Susanna O'Brien, Parent Ambassador at Anderson Center for Autism, shares a photo of her Dad
I got up early to drive from the Hudson Valley to Connecticut on a Tuesday. I left at seven to avoid the rush hour traffic around Danbury and Waterbury. I called my brother Eric on the way; he was no doubt on the road as well, headed up to Saugerties to work in his role as a guidance counselor. We both needed a little guidance that morning.
I was on my way to meet my sister Maggie in Avon, at my dad’s townhouse. Sheila and Maggie had spent that Monday, along with my brother Matthew, sorting through Dad’s closets.
It had begun. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel able sorting through over eighty years of memories, through a man’s personal items, a man who saved a lot of things throughout his life.
As I emptied his dresser drawers, my first assignment, out came tee shirt after tee shirt from places around the globe; he was an amazing athlete. I came upon a Team USA triathlon tee shirt from 1996, the Munich games. I put that one aside. Then there were the socks, 4 pairs of from Ironman competitions - he was an official by then - my son Daniel would love to wear those. Who doesn’t need socks? There were at least sixty tee shirts from the numerous running races, triathlons, and biathlons he completed over the last 30 years. There was a prior cleanout 10 years ago of sports clothing and awards, all the grandchildren got their package of race shirts, race belts, hats, sweatshirts, and of course, medals.
My dad had a true runner’s body, and the only one who could fit in those shirts and other training gear is Matty, our 20-year-old. When Dad would come to visit we would take the boys and head over to the Walkway Bridge, chatting it up as we watched Matty run. Dad would comment on his form, “so natural” he said, “effortless”….. Matty would always turn around at some point to make sure we were still there, big smiles and giggles. Matty could have been that competitive runner. Matty is our beautiful child with Autism. Little children, small issues; older children, larger issues. It doesn’t matter if your children are neurotypical or have Autism - life as a family can get more complicated as they age. For our family to give Matty what he needed, at 16 we placed him in residential care at Anderson Center for Autism in Staatsburg NY. Matty still enjoys a good run around campus, but he has settled down and matured, now exercising his ability to be still. For the sake of his own body, this a a good thing. We are so grateful that Anderson has worked with Matty and expanded his leisure time as well as independence.
I pack up all the remaining clothing for Goodwill and haul it all downstairs. I now have a laundry basket to take home full of Dad’s shirts, socks and some light jackets, one of which is embroidered with: Anderson Center for Autism, Lifelong Learning. Sheila comes upstairs and asks me if I would like his guitar. I am honored. “Thank you” doesn’t really say much, as the memories of my dad singing to us as children flood my mind. Folk songs, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie….. I played guitar for about 10 years when I was young. I am retired now - almost a year - and playing guitar was on my list. Thanks Dad.
My sister stays busy in his office downstairs, shredding documents and placing artifacts in boxes for his life celebration at the Bushnell in Hartford on May 19. I join her and take on two drawers of paper. Another hour goes by. Shred, save, or throw out - every piece of paper I pick up requires a decision. We decide it’s time for lunch. Sheila has an appointment downtown, so we ready ourselves.
We decide to go to New England Pasta Company in Avon; Kim and Scott Morrison are the owners. Dad and Sheila frequented their place - the food is great but there is another reason to give them a shout-out. The Morrison’s have a daughter with Trisomy 21 (Down’s syndrome), and they employ her and all special needs individuals as waiters and waitresses. There is adult support, and the place has exploded with diners. We get there and the press is there doing a piece on their efforts to provide stable employment to special needs individuals. It reminds me that Anderson has a startup Cafe in the works through one of their day habs. We are at a tipping point with community participation with special needs individuals. The future is bright, and the possibilities are endless. I introduce myself to Kim Morrison; she tells me how sorry she is about my dad and hopes to join our family at the Bushnell.
We are back at the house, Maggie still working in the office, and I have completed my two huge drawers. Sheila asks if I can go downstairs and look through more papers, so I organize with the shred, keep, and throw-away pile. Again, each piece of paper is a decision. After my training with my sister in the upstairs office, I feel ready. All is going well and I come upon his poetry, short stories, one-act plays, articles he wrote, articles written about him. I am overwhelmed. I decide to tackle the poetry. I had read some of Dad’s work over the years, but now I am unpacking a treasure, with each yellowed piece I carefully unfold, having been typed on his typewriter, a fascination we five children had as we watched his fingers move with lightning speed as he wrote and chatted with us at the same time. I find some handwritten poetry, as early as eight years old. These pieces all have unbelievable depth - some, just the simplicity of 20 words that inspire. I realize this is no simple task, so I put the poetry aside and sort the rest of the paper. Another two hours goes by and Sheila announces she has poured three glasses of Chardonnay. Sheila and Dad always had their cocktail hour, and this injects of little bit of normalcy into this day. I bring up the poetry, and we sip our wine and start to reading through them together. I find writing pieces from Guam, during the Korean Conflict, describing the barracks on a night off. We find poetry about a demonstration against the Vietnam War when my dad was a college professor at Iona. We all find extraordinary pieces, and begin to have a read-aloud. How much time has gone by? We uncover poetry about all five of us, his children…..this read-along has turned into a eulogy of sorts. Thank God Sheila is getting hungry and announces we need to eat, so we pack it up, clean up and head out to dinner. We can’t stop talking about his writing. He was a published author but the thousands of words we read that day were the side of a man that I had not experienced.
We were exhausted that night, but decided to watch Mama Mia II for a good laugh, it was perfect. The next morning we made a final decision on the items for a memory table. I left for the two-hour trip home, called my brother Eric to let him know that I got Dad’s menorah for him, and a bucketload of other memories. And of course - some socks.
On this Father’s Day I honor my father - a brilliant academic with multiple degrees including his Doctorate and two Masters. He was a college professor and psychotherapist, a writer and published author and clearly an astounding poet. He was a marathon runner, triathlete, and Ironman official. He was a world traveller and a lover of the arts. For us he was Dad, a grandfather, a great grandfather, a friend, a life partner and a mentor. Happy Father’s Day Dad, and thank you for encouraging me to write. I have a lot to say.