When you think of a giant, you don’t think of a five seven, one hundred and twenty pound man (at most), who appeared even smaller than that due to the ravages of scoliosis and a life spent in a wheelchair. Yet, my dad was huge. He was a mountain. Despite being unable to stand, he stood taller than any person I have ever known. His presence in my life will forever be massive. He was a giant.
When you think of a teacher, you don’t think of someone who never left their home, who was basically a shut-in. Yet every time I saw my dad, he taught me something. He taught me how to persevere. He taught me gratefulness. He taught me Delco. He taught me how to live my best life and the importance of enjoying it, and he taught me all of this and so much more without even trying to. He taught me with his example. He was a teacher.
When you think of a strong man, you don’t think of someone whose hands started shaking the moment he picked up a fork, a knife, or a morning cup of coffee. Yet, my dad was the strongest person I will ever know. He did so much on his own, more than he should have had to, and more than what was right. And he never complained. He just did it. He was strong. He was so strong.
When you think of a lively man, you don’t think of someone who habitually slept vast portions of the day away. Yet, if you got into conversations with my dad, if you engaged him on topics ranging from sports to current events to the importance of family, he would sit up straighter, talk a little louder—okay, a lot louder—and dominate the conversation. If you put his grandchildren in front of him, he would simply light up, and the smile he was never able to quite muster for a photograph suddenly appeared naturally. He was lively.
When you think of a proud man, you don’t think of someone who was continually unkempt. Yet, if you saw how concerned my dad was with his hair, if you ever popped his cap off and helped him tame his untamable cow lick, you would have seen just how much his appearance mattered to him. If you talked with him about family, about his children’s or grandchildren’s accomplishments or his siblings or his nieces and nephews, his pride was evident. He loved his family more than anything and would have done anything for anyone, and he was proud of everyone. He was proud.
When you think of a healthy man, you don’t think of someone who battled a degenerative brain disorder for decades, who suffered from respiratory issues for years, and who was in so much pain he continually sought out new treatment modalities—none of which ever really worked. No doubt about it: my dad was a medical mess. But he was emotionally healthy, mentally healthy, at least most of the time. Life beat him down, but it never beat him. It never defeated him. He was always so happy to see you, so excited to spend time with you, and so understanding if something prevented you from visiting. Plus, let’s get this right: Despite all of his myriad health issues, it took a pandemic to finally take him from us. I have to repeat that, because it’s stunning in so many ways: It took a pandemic to finally take him from us. He was healthy, at least in some ways.
My dad defeated the odds far longer than we ever expected him to. He kept fighting, he kept smiling, and he kept loving right up until the end. He was my hero. He was the best father I could ever have hoped for. I love you, Dad. I will miss you every day.
On Thursday afternoon, Kate, Mike, Meg, and I said our final goodbyes to our father without knowing how much longer he would last, without knowing how long his ever-present resilient streak would keep him alive. We said our goodbyes over FaceTime. Over a fucking video chat. I’m grateful for it, to have had the chance to gather with my siblings and say goodbye to him, but at the same time, I hate that it happened that way. I hate that we were in the hospital, literally on the same fucking floor as him, but we couldn’t see him face to face. We couldn’t touch him. He couldn’t feel our physical presence. We couldn’t surround him with love and let him know that we were there, by his side, for his final journey.
I understand why. I mean, Covid. He had Covid, and all the requisite precautious were put into place. That doesn’t mean I have to like it, though. That doesn’t mean that I have to like that he spent his last week and a half with us locked away in isolation. I hated knowing that as we spoke with him, he was so close, yet so far away. He deserved better. After fighting for so many years, he deserved better than to die while being isolated from his loved ones. But that’s how it went down, because 2020-2021 is an absolute shitshow and Covid sucks.
He passed early Friday morning, before sunrise. His strength, which had carried him year after year, departed into the moonlight.
He was given such extraordinarily good care during this last, final battle with his health. All the nurses and physicians were rooting for him to beat Covid, but with his history of respiratory issues and his already frail nature, I don’t know if he ever stood a chance against it. But they tried. They really tried. And so did he. His respirations went up and down and back up like a yoyo. There were even times that his respirations almost came back to normal. As crazy as it seemed, we actually considered that he was possibly going to beat it.
