“The joys of parents are secret; so are their griefs and fears.” Francis Bacon
In early June of 1956, when he was 24 years old, my father was electrocuted. As a lineman for the Western Pennsylvania Power Company, he was installing electricity to a new retail grocery store. The fingers of his right hand brushed against a high voltage line which was supposed to be dead. Fourteen hundred volts coursed through his body in an instant and the shock of electrical current violently shut down his heart.
Clad in climber boots and a leather waist belt, his body hung there, lifeless. His partner, Bill Johnson, raced up the pole and responding to his emergency training, provided cardiopulmonary resuscitation. He was able to get a faint heart-beat, bring him down to the ground and call for an ambulance. Gradually he regained consciousness. He was transported to the small hospital in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, our home town, where he was not expected to live. The sole, hospital ambulance which provided emergency transport was busy that night on another call. Assuming that he was dead, a funeral home sent their panel truck, which was used to carry flowers, to take his body to the hospital. Fully conscious, becoming aware of his deep burns riding to the hospital, he strove to focus instead on the scent of freshly cut flowers.
The phone call from a representative of West Penn Power was taken by my maternal grandmother, where my parents were staying while their new home was being built. She handed the phone to my mother.
“Patty, I think this is for you.”
The urgent phone call created initial confusion. The man on the phone said that Jack had been involved in a serious accident. Thinking it was her older brother Jack, my mother ran next door to call her sister-in-law to the telephone. As my aunt listened, she said to the voice on the phone,
“Wait a minute. Which Jack are you talking about? Jack Maloney or Jack O’Brien? Oh.”
“I’m sorry, Patty. This call is for you.” she said, handing the phone back to my mother.
A West Penn employee came to the house and drove my mother to the hospital. She did not have her driver’s license. At the hospital, Father Foley, the parish priest who had presided at their marriage four and a half years earlier, administered last rites. Now a solemn vigil began, to see if he would respond to treatment. In addition to delivering a massive jolt to the heart, high voltage injuries can damage other vital organs as well. A major electrical injury causes extreme burns to any area that contacts the electrical source. Also affected are the liver, heart, kidneys and gastrointestinal tract. These internal organs, if seriously damaged, would shut down the body’s autonomic system.
Doctors informed my mother that even if he survived the immediate shock, he could possibly lose his right hand, which had brushed the line. They hoped, at least, to save the fingers. However, given the state of medical technology in 1956 and the extent of his injuries, they were not optimistic. Shortly after being admitted, he vomited violently. This pleased the doctors who advised her that his body was responding positively, doing what was necessary to begin its healing process. This was one promising sign they were waiting for. Once his condition stabilized, he was taken by ambulance to Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, where they were better equipped to deal with his condition. There, they would see how his body responded to available treatment. He was young, strong and healthy. He didn’t smoke or drink. These things contributed to his chances for recovery.
At the time of the accident, I was three and half years old. My sister, Pam, was nearly eleven months. A young man with a wife and family, building his first home in the scenic countryside, holding a job coveted by the local population, my father’s future had offered promise. His peers were primarily high school graduates, living in a poor, rural area where coal mining, farming and factory work at Pittsburgh Plate Glass presented the few available local job opportunities. Very few local people could afford to attend college. By local standards, my father was fortunate. He had a lot to live for and he possessed an indomitable spirit. However, much of that strength and spirit had been bred by anger and adversity.
My grandmother, his mother, Jean O’Brien was called that evening, as well, and told about the accident. Her oldest child, Jack, might not survive the night, they said. But Jean was a dispassionate and indifferent parent. She wasn’t able to come to the hospital, she said. It was “Cootie Night,” the night she played cards with her neighborhood friends. She was hosting that evening’s game.
In the five months of hospitalization at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, Jean would visit her son only once. She told my mother that she didn’t like the smell in the hospital room. The smell, to which she referred, came from the medicinal salve used to treat the charred flesh of her son’s hand.
My father’s father, John George O’Brien called himself “Coony.” His drinking fed the rage that consumed him, one born of deep-seated insecurity. It would manifest itself in the physical abuse of his wife and son, Jack. Coony worked at the Pittsburgh Plate Glass plant in Ford City, Pennsylvania, which had drawn his father from Kentucky. He was shunned at work. Most considered him irrational, most likely mentally ill. He was nearly fired for a stunt in the plant lunchroom where he had fashioned a noose on the end of a rope which he had draped over a ceiling light fixture and pretended to hang himself. The physical and mental abuse he visited on his family was constant, especially on weekends, when drinking. Once, when he was in his teens, my father came home from school and found himself trying to defend his mother from another physical beating. Unable to match his father physically, he retrieved his father’s .22 caliber hunting rifle from the closet and aimed it at his father’s chest.
“If you don’t stop, I’ll kill you.”
