With St. Patrick’s Day upon us, my thoughts naturally turn to my favorite South Side Irishmen. While the day, and in this case, the weekend, is filled with the usual nod to our Irish ancestry, celebrating with parades, rebel songs, beer and plenty of corned beef, a part of me always feels a bit wistful, as memories turn to my parents, no longer here to join in the festivities. And so, to them, I raise a parting glass in salute.
My dad, John Casey Toner, better known as Jack to his friends, passed away a couple of months shy of my twenty-fifth birthday. Though I was married with a toddler, I was still a daddy’s girl. It wasn’t really fair, I know. My sister, eight years older than me, had been surrounded by boys until my arrival and served as a second mother to us all in her never-ending efforts to help our mom cope with her brood. In fact, one of my sister’s favorite memories was when she and my brothers were sent off to stay with my cousins as they eagerly awaited the newest arrival in the family (me, coming in at number six). She asked my dad to please let her be the first to know if she had a new sister (for which she had been fervently praying) or another brother (to which she’d resigned herself). Upon my entrance into the world, my dad telephoned with the news. When my aunt excitedly answered the phone and asked the obvious question, he told her that he needed to speak with Mary Beth first. That was the kind of man he was. The simple, innocent promise made to an eight-year-old girl took precedence over all else. When you’re the baby girl in a family, it’s hard not to be spoiled. So, while my sister was relegated to the role of second mother to us all, including yet another little brother bringing up the rear, I happily assumed the role of the baby girl.
My dad was a man of service. He served his country as an Army paratrooper during World War II with the legendary 101st Airborne Division Screaming Eagles, E Company (Easy Company, also depicted in the mini-series Band of Brothers) and then proudly served the citizens of Chicago as a member of the Chicago Police Department for thirty years. It was during a dark time in his tenure as a police sergeant, that he showed us what it meant to be a man of honor when he was callously used as a pawn in the infamously dirty politics of Cook County.
In an effort to appear as though the State’s Attorney’s office was earning its keep and worthy of re-election, the Chicago Police Department became the target of a major shake-up. My dad, along with two other Sergeants, faced criminal charges as a result. It wasn’t hard to figure out why these guys were chosen. All three were veteran police officers with large families to support. None could afford to lose their jobs, their benefits, or their pensions. So the powers that be decided that these men would be willing to play ball. By leveling charges, they could put the squeeze on them to extract incriminating evidence against much bigger game. Not a thought was wasted on the collateral damage inflicted. They didn’t know who they were dealing with, though. My father was a man of integrity. He would not play their game and, instead, he fought. And found himself in for the fight of his life. As my brother, Kevin, so eloquently put it, he was like an ice pick in a frozen ocean. He and my mom tried hard to protect my younger brother and me from the ugliness of the situation. But, it was impossible to keep us from seeing the front page of the newspapers or his face on the evening television news. It would have been like trying to hold back the sea with a fishing net.
Sometimes, as I try to remember things about my parents, I find the memories slip away and remain veiled, dangling just on the periphery of my mind. But, one thing I will never forget was the image of my dad on the news, walking out after a long day in court, led by his attorney and surrounded by reporters with microphones shoved in his face. I remember he stopped and, with his sparkling blue eyes clearer than ever, simply said “I didn’t do anything wrong.” I cried. We tried to live our lives as normally as possible. Life was anything but normal, though. Our phones were tapped. He was stripped of his badge and his stripes in his home, in front of his children. But, still, he would not bend.
Six long years and many appeals later, he was fully exonerated, acquitted of all charges by a unanimous decision. I know deep, down, he was scared. But, he never showed his fear. He died at age sixty-four of a massive heart attack. The hardest thing about that for me, was just missing him so much. But, I’ve always been able to find peace and consolation in the fact that my whole family had been together just the day before, celebrating my son, Mike’s first birthday. A seemingly insignificant memory, but one of the few precious ones struggling to remain with me was when my little Mike rolled across the room in his baby walker, stopped next to my dad, who was relaxing in a chair and stared intently at Grandpa, who finally said, “Do I owe you money?” It wasn’t an earth-shattering moment, but one I cherish.
