Just as a plume of smoke and the shocks of spark from flint on steel on woodland tinder flash to a brilliant orange flame in response to a single bellowed breath while starting a fire in the solitude of winter, so too a rush of healthy crimson pigment spread quickly over the skin of the newborn baby transforming his ghostly white figure to the rich color of earthly life, marking his transition from a celestial dwelling place inside to one wholly of this world. It was the result of his first oxygenated breath on a chilly November morning in a northern Vermont hospital as Dylan alighted from his mother. The shock of the sight of the paleness instantly turned rose in some silent explosive metamorphosis sent a shiver of awe through me. The room grew warmer. It was with exquisite awkwardness and nervous fragility that I held the infant, cradling him in quivering arms away from my body like carrying a nest of bees or a tin of glowing coals, stunned by the squirming weightlessness of new life and the surging energy and light, marveling at his pulsing fontanelle in all its haunting delicateness, before restoring him to Mary’s chest where tender arms enveloped him, as if by blood memory, with supernatural familiarity and a knowing touch.
The drum beat of contemporary life forces us to focus increasingly on the present, leaving fewer mechanisms with which we can fully absorb and understand the past. Sitting at Dylan’s deathbed, 30 years after his birth – one hand clasped in his, the other softly stroking his bearded face with its rose-colored cheeks, watching for each breath of life as he sleeps, feeling at times for his heartbeat – prompts one to cherish the past and attempt to transform its memorable episodes into meaningful measures of our own becoming.
Most American boys (and perhaps increasingly girls) at one point in their childhoods consider a soldier’s life, often with a view to the excitement attached to the notion by popular literary and film depictions. Following my own introduction to such matters, Dylan and I watched The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarone when he was a child. His favorite television series growing up was Tour of Duty, with its stirring memorable theme song from the Rolling Stones – Paint it Black – and its daring themes (for the time) involving matters of faith, drug abuse, and terrorism. He was drawn in by the energy of the popular movie involving naval fighter pilots Top Gun while still in kindergarten. He and Jude routinely played war games in the backyard or at the beach, including capture the flag.
Most children among us, and in fact most of us, are spared the everyday dark side of war, though sharp reminders do occur, perhaps most recently is the episode of terror at the Boston Marathon in 2013. Dylan was still a teen when 9/11 hit. Growing up, abstract thoughts of the dark side reached him partly though our bedtime readings of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting, Stephen Crane’s Episode of War and a variety of stories set in Europe during WWII (among his favorites is the children’s classic Escape from Warsaw, known in other parts of the world as The Silver Chair), and partly through television news. As a second grader, he followed with unusual interest for someone of his age the news of the Gulf War. Later, he would study American history and be exposed to more contemporary popular depictions of war including Oliver Stone’s breakthrough film – Platoon. We followed battles of our time and heritage, both mythic and real. Readings in Irish history followed family dinners, and included writings on the Battle of Boyne, the Easter Uprising, and the Troubles. In the Name of the Father, The Devil’s Own, and Michael Collins were among the movies discussed at dinner. Articles on the conflict in Northern Ireland appearing in the Boston Globe were routinely torn out, saved and circulated in the house through Dylan’s teen years. Dylan always listened with a contemplative, searching quietude to stories of military service from his grandfathers and from other relatives and friends’ fathers. Twice he looked on with great solemnity at the slow mechanical animations of servicemen and women as they precisely folded and presented the triangular forms of memorial American flags to each of his grandmothers – Mary Lou and Joanne – at the burials of their respective husbands, his veteran grandfathers – Paul Joseph Connelly and Dr. Walter Kahle Johnson – following gun salutes and the bugling of Taps.
It was on a rainy late summer afternoon when Dylan and a neighborhood friend Mike Naimee, both having recently completed the 8th grade, set out to hike the hill and camp for the night – backpacks, sleeping bags and tents mounted atop their shoulders. Their destination was a place of remembered beauty for Mary and her family – Deerfield – a sassafras grove, an island in a sea of meadow and the high point of the Johnson family farm in western Pennsylvania – a place just far enough away from a boy’s reckoning of the comforts of civilization. It was but one moment in a coming of age period.
They wore camouflage, presaging events to come later in life. Mike served as a sniper in Iraq, taking four-hour shifts from a vantage point high in the city – where just after being relieved by his fellow soldier, the other was instantly killed by a single shot to the head. Dylan had been awarded the American Legion medal that 8th grade spring, recommended by faculty members upon graduation from middle school for honor, courage, scholarship, service and leadership. On learning of his friend’s brush with death in a profession that they talked about around the fire during their childhood campout in Deerfield years before, Dylan expressed admiration for his friend’s mastery of rifle-craft, and his courage. Both boys were in their twenties at the time – Dylan entrenched in life in New England, Mike in the middle East. Dylan traveled to pay a visit to his childhood friend’s father. Following the visit, Dylan commented on Mr. Naimee’s pride in his son’s accomplishments, though he also noted a perceptible overshadowing worry for his son’s life. It was a sobering event for Dylan. It moved him. Sitting by a tent on a hill as a boy, he may have enjoyed outward expressions of excitement at a soldier’s life; but inside, while laying in his sleeping bag late at night, listening to rain pelt the skin of the tent, he was undoubtedly contemplating the darker realities, realities of which he had no wish to participate but from which he would not run. Dylan was a quiet patriot, the deeds of his American and Irish heritage, both peaceful and violent, were mindfully and respectfully incorporated into his consciousness.
