tribute to Paco

My 96-year-old father, known here as Paco, died in mid-September, but I have been struggling to write about him. A good share of that is that the writing/analytical/organizational part of my brain has been too busy with all the phone calling and notes and paperwork that follow a death, which are by turns taxing and emotional and fraught. I’ve also been trying to find peace after so many months of complex medical and care situations which I found both exhausting and traumatic. I’ve also taken a week to attend a reunion residency with the Boiler House Poets Collective at MASS MoCA, which has been helpful both in reconnecting with family history as we are from the North Adams MA area and reconnecting with myself as a poet after so many months of sneaking in poetry time only intermittently.

But in this post, I will try to tell you more about Paco and our family.

People have asked me how my Irish-American father came to be known as Paco, which sounds more Spanish. My firstborn daughter E was the first grandchild on both sides of the family. As she was learning to talk, she couldn’t manage to say “Grandpa” and – after a few instances of calling him “Bucco” – settled on Paco as his name. This became his name with all the other grandchildren and often for other family members. It was natural for me to use it here on the blog.

It was a revelation for me seeing Paco interact with his grandchildren. Because my younger sister and I are only two years apart, I didn’t remember my father as a dad to young children. Unlike so many men of his generation, he reveled in playing with very young children and singing to them. One of the great blessings of our family life is that Nana and Paco retired near us when E was three and before T was born. Having them be so close by all those years was wonderful with walks and outings and school events and concerts, theater, and dance recitals, games and carousel rides and countless volleys of ping pong in the basement. Nana and Paco gave us so much love, care, and support for so many years; it was natural that we would provide the same to them as they grew older and developed health problems.

Paco had served in the US Navy as a SeaBee in World War II and Korea. The SeaBees were the Construction Battalion – CBs, get it? – and Paco was drafted before he could finish high school. Most of the SeaBees were older men, already established in various trades, who took Paco under their wing and taught him what they knew. The skills he developed there in electrical work set the stage for his career. Paco didn’t talk much about his service when we were growing up but, in his later years, he got some SeaBee caps which he would wear out in public. I was always amazed at how many people would comment, thank him for his service, and share their own stories of service by themselves or family members. Those tributes continued into his last days. One of the first things Hospice did after admitting him was to bring a certificate and a memorial quilt square to him. We are also applying for a service medallion to be added to his memorial in the mausoleum.

Paco worked for 43 years for New England Power Company, the last 23 as Superintendent of the Upper Deerfield River in southern Vermont/western Massachusetts. I wrote the poem “Hydro Superintendent” about him for his 90th birthday. We lived in a house that was owned by the company and often visited the powerplants and reservoirs. One of his biggest accomplishments as superintendent was overseeing the construction of Bear Swamp, a pumped storage plant built inside a mountain. Paco knew every detail of that project, which brought in contractors from as far away as Japan and Switzerland. It was so much fun walking through a giant tunnel to get to the huge powerhouse with its two turbines that could generate electricity and then reverse to pump water back to the upper reservoir. I started my interest in renewable electricity and energy storage technology young, thanks to Paco.

One of the things I admired about Paco was his work ethic. He always worked hard to get the job done right but he was also part of the team, even when he was the leader. He would help the crews do emergency work rather than just ordering them to come in. He hired the first Black and the first woman into his stations which had previously been staffed entirely by white males. (Point of information: Rural New England was not very racially diverse at the time. Some areas still are not diverse now, decades later.) He was always compassionate and understanding when employees encountered personal or family difficulties. He was also not one to “toot his own horn.” I found out how well-regarded he was by his staff through others, not from him.

We admired Paco even more when we discovered he had accomplished so much with undiagnosed dyslexia. When his youngest granddaughter S was diagnosed with an inherited form of dyslexia, Paco discovered at age 80 why he had always secretly struggled with reading and writing. S and her family launched the Paco Project to raise funds for Learning Ally to help others with print or visual disabilities access the world of books. We are proud to direct donations to Learning Ally in memory of Paco.

