Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ode to Jack

Dad as a Boy
I look like Dad – the physical resemblance is clear and remarkable. Of course I’ve know this for some time – there are many photos of us where the features are unmistakable and the dozens of comments at Dad’s funeral last week reinforced the fact. A few years back when Dad was at home after the first stroke and we had overnight nurses coming in – I would stay up to greet them. (I suppose verifying the time-slip might have also played a role.) I would get up from the comfy TV chair and greet them. “Oh Lordy. I thought he was-raised-up-and-a-walkin’ again. Lord Have Mercy!” exclaimed one of the South African nurses when I startled her with my very presence.

Dad - Alaska circa 2003
Laughter is one of the hallmarks of who Dad was and one of his legacies. Shortly after Dad's first stroke I was at the hospital. Doctor’s came and went, specialists. One of the doctor’s – a brain surgeon I think – was distinguishable mostly due to his appearance. He stood 5 foot 4 (being generous) and was like those old Weebles-Wobble-but-they-don’t-fall-down toys (a lot of mid-section girth). I was there with Mom one day and we were talking about what Dr. So-and-So had said. We’d look to Dad and he had a totally questioning look, unsure of which one of the myriad of doctors we were talking about. “Dr. Pear” I said simply. I nearly killed him that day with the convulsing laughter that occurred – the nurses had to race in and fix the breathing tube that nearly came dislodged.

Dad loved words. He wrote a book, “WOW” which stands for A Workbook of Words. He and I sat in his office – both us typing into matching Kaypro computers. Post-stroke the family would regularly spend time at our parents’ home in Massachusetts to try and provide Mom a small break as the Primary Caregiver. During one of these visits I was introduced to a new device and routine that had to be done. The InExsufflator. OK, fine. Several visits later I connected with one of the nurses who knew I was doing the day-to-day while I was there. “Don’t forget the CoughAssist” machine. Another new thing? No. Dad just preferred calling the CoughAssist machine the InExsufflator. Classic.

Dad as Howie, me as newspaper kid
Dad introduced me to the theatre. As a youngster I was shy and totally introverted. Mom and Dad thought that play-acting would bring me out of my shell. I was cast in a Community Theatre production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” Dad chauffeured me to and from rehearsals. The director immediately realized she had an adult male who had to be there – and convinced him to play Howie, the milkman who travelled with his horse Bessie (via pantomime). I played Joe and Si Crowell, the newspaper boys.

Over the years we did this production a half-dozen times at various locations. One of our favorite memories was one night when Act II started without Howie. There was some critical plot point that had to be conveyed by Howie, so they had to vamp. Howie eventually raced on stage, apologizing and explaining that Bessie had been on the crapper.

Mom and Dad @ Trippoli Fountain

He lived and loved life himself. He adored his children and grandchildren and told us so.  His marriage to Mom lasted nearly 53 years and they were together for 58. Their love-story is one I aspire to, one where the soul actually mates with another, where laughter rules the day and love is ever present. “Take care of your mother” was his wish, admonition and life's mission. We will Dad, we will. It’s who you’ve raised us to be.

Dad the teacher.
Beyond our immediate family, Dad’s influence is impressive. As a teacher he molded many for nearly 50 years, though he never stopped teaching, guiding and mentoring. He inspired and guided young men and women. We have received hundreds of correspondences saluting Dad’s impact on individual lives over his entire career. He’s had a play dedicated to him and been acknowledged by Alaska’s Writer Laureate. I’ve even heard from my babysitters who remember him. Luis is the home healthcare worker who became part of our family and one of Dad’s closest confidants during the last 5 years.  Luis became Dad’s continuing opportunity to mentor, guide and inspire. Luis simultaneously mentored, guided and inspired “Chief” to do things that most with that type of stroke could never do.  My gratitude and awe of this young man cannot be overstated and it’s somehow fitting that Luis Jr. was born a few weeks before Dad died. It’s reassuring and comforting to see and hear that so many have credited Dad with sparking their life-long passions, whether they be as parents, teachers, coaches, writers, doctors…he just wanted everybody to live and love life to their fullest potential. His and Mom’s favorite song reflects his total way of being:

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow

To run where the brave dare not go
To right the unrightable wrong
To love pure and chaste from afar

To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star
This is my quest

To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell

For a heavenly cause
And I know if I'll only be true
To this glorious quest

That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I'm laid to my rest
And the world will be better for this

That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star

“Enough already” I hear him saying. He’d be the first to point out his failings and his fair share of humanity. As a faculty brat I am acutely aware that not all of his students appreciated his methods.  More personally his struggle with booze was a long and painful one. Once on a row-boat outing I pulled in the oars and attempted an intervention. If there’s a book about what-not-to-do this should be in it. At least I didn’t have to swim back. Years later he chose sobriety, but it wasn’t an easy transition for him.

June 2010
The stroke was a defining transition. It changed his life and our lives. He wrote this (via dictation) in the weeks just before he died and the words capture him best: “I've come to see my stroke as a grace, a John-of-the-Cross invitation, to enter into, experience and re-experience my life in becoming a person in various communities. Without the stroke, I wonder if I would have, could have reached such richness. Regardless, I am filled with gratitude. Here, I think the Spanish word "gracias" is significantly richer than the English "thank you" because the stem is related to both grace and gratitude. Thus when I say "gracias," I am expressing thanks and gratitude to the loving power that gives me the grace of life and the invitation to grow as a person in a community, thus seamlessly weaving the finite and the infinite.

Muchas Gracias Dad, muchas gracias. Rest in peace. You’ve earned it.


  1. that is truly beautiful Craig.... I remember meeting your Mum & Dad and am grateful to the "grace" and for the "grace" that you mention. St Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood sends many prayers, much love and gracious, gentle gratitude for the many blessings the Coogan family bring into this world..... and the hope you show us for the next. Much love and gracias, Fr Ian Elliott Davies & the Parish of St Thomas the Apostle, Hollywood

  2. Knowing your father, through you, has touched me deeply and forever. What a beautiful homage to a man of strength, conviction, heart and curiosity. The proverbial apple does not fall from the tree. In French, we say "La Grace Matinee" which, loosely translated, evokes the experience of "a day spent in leisurely grace and peace" (once again a nod to 'grace'). May your father's spirit exhalt in this state of grace. May his memory live strong. May you, Craig Coogan, move from strength to strength and feel your father's presence as you live life. I do not feel he would want it any other way.

  3. We've been praying for Jack in the Daily Intercessions because his name is in the Chantry Book for this time of year.... we all send love and prayers, Fr Ian Elliott Davies