Friday, March 5, 2021

Remembering Dad

Joseph O'Hannigan was 82 years old when he passed peacefully from his daughter's Scottsdale, Arizona home to his eternal reward on Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021. He had multiple medical issues, but covid-19 was not one of them. Almost everybody called him Joe.

Obituary writers usually address the departed by their given names, but this writer can’t. As TV cop shows would say, I make “lack of emotional distance” for the culprit. The thing is that Joe O’Hannigan embraced fatherhood as much as any man ever has. Four souls bequeathed that honorable role to him, and three of them are still around to affirm that he took it seriously (Maria Elena arrived first, but returned to heaven before she could grow up. It’s easy to imagine her joyful reunion with the man whom the rest of us just lost).

Whether you read this sketch of a man’s life, or hear some version of it from Patrick-Sean, Joseph-Shannon, or Lani Eve, you didn’t have to be a formal part of the “ohana” to figure out that Joe was Dad -- unless he was feeling especially Celtic, in which case he’d sign handwritten notes to his children as “Da.” And so “Dad” it will be for the remainder of this remembrance. 

Dad arrived in September of 1938, as the firstborn to Joe and Helen Hannigan, who would go on to have another boy (Jim) and two girls (Pat and Dianne). Other people wax nostalgic about the Bronx, but Dad didn’t stay there any longer than he had to. He lied about his age to get into the U.S. Marine Corps at 17, eventually meeting and proposing to a pretty young woman from Texas who also happened to be a Marine. The former Margot Martinez is still with us. Back in the day, she decided that while the USMC wasn’t for her, the strapping young man from New York might be. 

Twelve years as a Marine and 26 more as a police officer testify to Dad’s devotion to public service. His influence was such that his brother Jim followed him into both careers.

When the Marine Corps sent Dad to Hawaii, it lost a “leatherneck” who might otherwise have been a life member. Dad fell in love with the islands, joined the Honolulu Police Department, and earned a master’s degree in Pacific Island Studies from the University of Hawaii. The big Irishman led HPD’s pipe-and-drum band, but wore a lavalava when he was off duty, and knew more about his adopted state than most native Hawaiians do. 

His genealogical research found relatives in Ireland, and his stubbornness convinced him that our surname needed an O-apostrophe in front of it, regardless of what anyone else in the family remembered.

Dad started out Roman Catholic but didn’t stay that way. He was a lifelong seeker and voracious reader with a “roll your own” approach to religious faith. He didn’t know anything about how to dress, how to raise saltwater fish, how to roll the letter r into an arpeggio the way Spanish-speaking people do, or how to romance a partner with a different “love language.” But he accepted dogs and cats, not to mention tracts from the missionaries who strolled through our neighborhood looking for converts.

Joe and Margot put two sons and a daughter through private schools on his salary. Dad planted bougainvillea bushes and plumeria trees around “Hale Ola,” and made friends with all the neighbors. He was, as his brother notes, "one of the most giving people you'd ever meet." If you had to live in a low-income housing development in the Seventies, you wanted that one, because it was where you called Joe before you called 9-1-1. If he wasn’t busy patrolling the parts of Waianae and Ewa Beach not welcoming to tourists, Dad would help you out.

When he broke his leg chasing a burglar over a wall, it’s because he felt sorry for the perp and shifted his weight in midair to avoid landing on the guy’s chest. By the time Dad retired from HPD, he was a lieutenant and a local legend. He wasn't ready to give up uniforms then, and so worked another decade as a security guard for the Department of the Navy.

Because he thought we needed one, Dad talked a metalsmith into helping him create a family coat of arms, which he mounted medieval-style in the stairwell of our townhome. 

Because off white as a color had no pop, he hung a chandelier in the same stairwell, and painted the brickwork around it in alternating shades of lemon yellow, tangerine orange, and flamingo pink.

In homage to the extensive collection of vinyl records he’d once had, Dad made mix-tape musical compilations, usually getting the hang of a new technology just before it went out of style. Reel-to-reel tapes? Check. Eight-track tapes? Check. CDs? Check. MP3 files? -- Well, let’s just pass lightly over anything having to do with computers.

When relatives or friends flew in to visit, Dad spared no hospitality (“Champagne taste and a beer wallet,” his mother explained to the grandsons who grew up calling her “Tutu,” while noting that Dad had moved her and his little sisters across the country so they could live in a less chaotic environment than the one he’d grown up in).

Tutu learned to keep sandwich makings on hand in case her eldest son stopped by with a hungry prisoner he was transporting downtown for booking. Dad would take the prisoner’s handcuffs off, explain to his mom that they couldn’t stay long, and offer the detainee a sandwich, together with an assurance that Jesus loved him and would appreciate it if he learned to make better choices. Then he’d plant himself at Tutu's apartment door and tell the prisoner not to bother trying to make a run for it.

How many lawbreaking citizens walked into police headquarters with full stomachs because Dad took a merciful little shine to them, we’ll never know, but Aunt Dianne says it was more than a few. Dad never bragged about it, probably because he figured that cultivating the “aloha” spirit was something everybody ought to be doing.

Joe left Hawaii only when he was talked into getting medical treatment on the mainland for poor circulation. He enjoyed the chance to “grandpa” for a year in San Diego (“Grandpa” was as much of a verb to him as “Dad” was). He acquired a taste for sashimi, dumped sugar on puffed rice cereal, and invariably called pizza “pie.” When one of his children pointed out that medical facilities in Arizona are just as good as those in California, he moved to Scottsdale.

In sum, Dad was a commanding presence with a large dose of warm fuzziness. Over the last few years of his life on Earth, he let it be known that he’d rather celebrate the Marine Corps' birthday than his own. But the Big Protector has gone home. His children, grandchildren, siblings, step-siblings, cousins, friends, and former wife all miss him profoundly.