In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m going to share an oft-told story about my favorite Irish-American who isn’t in my family: Conan O’Brien. Forgive me if you’ve heard this before.
My dad got diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma in February 2000. His condition deteriorated rather quickly, and he spent lots of time on the 6th floor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. That was the domain of the doctors and nurses from Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Saints among humans, each and every one of them.
I was visiting my dad on the 6th floor one day with my mom and her best friend, Donna. After an hour or so, some of my dad’s family showed up. Rather than crowd around him like bunch of sad-sack sardines, my mom, Donna and I decided to leave and let them have a visit. My dad was having a bad day anyway, so it was best not to overstimulate him.
We waited for the elevator, and when it arrived, the doors opened to reveal two men: Conan O’Brien and his cousin. The three of us stood frozen at the entry, until Conan broke the ice with, “Come on now, there’s plenty of room.” We got on and descended to the ground floor in stunned silence.
When we entered the main lobby, people began approaching Conan. My mother said to me, “Dad loves his show, go ask him if he can say a quick hello to him.”
“Are you crazy, I’m not doing that!”
“Just go, Tommy, all those other people are talking to him.”
“They’re just asking him for autographs. I’m not asking him to go back to where he just came from, it’s so awkward.”
“Do it for Dad.”
She knew exactly what she was doing. Irish guilt. To this day I can’t escape it. I walked up to Conan and waited for him to stop signing scraps of paper women were pulling out of their purses.
“Hi Mr. O’Brien,” I stuttered. “I know you’re really busy, but my dad, Joe O’Malley, he’s a big fan of your show and he’s got cancer, so maybe the next time you’re here you could go say hello to him. He’s on the 6th floor.”
“What’s wrong with right now,” he asked.
“Are you serious?”
“Sure,” he said, turning his attention to his cousin, who was patiently enduring the onslaught of fans. “We have time, don’t we?”
“Of course,” his cousin said.
So the three of us walked over to my mother and Donna, both of whom were smiling like someone had just handed them a check for a million dollars.
“Thanks so much, Conan,” my mother beamed on the elevator back to the room. “This is gonna mean the world to him, you have no idea. He’s crazy about that dog puppet you do!”
We got off the elevator and walked through the ward. A few of the nurses did double takes as we passed. When we got back to the room, my dad’s family greeted us at first with surprise that we’d returned so quickly. Then they saw who our guest was, and that’s when shock settled on their faces.
“You must be Joe,” Conan said, making a b-line for my dad. “I’m Conan O’Brien, nice to meet you.”
My dad, who hadn’t been able to lift his head from the pillow twenty minutes earlier, sat straight up. “I can see that,” he deadpanned.
“Your son here told me you like the Triumph sketches we do.”
“Oh yeah, you did one at Westminster that was very funny.”
“But sometimes that dog says crazy nuts things, Conan,” my mom added, ever the innocent Catholic.
They talked for probably twenty minutes, about Triumph and who knows what else. What I remember more than words is that, for the first time since his diagnosis, my dad looked like a man who was living instead of dying.
When it was time for Conan to leave, he said, “Listen Joe, as soon as you beat this, I want you and your family to come to New York and see a taping of my show. We’ll go get a beer afterward.” He gave my mother his card with the name of his assistant and said, “See you in New York.” After he left, my mother promised to the room, “If he makes it through, I’m gonna let him have that beer. I swear, he can have a beer.”
My dad had been sober for more than a decade at that point. If having a beer with Conan O’Brien would keep him alive, however, my mom was willing to allow that. Faced with death, people make surprising compromises.
My dad didn’t live to drink that beer. But thanks to Conan O’Brien, we got a fleeting glimpse of the vitality that years of sickness had suppressed in the man. Thirteen years later, I still remember the look on his face, the way his eyes opened as if for the first time, when Conan said, “You must be Joe.”
© 2013 Tommy Jordan O’Malley
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