One year ago

Mike and Laureen
Mike and Laureen

There are moments in time that are seared into your memory. For me, I can watch them as though remembering a scene in a movie. A year ago, in the middle of the night, was one such moment.

My husband’s father was sick. He’d been sick for a very long time. Shortly before we conceived Grey, his father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. They removed most of his stomach, followed by radiation treatment. Michael never fully recovered. He couldn’t, without most of his stomach, pull the nutritional value from the foods he ate. This was a great horror to him, a constant discomfort and embarrassment. For the next four years, he fluctuated between terribly sick and maybe, possibly getting better. When Grey was born, he was very, very sick. He looks older than his father-in-law in those pictures. But with courage, optimism and hope he always kept striving. We’d hear about the amazing improvement he’d made with the latest treatment attempt. My mother-in-law could rattle off the protein content of many foods, and was constantly researching and trying new supplements or foods, hoping to find the one that he could eat, that would bring him back to health and vitality.

But that week, my indomitable mother-in-law sounded frazzled, tired, and at the end of her rope. She sounded like she was going to cry. I’d never heard her sound like that before, or since. And he was very sick. Things weren’t going well, not at all. That afternoon, feeling a bit foolish, I’d bought my husband tickets to go down to see them. His Dad might not have needed him, but his Mom did.

And then, in the dark of the night, our months-old baby down the hall, the telephone rang. It took me a minute — we hadn’t had land line phones for quite a while. It did not take my husband a minute. He vaulted out of our bed as though he’d been waiting for this call all night. He stood, shivering, in the dark hallway. “Oh, Mom. I’m so sorry. Oh God.” I laid there in bed, staring at the ceiling, listening to my husband hear that his father had died.

After a while, she asked to speak to me. All she got out was “I’m so sorry” before she burst into weeping.

Two days later my husband boarded the planned flight, to be with his mother and clear out his father’s closet and make fond jokes about the man who had raised him.

That day at work, I wrote about Michael.

It’s been a year since then, and we still miss him. I thought, when I got this new job, just how proud of me he’d be. He was my father-in-law, but I started dating his son when I was 17. He was a father figure for nearly my entire adult life. My husband, as he increases his roles and extends into management, laments that he can’t call his dad for advice. My mother-in-law still sleeps with his vest and wears his old Timex watch, even though the velcro is giving.

Last night, for bedtime story, Grey and I read the story that he and Papa Flynn wrote over a year ago, about Forest Ranger Grey and the Falling Acorns. We watched the precious snatch of video that captures a moment in that writing. We looked at pictures of Papa Flynn and I told him some stories about him. Grey expressed his theme of disappointment, Papa Flynn is STILL dead?!?!?. Seriously, isn’t a year long enough to get over the whole dead thing?

Thane, my sweet Thane, oh child. He will have no memories of his grandfather who died when he was months old. We have a few pictures of Michael holding him. Mike looks like hell in all of them. But when he stops trying to eat the monitor, I’ll show him and tell him too.

Michael, you are greatly missed. You are not forgotten. We have not put you on a pedestal of perfection, instead we miss the exuberant, raunchy, crazy-smart, crazy-making man you really were.

My coming of age

A friend was recently talking about their graduation from college and how it had been a difficult and uprooting experience for them. That got me thinking about MY graduation from college. In retrospect, my graduation actually was a coming of age and a sweet memory to boot.

Let me set the stage. Four years prior, my father, brother and I had driven from Washington to Connecticut. (In four days. Another story for another time.) My mother had flown out to Connecticut to join us. They were dropping me off at Connecticut College, 3000 miles from home, where I knew no one. This graduation ceremony was the next time they came out. They brought with them my recently widower grandfather — the first time he’d flown since the 50s — and my godfather (he of the had-quintuple-bypass-surgery-yesterday fame).

I was 21. I had been engaged for just over a year and was going to get married in August. I had lined up a “real job” which I had already begun working at as a programmer.

The graduation ceremony itself was typical. Hot. Long speeches. Parents hearing for the first and last times the full names they had graced upon their children on their birth certificates. My litany read “Major in English (distinction) and Medieval Studies (honors and distinction), Cum Laude”. Not the most fantastic of bylines, but respectable. I was and am proud of it. My godfather bought me this truly remarkable frame for my diploma.

