What the Obituaries Missed About My Uncle, Dan Berrigan

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What the Obituaries Missed About My Uncle, Dan Berrigan

Dan and Frida at his 90th birthday party in May 2011. (Photo: WNV / Joe Cosgrove)

Father Dan Berrigan’s life, legacy and gifts were celebrated at Saint Francis Xavier Church in New York City on Friday, May 6. The church is supposed to fit only 700 people, but more than a thousand crammed in, packing the aisles and sides, sitting and standing through the more-than-two-hour-long service.

Communion took half an hour, and they ran out of wine about two-thirds of the way through. Liz McAlister, my mother and Dan’s sister-in-law, offered a powerful eulogy, bringing his familiar words from Catonsville (“Our apologies good friends, for the fracture of good order”) into the sanctuary, as well as the assembled to their feet for an extended ovation. My siblings, Kate and Jerry Berrigan, and our cousin Carla Berrigan Pittarelli, joked that this is what Dan must have felt like all these years preaching and teaching. Standing ovations for days!

The four of us “young” Berrigans (in our 30s, 40s and 50s) conspired on a single eulogy to share different facets of our “Unka” that didn’t make it into the obituaries in the New York Times, Washington Post and other media outlets. Now that the planning, organizing and interacting with so many people is over, I offer you my portion of that eulogy. At the same time — as I sift through precious memories, a lot of great lessons, sadness and longing —  I try to remind myself of my own wisdom: It is enough.

I moved to New York City in 1998, with an internship, a notion of being a writer, and a way station of sanity and welcome at 98th Street (where Dan and a dozen other Jesuit priests lived). I didn’t need a New York City dream — I had Uncle Dan.

For more than 10 years, we had such great times — long lunches, long leisurely walks through Riverside Park and long prayer walks across 42nd street for Pax Christi’s Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. Actions, Bible studies, dinners at 98th street, road trips to Syracuse or Kirkridge [a retreat center in Pennsylvania]. I was always welcome. He always had time. He answered my phone calls at odd hours, asked me questions and listened for the real answers. He loved cappuccinos, cold white wine in the afternoon, and for the toll operators on the George Washington Bridge to be really energetic and colorful. He hated the radio, but always had music running through his head. He loved to share his food and would always offer me half of whatever he had, not eating until I ate. My Uncle Dan — Unka — told me my history. He shared his favorite books. He lifted his eyebrows in a particular way when he was ready to be rescued from a conversation.

And then — all of sudden — this spry and stalwart man, this slight man of swagger and soul and scripture (alliteration is my only poetry) beings to falter, grow slow, grow quiet. And now, the one I leaned on for advice, clung to for courage and counted on for the word that made it all make sense — now, he needs. Not much, not all the time, but more and more. And what does he need? An arm, a hand, easy company, love without condition. He needs me. Imagine… Me. And I find — improbably and providentially — that I have something and someone to offer. Myself, but more, a love that changes with time and a son — Seamus Philip — who is (or was, he is four now) pure love.

And so my wordless son and my quiet uncle find one another, and they congregate on a new plane and conspire in a new language at once so simple and infinitely more complicated than what is available to me — to us. Eyes lock, hearts lift and souls connect. And what do I do? Be present, mark it down, appreciate it.

Seamus and Dan in September 2013. (WNV / Patrick Sheehan-Gaumer)

My Madeline Vida comes later and understands the heart of the matter. When words emerge for her, “Uncle Dan” becomes a declaration, an assertion, a key to open up reality. “Uncle Dan!” she announces at the threshold of a new place. The words and the person connected to them are — for a time — a kind of talisman for her. We go to the White House for a demonstration in January and she chants “Uncle Dan, Uncle Dan, Uncle Dan” sometimes under her breath, sometimes loud and clear. My dear uncle, her magic spell. I don’t understand it, but I like it.

The children — Seamus, Madeline and their big sister Rosena — love him, and we — Patrick and I, and all of us up here — love him. And it is enough. It is all. No more words. Just being together.

And then that too is gone. He has left us. Of course, we believe Dan is in heaven, cheering us on and loving us deeply. But he is gone.

We have one another. It is enough. It has to be.

Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan, a columnist for WagingNonviolence.org, serves on the board of the War Resisters League and organizes with Witness Against Torture.

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