I’m thankful that he got to know me as an adult. And for the times, before I got married when he and I would impulsively drop into Kivlehan’s Innisfree Pub for a pint. And for the fact that his death was quick and painless. My dad left this earth on good terms with his family, his friends and God. And that is a gift. In the words of my brother, Paul, he was the greatest man I ever knew. At his funeral mass Paul recounted the many, many times my dad could be found in the yard throwing the ball around with one of the boys. And, as Paul fondly recalled, anytime we ever challenged ourselves, whether in the athletic or academic arena, no matter the outcome, our dad’s first question was always, “Did you try your best? Don’t you see? You’re already a winner.”
My mother, Elizabeth Quinn Toner, known as Betty to her friends, was a blast. She kept us laughing with the crazy things that could only happen to her. We learned just how tough she was, though, after my father’s death, when she took up where he left off fighting the Chicago Police Board’s decision to revoke police officer widow’s pensions. It took a lot of courage for her to face the very intimidating Board, but she didn’t back down until the decision was reversed. And, for that, she became a hero to all widows of Chicago Police Officers.
At seventy, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. She could always find the silver lining in any situation, though, as she announced, “Well, at least I have a popular disease.” Though she had a prosthesis to wear, she never felt comfortable with it and, quite honestly, wasn’t out to fool the world into believing she was still twenty years old. A simple undershirt served well for her underclothing. Before starting radiation therapy, post-surgery, she had to be prepped. For those of you unfamiliar with this kind of treatment, the initial visit involves “tattooing” of the area to be irradiated, which is basically marking the area with a permanent marker. True to her trademark sense of humor, she remarked to the tech, “Who would have thought, at my age, I’d be on drugs, bra-less and tattooed?”
She survived that diagnosis, only to be diagnosed with a malignant lesion on her lung several years later. We assumed it was the breast cancer making an ugly return, but the biopsy showed the cells of the cancerous tissue originated in the lungs. Diagnosis: lung cancer. In a woman who had never smoked a cigarette in her life and had never been exposed to second-hand smoke, as neither her parents nor my dad had ever smoked. She was one of the statistics you hear about. My sister and brother-in-law, both in the medical field, were kind enough to welcome our mother into their home and provide daily care for her. Once, when I spent an evening with Mom, giving my sister a well-deserved break, she told me about a party that my sister and her husband attended at the Cardinal’s mansion. Perplexed, I asked, “Cardinal George? Of the Archdiocese of Chicago?” “Oh, yes. They went to a party at the mansion and had a wonderful time.” I thought she had been confused because we were planning a party for my brother, John at the time. The next day, I was talking to my sister and didn’t want to say anything about our mother’s confused state the night before, as it saddened me. Then, out of the blue, Mary Beth said to me, “Oh, did I tell you that Rich and I went to a party at Cardinal George’s mansion?” To say I nearly choked on my Diet Pepsi would be the understatement of the year. Turned out, they had been invited guests to a party there! My mom was sharp to the end.
She and Mike could spend hours combing through the phone book laughing at some of the funny names. Once, she sent him a menu from a Chinese restaurant with one of the entrees highlighted: the poo poo platter. She knew he’d get a kick out of that.
Even into her eighties, she cracked me up. At night, instead of counting sheep to lull her to sleep like a normal person, she used to try to construct the perfect murder (no one we knew, she assured us). She absolutely loved murder mysteries, but always knew, in the end, the forensics would get her. As a devout Catholic and a fan of science fiction, the two things she’d always hoped for in life were either a visit from the Blessed Mother or an alien. Once, when we were watching TV together, a commercial came on for a new Sci-Fi show which was set to premiere the following month. She said the show looked so good but wondered if she’d be around to see it.
On the evening of Last Rites, my siblings and my aunt gathered by her bedside as we recited prayers with the priest. When we were done, she asked us to leave the room and we each kissed her and told her we loved her, then went into the kitchen where a wonderful feast of catered food was waiting. We laughed, recounting the zany stories of her life and I whispered to my sister if this could count as John’s party. Two weeks later, my mom left this world for the next. The new show she had been so excited about finally aired, but it made me so sad to remember her prophetic words, that I couldn’t bring myself to watch it.
While my mom’s death was very different from my dad’s, I found myself thankful for the journey we were privileged to take with her. If my father’s swift end was a blessing, so was my mother’s, at the hands of cancer. She taught us to have grace to the end and to never, ever lose your sense of humor. To paraphrase Paul’s words: Jack and Betty were the greatest people I ever knew. And I am quite sure their entry into heaven was accompanied by the words: C’ead Mile Failte!!*
*Translation for those who are Irish but one day a year:
One Hundred Thousand Welcomes 💚