The coming of age, though, begins the next day. We had rented a van with room for my grandfather’s scooter, but no room for my fiancee. We started early in the morning. I remember as we pulled out onto Mohegan Drive, I had just gotten my thesis back and was digesting the comments thereon — my last college paper. (I was affronted to have gotten an A-. If he’d told me what he wanted earlier, I could’ve gotten a A. Pbbblft.)

We drove through the Connecticut countryside towards Worcester, where we had breakfast.

It’s funny, but there are moments where you transition. That breakfast was a great breakfast. We sat at a big table and ate eggs and bacon and talked. I recall that we got into a heated discussion on when gunpowder had been widely used in Europe. Then I sneaked away from the table. For my entire life, these people had taken care of me. They had fed me, housed me, clothed me, transported me. (Including my godfather.) I went to see the waitress, to pay the bill for my family’s breakfast. It was my way of saying, “Look at me. I’m a grownup too!” It had the desired satisfying outcome of amazing the assembled, and causing them to pause for a moment to think, “Why yes, she is a grownup.”

In an aside, while I was waiting to pay, a woman came up to me and asked if we were part of some history club. No. We’re just family. But man, I love that about my family.

After our desultory and educational meal, we went up 495 to Lowell and Lawrence. We went on a tour of the historic mills, saving up facts for future breakfast arguments. We stood in the bright May sun in the brick alleyways. I think of that part often. I now work in one of those old mill buildings like those we toured. The floorboards below my desk are nailed down with handmade nails and have captured, between the cracks, hundreds of tiny shoe-nails.

Thus educated, we wended our way up to St. Johnsbury Vermont where we stayed at a terrible dive of a motel. We didn’t always stay at terrible dives of motels growing up. No, sometimes, well often, we decided that it was too much work and just kept driving.

Starting the next morning in the Northwest corner of New England, we proceeded to drive through every New England state. We drove backroads across Vermont and New Hampshire up to Portland Maine, and then 95 down to Burlington MA where we had dinner with my beau. After dinner, we continued down 95 through Rhode Island, and I was deposited back in Connecticut.

There were some other moments — my grandfather slipping off a bar stool at Rosie’s in Groton and nearly killing himself, my parents taking me shopping for my graduation-present bicycle. But soon they left. I had a month or two of in-between time, after graduation and before my wedding. But it was on that trip with the folks who raised me that I stepped forward out of dependency and into full adulthood.

It was also the moment when my grandfather realized that 86 was too young to be bounded by two oceans. He started laying plans immediately, which culminated with him and my godfather going to Scotland for a month, where he wrecked a van, broke his leg, reconnected with long-lost relatives and generally had the time of his life. I was so glad that he had these opportunities, and so impressed at his willingness to take big risks in order to live out his life to the fullest.

Robot Papa

Grey is still very much processing his grandfather’s death. There’s a certain spot on our commute home that must remind him of Michael, because he often talks about him as we pass it. This was last night’s conversation:

Grey: Mommy, is Papa STILL dead? (Sounding aggrieved that Papa hasn’t gotten over this “dead” thing yet.)
Mommy: Yes Grey, Papa is still dead.
Grey: When he going to stop being dead?
Mommy: Not in this world as we know it, Grey. (Note: I know too much about theology. The less confusing answer is that he isn’t, but I believe in the resurrection and the life everlasting, so I go with confusing.)
Grey: Why he dead?
Mommy: Well, he had lived his life. He was a baby, then he was a boy, then he was a young man, then he was a grownup, then he was an old man. Then he got sick and he died. (Subtext: don’t worry, kiddo. Neither you nor we are going anywhere soon, God willing.)

** pause for thinking **

Grey: I have an idea! (He holds up his finger to show that yes! An idea!)
Grey: We could make a ROBOT Papa!
Mommy: **nearly drives off the road giggling**

If only we could make a Robot Papa, son. You’ll just have to make do with your memories.

Would Robot Papa help Grey write stories?
Would Robot Papa help Grey write stories?