But then the bottom dropped out. And when it became obvious that his condition was worsening, when it came time to place him in hospice, his caregivers cried with us, shed tears with us, and I’m so grateful that I could feel their empathy, their warmth. Even though they had only known my dad for a short time, we knew they genuinely cared for him and did not want to see him suffer.
If you never met my dad, you’re worse off for it. I have no doubt about that. I don’t believe in saints or blessed people, but I do believe in the power of everyday people. Those people who wake up day in and day out and inspire others through the sheer force of their own will. Through the sheer force of their existence.
That was my dad.
I’ve long thought about what I would say, what I would write, upon his passing. Honestly, I’ve had decades. Literally fucking decades. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would happen within two months of my mom’s death.
Fuck. You. 2020-2021.
There are many cliches I could share about my dad, many thoughts I know you’ve heard before about many people. Today, I’m going to strive to avoid all of those, though I know I’m going to fail at that endeavor.
So be it.
I really began to know and understand and truly love my dad in the summer of 1995. That’s the summer I moved in with him after five years in the Marine Corps. I can remember the phone call that changed my life. “Hey, Dad, it’s Will. I’m going to change my residency to California. Qualify for their in-state tuition. Go to school for oceanography.”
“Well, my family thought you’d come home and live with me.”
That’s all it took. That simple statement. Within seconds, I knew that he needed my help, that he needed me by his side. Back then, I had no idea how sick he was—and I certainly had no idea what the next 25+ years of his life would look like, but I knew that was his call for help.
So I did what I would like to think most of us would do if put in the same situation: I got on an airplane, in utter tears as I left the best friends I had ever known, and traveled “home” to a place that felt as strange to me as an alien planet.
Thank fucking god I accepted that mission. That fucking god I honored his request.
Thank fucking god that age 22 I decided to come home and take care of my dad.
If not, I wouldn’t have met Beth. If not, I wouldn’t be Squirt’s dad. If not, I wouldn’t have the awesome, supportive, close-knit relationships that I have with my siblings. If not, I wouldn’t have made the friends that I’ve made.
If not, I wouldn’t be me. I’d be some weird alternate version of me. I assume I’d still like punk rock and have tattoos, but my life and experiences would be different and I never would’ve met the people who are now closest to my heart.
To hell with all that.
So in 1995, I came home, and in the years since, I’ve been honored to call William Welsh my father.
There are so many things one can ask of their dad. You can ask him to be strong.
You can ask him to be tenacious.
You can ask him to be resilient.
You can ask him to be joyful.
You can ask him to be supportive.
You can ask him to be resolute.
You can ask him to be the strongest motherfucker you’ve ever known.
Check motherfucking check.
And you can ask him to be inspirational.
Check. One hundred times check.
My dad was all of that and more, despite the world spitting in his face, telling him off, and making him work for every smile he ever put across his face.
That dude…he was my hero.
Have you ever known someone who makes your day better just with their sheer existence? Who prevents you from having a bad day, just because you know their day was a tad bit—or even way more than a tad bit—shittier, and despite that, they keep on smiling? And they do so day after day after day?
That was my dad. I don’t think there have ever been too many people quite like him.
He didn’t allow me to have bad days. He didn’t allow me to feel self-pity. He didn’t allow me time to ponder the shitty days or the shitty weeks or even the shitty months.
You know why?
Because he didn’t have what most of us would consider a single fucking good day for DECADES.
His good days were not shitting himself.
His good days were feeling well enough to eat.
His good days were being able to stay in bed because he was too weak or in too much pain to do anything else.
His good days were falling and somehow not injuring himself.
His good days were pushing through so much pain and frustration but still saying, “Hey, guy! How are you?!” the second you walked through his door.
His good days were measured in the tiniest of moments. And god damn if he didn’t make you feel it.
This is not to say that he wanted to make you feel bad. It’s not to say he was trying to lay a guilt trip. He was honestly interested in knowing how your day was actually going! He wanted to hear how good it was! He wanted to know the joy in your life! He wanted to know where your smiles were coming from, cause guess what? That’s where his smiles were coming from, too!