Fully alive and also expressed in Dylan’s consciousness lives the natural world and the notion of peaceful woodland adventure albeit infused with whatever physical challenge he fancied on a particular day. It was a connection to the natural world in celebration with family and friends that got Dylan’s blood up and made him glow.For him, the thrill of the battle of man vs. nature was one from which great pleasure and inner merit could be derived. It was so from an early age. From the vantage point atop my shoulders in his first year on the planet while Mary and I backpacked with him under blue skies in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area of Colorado, to the ground view experienced during barefoot scampers with Jude and Ben Grunow along the woodland paths by clear streams in northern Vermont on early holidays, to campouts in the mountains and along the seacoast with his sister Hilah and brother Jude all over glorious New England, to family swimming adventures in the Caribbean, to trips with his wife Nadine in the Green Mountains and beyond, to memorable weekend hikes with his children Neeve, Fiona and Rowan, and with friends from all eras in and around the Commonwealth, Dylan absorbed and adored nature.
When Hilah returned from backpacking deep in the mountains of the Wind River Range in Wyoming, navigating the Rockies, fly-fishing its cold streams, her thoughts turned to Dylan. Likewise, during Jude’s weekend outings to the White Mountains, staring into the fire late nights under bright stars, memories of Dylan played back in a thoughtful mind’s eye view. As friends Todd and Jude, Dane and Ian, Chris, Paul and Mike among others did battle with the hills of Harvard in the Bare Hill Triathlon, they reflected on their lion-hearted friend, Dylan Connelly. And when Mary picked black raspberries, she recalls with great fondness combing through the tangles of wild berry briars with little Dylan. I can still see her forearms bloodied and battle-scarred, the belly of her tee shirt pulled up into a temporary receptacle to store the fruit swollen with the black honey of summer, her long brown hair blowing in the wind, her easy smile. At Mary’s side, close to her long cotton skirt now heavily bethorned with berry prickle, Dylan picks the lower hanging fruit from within the brambles as with a paw, his tough calloused summer feet holding fast to the hillside as he drags a bucket full of the overripe lumps, smiling through a purple-stained face.
On summer weekends, around the fire at night, we tell stories of Dylan’s childhood to his daughters, Neeve and Fiona, while roasting marshmallows. At bedtime, we catch fire flies in a mason jar to examine under the covers while sleeping out in the camper in the driveway. Dylan’s presence is powerful, though he casts no visible shadows.
As the tumor burden advanced its death grip, Dylan uttered little. Words and phrases were whispered, most unintelligible. Despite his condition, perhaps I should not have been so surprised when, during an afternoon bedside visit when I informed him that President Obama was in Northern Ireland and the Republic, he looked up and inquired “Really?” Regardless of your politics, the sentiments expressed in the words that Obama uttered in a speech to school children from the North bear some contemplation – children who no doubt have their own images of soldiers and who lay awake at night imagining their own becomings: “these daily moments of life in a bustling city in a changing country may seem ordinary to many of you. And that’s what makes it extraordinary. For that’s what your parents and grandparents dreamt for all of you: to travel without the burden of checkpoints or roadblocks, and seeing soldiers on patrol; to enjoy a sunny day free from the ever-present awareness that violence could blacken it at any moment; to befriend or fall in love with whomever you want. They hoped for a day when the world would think something different when they heard the word Belfast; and because of their effort, because of their courage, that day has come.” It came within Dylan’s lifetime.
On trips to the cemetery, flags wave beside headstones. We consider the freedoms that our sovereignty enables – the freedoms that the grandparents of our grandparents’ grandparents dreamt for all of us. I think of Dylan. I see him walking through the grass on Harvard’s town common. He crosses the road and stands in front of the Civil War monument, under the downward gaze of the beautiful grieving woman with the folds in a long cloak draped over her shoulders, her hand poised to drop flowers. Then, he solemnly considers the writing on the combined World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War monument. He studies those about him – veterans, firemen, members from a band from the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the community at large – as he reflects on our forebearers who dared to ensure the attainment of unalienable rights and the realization of self-evident truths. Next, I see him as an infant, barely six months old. He is in the gymnasium at St. Michael’s College where, following a moving address to our graduating class, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and peace activist from Northern Ireland, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, walks from the podium to a table with Mary and me and my parents, to hold Dylan in her arms, confessing she had been distracted – even pleasantly haunted – by the ‘baby with an old soul’ throughout her speech. Her peaceful smile is reflected in his green eyes. Staring still deeper into his eyes, I see Dylan and Nadine and their children – Neeve, Fiona and Rowan – gathered around a fire in the wilds by a moonlit lake. Crouching by the fire, a radiant Dylan fills his lungs and blows: now the woodcoals flare up to each bellowed breath, to his body of orange light, while plume-bursts scatter cinder-sparks to rise beyond firelight with smoke and the bright spew of ash, through blossom dust under summer stars and down to the brambles of wild flowers. He smiles a knowing smile that conveys an understanding of the beauty of his family’s marvelous becoming. He is filled with peace in this bee-loud glade, where midnight’s all a glimmer and noon a purple glow and evening full of linnet’s wings that sound the drum beat borne within his deep heart’s core.