Where did that sadness come from that woke me early this morning? I got up, made coffee in the press and sat on the sofa to finish the book I began while on our trip. When I don't want to face tough moments in my own life, reading about someone else's experiences distracts me. For a while.
Memories converged yesterday while talking on the phone with my mom. A month ago she asked me what day Dad died and I'd had to think: when I got the call it was still Monday, August 16. For her, it was the 17th. She had a hard time remembering. Yesterday she told me that she had relayed a memory to my oldest brother about seeing a man lying on the floor next to a bed. She asked Mike who it was. He confirmed that this had been Dad. I silently cried as I struggled to keep my composure. Her memories slip and slip. She sometimes interchanges the name of her beloved hometown in Ohio with the town in Wisconsin where she lived for over 40 years while raising us kids.
After Dad's funeral, we kids started going through each room of the townhouse they'd been renting for the past half dozen years, sorting through paperwork and clothes, books, trinkets and photos. In Mom's desk we found the guest book and all the condolence cards that had been sent when my brother John died in 1983. He was a month shy of 20, almost two years older than I was. I remembered getting the phone call.
I was a freshman in college, living with my aunt in Madison when my aunt woke me at what must have been 4 or 5 a.m. on November 4. "It's your mother." I immediately thought of my dad. Instead, Mom told me that John had died in a car accident. I slumped to the floor in Aunt Margaret's sewing room and listened. It was a Friday. I packed my bag, decided to go to my Italian class to take the weekly quiz, told a friend what had happened, then went outdoors to meet my aunt.
She drove the back highways to Elroy. It was a clear fall day. People were at the house. Other family members were on the way. Mom wanted my help deciding what John should wear. I chose a wool pullover sweater with a pattern on it. Still, it didn't seem real. I'd been home the weekend before. We'd talked; I'd borrowed a sweater from him that I liked. Bugged him while he got ready for a date; took his picture.
Going through a death is like walking through a dream. Only some moments are remembered. Like I remember telling my aunt, Anna Mae, that I didn't like that the funeral worker had matted down John's unruly curly hair. She walked with me to the casket and handed me a comb to rearrange his hair but I could barely move it and gave up. I also remember my young nephew Sean saying, "I know why we're here. We're here because John died." Children can speak what's going on; they just don't know what it means. Of course, I didn't either.
John was cremated and his ashed were kept at my parents' house. A few years ago during a visit to my parents after they'd moved into the townhouse, I met Aunt Anna Mae for lunch. We talked about my other aunt, her sister Maxine, who had died that spring. I hadn't been there for the funeral, but Maxine was buried in the family plot in the Catholic cemetery on the outskirts of town. Then Anna Mae mentioned John: "Nobody talks about John," she said. Through tears, I agreed, but because I hadn't lived there for such a long time, I was really in no position to agree. Still, the reminder of my long-ago grief was splayed on the table between us.
Rain was pouring in an August thunderstorm that promised a relief from the humidity. After lunch I drove to the cemetery and parked the car. The rain had stopped and I walked up the hill in the soggy grass until I found the plot where my grandparents were buried. I paused at Aunt Maxine's still markerless grave, then looked again at the spot where my grandparents were. Laying flat on the ground were two bronze plates. One was inscribed with my parents' names and each of their birth years. The second was inscribed with John's name and the years 1962 and 1983 on either side of the cover for his urn.
When they'd moved into town, my parents had John's ashes interred there. But in a family that doesn't always relay much news, nobody had told me. They probably didn't think it was worth mentioning. So I wasn't prepared to read my brother's name on the metal plate, just as I wasn't prepared to read my parents' names. The discovery tripped an emotional switch that had been tampered with all day and for the first time in years I cried at the loss of my brother.
I remember when I turned 21 and realized I was older than he'd been when he died. While at his grave more than 20 years later, I thought of some of the things I'd experienced; the places I'd been that he'd never had a chance to experience. I remember when I was in my twenties going to movies and wondering what John would think of them. But soon, the daily thoughts dwindled and promises to myself to remember him every day faded like the autumn leaves.
Now, it's my dad I think about every day. And Mom's failing memory. And those thoughts tangle together with that 27-year-old memory of our family losing John. How it aged our parents; what a stress it must have been on my two younger brothers who were still in high school at the time; how uncomfortable I was visiting and how I tiptoed around the unspoken emptiness and pulled away into my own world.
So, what can I tell you about my brother; what set him apart from my other eight siblings besides his curly hair and our closeness in age? In high school, he played the tuba in the band, sang in the chorus and played center in football. He went to a tech school to become a diesel mechanic and was just starting his career.
But what do I remember? For one, he taught me how to tie my shoes. Not very well, but I got the basics from him. Also, he taught me how to blow snot from one nostril when I didn't have a tissue handy (a critical life-skill). He allowed me (probably reluctantly) to hang out with him and his friends. We tossed the frisbee in the front yard in the summer and I believe he introduced me to the music of Warren Zevon. And how could I forget the time Mom scolded him for singing his own lyrics to the theme from Born Free? "Stay Free! Stayfree mini pads!" I imagine Mom was laughing because he was too young to know what he was singing about, though maybe this was why she boycotted any feminine product that was advertised on TV... but that's another story.
So, here's to crying while laughing and laughing while crying. Man, life is filled with those moments.