My father, James Feeney, is a first-generation Irish Catholic. His mother and father met in Boston, both having fled the potato famine. My grandfather was a roofer and an alcoholic—not the best combination, but it worked for him.
Things weren’t easy for them growing up. My father shined shoes in downtown Boston and sometimes other boys beat him up and took his money. Dad isn’t sure if he even graduated from high school.
My parents met when working at the same hospital; she was a medical secretary and he worked in the warehouse. With black hair, blue eyes, and a great smile, my dad got a lot of female attention and even now at seventy-six, he brags about it sometimes. What he does not like to discuss is how his mother kept my parents from getting married for years because my mother is Jewish. They finally snuck away to get married.
After they wed, things were still hard. They didn’t have much money. We were forced to move several times. My parents threw things at each other when they fought and sometimes my father would take off.
Growing up, I butted heads with my father, too. He didn’t understand my purple hair and my taste for hip-hop music. Once he asked me when I was going to bring a white friend home.
When I was a teenager, my father started to suffer family losses. His father, a brother, and mother all died. He became the family caretaker. He was at the hospital bed of two other siblings who died of cancer. Through all this my father began to change. He usually didn’t show his feelings (other than anger), and we certainly didn’t talk about them. But when his brother died, I remember seeing Dad cry.
Through his suffering, I started to be able to see the best in him. The man I once thought of as ordinary slowly became my hero. I realized he gives all that he has to the best of his ability. He has grown more tolerant and patient. Now, he even shares his emotions with us quite often. When we watch a sad movie, he joins the three women of the family for a good cry.
Recently, my father learned he has Parkinson’s disease. After that diagnosis so many things make sense: the way my father walks, the way he never seems to smile anymore. The other day he told me he wished he was younger and had his stronger body back.
My response was, “Dad when you were younger you could be a real jerk. I really like the person you are now.” Harsh? Maybe it is, but it’s the truth. Growing up, I loved my father but I didn’t often like him. Now I can do both.
Dad is marking his fiftieth year working at the warehouse, and I want him to enjoy that accomplishment. I don’t want him to suffer. I want life to respect my father the way he deserves. The way I do.
I want to tell you about what I have come to believe: I believe that people can change and that we should celebrate the best that they have to give us and forgive the rest.
Julie Feeney is a social worker and teacher in Boston, Massachusetts. Her love and curiosity for life came from her mother, Francine, her father, James, and her sister, Margo, who always support her and encourage her to go beyond what is comfortable and safe.
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