When he was promoted to the Bridgeport Sears, the Norwalk store’s display artist did a wonderful sketch of him with a dollar in his pocket and the words, “It’s not that I need the money, it’s just closer to Boston.”
He took a lot of that same kidding at Brooklawn Country Club. Though there, he was also respected for his prowess at a game that frustrated so many others. At 77, he was Brooklawn’s senior flight champion. And even after that, he played a great game for many years, and the golf magazines wrote about him shooting his age or under. Some of those he played with said they had a tough time explaining to their friends and family how they lost that morning’s game to a 90-year-old.
Some think country clubs are snobbish. My father and his friends were self-made. He was close to so many of them and they to him. They looked out for each other. They were the best of their kind. It was a privilege to see such wonderful fellowship.
He owed Brooklawn too for happiness — the bliss he found out on the course. (And sometimes, when you go by, think of him. Say a prayer if you can.) On his 90th birthday, the club and Ralph LoStocco gave him a party.
Then, and most of all — just a month before my mother died — a storybook finish for them that I got to see. A dinner in Joe Dolan’s honor. Hundreds of people seated at tables along the patio on a Connecticut summer night. As darkness came they asked him to make a long twelve-foot putt. Under a strong spotlight the 96-year old gave it his valiant try. No, he sunk it. And the cheering, which could be heard down at Jennings Beach, may have done structural damage to the clubhouse roof. You would think he had won the Masters.
I was surprised at the shot. My mother wasn’t. “Joe was always doing things like that,” she said. Her hero one last time.
Not long after that, when I woke him one morning with the news that she had died, and as I took him take back to the hospital, he kept saying it: “Oh, the poor girl, the poor girl.”
Since we were children we called him by his first name — to the horror of many of our friends. Though we tried to explain that “Joe” to us sounded just like “Dad” did to them. But while his children deeply respected him — and I’ll tell you more of why in a second — for all of that he was also something out of Charles Dickens, one of those endearing figures. Coming home from college or our jobs for the holidays, we so looked forward to seeing him. He was our Joe Gargery, or Tiny Tim’s protective father. Our most dependable ally. Our oldest friend.
Life and time and circumstances being what they are, some day — it may be 50 or a hundred years from now — change will come to St. Vincent’s, and they will take down those pictures in the lobby. I’ve thought about that sometimes and realized that by then the person taking them down may wonder about the men in those frames.
Well, I know what I would want that person to know about my father. That he is the man his son was always trying to catch up to. Especially the night he died.
His vital signs, which had plunged earlier, seemed to have stabilized in the ER. But the nurse kept trying to get a blood pressure and she couldn’t. We didn’t realize what was happening.
What my father did next is what I remember. And it brought to mind, forgive me, another parallel, another — speaking of English novelists — literary one. Evelyn Waugh is considered by many the best of the 20th-century novelists, and Brideshead Revisited is his masterpiece. At its end, Lord Marchmain comes back to his great house to die, and the family he had deserted hopes for some sign of a return to the Church. With all the mastery of the artist he was, Waugh describes a deathbed scene in which the semi-conscious Marchmain dramatically, tellingly, makes the sign of the cross.
Joe Dolan needed no novelist’s art. No contrivance of genius for his drama. My father — as they tried to get his vital signs — gave them the most important one of all. Slowly, solemnly, he raised a hand and made a perfect sign of the cross. A few minutes later and a rush of doctors and nurses into the room and he was gone.
A better drama, I think, than Mr. Waugh’s. The perfect playing out of the plot line — all that has gone before — what’s expected of good or high drama. Because unlike poor Marchmain, Joe Dolan had always been there, ever generous to his wife and children, his church, his neighbors. In all that, he had been strong, manly — dignified, really. Living by his code of helping and loving others.
So, such a good ending. So believable. The man in the picture in St. Vincent’s lobby then? That’s who he was. The man I was always trying to catch up to. A man I know that even now is waiting for me, kindly, affectionately.
“Lord let thy servant now go in peace. Thy word has been fulfilled.”
And, Lord, help me catch up to him someday.
— Lee Habeeb, vice president of Salem Radio Network, resides in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, his daughter, Reagan, and his mother-in-law, Kay. He is still trying to catch up to his dad.