This essay was originally published on the Dappled Things blog.
My father-in-law, Francis McHugh, died on November 8, 2021, in the living room of his mobile home in a Sacramento trailer park. His second wife Joanne, who’d been a widow with her own trailer when they met a decade earlier, was asleep in the bedroom. So was their little dog, Sammy, who’d slept in bed with them for years.
His two adult children had gone home for the day, having spent two weeks at his side as he progressed through the last phases of lung cancer: first chatting with him and pouring him illicit vodka-and-Cokes, then bringing him water when he could no longer speak, then administering morphine provided by home hospice, and finally, waiting, when there was nothing left to do but wait.
He slipped away in the middle of the night, an Irish exit.
It was a good, even an enviable, death. Over the past twenty months, thousands of elderly Americans had died alone in hospitals, their families barred from spending time with them in person. Their children couldn’t say goodbye, their spouses couldn’t hold their hands; they spent their last days among strangers in a cold, clinical setting. As 2020 pandemic protocols hardened into the new normal, middle-aged adults tried not to think about the cruel endgame possibly awaiting their moms and dads.
In Francis’ case, whatever difficulties arose from remarrying in his seventies were worth it in the end, when his frail 83-year-old wife insisted to anyone who’d listen that he would die at home, per his wishes. Nurses and medical equipment began to show up at the trailer: a hospital bed for the living room so Joanne could get some sleep and Francis could watch old cowboy movies between naps; an oxygen tank when his breathing became labored; doses of Ativan and morphine for his son to administer as needed. Every few days, a hospice nurse would stop by to check his vitals and bathe him in bed, barely disrupting his peaceful, familiar surroundings.
It was somewhat astonishing to watch Francis die like a king: dignified, calm, and even cheerful as the cancer took him down. All his life, he’d been a scapegrace and rapscallion, bouncing from job to job, drinking and smoking against doctors’ orders. While stationed at a German Army base in the late 1960s, he took up with a local nurse and married her when she was pregnant with their child. In a nod to Francis’ blue-collar Irish upbringing in New Jersey, they had the baby boy baptized Catholic. Two years later, a daughter followed. Francis relocated the family to Morristown, New Jersey, but it didn’t go well. A heavy drinker with no knack for domestic life, he eventually concluded they would be better off without him. He left his wife and children to fend for themselves, and headed West.
For years, he crisscrossed the western United States, working at temporary jobs, hopping freight cars whenever he needed a ride. At various times, he was a welder in Alaska, a banquet waiter in Hawaii, an oil field worker in Louisiana, a pole-climbing technician for the G.E. telephone company, a security guard, a substitute teacher, a church accountant, and a bartender. Meanwhile, his ex-wife moved back to Germany with the kids, seven and five, who quickly picked up the language by necessity. As they grew up in a rustic Bavarian town, Francis visited once or twice and sporadically sent letters and money.
After his son graduated high school, Francis urged him to come out to L.A.. By then, he was assistant director of the Midnight Mission on Skid Row, a job he’d wangled during a down-on-his-luck stay at the mission. Eager to become acquainted with both America and his dad, 19-year-old David flew overseas, moved in with Francis, and began classes at U.C.L.A. Adventures ensued: Francis dragged him along to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, accidentally shot a bullet through the apartment floor, and drove him around Hollywood, talking philosophy and chain-smoking.
“The only important thing,” Francis informed his son—cryptically, urgently—soon after meeting him at LAX, “is that you’ve got to get right with God.”
He did not elaborate on the details.
To the naked eye, Francis appeared to have ditched his religion. One of five kids born to a drywaller and a college-educated mother in the 1940s, he’d been an altar boy and spent twelve years in Catholic school. By the time he landed at Seton Hall, he was souring on the whole program, showing up to class half-in-the-bag and cracking jokes about the priests—jokes he’d repeat with relish the rest of his life. He dropped out of Seton Hall, finished at Rutgers, and briefly attended medical school in Rome before embarking on his career as an itinerant jack-of-all-trades. In every story he told about his life (and there were many, monologues being his main mode of speech), he played the role of the jester, the scoundrel, the scamp, gleefully pricking with a pin any pretension to seriousness he encountered.
