook, along with his greatest dreams-that his children and his grandchildren would find a little bit of Christmas blessing in each day. We do, always. A large part of my work now is writing for non-profits, "the poor," as he'd call them, on Chicago's West Side, in a neighborhood he once lived.
Today, as I begin a new chapter in my life, I realize that we are never fully alone, that our relatives, our ancestors, continue to wrap us in their embrace, sometimes in surprising and unexpected ways. But they are always there.
Happy Birthday Dad! I'm celebrating with a shopping bag filled with new magazines and a great book, and renewed hope for all that lies ahead. Hey, I finally will have time to read!