Bigger Than Winter: For Hugh E. Reilly '76

Author: Mickey Reilly

Thursday night
Sheraton Hotel, Chicago

Dear Hugh,

How is it possible, after a lifetime of friendship, that you have simply disappeared, my brother? I wander through my days searching for your grin, the way you cock your head when listening, the quality of your voice as singular as the swirls in your fingertips. I see your son, your wife, our parents, our siblings, your friends, and I recognize the look in their eyes, too.

We were all in mid-sentence with you, Hugh, when you died on the operating table after 23 years of successfully staring down cancer. Your record of overcoming the odds had left us thinking not about your vulnerabilities but instead about your invincibility. Nobody could possibly count all of the hospital stays, emergency room visits, surgeries, chemotherapies, radiation treatments and follow-up appointments that you endured. We’re grappling to learn how to deal with the one that you couldn’t.

This weekend, your other two sisters and I have met up in Chicago to travel together to Notre Dame, the place that has drawn you repeatedly throughout your life. Tomorrow we’ll join your wife and other family members, too—all of us, in our own ways, seeking to wake up the echoes. As absurd as I know it sounds, I can’t help thinking that if there’s any place on earth where you might still roam, this would be it.

Friday night
South Bend

Dear Hugh,

I hadn’t been on campus in many years, and never on a home football weekend. Incessant rain and wind and lightning prevented me from sitting at the Grotto, as I’d planned, for as long as it took until I felt your presence. By the time the sun broke through, we got caught up in the magnificent sight and sound of the Notre Dame Marching Band winding its way across a parking lot, instruments flashing to match the dome behind us. I thought of you as a grade-school kid at a Notre Dame Alumni picnic, winning one of the most prized possessions of your life: a plaque with a bit of the gold from the dome. And of course I thought of you here as an undergraduate. During spring break of 1975, you wrote me that “[S]ome of the people around here had an opportunity to do a lot of gallavanting this week, but I was lucky too—this week provides me with time to do a lot of what I will term relevanting—walks around peaceful lakes, starting in confusion and interior noise, and ending in submission to Notre Dame’s peace and quiet. There are few sources on earth of such calm as the Grotto at 2 a.m., or the reflection of the dome in the lake.”

At the pep rally, I tried to turn loose of the secret hope I’d long harbored that one day I’d go to one with you. After the rally, we went to our cousin’s home right off campus; they had a picture of you on their refrigerator—a picture our cousin says has been there ever since you stayed with them a few years back.

Good night for now, Hugh. You know, though, that I also listen in my dreams.

Saturday night
South Bend

Dear Hugh,

If you had anything to do with today’s weather, we are most grateful. We were told that October on campus could feel like the dead of winter; instead, yesterday’s rains left us with warm and crystalline skies.

I should have known that the Grotto would be a popular tourist spot, so I had to settle for a few minutes of silence within the commotion, and I fulfilled the promise to our mother that I’d say an “Ave” for her. A tall, graying man beside me was trying to wipe away tears as fast as they splashed down his face, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I found his grief comforting; we weren’t all just tourists here today.

We lingered outside Dillon Hall for quite awhile before the game. A couple of band members gallantly paused in the doorway long enough to pose with sister #2. You would’ve loved the moment. It was easy to imagine you, nearly 30 years earlier, bounding down these same steps, so full of promise and plans.

Many told us that marching into the stadium with the band would be a memory we’d treasure. My sisters and I chose instead to be among the first to enter the stadium, watching the team practice, enjoying the gradual building of the crowd and anticipation. Two brothers from the south side of Chicago sat beside me: also subway alumni, also attending their first home game, also the grateful recipients of an alumnus’ tickets (in their case, from a boss; in ours, from you and our dad). Though no one in their family has attended Notre Dame, they, too, had grown up knowing that their father would be pacing in front of a crackling radio every football Saturday, and that his post-game mood would have everything to do with the outcome of the game; they, too, had caught the bug early themselves—remembered “Did he say IIIIN-complete or AAAND complete?” as the closest thing to conversation allowed except during commercials—and were inhaling everything about the atmosphere.

It turns out that Notre Dame Stadium on a home game day—particularly one where our side gave us so much to cheer about—is not a very good place for listening. But it’s perfect for watching possibilities fulfilled and dashed, the razor edge between agony and ecstasy, the hundreds of personal victories and defeats that won’t make the record books or news. Never have I appreciated as much as today how football can be a fast-motion tour through life.

Sunday night
In the air, heading west

Dear Hugh,

We went to Mass at Sacred Heart this morning. On a weekend where every moment is a memory I’ll treasure, the most angelic was hearing the Alma Mater in the Basilica. (“Proudly in the heavens gleaming gold and blue”). I couldn’t look at the altar without remembering you, the recent graduate, exchanging vows with your bride, looking for all the world like someone for whom joy, success and fulfillment of dreams would come easily. But maybe I should’ve read your words a little more carefully while you were a student here: In comparing California to the Great Lakes area, you said, “Here, the tree dies, only to blossom more brilliantly in the spring; there, the tree is never challenged with the despair of the colorless winter, never having to turn inward and rely on its base wood, thus never having to prove that it’s bigger than winter, that it can, and will, prevail.”

We had to tear ourselves away from campus, and then away from each other, in time to catch our separate flights. Now the weekend is a blur of mental images I’m allowing to flip forward and backward in my mind.

I didn’t hear you, Hugh, all weekend. But yesterday, I held back as long as I could after the game. In the amazing hush of the nearly empty stadium, surrounded by legends long dead, in the dissipating light, you certainly didn’t feel very far away. And now I’m pretty sure you smile at the inscription we chose for your grave marker, to give the passerby some hint of the man who lies there: “Onward to victory.”

Mickey Reilly is the sister of Hugh E. Reilly ’76, and the daughter of Joseph Reilly ’48. Hugh died February 20, 2002, at age 47, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he was a solar engineer for Sandia National Laboratories. Mickey and her two sisters attended the ND-Stanford game October 5, 2002.