It was when I observed my son’s recent high school graduation pictures that I saw it, realized it, and the emotions began to rip through my soul like raging flood waters. The jacket I wore. I hadn’t considered it or given it any thought at the time. Throw it on and go.
We have an emotional ritual that we endure every summer. His birthday celebration on July 26. Her anniversary on August 6. This Tuesday marked the nineteenth year since her passing. The year 2000 was the ultimate “Best of times, Worst of times” in our immediate family history, exceeding the premature passing of our grandfather thirty-three years earlier as his three daughters – one, our mother – were birthing the eight grandchildren he would briefly enjoy, spoil, love, and depart from. He would have been 110 Saturday.
Here’s the tale of two cities. My wife and I were preparing for the arrival of our first child. She, nearly three hundred miles away, was fighting for her life. We’d always come together as frequently as possible. We love and adore their children, and hoped to model our child rearing after hers. While we were choosing colors, painting, attending Lamaze classes and baby showers, she was battling the cancer that had begun in one breast, and had, after removal “success,” come back with the fury of a conquering army.
She told me a couple of months before our due date, at an annual family vacation, her goal was to see our child born. I replied, “Well, you need a new goal. You’re doing great.” I was naïve about death. She, a 39-year-old nurse who had last worked in drug research, was not. She was thin and frail from chemo and the disease eating at her bones and organs, always in hat to cover her scalp. She realized her own mortality as she and her husband held their household together and raised their nine and seven-year-old. It was a confusing time.
Not long after, due to protein levels, it was quickly determined we needed to induce the following morning. She was there – from over four hours away. She had to be wheeled into the waiting room. I was crushed when I saw her physical state. But I was so wound up for the coming of our child – I had to let it go. Again following her lead, we chose not to learn our baby’s gender. “There are so few surprises in life,” she used to say.
She was to go into delivery with us to witness our miracle, but the epidural my wife was given halted the expansion of her cervix, and at 10 p.m. after a 5:30 a.m. start it was determined a cesarean would be performed. My big sister, due to medical bureaucracy and insurance concerns, would have to miss the birth. But she would not miss the welcoming of our son, named Evan Kelly, Kelly after her. I can still see her long, thin fingers holding him, speaking baby talk to him, and immediately loving him. She had a way with babies and children. She embraced the “precious present” and had an unquantifiable love of life.
Earlier, in the fall of 1999, upon learning that her cancer had returned, she and her husband hosted a party to make the announcement. Her friends formed such a strong support group she never had to cook another dinner. A couple of months later, in December, they held another party for the upcoming holidays. We traveled to attend. They had been high school sweethearts. He was like a brother to me. That was the night we told them we were pregnant. And though we said let’s keep it between us, she couldn’t hold it in. Their friends were our friends, and good news was welcomed. A quicker eight months you could not imagine. Phone calls to her – with talks of her children’s advances, of hopes, fears, expectations, pains, worries – were frequent, and yet now I wish that I’d spoken with her twice daily.
Because eleven days after Evan’s arrival, with her children, her husband, our mother and father, her closest friends, and me by her side, she peacefully let go and moved on.
With the services for both there and here planned, I returned home and realized that, having become a more mature man, I needed a new black suit. The picture with Evan was before her memorial service here, where, due to love, his health, a crutch, a barrier, a conversational buffer, pure selfishness, a bit of contempt – I could not let him go or put him down. I must have held him for three hours straight.
The next picture (above) is nearly nineteen years later – graduation night. Our family. Our growth, our progression, our happiness. Same jacket. She would laugh at that. I think daily about how she would love our children, and how they would be enriched by knowing her – the same as her own kids, who have become successful adults, each with their own niche in other regions of the country.
After a tumultuous start due mostly to my immaturity, we became the closest of friends. I wrote a poem in college about a cherished neighbor who had passed away. In it I mention a Cincinnati Reds game we attended in our youth. “I like that image, heavy binoculars,” she told me. Words. I was a sportswriter when she left us, not always fluff, constantly striving to improve. I became a novelist, which I had but an inkling of early on. If she had disapproved of a thought, any notion, in one of my books, she would have called me out on it. But if she believed in it, she’d have been my trumpet section. She always protected me. She literally fought for that which she believed, and she’d pump me with courage to make me stand tall, move forward. That was our history. That was our thread.