Paco was also proud to finally become a high school graduate. I applied for his diploma through Operation Recognition, a program which awards diplomas to veterans who left school before completing their course of study. In 2008, the same year that eldest granddaughter E graduated from high school, Paco received his diploma from Drury High School in North Adams, Massachusetts, the school that he and Nana, as well as I and my sisters, had attended.

Paco’s ancestors came to the United States from Ireland but he had never visited. Nana was too claustrophobic to consider flying, but after her death in spring 2019, my two sisters took Paco to Ireland to visit.

Paco and an Irish rainbow

We were blest that all four of his grandchildren got to see Paco over the summer. We were especially grateful that granddaughter E with spouse L and great-granddaughters ABC and JG were able to visit from London UK. Because of the pandemic, we had not been able to see each other, but in August, just before the final and more precipitous portion of Paco’s decline, they were able to make the trip.

four generations with Paco, Joanne, granddaughter E, and great-grands JG and ABC

There were a few days during Paco’s last week where he was very agitated but we were fortunate to have some calmer moments. T was the only one of the grandchildren nearby enough for one final visit, which wound up being the day before he died. It was one of the most heartbreakingly tender encounters I have ever seen. T sang Irish songs to Paco and held his hands, which were still a bit restless from a medication side effect. She talked to him and I know that he could hear her because he was able to respond a bit. I admit that I couldn’t help but cry and that I am crying now as I try – and fail – to find the words to convey how special that last hour between them was.

It also happened that all three of Paco’s daughters got to spend time with him, both alone and in various pairings, on the day of his death. It was not clear that this would be his final day, so it was not that it had been planned, but I’m grateful that it turned out that way. I’m also grateful that in his last few days, I was finally able to sing to my father, something that my sisters had been doing but that I struggled to do. I sang both verses of “Over the River and through the Woods” to get to Paco’s favorite lines, “Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done? Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!” (Paco loved all kinds of pie.) I sang the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” because it is comforting to me and several beautiful Irish hymn tunes. Occasionally, I would get too choked up to continue singing but I usually managed to get through. On that last day, Paco could not respond but Hospice told us that the sense of hearing tends to remain and can even sharpen as the other senses are shutting down. My younger sister was alone with Paco when he died but I arrived soon after for my very last good-bye.

I have been so moved by the many people who have reached out to me during Paco’s decline and since his death. There have been so many kind words, both written and spoken – remembrances, prayers, thoughts, stories, expressions of gratitude for a long life well-lived. I was very touched when a friend that I made through Facebook but whom I have never met in person added my father to her Kaddish prayer on Yom Kippur. It has been the love I first learned from my parents but now experience through so many family and friends that has kept me going through all of this, even during the most difficult times. I thank all of you.

Last week, I went to the hair salon for a haircut with Diane, who has been my stylist since 1983. I told her about Paco’s death and she gave me a hug and told me that she had something to show me. It was her new puppy, who was sweetly asleep in his crate. She told me his name was Leo.

Leo was my father’s name.

March 17

Today is March 17, which is usually celebrated as Saint Patrick’s Day. Although it is a feast day for Saint Patrick in the Catholic church, it is generally celebrated in the United States also as a secular holiday with parades, Irish food, and, in many cases, way too much alcohol.

This year, with COVID-19 social distancing protocols in place, things are very, very quiet. Paco will still get to have corned beef and cabbage and potatoes, but he will be eating it in his apartment instead of a dining room filled with his senior living community friends wearing green and sitting at tables decorated for the occasion.

Fun fact:  Paco’s middle name is Patrick. He finally got to visit Ireland, the home of his grandparents, last fall.
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B’s side of the family had some different March 17th traditions. B’s dad was an elementary school principal who had a running joke with his students and staff. He celebrated March 17th as Evacuation Day, which commemorates the British leaving Boston on that date in 1776 after an eleven month siege, under pressure by the Continental Army, commanded by George Washington and bolstered by cannons captured from Fort Ticonderoga. Parts of Massachusetts celebrated it as an official holiday, although not the western part of the state where his school was located. He used to make an announcement on the public address system in the morning and even designed an evacuation day card which he printed with his then-new dot matrix printer.