He. Would. Not. Let. You. Have. A. Bad. Day. Because. His. Good. Days. Were. Way. Worse. Than. Your. Worst. Days.
His health started to go awry in the late ‘80s, when he began to notice that his balance was off. While walking, he would just start to stumble, like he was drunk. After some time, he was diagnosed with olivopontocerebellar ataxia, a rare degenerative neurological disorder that slowly robs you of your motor function. His balance was the first thing to noticeably deteriorate, and over time all of his motor functions began to suffer. He would have intentional tremors. His speech became incredibly hard to understand. Even the process of eating became difficult—because what is swallowing but another motor function? And around 20 years ago, he became wheelchair bound.
It was an impossible life, but he lived it with so much dignity, a dignity that was more powerful than a simple glace at him could tell you. Because, trust me, Dad was not the most dignified-looking person. His appearance? Let’s just say that it wasn’t regal. It makes me laugh just thinking about it. Poor guy was constantly disheveled. He had a head of hair that I will forever remain jealous of, and it was a perpetual mess. The remnants of his last meal or snack were always smeared across his face or in his lap or both. His clothes were a way, and by “a way,” I mean a fucking wrinkle bomb. Yet, if you saw past all of that, what you saw was a guy who decided to live in an apartment on his own and on his own terms. He’d ask for help when needed, but he would try not to. He didn’t want to be a hindrance, a burden, he didn’t want to hold you back from living your life.
If only he knew that he was the opposite of a hindrance. He taught me how to live life, and he did so from the confines of a wheelchair.
Another thing to know about my dad is this: Dude loved arguing. I mean, he would take the opposite side of an argument just to do it, just to piss you off, just to get into a debate with you. And this guy, he was good at it. He would somehow take the most benign of conversations to ridiculous levels. I can remember having to leave his apartment multiple times just because I couldn’t continue with the conversation, because I was so incredibly frustrated by his argument or his line of thinking, and as I walked out the door I could hear him laughing, because he knew he had won.
He loved pushing buttons.
There were also times, though, that he enjoyed deeper conversations, conversations about life and its mysteries. I can remember one day in particular. We’d talk about religion often, about how his family was Catholic and I went to Catholic school for 12 years, and yet there I sat, completely nonreligious. He’d poke at me fairly often about this. It bothered him, not because I wasn’t religious, necessarily, but because I was breaking family tradition, and tradition was important.
One day, we found ourselves conversing about it for the umpteenth time. This conversation, though, was a long one, way longer than normal. He kept on it, kept pressing me. He really wanted me to express myself, to hear my line of thinking. And then at some point, we just stopped and he looked at me. He took a pause and said, “I’ll give you this, I think you know why you believe what you believe more than most people ever will.”
I can’t tell you how good it felt for me to hear him say those words, not just because he finally knew where I was coming from, but because he took the time to actually listen and understand.
That moment meant the world to me. It still does.
Outside of arguing and debating, he also loved needling people about things. He loved giving people a hard time, and the more he loved someone, the harder he’d attack. Sometimes he’d take it too far, get a little too personal or say something a bit too on the nose, but he didn’t know any better. At least that’s the excuse we always made for him. And by and large, when that occurred, someone would let him know, and he’d correct course.
He’d keep that smile on his face though, the mischievous fucker.
I don’t know where I go without my dad. All I know is this. I will love him forever. I will honor him forever. I will never have another person in my life quite like him.
No one else will ever force me to have good days like he did, to force me to see the bright side of life, to be grateful for the smallest things, and to honor and respect my own body’s capabilities because I know full well, thanks to him, that not everyone is lucky enough to have a body that works. So if you do—and I’m speaking to the person reading this right now—if you have a body that works, be grateful for it and push it, make it sweat, make it sore, and keep it in shape, because you…you’re one of the lucky ones.
I’ll forever praise him for being my inspiration. I’ll forever praise him for being my good day, my smile.
I will forever miss him.
There are many times throughout life when you hear the phrase, He or She was the best of us. It’s not always true. I’d say most of the time it isn’t true. Very often, it’s just a catch phrase. It sounds good, right?
Well, I’m here to tell you that my dad was the best of us. And if you don’t believe that, it’s only because you never knew him.