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The phone rang in the late morning of a clear and cold autumn
day. I was just about to go work out at the Y.
"Is that it, Sam?" "Well Jimmy, you all right son?" "Well uh . yeah I guess so," I lied. "Jimmy, we're gonna find who did this. You hear me? Your daddy was a good man and he helped a lot of people, and he knew a lot of folks who won't let 'em get away with this, neither. And we're gonna git that money back for ya too. Son, you hear me?"
"Yeah Sam, I hear ya." Numb.
"Son, you gotta call that funeral home and tell 'em what to do. OK?"
"All right, talk at you again soon."
A wild tornado in my chest, my abdomen. A whirling, cyclonic wind in my throat, my head, escaping my lips. I am lost in a sea of grief. Of rage. Of tears. My Father, MY Father, MY FATHER was dead. In the exact way that I knew would befall him. I moaned, I howled, I raged and cried, lay on the bed and embraced the pillows. I contorted with grief.
After awhile came peace, and indeed I went to the Y and worked out. I felt odd doing the long swim, like there was something I should have been doing instead, but this was all I could think to do.
My father's name was James H. Dolan, the same as mine. He died December 4, 1984, in a professional, gangland-style hit. He was a lifetime career criminal. At the time of his death, the San Antonio paper printed a long story detailing his decades of association with the Sam Giancanas and Carlos Gambinos of the world. I believe he had taken the Oath. Numerous books that tie the Kennedy assassination to the mob identify my father as the connection. His position in late 1963 was to make sure that the local strip-club operators, including Jack Ruby, were paying their protection money to the Mafia-run front organization called AGVA (American Guild of Variety Artists). He was an enforcer and, I've come to intuitively believe, a hit man, too.
The group at the gravesite was small. They were middle-aged men in cheap suits, and the women who went with men in cheap suits. Sam was there in a brown polyester sport coat. They looked like men who worked oil rigs, used-car lots, raised a few cattle, ran dope. Tattoos on some. Oily hair and long sideburns. Everybody stiff and distracted and not particularly sad, just grim and resigned. An atmosphere of "We all knew that this would happen sooner or later." The miracle is that he cleared his 70th birthday.
Alan Brown, the criminal attorney who specialized in federal cases, rolled up in a Jaguar that he left running, opened the door, and stood by the car. He was my father's lawyer. He spoke to no one, and left within 15 minutes of arrival. That was about how long the life of murder, mayhem, and servitude to the mob took to eulogize. A scruffy-looking guy sang "Amazing Grace," saying before he sang, "I always told the sumbitch I'd sing this song at his funeral." My heart lurched, my guts rumbled. I cried and choked. Then my cousins, my wife, and I all went and got drunk.
My grief has been a great teacher. It has been the rope ladder dangling down into my soul. I wanted no part of it for many years, but that did not make it go away. In a passing fit of sanity, I stopped drinking on my birthday, May 27th, in 1991. I intuitively knew that if I did not, I would pass the way perhaps every generation of Dolans had passed in my family. Drunk. True to my Irish-Catholic roots. So quitting drinking was a step down the rope ladder.
I am now eleven years into my descent, five without drinking. There seems to be no bottom. Along the way ogres have been encountered. They are called Shame, Rage, and Fear. Their offspring are Self-Doubt, Cynicism, and Depression. The best thing my father ever did for me was to get himself shot to death. Next to that was the way he supported my wife and me from his prison cell in El Reno Federal Penitentiary, when I was jobless during the summer of 1980. I am still identifying the ways that I have taken into myself his outsider's mentality, his fear, loathing, and sheer rage. I am thankful for having never been exposed to him more than I was, as I tremble to think what might have come of that.
Earlier this year, I reentered therapy as a patient to deal with the rage I felt at one of my own psychopathic patients. I rediscovered the rope ladder of grief, and climbed down again, only to see that I was yet unfinished in the grieving for my father. Somehow, I saw him for the criminal he was, and saw how I had always felt that I was "special" to him-a sure-fire sign of a scam working. Upon seeing that, the grief has stopped. I said "good-bye" with a compassion I had never felt. Before, I had only given a nervous gallows laugh, and lapsed back into my shell.
I don't grieve my father anymore. I never go to his grave. His exit was my entrance, a route through which I discovered my own soul. Compassion and feelings are not just for others. They belong to me as well. I value the gifts of his passing.
James Dolan, M.A., is a 44-year-old psychotherapist practicing in Dallas, TX. He works with men's and mixed groups, as well as with individuals, and has a special interest in the psychology of dreaming, creativity and imagination. He wonders if Dallas will always be his home. E-mail: email@example.com."
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