John James Conley: 22 June, 1941 — 12 March, 2013
It’s winter, January, and in Ireland, the sun is already going down at 2 in the afternoon. The light is blue and chilly and sharp, and yet you can see, just around the edges of the sky, a bit of warmth, a bit of what in the fullness of time will become spring.
I’m sitting in the back of a car, and my friend AM is up in the front, and her dad is dropping me down to the bus after horseriding. Sometimes AM and I talk about the lesson, talk about the horses, talk about how we went or how they went or how we all went together. Sometimes she talks to her dad, and there’s a lovely, proprietary air about it, that says: this is my dad and we are talking about our life, and working out what’s going on for the rest of the day, about where I need to be if I need to be somewhere, and if he’s going to drive me there. I feel privileged to be let in on their negotiations and wrangling, as I remember it so well, because our dad drove us everywhere.
Anywhere we needed to go, our dad took us. I was brought to art lessons, choir practice, football games. He drove Katherine and I to a Rick Springfield concert at the Capitol Theatre, in Passaic, in a snowstorm. He dropped us down, and we ran off inside, with never a thought to what he was going to do next, and never a doubt that he wouldn’t be there when it was time to go. He drove John and I to endless Cosmos games, all the way up the turnpike to the Meadowlands, hours and hours — and hours — before match time, so that we could hang out at the team entrance and shout at Franz Beckenbauer to give us an autograph — hours and hours during which he just sat in the stands waiting for us, never doubting that we’d eventually take our seats, enjoy the game, and then he’d drive us home.
He drove Michael into Brooklyn to see me of a Saturday, and then drove all the way back to collect him on the Sunday. He drove our mother to work in Rutgers, every day, there and back. I’m sorry he won’t be around to teach any of his grandchildren — John, Joseph, Matthew, Michael, Sarah, Thomas, Mary Grace, and Daniel — how to tend to the engines of their cars using his innovative combination of duct tape and shoelaces. My dad took us all to the places that we needed to go, and set us down in the fullest confidence that we were where we wanted or needed to be, and we’d do or enjoy whatever we’d got there for.
He didn’t teach me how to drive — he taught Auntie Sue, and I don’t think I can repeat that story in a church. It didn’t go so well. He did go driving with me when I got my learner’s permit, and one time we were heading out towards 130 down Wood Avenue, and he shouted ‘STOP!’ — and me being me, I demanded ‘WHY?’ and kept on driving. I mean, we were going 25 miles an hour, we were the only ones on the road, and he was like, I want to test your reflexes, and I was like, whatever Dad.
When he lost his ability to manage a car, it was, for me, the saddest thing that he had to lose in his struggles with his health. As the aphasia got stuck in, and the words didn’t mean what he thought they meant, and his spatial and motor skills went astray, it was hard and sad, but really the worst thing, from my point of view, and I think for him, was that he couldn’t take us places anymore. Despite our own independence, it was still nice to get into a car and drive with our dad.
Bless him, though, he turned into the world’s worst backseat driver: at Christmas, Mom and I and he were in the car, heading for home, and he did not agree with the route that had been chosen, and let us know it. If there was a way to get someplace without encountering more than one traffic light, Dad knew it. I think he would have rather stuck red hot pokers in his eye than drive down Route 18.
This tendency used to drive me demented, because it seemed to me that going round about on minor roads was a waste of time, but he always proved me wrong. I have a punctuality fetish, the nurturing of which probably began in seventh grade, when I wanted to leave for basketball, now, and Dad wouldn’t go until it was time. He was always right, I always got there on time, in fact in good time, as he would say. I remember this to be one of his favourite phrases: all in good time. The upshot was that I would get to Saint Augustine’s exactly ten minutes before practice began, which was exactly when I had wanted to arrive in the first place, and he’d look at me somewhat archly and say, ‘All right?’ Yes, Dad.
Dad gave us plenty of time to say our goodbyes, two or three years worth of downshifting, plenty of time to adapt and accept, even if it doesn’t make the lack of his presence any more acceptable. He gave us time to gather together, to allow us to work as one to help him in any way we could — more, I think, for the experience of all of us being able to do something for him, as a family, than because he wanted anything for himself.
We’re all deeply grateful that his passing was as calm and as dignified as the man himself; that he was known in the world as son, nephew, cousin, husband, brother-in-law, father, father-in-law to Sharon, Melanie and Scott, grandfather, and friend; that in the end, there was nothing, no thing, that could ever get in the way of his strong, unflappable essence; that the big man with the gentle spirit has joined all of our family and friends above, and is probably giving people lifts in heaven, and already knows all the back roads.
It is spring, now, and the light is coming back, only now, with the little extra something that is our dad, the little extra help from spirit that will be his influence, a voice in our hearts that is his, and the sure and certain knowledge that John James Conley always knew how to get around the stop lights and get us where we needed to be — all in good time.