“I nearly pulled the trigger that day.” my father told me a few years ago, “Maybe should have.” It was one of the few times my father had ever spoken to me about his childhood.
Coony always wore a porkpie hat to cover his premature baldness, a condition which deeply embarrassed him. He never praised my father. Instead, he often told him, in words that have affected my father’s actions all his life,
“You’ll never amount to anything. You’re too dumb.”
The day he won the job at West Penn Power, he proudly told Coony about his achievement. A lineman’s job was very prestigious, with earnings well above the average paycheck for the high school graduates living in the area.
“You were lucky.” Coony told him. “You’ll screw it up.”
Coony was envious of his son. He was a sad figure in his own right, a sorry excuse for a parent.
But, in spite of their shortcomings, how often do we seek our parents’ approval? How often do we take our parents words and judgments for truth? How powerful are the messages we give our children as we react to their daily activities?
Are we aware of the power of our words? Are we aware of how a disapproving glance, a shrug or a grimace can affect the self-image of our children? And what if we don’t care? What if we intend to insult our children, to break their spirit, out of some sad lack we have in ourselves? What monsters must dwell within these tortured psyches, as parent passes to child his or her own demons, doubts and fears? What power we hold, one over another, with our words and gestures, with our judgments and intimations, with our counsel and our guidance, for good or ill. My life was shaped by the community I grew up in, the accident which would lead to our escape from it and the opportunities afforded by both.
In Pittsburgh, during the first few days, my father had responded well to treatments to stabilize his overall health. The prognosis on his hand however, was not good.
Upon learning that her husband was to remain at Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, about 45 miles away, my mother resolved immediately to learn to drive. She had taken driver’s training in high school but since her family had not owned a car, she had never pursued her license. She asked her older brother Jack, to teach her to drive, so she could drive herself to the hospital. After a few days of refresher lessons, she passed her driver’s test. The next day she drove to Pittsburgh. A trip to Pittsburgh from Kittanning was a two and a half hour drive in those days, over winding rural highways that thread through the many tiny coal towns that led to what people called “Downtown,” Pittsburgh. Looking out of the window in his room, he saw what looked like the family car, pull into the lot. My mother had surprised him, driving herself to the hospital. She drove to the hospital nearly every day of his hospitalization, while my sister and I stayed in the care of her mother or with other local family.
One day, a week or so after he had been admitted to Mercy Hospital, my father asked her not to visit. He said that there were some medical treatments planned that day that would limit their visiting time. Curious and suspicious that something was not being said, she called back to the hospital, where the medical staff told her that they would be amputating the three middle fingers of his right hand. When he came out of surgery, my mother was waiting to see him. She assured him that they would see through this injury together.
There were several operations over the ensuing months. There were skin graft operations, where skin taken from his leg was used to repair burns to a patch on his arm which had also brushed the high tension line. There were other grafts to cover the area of the hand where the fingers had been removed. Later, there would be a second, experimental surgical operation, where the surgeons removed more of the hand, in the hopes that they would be able to restore greater feeling to his thumb and little finger. If successful, it would allow for more effective use of the right hand. In spite of their best efforts, that operation was unsuccessful. While he would learn to do amazing things, with what remained of his right hand, the thumb and little finger would have little practical movement.
The hospital recovery and physical therapy was long and painful. More painful than the physical injuries, perhaps, were the mental struggles with what was to come. Prospects for work outside of West Penn Power were unimaginable. In a moment of depression, my father suggested to my mother, that perhaps she should seek other prospects.
“You’re a young, pretty girl”, he said. “You could do better than be married to a man with only one hand.”
My mother would hear none of it. She spoke encouragingly about the life that lay ahead, the house that they were building, the young children at home and her expectation that he would soon be coming home.
“We’ll be fine.” she said.
About a month after the accident, my mother arranged a surprise to boost my father’s sagging spirits. He was sitting on an outdoor patio at Mercy Hospital, wrapped in bandages enjoying the summer sunshine. Slowly, the door opened to the outside veranda. Through the door, with faltering steps on unsteady legs, came my sister Pam, who at just under a year old was beginning to walk. He was overjoyed to experience his daughter’s first steps. My dad had missed this moment with me. I had learned to walk while he was in the Army, stationed in Germany with the Army Signal Corps. Seeing my sister learning to walk was a wonderful respite in this difficult time.
He was finally able to come home from the hospital for Thanksgiving, 1956. There would be a long rehabilitation ahead for my father and many changes to come in the lives of our family, but on this holiday, there was much to be thankful for.
Shortly before he died, I spoke to him about that earlier experience of cheating death, something that not only changed his life but the lives of all of us. He said that one memory never leaves him, the smell of the flowers in the funeral home’s utility van. If the scent of flowers is the fragrance which may augur life events and the promise of Spring, we should celebrate each day knowing that rebirth lies within each of us, if we exercise the will to unlock it.