On the first day of June, The Church of St. Therese of Deephaven overflowed with mourners, as friends and family of Jim Ryan gathered to say goodbye to the father of eight and CEO of Ryan Companies US, Inc. Ryan accomplished much in his life, but what he has achieved since dying of melanoma at the ripe young age of 66 accomplishes what any good life should accomplish, and I don’t mean the miracle of bringing more than one thousand people to a shared pin-drop silence, save for the smiling sniffles of his daughters, who draped themselves over each other in front of his casket. This is the scene I sauntered into a couple Mondays ago.
I mean being an example to us all. Being an inspiration.
It is the week before Father’s Day, and in the coming days we will hear about various versions of good dads. There will be necktie jokes and cook-outs with the fam, and many examples of great dads, from Ward Cleaver to Barack Obama, put forth by the role model-whipped town hall. But behind the scenes there are the unheralded Jacks and Joes, and plenty of other dads who are on the ropes these days, struggling with how to be a good man and father in these chaotic times of unemployment, uncertainty, unraveling.
In the past month I’ve heard harrowing tales of father fall-out from the New Depression. One guy lost everything in the stock market crash, and his career is in shambles. He has made his young family the enemy and burrowed himself into a corner of his house and won’t come out. Another took his life, presumably because his soon-to-be-final divorce cemented the idea in his head that he couldn’t be the perfect father to his three kids. Another contacted his forty-something daughter whom he hadn’t seen in her entire life, wanting to make amends.
That’s one way to go. Then there’s Jim Ryan’s way, which can be summed up by the utter quiet of that church, born I think not out of bereavement, but out of reverence for a life well-lived: he was loved and he gave of himself. Before that, what I knew about Ryan I had procured the scant few times I met him through our next-door neighbor and his daughter, the gorgeous black Irish businesswoman-in-her-father’s-footsteps Molly and her teen screen-handsome husband, the distinguished painter and sculptor Michael Carson.
What I knew is that Jim Ryan loved Notre Dame football and went on silence retreats, which reminded me of my dad and made me like him immediately: a fellow seeker-slash-fan of the unknown. More so, it gave me license to be myself as a man cave-loving father, for it was his daughter who told me about Jim’s meditative side, a fact she offered with a proud smile and vigorous nod, as if she knew instinctively that her father needed his quiet time, a soft place to fall away from the numbers and hunting and gathering and competition and a way back into himself.
It’s the same for all of us, I think. The other night I played poker with a bunch of dads, one of whom cornered me at the end of the night in the kitchen, dropped his confident dad veneer, and admitted how terrified he is of the future. A couple nights later I found myself sitting with two other worried dads in the green room of an old theater on the outskirts of downtown Minneapolis. We usually play music there, but this night we sat for an hour or so, just talking.
In many ways, it was like a high school retreat, or a men’s group for non-joiners, wherein the silent spaces between the conversations were as welcome as what was said. We talked about dreams for the future, music, philosophy, spirituality. Then we packed up our gear and went back out into the world, recharged by the knowledge that fathers since the beginning of time have faced similar trials, and embraced similar joys.
So to the dads who might not show up on the Great Dad grid on this Father’s Day, I’d just like to say: You’re not alone. And if you end your life with your daughters smiling and sobbing in front of your casket, you did something right.
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.