Last September one of my old friends from college died unexpectedly. A vital dynamo who, a while back, had powered her way through a delicate surgery on a large brain aneurysm, she was thought to be fully recovered and in good health. At the time she died, she was caring for a sister suffering through Stage IV colon cancer. Life and death, can be wildly unpredictable. Her wide network of friends were largely stunned and unprepared for the shocking news. I set myself the task of writing her obituary which in the end, was abbreviated to a shorter version. She’d never married and had no children. As everyone who loved her was so overwhelmed by her death, planning a memorial took some time. An event was finally organized by a half-dozen intimate friends who’d known her for decades. This past weekend was selected for a gathering at an Irish community center in Chicago, a nod to Pat’s ethnic roots. I asked my two kids, who knew her well, to accompany me for the day. Both of them wanted to return home the same night to get back to their families, so it was going to be one of those long-day road trip deals. I always thought of these quick turnarounds as my being briefly packed in a container, unpacked in a couple of destinations, and then repacked for depositing back home. That was the plan for Saturday.
I’m always surprised when I hear myself referring to Chicago as my hometown. But that’s still how I feel about it, despite having gone away to college when I was just seventeen. I only returned to live there for two summers between my freshman and junior years, before establishing my permanent residence in the town where I’ve spent the bulk of my life. I was born in Chicago, but at age eight months, my parents moved our family to Sioux City, Iowa for the next seven years. We moved back to the city when I was ready to start second grade, even though it took a few weeks for my Chicago elementary school to recognize that my having completed first grade in the backwater of Iowa wasn’t a reason to make me repeat that year. In total, I only lived in Chicago for ten sequential years. But I visited family and friends frequently, especially before my parents moved to live near my family back in 1986. Only a few hours’ drive from home, going there to take advantage of the vast cultural offerings of a major metropolitan area, not to mention the delight of Lake Michigan, wasn’t a big deal.
Although I can’t stand the traffic and congestion of the city, I love so many of the neighborhoods and landmarks which are the stuff of my memories. I suppose those early formative years of life always have their own special place in our minds. In any case, despite going to the city last weekend for what I’ve been referring to as the “macabre march,” (referencing the frequent deaths that are happening at an accelerated rate at this point in my peer group,) I still wanted to enjoy my favorite sights and my favorite foods while having a look at places from my past. After all, I’ve navigated lots of deaths. Life keeps happening despite them. Mixing grief with a little joy feels alright to me. I knew I would be having the profound thoughts that always wash over me when I reflect on my history with the deceased, not to mention the marvel at being with so many with whom I’d shared moments in time. This profound memorial, packed with people, some of whom I haven’t seen in over fifty years, and many, twenty years or more, was interestingly juxtaposed on top of what for me, was also the most perfect 10 hours I’ve had in a long time.
Michael and I both wanted to build a tight family and that’s exactly what we did. Of course we had our share of bumps along the way but mostly, after the kids got through their adolescent sibling stuff, we got along really well. I think all of us felt lucky that we didn’t have any huge differences which can sometimes cause family members to fall away from each other. Both Michael and I experienced some of that in our families of origin. We were so glad the schisms didn’t repeat themselves in our nuclear family. On many occasions we had these times when being just the four of us felt so special. A long road trip to New Mexico back in 2005, right before our son started college and our daughter settled into her marriage, was incredibly special for all of us.
As the years passed, our kids developed their lives. Most often, our gatherings included more people, rather than our small family unit. Before I invited them to join me for the memorial, I realized that we hadn’t spent much time alone together since the three of us kept our bedside vigil around Michael during the week before he died, back in May, 2017. When we got in the car on Saturday morning, my daughter was planning on working, her laptop fired up and ready to go. But my son, who was driving, convinced her without much coaxing, to just enjoy this rare time alone together. You know that great feeling of easily being on the same wavelength with someone? When it’s so effortless and relaxed? That’s how the drive to Chicago felt. We sang together, joked around, reminisced and even made group phone calls to some friends we all loved. An exquisite couple of hours that just flowed along. When we got to the city, we headed to one of our favorite restaurants in the area called Greek Town. We had a delicious slow lunch. All of us were sorely tempted to head down to the lakeshore while I had a serious urge to stand in front of Buckingham Fountain which I haven’t seen for awhile.
But we dutifully headed off to the memorial, the main reason for our trip. We each went through our own sets of emotions as we socialized with people who were part of our shared past during the years when a large number of family friends vacationed together every summer during the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. I experienced the kaleidoscopic feelings that occur when I’m in the midst of a large group of people, with limited opportunities for more than a few moments of talk, before moving on from one to the next. During the singing and speeches part of the memorial the three of us sat together which was really comforting and meaningful for me. I do miss Michael at these events. I know each of my kids could have been doing something else with their Saturdays, rather than hanging out at a funeral. As the child of a mother who required way too much attention, I rarely ask my children for anything that interferes with their own interests. Their willingness to support me in this moment felt really special to me. I was glad I came to honor my old friend’s memory. But having them along was just the best.
Before we headed home, I prevailed on them one more time. We weren’t too far from the last place my parents lived before moving away from Chicago. I realized I hadn’t been there in over thirty years. During that time, lots of changes had occurred, one of which was the re-routing of the street to one-way, now headed north, along with the establishment of a cul-de-sac at its end, blocking the former entry to a main street artery. I was so surprised, but of course, times do change. My son pointed out that I was probably in a very small group of people who remembered how things looked on that block, way back when. That’s true about any place that’s evolved, I imagine. My oldest friend and her husband recently visited me in the community where we all once lived and where I still live, fifty-plus years later. They told me they couldn’t recognize the place. More interesting thoughts about life’s passages, emanating from the memorial weekend.
On the way home we stopped for burgers and fries, which we ate as we zipped through the dusk. I probably thanked both of them a dozen times for turning what could’ve been a dark event into a lighter one, not to mention expressing the joy I felt, in having a ten hour uninterrupted stretch of time with them once again. Just us. I always feel Michael in moments like these, reminded that we were so lucky to produce these wonderful human beings. I had a perfect time.