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So as spring 2011 approaches I find myself writing about the past year 2010. Several times I have hunkered down in front of my trusty computer screen to write about what possibly was the best year I have had in a along time if not all all time in terms of self discovery and re-discovering those that I love again. Sometimes it takes a while for the dust to settle in my brain to process things that have transpired in the recent past. Yet, until now every time I sat down to write my mind drew a blank. I guess it was my own ‘summer of love’ that has changed my life and most probably shaped it for years to come. On a whole it has been a year of facing the past head on, losing some people, re-establishing relationships long missed but never, ever forgotten and making some long overdue positive changes. I also learned a lot about how much I have changed over time, those subtle changes we often don’t recognize in ourselves. Every now and then I find it necessary to take a bit of time to reflect and be honest with myself about who I was, who I am and who it is I want to be because let’s be honest we continue to change from time to time or at least as individuals we should be. If we don’t continue to change we cease to grow.
It is not often that we get the chance to go back bask in the glory of the old days, take a stroll down memory lane, rediscover one and other, fix the wreckage of our past and simply just be there for the ones we love. It is even rarer that we are given the opportunity to retrieve pieces of our lives we thought were gone forever. In times especially like the times we live in now that for so many are hard times you have to find what really matters in your life and hold on tight to it.
Back in February 2010 a dear friend of mine committed the ultimate selfish act of suicide one night after I had hung up the phone with him. This event unscrewed me. There was a good possibility I might have been victim of his depression too had I visited with him that fateful evening as I was supposed to. Something came up that night and we canceled plans God had stepped in my way once again. I had over the years become so callous and jaded in life I had not even allowed myself time to grieve his death. I went from being in shock for a week to putting it out of my mind the best I could. I have been losing friends in bad ways since I was a kid and though it never gets easier, it gets easier to shut down and that was what I had been doing for some time. That has become my m.o. and a bad habit I need to work on. But everything happens for a reason.
This occurrence as well as a few other things were the catalyst for a decision to make a much need trip home. What I initially planned to make a two week trip home to Chicago quickly turned into a five month extended stay that made me realize the importance of doing it more often. I missed my family badly and I needed them to know how much I love them. But one of the biggest reasons for my return home is to spend time with my daughter whom I had for various reasons not seen in fifteen years, had recently re-connected with and was working on a establishing a relationship with. But more on that later as Kyla, that’s her name, deserves a column devoted specifically to her.
It’s funny how tragedy or uncomfortable events can often make you reflect and make changes. It seems that far too often when we are doing great and life is just grand we forget about what is most important in life. I vow to work very hard to not allow that to happen ever again. I knew going home I would have a lot of things to take care of. It was that time in my life.
My family have never been rich people. To the contrary they have seen more than their share of hard times and faced much adversity, something I rarely speak about but as time passes I realize I owe them to speak about it. Though we may have lacked in finances and often times been apart for many years at a time we have always had a few things my parents and extended family taught us, survival and love for one and other. So I guess I can say that they have been rich in love, faith and sheer perseverance. I short we have a passion for life that many families I know just don’t have. My ma and dad have been divorced since I was very young and quite honestly it was for the better. They both come from very large families and hard scrabble backgrounds and as much as I love them somehow for many reasons missed out when they were handing life skills out. In turn when they had children they didn’t have a lot to impart but did the best they could. But they are wonderful people. I needed to make sure to mention that.
I looked forward to seeing my sister Christina and younger brother Jeff and spending time together. Any ideas of having a happy family get together were unrealistic as that hadn’t happened since I was a kid. We just weren’t that kind of family. My sister is an exceptional person and has made great choices for herself and her family in her life. We spent some family dinners with nieces and nephews who I am only in the past several years getting to know. I was gone for a large part of their young lives. She reminded me that although we may not live close by that she is my sister and loves me and always will and will always be there for me. That was all I needed to know. She had my daughter and I over to her house for dinner with family and was happy to see the now twenty year old girl she hadn’t seen since she was five years old. Life had not been as kind to my younger brother and I hoped to help out a little and spend some real quality time with him.
