My father-in-law, who was the youngest of five sons, married the Lady in the Red Dress.
Legend has it he attended a dance when he was a student at Boston College Law School and glimpsed a beautiful brunette in a red dress as she swirled behind a column. When a nursing student who spoke with the French-Canadian cadence of long vowels emerged, he asked her to dance–and only then realized it was a different young lady.
They went on to marry and have five children of their own: first my husband, followed in roughly Irish twin increments by four sisters. I am told my husband displayed only the lightest dusting of disappointment by the time the youngest arrived and no brother was to be found. But he was by temperament well-suited to be the one retreating to a quiet room of his own amidst the mysterious cacophony of sisters.
Somehow my father-in-law was in complete equipoise within this very full household of little girls, so foreign in many ways to his own boyhood in the same Massachusetts county just outside Boston. Both stoic and expressive, practical and extravagant, contained and available, bound to his faith but understanding of those who did not practice it, financially canny and prone to wildly splurge (always on others), hardworking and relaxed.
I met their son when I was sixteen. At what now seems an achingly young twenty, I married into this second family: I grew up more with them than I had in my parents’ household.
When, a shade over 25 years later, my husband received a diagnosis that left me unable to speak, my undoubtedly devastated father-in-law arrived at our shell-shocked household to brave Route 128 and drive us to certain surgical confirmation of what we faced. He read my soul and said six words.
“You’ll always be my daughter, too.”
Two-and-a-half years after his only son died–a period that, like nearly each 2020 day, seems both intensely compressed and unending–he suffered a catastrophic stroke. My husband Jim, the compassionate and skilled doctor, was not there to help navigate his care and sooth his and the rest of our souls. It has not infrequently astonished me that my father-in-law was able to endure the extreme hardships which have since burdened him, for almost exactly seven years.
I’ve grown to wonder whether he held onto these years with us in order not to subject our children to another profound loss so soon.
I cannot imagine that he sang to his children when they were young, but I remember when my first daughter was on his knee, and he sang to her one of his customized jigs as she stared at him intently with bottomless brown eyes (“Little Emma, one shoe on and one shoe off”) before dinner. Only the first five grandchildren then graced his world, and he looked up at me and Jim and mused, perfectly content, “I’d just like to see how it all turns out for them.”
And then he was here when their father was not, for milestones when they would feel that aching absence, as they chose and graduated from schools and entered into important relationships and began to find their ways as young adults.
I realized only in speaking to my children after he passed away that, like his son, my father-in-law taught me many things I could not fully understand until looking back at his life.
Among these, he taught me the breadth and meaning of a calling.
It was so easy to see a calling in a career path, like that of my father, who was born to be a theoretical physicist. There was simply nothing else he could have been: he was called to a life of the mind that was profoundly internal, making practical things like remembering meals and rearing small children–particularly yours truly, having grown up with no sisters–far more mysterious than the mathematics of the universe. My father dwelled alone where his attention was: provisionally in his office at school or at home, as slightly more traditional family life transpired two floors away, but really in the limitless invisible of the cosmos, even as his physical world shrank down to a single bed in an overly-shaded room as Parkinson’s ravaged his body.
Since their early childhoods I’ve seen the seeds of my sons’ and daughters’ devotion to assorted STEM fields. I thought a calling was similarly evident in my own attempts to do justice within work I have never viewed as only a job.
My father-in-law ensured every one of his children could receive the education they needed to do the work that spoke to them; a lion’s share has dedicated their professional lives to teaching. They all are parents in enduring marriages conducted by a rotation of Franciscan priest uncles from far Northern Maine. Papa Dick supported his family by enduring a daily commute on the Southeast Expressway for decades, working with great accomplishment and contentment in an accounting firm, moving to D.C. for six years, and retiring back to New England when our second son was born. He and Grandma Jackie had downsized; they up-sized when they moved back. With more than a baker’s dozen of grandchildren yet to arrive, they found a place that would have space for all of them.
Three daughters and brothers-in-law also settled within easy driving distance and began raising their families. We would go to Papa Dick’s house every Sunday for family dinners after multitudes of cousins exhausted themselves playing games on the lawn, eventually settling in groups all over the house. Some, thumbs locked in cupid mouths between bright cheeks, napped in cribs under Grandma Jackie’s quilts; toddlers cradled newborns on the big yellow couch as parents hovered within lurching distance; some clustered around early-generation computers in Papa Dick’s new office, its walls brimming with family pictures. And above them always hung the hang-hammered silver letter “G” his own little boy had forged for him in elementary school. Many moves later, it was still on the wall of his room when he peacefully passed away earlier this week.
Once we parents were dramatically outnumbered, having had to move to zone defense against so many little people, there were occasional incidents–like the enduring mystery of the pencil-stabbing of Papa Dick’s well-worn leather footstool. (There is a lead suspect.) He would put on a stern show, but I think even the toddlers could sense the shimmer of laughter. Nothing in life delighted him like these grandchildren, and there was no greater gift he could have given them than the bonds of friendship and love they forged on those Sundays.
It isn’t, I realize, that his work was or wasn’t his calling. And perhaps a calling isn’t what we do so much as who we are.
His calling was his family.
It broke his heart to lose his son, but he never lost faith and never broke. While my husband was alive, Papa Dick’s voice never even wavered in my presence; it caught only once, as he read Psalm 23 at his son’s service and the rest of us dissolved.
And only once, on a parental radar frequency that instantly lifted my body from the couch where I sat stroking my younger daughter’s hair, did I hear what he tried so hard to contain while being strong for the rest of us. My children and I were in our living room, next to the room in which my husband’s body still lay, when two of my brothers-in-law solemnly accompanied my father-in-law to see him.
If Dvorak’s Stabat Mater were distilled to a single sustained note of abject grief, that was the sound.
But then the note evaporated. My brother-in-law told me much later that they had gone from there out onto the porch and my father-in-law was himself again, talking in his measured baritone, which was also his Jim’s, and assured that his son was in no pain and with God.
Though my father-in-law lived a generation longer than his son, they both had in common the completeness that comes with the absence of regret. No different calling would have suited either. Both their lives, long-lived and not, are causes for continuing celebration.
Neither would have done anything differently, in making any choice that mattered.
Especially inviting the Lady in the Red Dress to dance.