On July 2nd in 1941, one of the greatest men to ever walk this planet, in my humble opinion, was born. Thomas Burke was the first child born to Thomas and Margaret Burke. Thomas was proudly raised in Knock, County Mayo, Ireland. Thomas would later become known to me simply as Dad.
Dad came to the United States at the age of 17 with my grandfather, who we affectionately called Poppop. The remainder of the family would follow with Mommom (my grandmother), and Dad’s other two brothers Bernie and John, and two sisters, Helen and Mary. They would all eventually settle in Somers Point, NJ (maybe 20 minutes to a half hour from Atlantic City, depending on who was driving and whether or not you timed the traffic lights correctly).
Dad learned to work and work hard by emulating Poppop. He was introduced into the world masonry before leaving Ireland, and continued with that line of work when he arrived here in the United States. Masonry can be tough, grueling work, but Dad enjoyed it, at least that is what he made us believe. It allowed him to provide for his family, something he was extremely proud of.
Dad was the strong, silent type. He reminded me a lot the character Sheriff Buford Pusser from the 1973 movie Walking Tall. Although, Dad never carried a four foot hickory club. He did however, fight for what was right, and tried to do what was right for his family, church and community at large.
One of Dad’s greatest assets, was the fact that he was a great teacher…although, I will admit, at the time, living his lessons, may not have been the most enjoyable…but looking back, they provide some very fond memories.
One in particular that will stick with me forever has to do with math homework. Dad had a brilliant mind. From his experience being out on the jobsite, and reading plans, he had a knack for figuring many things out in his head. I may be sitting at the dining room table after dinner working on my math homework (and I am the world’s worst when it comes to math), and I would be struggling to find the answer…Dad would come along, look at what I was doing and say something like, “the answer is 42”, or something to that effect. I would then ask how he got that, and we would just say – “it’s right there in front of you.”…”yes, but I need to use this formula”, I would say…and he would come back with, “You don’t need this convoluted formula.”
This would going on, back and forth for a while, until I would just say…”ok, I understand it now”, when, in fact, I really didn’t. Amazingly, when going over the homework the next day in class, Dad always seemed to have the correct answer!
Dad taught me the meaning of hard work, and if I really wanted something, I would need to put the time in to get it. Being a bricklayer (a mason) was in his blood, and it was a way for him to also make some extra money for the family by doing small jobs on the weekends – jobs like fireplaces, chimneys, outdoor brickwork – essentially anything brick or block related that a homeowner or small business owner would want to rebuild a part of their house or business. I learned everything from how to mix mortar, to laboring, to bricklaying, and that at the end of the day I would be paid a fair wage for the amount of work and hours that I put in. There was no easy way to earn money working with Dad, you got what you earned, which was fair.
I also learned something about Dad from the other bricklayers and laborers that he employed on the weekends, and that was, as hard as he made them work, they had a tremendous respect for him. Not only was he a fellow bricklayer or a boss to some, he was a brother (or, in some cases, a father figure) to them. He cared for their families and how they were as human beings. If he knew someone was in a tight spot for money, and he had an opening on a small job on the weekend, he would be the first to jump in and say, “Do you want to earn a few bucks on Saturday?”
He also had a lighter side to him as well…it wasn’t all work on the weekends. There was a time where he got tickets to a Red Sox game, and he took myself, Tommy and one of Tommy’s friends to Fenway Park. These were great seats, on the first base side, just to the home plate side of the Red Sox dugout about eight to ten rows back.
At one point during the game there was a foul ball by Rick Burleson, the Red Sox Shortstop at the time, that was hit off the façade above and behind us. As most people do at baseball games, everyone tries to catch the ball hit into the stands. Like any kid my age then, I was maybe 12, I brought my glove with me, with hopes and dreams (like any kid) of catching a foul ball. So, the ball hits off the façade and I lose it in the sun, but like everyone around me, I stick my hand up to catch it. I was absolutely floored when I looked in my glove and saw the ball resting there in the webbing. As any kid would feel, this made my day, my week, my year, MY LIFE! After the game ended, Dad said, “let’s go!” And we headed towards the dugout…he was trying to get Rick Burleson to sign the ball for me. Unfortunately, he didn’t, but looking back on that day, I love that Dad tried.
