I got a phone call last night from my cousin Stephanie O'Reilly in Boston. She was kind enough to let me know that her father, my uncle Frank, had died about three hours earlier in a hospital in Tullamore, Co. Offaly, Ireland. He had been feeling poorly lately and was in hospital for some tests.
Frank was my mother's youngest brother, and there was a strong bond between them, despite the seperation of 3,000 miles and several decades. When my mother left Ireland to find work in New York, Frank was just a boy and over the years I got the feeling that he stood in her mind as a sort of metaphor for what she was leaving behind. For his part, I think he might have idealized his big sister Mary who left home when she was so young and was never seen again (well, not for forty years anyway).
Mary Pat and I were lucky enough to see Frank less than a month ago, during my trip to Ireland to present a paper at the National University of Ireland, Galway. I remember thinking that he had looked better -- more alert, wittier, sharper, more energetic -- but chalked it up to his age (whatever it was; there is some question). Stephanie's phone call last night came as a shock, of course, but probably not as a surprise.
Frank was a good, kind, and decent man. He was a gentle man as well as a gentleman. He was not a man to raise his voice. He was a loving father to my cousins Stephanie, Mark, Niamh, and Fergal, and a devoted husband to my Aunt Jo. I know this because they have told me that this was the case. What I know myself about Frank makes him very special to me.
When my Mom died in 1998, my Dad was left virtually alone. He was not in the best of health and would himself die three years later. Frank began calling my father on a weekly basis, and they began a telephone friendship which continued nearly to the end of my father's life in 2001. I was taking care of my father immediately after my Mom's death, and when it became clear that he was unable to care for himself, he moved in with my family. Frank's calls were very important to my Dad because, unlike his possessions, his car, his freedom, they were a part of his life that no one could take away from him. Frank's calls were important to me because -- especially after Dad was living with me -- I needed to see something make him happy, make him smile. And talking with Frank always did that for him.
Thank you, Uncle Frank. We all love you and we will miss you.