Upon my return home one of my uncles Maury, my fathers older brother, who I was very close to for many years fell ill went into the hospital for the third time in as many months. He was a character, a rough guy who had run in rough circles and a man whom I loved dearly and learned a lot from, he was my blood. We had a falling out some years ago and had not spoken in a while but I knew through another uncle his brother, that he would regularly mention how he missed the days my cousin and I would come down to the neighborhood to hang out with him. While in the hospital he was unconscious for much of the time but a funny thing happened, when I got home got healthier and we were able to spend a good amount of time over several days talking. He was coherent and a fighter until the end. One of the highlights of my time with him was when he asked me about the whereabouts of my mother his former sister-in-law whom he had introduced to his brother, my father some forty-five years earlier at a saloon he owned. They had a rich history together as he knew my ma’s brothers growing up, also rough characters. It just so happened that ma lived down the street from the hospital and asked about his health daily. The second he asked about her going to visit she had shoes on and we jumped in a cab to go see him. She never cared who said what about Maury to my ma he was always top shelf. She used to say that he never brought problems home and always preferred to be with family in his free time instead of strangers. He was suspicious of strangers. He was just that kind of guy. Even when she and my dad got divorced he made sure he called or stopped by to say hello now and then. When I myself got in some pretty big trouble in my teens he was the guy they sent me to see. It was something I was home to help make happen for my ma and for him that I wouldn’t trade for the world. A few days later he died in his sleep. He lived a long life, outlived his friends and unlike so many of his friends was given the luxury of dying naturally and in bed.
At the service my mother was not sure of she should go as she hadn’t seen my dad in many, many years. As the universe would have it my dad called me and made sure I told my ma and that she made sure would be there as she was an important part of the family which made her feel good. It was beautiful on many levels as there had been many hard feelings and bad occurrences surrounding their divorce years before. Things that some people can never forgive but my family is tough and has seen and been through a lot and like I said in the end through all the madness and hard times they knew what real family meant. My sister and brother were unable to attend as she was out of town and he diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia years before just wasn’t in the mood to go. But they called and were there in heart.
The funniest part of the service was when my ma looked across the room and a man with a big smile on her face approached her, said hello and thanked her for coming. She is a little lady all of five feet tall. She looked up from her seat and said ‘oh it’s you’ to her ex-husband and true to her form giggled like a little girl. Except for one fateful time when they found themselves stuck in a downtown Chicago elevator together back in the 80’s it had been probably thirty some odd years since they were in the same room together. The elevator mishap lasted only seconds as my dad took the first chance to bolt from the elevator and opted for the stairs for the last twelve floors. I watched with some trepidation, that turned to a wave of relief, then to a smile when they shook hands. It’s amazing what years and family ties can heal.
After the service on way to the luncheon my dad even offered my ma and her brother, my uncle Bobby a ride to my cousins restaurant. the whole trip they argued and swore at each other in the back seat while simultaneously telling my dad how to drive. He just looked straight ahead, grinned and feigned loss of hearing, looked over at me and out of the corner of his mouth chuckled “ya know this is all your fault”. It was funny to see three people who were so close for so many years in the company of one and other again. After we parked and were walking up to the restaurant I lagged back to walk with my ma who was a bit slower. In front of me were two old men from the old neighborhood who had both lived colorful lives hobbling down the street in unison like not a day had passed them by much less thirty years. I vividly recalled a little boy running up behind them trying to catch up to get in on the action just like it was yesterday. My mother again giggled like a school girl at the sight of the once young men and said “yeah they deserve each other, they’re both crazy.” All I could do was smile. Even during the meal she leaned in to me to say “he don’t even look like himself no more, he looks different but I can’t put my finger on it”. I commented that maybe it was because he was smiling? She said “ohhh yeaaahh”. I had long known what she did not that though it took my dad many years he had found happiness and comfort in his own skin, something it took him since he was a kid to find. I couldn’t turn back the clock and believe me I didn’t want to but it was nice to see then both smile. It was nice to see dad smile. It was nice to see them around a huge extended family again.
A few weeks later my ma’s best friend of seventy years Rita died of cancer and then my aunt Paulette, ma’s sister in law and my uncle Richie’s wife of forty years passed suddenly after an illness. It was a hard time for my ma but she did her crying, then shrugged her shoulders and said “ah they were so young but we all gotta go sometime and it’s up to God”. She was always tough, she had to be. Once again I broke out the suit to happily do what was my duty for my family. I was grateful that I was able to be there for my family when the chips were down instead of glued to a bar stool in some saloon or stuck in jail cell like I might have been years before. Even in a time of death I was grateful for all the life I had witnessed.
I called my older sister who was largely responsible for raising me to inform her of the services schedule. What would be more challenging would be getting her and my sister together as they for many reasons had not seen or spoke to each other almost as long as she and my father. This was not uncommon in my immediate and extended family. I guess it’s important to mention my sister had a different father who passed when she was very young so the family dynamic was complicated and large part of the reason for her estrangement from my mother. But my sister Christina being the equally as tough if not tougher woman she is didn’t bat an eye when it came time for duty to family. She had rid herself of any ill feelings long ago and moved on with her life to raise her family opposite how we had been raised. And as I knew she would she set aside all negativity and showed up with genuine sincerity and love. When I arrived at the church for the service I was amazed to see my ma and sister along with a deceased uncle wife, my aunt seated together. There’s the three little people I thought to myself.