I also have great memories of Dad taking me fishing. When I was younger, we would go to the Powder Point Bridge in Duxbury, Massachusetts. I will say that Dad was amazing at building a wall, fireplace or chimney with brick and mortar, but when it came to tying a hook to a fishing line, let alone baiting the hook, Dad needed a little practice. But that would not stop him from taking me to fish, mostly for flounder. I don’t think we actually ever caught anything, but the time we spent together was priceless. There were times when we had the fishing line cast out into the bay and we would just sit there waiting for a hit on the line…both of us silent and looking out towards the water (ok, I was a little small, so I would climb up on the side of the bridge), very few words were spoken, but we had the greatest time. How could I not have a great time, I was with my Dad.
It was this view of life, and the way he lived his life, that would help him become the backbone of our family and help Mom raise two kids with Diabetes and another that has grown up to be just like him in many, many ways.
Unfortunately, I can remember all too well spending time in hospitals for either childhood Asthma or Diabetes. But Dad was always right there – always – even if you were asleep and didn’t know it. He would often stop by the hospital very early in the morning, well before the posted visiting hours, and stay for a little while, and just sit with me, holding my hand while I slept. He would then slip off to work, to some jobsite where he was building the face of Boston one brick at a time, or one block at a time…put in a long day and then return to the hospital, often before going home and just sit in the chair next to the bed. There were times when I would look over at him and he would be asleep in the chair, but I didn’t care because he was there, and that’s what counted for me. And each time before he left, he would lean over and give me a kiss on my forehead and then say something like, “See you tomorrow.”
As I mentioned before, Dad was the backbone of our family. One of the main reasons for his strength, was his faith. Dad had a deep rooted faith in God and there wasn’t much, if anything at all, that was ever going to shake that tree. In fact, he once took Linda to Lourdes, France and to the Basilica in Knock, Ireland (he also took me here), looking for a miracle to cure his little girl. And although they returned home with no miracles to speak of, I’m not entirely sure that was really the case.
You see, to me, Dad was really the miracle for us. He wanted the best for us – the best medical care, the best schools, the best that he could provide literally working his fingers to the bone. He was the one who built our strength.
Dad told me that it was going to be a hard road with Diabetes, but he also made me believe it was going to be a long road, and he meant that in a good sense. Meaning, he wouldn’t allow me to give up fighting, despite what we saw the disease do to Linda. When Dad spoke, you did nothing but listen. It wasn’t that he commanded that respect, but he instead earned it from you, and you gladly gave it. So when he told me this I listened very intently.
On September 11, 2005, Dad was the one in the hospital this time, arriving there several days before with an infection. It was later in the evening. Tommy had just left to take Mom home after visiting, and Christine had stepped out of the room. The lights were turned down low. Dad was failing, his organs were shutting down. This time, it was me who was holding his hand, telling him it was going to be ok. But I also added, “it’s ok to let go now.” And I think I made some crack about Red Sox losing to the Yankees that day, but also said it didn’t matter because he had seen the Red Sox win the World Series the year before. I then said to him that Tommy and I would look after Mom as best we could, and again said that it was ok for him to go.
About a minute later, with tears streaming down my face, much as they are right now, a nurse entered the room and shut off the monitors and said that all of his organs had shut down and a doctor would be in soon to confirm. With that, I leaned over and kissed Dad on the forehead, and said “Thank You.” I was thanking him for the life that he gave to Mom, Tommy, Linda and I; as well as to Mommom and Poppop, Aunt Mary, Uncle Bernie, Aunt Helen and Uncle John, and to his many uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews, fellow bricklayers and parishioners he would see at the 10:00 o’clock mass every Sunday morning at Holy Family church.
Dad was only around briefly when my kidneys began to fail. He knew that someday I may need a transplant, but at that time, none of us knew when that might be. It may sound a little strange to hear, but when I entered the operating room this past June, with Tommy already in surgery, there was a certain peace that I felt. Some might say that it was the pre-surgical drugs kicking in, which it very well could have been…but, in a sense, to me anyway, it was Dad (as well as Linda) being there with me like he been so many times before.
Dad, thank you…thank you for the miracle that you were. I love and miss you.
|Dad enjoying himself at Mine and Christine's wedding.|