Finding Phil by Bob Corrigan
In February 2006, I followed through on my retirement plans, after 38-plus years with the same company. Once my retirement became official, I had the opportunity to convert some group life insurance coverage I had as an employee to individual coverage. The conversion was handled by a consulting firm in Texas.
I received a letter offering the conversion opportunity signed by a woman named Brenda Keane. The letter didn’t indicate the cost of coverage under an individual policy, so I phoned her. She wasn’t in the office, but I heard her voice mail message. She pronounced her last name “KANE,” which reminded me of the way my old friend Phil pronounced his name.
Phil Keane (not his real name) was a high school classmate, teammate, and friend of mine in the early 1960s. Despite its spelling, Phil’s last name was pronounced “KANE” rather than “KEEN.” Phil was smart, strong, talented, and very popular. He was among the highest academic achievers in our class, and a shotputter on the track team, who seemed to have muscles on top of muscles. He could also sing, and performed in several musical shows at the school. Phil was very friendly, knew just about everyone by name, and was present whenever there was a school dance or basketball game. Constantly smiling, with an impish sense of humor, Phil Keane was one of the people I remember most from my high school days.
After graduation, we went our separate ways. I went on to Fordham University, but I wasn’t sure which college Phil had chosen. As time went by, I’d periodically think about Phil, and wonder what happened to him.
Where did he live? What did he do for a living? How is he? We had several class reunions over the years, but Phil never showed up. And none of the classmates I’d seen or been in contact with knew anything more about him.
In the weeks following my retirement, I corresponded with Brenda Keane by e-mail about the details of the insurance conversion. Finally, I added a postscript to an e-mail, noting the pronunciation of her last name, and asking if she might possibly be related to someone by the name of Phil Keane, with whom I had attended high school. I knew this was a real long shot – she was in Texas, I knew Phil in New York, more than four decades had passed since I had seen or heard from him – but thought it was worth a try.
She responded that her father’s name was Phil, that he had gone to high school in New York at about the same time I had, but that she had not been in touch with him for some time. I responded, describing Phil, and she wrote back, “It must be him.” The description matched her father perfectly. We exchanged a few more details, enough for both of us to be convinced that her father was the friend I had lost track of more than forty years earlier! It seemed an extraordinary coincidence. But as Pope John Paul II once observed, “In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.”
Through subsequent e-mails, I learned that Phil had been estranged from his family. He had dropped out of college to join the Marines, and was sent to fight in Vietnam. The war had a damaging effect on him, as it had on so many others. Phil came home alive, but suffering from addictions – which I assumed to be drugs and alcohol – that would haunt him the rest of his life.
Phil worked as a Marine recruiter for a while, married, and had a daughter and son. But the post-wartime stress and battles with addiction became too much for him. Phil realized his behavior would cause great distress to his family, so he left them when Brenda and her brother were quite young. The children were raised by their mother, and barely knew Phil.
They certainly didn’t consider him a father figure. Phil moved around a lot, and Brenda told me the last time she had seen him was ten years earlier, when he lived in Florida. She had had no contact with him since, and didn’t know where he was living at the time we corresponded.
It was clear to me that the family had experienced pain over Phil’s departure, and that Brenda had no clear idea of what kind of man he had been before Vietnam took its toll. I had the advantage of having a picture of him in my mind that was frozen in time – when we were in high school, and the world was ours. He was funny, smart, and popular with everyone, and many people considered him a friend.
I took the opportunity to tell her what kind of person he was in high school, relating incidents from his teenage years, and assuring her that Phil had been one of the most highly regarded people in our class. I told her about his various extracurricular activities, his diverse talents, and his popularity with his classmates and teammates. In my view, the young man I described was the real Phil, the person he had been before Vietnam tore him apart.
Our correspondence ended in June 2006. Several months later, I was stunned to receive an e-mail from Brenda informing me that Phil had passed away in Louisiana. She had few details, but did tell me that a memorial service was to be held at a church on Long Island in late November.
The news of Phil’s death saddened me. I had quietly hoped that perhaps somehow we could reconnect, now that I had some idea what had happened to him. I told Brenda that I was sure I had some old photos of her father from our school yearbooks and copies of the school newspaper that I had saved. I thought the photos, in addition to the information I had already provided her about Phil, might help her “flesh out” a clearer picture of the man her father was before he had been bruised by the war. It turned out that Phil, being a popular, active guy, was in quite a few photos. I made copies of them, and sent two sets to Brenda, one for her and one for her brother.
A couple of weeks later, I attended the memorial service, which was held at Phil’s brother’s church. When I arrived before the Mass, the organist was playing softly, and the mood in the church was very calm and serene. There were about 50 to 60 people in attendance. The Mass was concelebrated by two priests, and it was very beautifully done. At the beginning of Mass, one of the priests invited Phil’s brother Jack to share his reflections about Phil. He spoke eloquently, relating a summary of his brother’s life, concentrating for the most part on the earlier years (pre-Vietnam). As he spoke, I thought back to my high school days, and the young man he was describing was the same Phil Keane I knew.
Jack Keane also mentioned the difficulties his brother experienced over the prior 35 years or so as a result of the war, including his repeated efforts to shed his addictions, and it grieved me to think about how such a wonderful person had been so irreversibly scarred. It struck me that not every victim of that terrible war had lost his life on the battlefield; many others, like Phil, died a slow, agonizing death as a direct result of that conflict. Jack spoke highly of Phil’s wife, and of Brenda and her brother John. His remarks were touching, and gave everyone in the church a clear sense of what Phil had been like before the viciousness of war left its mark on him.
The theme of the Mass was positive and loving, and the tone set by the main celebrant was one of peace as a result of God’s love. The Gospel reading spoke of Jesus’ promise that “there are many dwellings in My Father’s house,” reassuring all in attendance that Phil now peacefully dwelt in one of them. The hymns fit perfectly: “Be Not Afraid,” “Amazing Grace,” and “On Eagles’ Wings.”
After the Mass, I gave Jack Keane copies of the same yearbook photos I had sent to Brenda, but declined his kind invitation to join the family for lunch. I felt that should really be a family gathering. I came away with a sense of gratitude that I had been a friend of Phil Keane’s when he was his truest self. I regretted that he suffered so much pain, and that I couldn’t somehow have done something to relieve it.
Riding home on a train from the memorial Mass, I had an overwhelming sense of God’s presence, and gratitude that He had allowed me to have a role in bringing some comfort to an old friend’s family. I thought about God’s hand in this whole matter – His guidance that led me to retire from my job, the highly unlikely chance that my retirement would lead me to “accidentally” connect with Phil’s daughter more than 40 years after I had last seen him, and God’s grace in permitting me to paint a different picture of Phil to his children, who only knew him as the troubled man who left them when they were young.
It was very humbling to think that God had chosen me to play a part in this family drama. I did nothing special, nothing that 100 others in our class wouldn’t have done in the same circumstances, but somehow I was the one who fit into God’s plan to bring a measure of peace to Phil’s family. I related the details of the memorial service to Brenda by e-mail. A couple of weeks after the service, I received an e-mail from Brenda’s mother, who had undoubtedly suffered a great deal in her own life due to Phil’s torments. She told me that for years, whenever Brenda had referred to Phil at all, it was as “that guy who lives in Florida.” She now calls him “my father.”