The first time I met my future father-in-law he was working the garden at his beautiful home in the English countryside, not far from the sea. A former pro football player, he’d remained as big and strong as he was in his playing days, and now here he was, meeting the New York guy with designs on his daughter, Kim.
It was just the two of us - Frank O’Mahony turning the soil, me watching. We were making small talk, getting to know each other in that cautious, circular way males try to figure each other out, when suddenly his lovely wife, Betty, called us in for coffee.
“Let’s go inside,” Frank said cheerfully. He took the pitchfork he’d been working with and slammed it into the ground, inches from my toes.
All four prongs were instantly buried, right to the hilt.
Long prongs. And the ground was not soft.
Believe me, I got the message. Mess with my daughter, and you’ll be sorry….
Funny first impression, because the truth is, I was never in danger with Frank. It wouldn’t take long for me to learn that he was as kind and fair a person as I’d ever know.
I also thought he was indestructible, which makes news of his death at 83 even harder to take.
Frank, who’d faced overwhelming odds to beat pancreatic cancer thirteen years ago, was hit by a stroke last February. In the months to follow there were endless trips to the hospital, one of which happened in the midst of World Cup fever.
The Uber driver was a rabid England fan, wearing the team colors and ranting about the games ahead. Frank never boasted on himself, so I did it for him.
“This guy played for Chelsea,” I told the driver. Which was a mistake, because in his excitement he nearly went off the road.
When the driver steadied himself he started asking Frank about what it was like to play in the big time. Frank told the guy about the rough-and-tumble game he knew, back in the ‘50s. Not like these players today, multi-millionaires who fall down if you breathe on them!
“It was really great on rainy days,” Frank said.
That surprised the driver. “Rainy days?” he asked.
“Oh yeah,” Frank said. “The pitch would get all muddy, and you could stand on the defender’s foot and never get called for it!”
And I thought: How fantastic is that! Frank isn’t boasting about any of the big goals he scored - he’s bragging about putting one over on the referee!
Which was always part of Frank’s appeal - his capacity for mischief and merriment, no matter how gloomy things looked.
Like the time I took him to check out his local gym, a few months ago. It was Frank’s kind of place - no frills, a real spit-and-sawdust joint. Frank’s aching hip kept him in a wheelchair, so I rolled him inside and he greeted the young manager as if they’d gone to school together.
“Got a punch bag, by any chance?” Frank asked.
It was hanging in the corner. I rolled Frank to the bag, thinking he just wanted to inspect it.
Next thing I knew I was holding on tightly to the wheelchair handles while Frank bashed that bag as if it owed him money - dozens of rapid-fire punches, from a sitting position! The manager couldn’t believe his eyes.
“Right!” Frank said, rubbing his knuckles on our way out. “I’ll be back to join up, I live around the corner.”
“Okay, Frank,” the manager chuckled.
Frank died not long after that. Literally and figuratively, he went down punching.
And I remembered a conversation we’d had about The Big Sleep, many years ago. We’d both been raised Catholic, with priests and nuns telling us all about heaven and hell, the immortal soul - the whole shebang.
“I was trained to believe in all that,” Frank said. “But then the scientific side of my brain takes over, and asks - how can it be?”
We came to the same conclusion, summed up in three words: Who really knows?
But I’ll tell you something I do know, which happened a few days after we lost Frank. I was up early to take a run, and my eyes fell upon Frank’s running shoes.
Well, why not? We were the same size.
I grabbed his shoes. “Come on, Frank,” I said, lacing them up. “Let’s take a little trot.”
And those shoes carried me to that spit-and-sawdust gym Frank liked so much. I told the manager the sad news. His jaw dropped, and his eyes misted over.
“I’m really sorry,” he said.
And I thought: He means it. This guy only knew Frank for fifteen minutes, and he’s truly grieving.
Of course he was. You don’t meet people like Frank O’Mahony every day, and when you do, you don’t forget them. And being remembered is a kind of immortality.
How about that, Frank? Maybe the nuns and priests were right, after all.