He also used to buy an “evacuation day” bouquet for B’s mom, known here at TJCM as Grandma. After he passed away, B and I continued the tradition of giving Grandma evacuation day flowers, first ordering them delivered to her home from their favorite local florist and then bringing them in person after she moved to our area.

In 2016, we changed it up a bit and gave Grandma a planter. We had no way of knowing that she would pass away after a heart attack a few days later. Our daughter T, who has a special affinity for plants, took over care of the planter, eventually having to separate the plants into different pots as they grew too large.

Today, the African violet and the kalanchoe from the planter are in full bloom.

On the dining room table, is an evacuation day bouquet that B bought for T.

Paco on the move!

October is a heavy-duty travel month for my family. It began with my trip to North Adams for the Boiler House Poets Collective’s fifth fall residency at MASS MoCA. (There are several posts about it earlier this month.)

On Sunday, my father, known here as Paco, and my two sisters flew to Ireland! Apparently, on Grandparents’ Day in September, Paco had been talking by phone with his grandson L and they talked a lot about Ireland, which is where Paco’s grandparents were from. L then called his mom (my younger sister) and said, “You need to take Paco to Ireland – now.”

In short order, she arranged for an expedited passport for Paco, made reservations for flights, accomodations, and a driver, and made lots of lists so everything would go smoothly. My older sister joined in to help and they jetted from JFK Airport to Shannon. It was the first time Paco had flown on a jet. His last plane flight had been coming home from the Korean Conflict! (He had also served in World War II.)

The three of them are now in the middle of a week in Killarney. They have a driver to take them out to see the sights. They have been sending us some photos and updates. Here is my favorite one of Paco so far:
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This evening, they were at a pub with a singer/guitarist performing. My sister requested “Danny Boy” for my father and it seems that everyone in the pub fell in love with Paco. One woman even came over and danced with him for a bit! Of course, what’s not to love about a 94-year-old man in a US Navy SeaBee cap, who is visiting Ireland for the first time?

The Lusitania

Thanks to (the award-winning) Tric of (the award-winning blog) My Thoughts on a Page for commemorating the sinking of the Lusitania and the many Irish townsfolk who went out to rescue the victims.

My thoughts on a page.

This day 100 years ago, eighteen kilometres from the Irish coast, a German submarine sunk the luxury cruise liner the Lusitania. 1,198 drowned, 761 survived.

In the weeks leading up to her departure from New York, the German embassy in Washington posted a Sinking of the lusitaniawarning to prospective passengers in fifty newspapers. Many passengers were worried but travelled regardless, comforted by the knowledge that wealthy members of society were on board.

On May 1st the ship left New York. Arriving off the coast of Ireland on May 7th, look outs were in position on board, as it was known that submarines were in the area. At 14.10 a torpedo struck. There were forty eight lifeboats on board, only six were successfully launched. Eighteen minutes after being hit the Lusitania sank (it took the Titanic three hours).

The word went out around Queenstown (now known as Cobh) and rescue vessels of all sizes…

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The most thoughtful Christmas present I have ever received.

Such a beautiful post on love, loss, friendship, and remembrance by Tric, who is a wonderful blogger from Ireland, that I felt I had to share it. I hope that all of us have at least one similarly thoughtful and compassionate friend in our lives.

My thoughts on a page.

I’m sure some of you have contenders, but I think it will be difficult to beat the one I received last year. It was given to me by a friend of mine after a very difficult year.

The year had begun with young Daniel coming home from hospital just before Christmas. He had been diagnosed with leukemia aged twelve years. On St Stephens Day he asked to have his hair shaved off as it was shedding due to his leukemia. It never again grew back.

During the awful year that followed there were huge lows and a couple of small highs. I was in contact on a daily basis with Daniels mom. Looking back it would appear that we shared more bad news than good, as we spoke or texted each other. I was a person who preferred to cry alone, but so regular were my tears that my family…

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