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O’Neil: ‘We’re all just walking each other home’

Carol O'Neil (right) at the wedding of Danny O'Neil and Sharon Pian Chan at the King County Courthouse in 2008. Danny's sister, Robin, is seated next to Carol and his brother, Casey, is visible in the foreground. (Photo by John Lok)

This story is about my mother, I promise, but it’s going to require just a little patience to get there.

First, I have to explain my affection for Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter, the single most identifying characteristic of my life from the age of 8 through about 14 or so.

I was obsessed with the guy. I’ve still got hundreds of his baseball cards, his specific model of catcher’s mitt and – most importantly – a signed picture of him smiling in a white Montreal Expos uniform:

To Danny,

Best of Luck!

God Bless,
Gary Carter

I was 8 years old and living in Klamath Falls, Ore., when I received that. It was 1983. I know because I looked up the Sports Illustrated archive to find the story that made such an impression I wrote him a letter.

What I can’t figure out is how he received my letter. You couldn’t exactly Google the Expos’ address back then, and Canadian baseball franchises certainly weren’t listed in any Oregon phonebook.

Somehow my Mom found a way just like so many of the things that Carol Jean O’Neil did for her three children, and all these years later, I couldn’t begin to explain how she managed to do it all in spite of everything she’s gone through.

And now my Mom is dying. There are less blunt ways for me to say that. More tactful phrasings like “letting go” or “moving on,” but I’m too sad to sand the rough edges off of this reality, too mad to apply a polite varnish to what is happening to the one person who – more than anyone else – explains the best parts of both the man I am and the person I still hope to become.

My Mom was diagnosed with cancer three and a half years ago. It was the week the Seattle Seahawks started their 2015 season. She has undergone four different surgeries since then, removing an assortment of tumors. She has taken multiple courses of chemotherapy, several types of immunotherapy and listened as her oldest son – me – has engaged in his own special brand of cursing-the-fates therapy.

In January, she decided against another course of chemotherapy. She checked out of that play before we even left the huddle, sniffing out a desperation call with some serious downside. She’s always been a realist.

I don’t know if death ever feels fair, but in this case, it feels like an unnecessarily low blow given how much this lady has already been through. She nursed my father through a debilitating illness, the exact origin of which remains a mystery. He died at the age of 38, leaving her with three children. She remarried, moving the family to Santa Cruz County before she was betrayed 10 years later by a man she truly loved, but who turned out to be dishonest at his very core. Throw in the death of my sister’s husband – also at the age of 38 – and mix in the average dose of the dysfunctions found in every family, and well, it’s possible for me to work up a pretty stiff persecution complex about the whole ordeal.

I was well on my way to mixing up just such a concoction on Friday morning in Salt Lake City after it had become apparent that my mother’s health had taken a severe turn. I was sitting in the living room of a vacation rental talking to Rob Morrell, one of my father’s classmates at Loyola High School in Los Angeles. We had come to Utah to watch the NCAA Tournament, an annual trip organized by Tom Kelly, another of my father’s classmates at Loyola.

Rob is going through his own illness, and as we talked, he gave me two gifts. The first was a quote from Ram Dass, an 87-year-old American academic and spiritual leader: “We’re all just walking each other home.”

It’s a beautiful thought. One that combines companionship and care with the reality that we’re all together for intermittent stretches of our own journeys, all headed toward the same destination.

The second thing Rob said was that we are not cursed by life, but blessed with it. We are not owed anything so much as we are given everything. And the more I’ve looked over these past few days, the more of those blessings I’ve been able to see. I have been given a great deal.

My mother has been the most important gift of all. She nurtured the best in me while curbing my more headstrong, selfish impulses. She insisted I honor my work commitments, but would drive me on my paper route for the “Herald and News” if it was particularly rainy or snowed. She cultivated my passion for sports, but vehemently hated how I tried to draw offensive fouls as an eighth-grade basketball player at Sacred Heart, once threatening to pull me off the court at Ponderosa Junior High if I kept toppling over at the slightest hint of contact.

My mother took it upon herself to find the address of a far-off baseball team because her son wanted to write a letter to some guy he read about in a magazine. I’m aware that I’m not the only person in the world who believes his mother is the best, but at this point in time, I’m not currently considering any dissenting views on the subject.

She’s sleeping now. “Transitioning” is what it’s called, but she’s listening, too, and on Sunday night I read aloud from William Saroyan’s 1943 novel, “The Human Comedy.” It’s an important book for our family. One my mother read to my father when he was sick, my Pop occasionally crying because a character reminded him of one of his family members. On Sunday night, I was the one reading through tears as Ulysses Macauley’s mother spoke to him of his father’s death:

“‘Death,’ she said, ‘is not an easy thing for anyone to understand, least of all a child, but every life shall one day end.’ She looked now at Ulysses. ‘That day came for your father two years ago … But as long as we are alive,’ she said, ‘as long as we are together, as long as two of us are left, and remember him, nothing in the world can take him from us. His body can be taken, but not him. You shall know your father better as you grow and know yourself better,’ she said. ‘He is not dead because you are alive.’”

That will be true of my Mom, too. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go finish walking her home.

Carol O’Neil died on Tuesday morning, March 26, before sunrise. She was at home, in her own bed surrounded by her children, Robin, Casey and Danny, which is exactly the plan she outlined to her hospice social worker. She was 68.