Chicago in late April this year was chilly, breezy and wet.  I had brought all the appropriate clothes though I didn’t, in the end, need the ones I brought for a memorial service.  I had books to read, projects to knit, journals to write in and a digital camera.  I had my brother by my side (or was I by his?) and we were met at O’Hare by Judy, Dad’s former wife. 

Judy and Justin, my half brother, have taken care of Dad over the years.  They’ve lived closer and been more responsible than any of his other family.  They are quite the altruists, if you ask me. 

We got in late; we shared our recent stories; we checked on each others’ health and well being; we reconnected and it was kind of awkward.  I couldn’t then understand what impulse led me to dash off to Chicago.  I was baffled by the quick series of events which got me there.  Can you have jet lag from a four hour flight? 

Thursday: we went out to breakfast.  I had lots of coffee.  I’ve been drinking just buckets of coffee lately.  Then, after dawdling there, reluctantly, it seemed, we went off to the nursing home to see Dad. 

He seemed happy to see us.  He was in bed; paralyzed on his left side, monosyllabic in response to questions when he ventured any answer at all.  His eyes followed us and he would smile when we cracked a joke.  He was very thin.  And very still.  Conversations with Judy and the nurses indicated that he had just "given up" and didn’t seem to have anything to live for and so a few months ago he stopped eating regularly.  Hence the thin.

Over the next days we ate out; we sat by his bed, or stood in the hall.  I talked to another brother and another sister.  We kept vigil, I think.  Dad’s only brother, Myron, arrived with his wife and daughter (Audrey and Angie) from Iowa.  I’d not seen them for over 20 years.  And while we are, really, strangers to one another, there was a sense of family: the ties of our younger years of contact were strong.  We shared stories.  Well, Angie and Audrey shared stories.  I think they are the story-keepers of that side of my family.  They had many.  Angie would ask, "don’t you remember this or that happening?" and I would have to say, "no, not really," far too many times.

I don’t know why I don’t remember the stories she does.  Maybe they affected her so much more deeply than they did me.  I remember so much from my Illinois childhood: I’m one of the story-keepers for this other side of the family.  (Though my brothers and sisters say I have selective memory – well, and who doesn’t?) 

The care and gentleness with which Myron greeted his older brother was striking and touching.  Had I not been so tired and wrung out from my own grief about my mother, I think I would have burst into tears seeing it.  And I was reminded that these two men had once been young and brothers just as my five sisters and brothers and I had once been close as children.  Close and bickering; close and caring; close and careless about the time we had together.

One evening after visiting with Dad (who wandered in and out of consciousness) we went through a box of photos he’d collected and kept.  We found pictures each of us had never seen before.  There were photos from several generations back; photos that Angie and Audrey and Myron could identify; some that Allan and I could identify; some that only Judy and Justin knew.  There were maybe five or six photos of me that I have no recollection of ever seeing.  Pictures from my toddler years and the awkward pre-teen years when my younger brother and I visited Dad in his various apartments. 

There was a picture of me at a airplane show with another girl and I suddenly remembered how one summer I visited Dad in Chicago and this girl I’d met that year came with… she was more wild than I and we got into trouble with the manager of Dad’s apartment building when we played "elevator operator" to the annoyance of what seemed like hundreds of other residents.  I have no idea what that girl’s name is nor whatever happened to her. 

Many pictures featured my mother and her very small children.  There were pictures of her with her own mother; two copies of a picture of Mom at six months of age (what the heck was my Dad doing with that picture?)  And I was torn apart by the image of her as a young woman; a young mother.  I so desperately want to ask her about these photos.  Where was this house?  When was this one taken?  Is this baby standing on the table my oldest brother or my oldest sister?  Who is this shadowy man, standing just inside the screen door, in this shot of teenage you on the front stoop with your mom?   

Those years are gone.  That opportunity is gone.  Just like the opportunity my Dad had of forging relationships with his kids.  He squandered those opportunities.  I squandered a few myself.  That girl on vacation with me in that summer is a total stranger – I’d not recognize her again.  My Dad was, for the most part, a stranger to me too.  In many ways.  But not all.

to be continued.

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