After the service in the church vestibule along with dozens of cousins in another huge, crazy and often volatile extended family stood my ma, sister and aunt Bev in a circle like soldiers in Custers last stand holding off the Indians. Three women who hadn’t spoken to each other in years for whatever reason who also shared a rich history were doing what they had dome so many times before in life, hold off the savages. For a few moments the reason they did not speak were forgotten. At the luncheon the three of them even picked a table with each other away from all of “them people” as they put it, the crazy relatives and saved a seat for me. The two highlights were ma giggling to my sister ” boy you got chubby” sis laughed and replied, “all these years and that’s the best she got” and when my aunt Bev looked around the room and then to my ma and said “Lilly, I’m proud to call Stevie my nephew”. When I overheard her comment I sat tall in my seat and felt proud just as I had with my dads family a few weeks before. I had done what I wanted to all my life, make my family proud in a family filled with much wildness and insanity. I wasn’t one of the ‘crazy, wild ones’ anymore. I was proud and felt like a million bucks.
These times weren’t so much about death as they were about having had the opportunity to share peoples lives while they were here, be there for them when they left us and watch all the difficult times and hard feelings melt away between people I so loved when the chips were down. At the same time I didn’t have any illusions about it being one big happy family. It never had been and probably never will be but the mutual respect I saw amongst them all was amazing for me. It was a respect that was born out of an ability to raise kids who were real survivors and still be standing themselves. It gave me a new respect for my family. Some of them may no longer be with us but they know the great things they left inside of me.
After I was able to spend a lot of breakfasts with my ma while she chewed my ear off and explained things about her life she had never spoke about. She apologized for the hard life we had saying she had made many mistakes. I had to disagree with her. I let her know she did everything she could for us and taught us what is most important in life, faith and love and taught us to be tough, survive and be loyal to family. I learned a lot about her and even a way to not let her drive me crazy. I learned to smile and laugh as I actually found her humorous. Ma was never a physical person and wasn’t a huggy, kissy kind of ma but that was always okay with me I understood yet on a few occasions she gave me a kiss on my cheek. She made me smile many times. She and my brother would stroll down the street together always bickering but always looking out for each other. My time with my dad was equally as good as we talked long and I felt I owed him to let him in on parts of my life he had never been aware of but knew of in his heart. He seemed apologetic at times as well about us not getting the life he had wished we had but again as with ma I had to disagree. I reminded him that we had all gotten as far as we had in life as direct result of what he and ma taught us and that we would not have otherwise. The stuff that really mattered. I wasn’t shy about letting him know that through all the hard times we stayed connected and turned out better than many of our cousins who could care less about each other and family and we could not have done that on our won. His eyes squinted like they do and he grinned like he does and I knew he felt good. He should, he had a lot to be proud of.
My brother Jeff and I spent great time together and came to terms with so much we had not about our childhood. As I said life had not always been kind to him. He was a scholarship winning straight A student who’s life was forever altered as result of an organic born hereditary paranoia schizophrenia. But in the recent years he has come to terms with it and seemed better over the summer than I had seen him in years. I was amazed to hear him explain to me his disease and how it effects him daily. At one point he even said he knew the voices in his head were just the fight between the his mind and the devil. I must have looked perplexed and worried as he went out of his way to explain to me and tell me not to worry as it only stands to reason that if he knows the devil is there then God must be right there fighting back. If he believed in one them he must believe in the other. We ate our favorite meal of Chinese and roast duck at least twice a week in Uptown on Chicago’s northside. We laughed and cried at time and ran down Clark St.with a devil may care attitude throwing our hands in the air shouting for joy just like we did as kids and all around just had a good time. I learned more from my brother than he will ever know and yes I have big plans for us when I get home again. I can’t wait to see him.
I was able to rekindle some long missed but never forgotten friendships. Not the kind that you have in life then leave but the kind you find in life and never forget and never lose. I hit up the few old haunts that I cared enough about to return to and those few people I missed enough to want to see again. People that one way or the other truly made a difference in my life. I spent time with those few that matter most to me in life. I realized that for a long time it was not so much others that were unavailable as it was me that was unavailable. I also realized that if not careful we can easily get caught up in our daily lives and before you know it time passes you by too fast. I make sure I call everyone at least a few times a week and spend significant, quality time talking with family and good friends.
I know now what I guess I always did, that no matter what family is part of me, always has been and always will be. Some bonds can never be broken. That true friends are hard to come by and may not connect for a while but true friends never go away.
There are reasons I didn’t mention much about my daughter Kyla. Like I said she deserves a column all her own. There’s just too much to say. Next time you hear from me it’s all about her.
All in all 2010 shaped up to be a pretty good year. I lived, I loved, I lost and I learned more from it all than I can ever say.