This could be tiresome, but it gave Francis a certain élan. Right up to the end, as he walked through the valley of the shadow, he remained a wisecracker, a smartass. Smoking a cigarette in the pale autumn light outside the trailer, a few weeks away from dying of lung cancer, he remarked jauntily to his son, about the cigarette: “A great romance is coming to an end.”
His son, my husband, was concerned about his soul. A Catholic revert who’d become very devout, he had spent years trying to nudge his dad into some kind of reckoning: with God, the faith, or any truth demanding serious engagement. Every other weekend, he would drive thirty minutes to Sacramento and do household chores that Francis and Joanne could no longer manage. Afterward, he and Francis would sit in the living room and have meandering conversations, often touching on religion. Francis sometimes attended Lutheran services with Joanne, and certain religious things appealed to him. His favorite movie was “Keys to the Kingdom,” in which Gregory Peck plays a priest (also named Francis) who spends his life as a missionary in China. Over the TV hung reproductions of the popular paintings “Grace” and “Gratitude,” in which a white-haired man and woman pray at the table over loaves of bread. He kept his late mother’s rosary in a glass box on a shelf. Long ago, when a nice woman in L.A. wanted to marry him, he had refused to remarry while his ex-wife was alive.
After the doctors informed Francis he didn’t have long to live, his son asked if he’d like a visit from a priest. Francis said yes, and one Saturday in late September, a young priest from a nearby parish rapped on the trailer door. Father Jonathan was a slim man of about forty, brown-skinned and black-haired, with a gentle demeanor. His speaking voice was low and measured, his words carefully chosen. Before administering the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, he took a seat in Francis’ living room and chatted with him awhile.
Not yet in noticeably bad shape, Francis seemed mentally enlivened by the presence of a priest. He first grilled Father Jonathan on his seminary training, then launched into a series of semi-hostile questions about Catholic doctrine. The priest seemed mildly surprised. He asked if Francis was a professor and remarked that these were good questions. For the most part, he simply sat and listened to the dying man.
Fifteen or twenty minutes in, it seemed like time to go ahead and do the rite. In the trailer’s small living room, Francis and Father Jonathan sat near the front door, through which the afternoon light streamed. Making the sign of the cross on his forehead, the priest intoned:
God of mercy, ease the sufferings and comfort the weakness of your servant, Francis, whom the Church anoints with this holy oil.
Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Next the priest anointed his hands, saying:
May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.
During the rite, which went on for several minutes, Francis’ mouth fell open as he gazed up at the priest. He appeared to be listening intently, as if straining to hear the words behind the words, a faint and distant music. His wife wiped away tears, and the trailer’s living room seemed suddenly filled with charged particles, transformed into a holy and mysterious place.
Family photos lined the walls—Francis’ son and daughter; five grandchildren, now young adults; Joanne’s late first husband; two step-grandchildren; and a great-grandson—and a case could be made that Francis had lived a blessed life. Despite his abandonment of his children and decades-long campaign to physically destroy himself, despite the heart attack that would have killed him if Joanne hadn’t come back from walking Sammy to find him on the floor, he’d made it into old age surrounded by his wife and descendants, the beloved patriarch of a more or less happy, healthy clan.
Through all of it, he’d remained in some way a child to whom the world was both incomprehensible and entertaining. A six-year-old describing his day to his mother in a long, rambling story, giggling at his own jokes and the mischief he’d gotten into, was a great deal like Francis as an old man, laughing at his life. Its seriousness and innate dignity eluded him, or seemed to; yet in his final week, when he could barely speak, his son asked if he wanted a priest again, and he said yes.
A second priest, a different one, stopped by and administered last rites to Francis in his bedroom, as he could no longer stand up. The next day, the hospital bed arrived.
By then, Francis was eager to be done with the whole business. Like a child who’d spent a long day playing, he’d worn himself out, and when his dad came to collect him from the playground, he clambered willingly, and even with relief, into his arms.
After 81 years, Francis McHugh was ready to go home.
(Image: The Artist’s Father in his Sickbed by Lovis Corinth, via Wikimedia Commons)
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This is incredible.
Beautiful and tender eulogy.