Tags: Staff Editorial
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February 19, 2013 | 11:03 AM"Michael is dead."
It was my cousin calling, Michael's sister. I hadn't spoken to her in awhile. She didn't know my number anymore, so she tracked me down at work. I felt guilty. Their Christmas card had noted they'd be in Delavan in a few weeks. "Call and we can get together," it said.
I never called. We never got together.
"I should have called earlier," she said. "Michael had been sick for awhile."
And then she added, "He was an alcoholic, you know."
I did know. I'd recalled stories of people visiting him and his wife and reporting that all they did was smoke and drink and how neither one of them could ever hold on to a job for very long. Alcoholics in love. The worst kind.
I flashed back 50 years, to when I was barely a teenager. We always had Christmas at their house. As an only child with a single parent, I enjoyed the busyness, the constant chatter, Johnny Mathis singing Christmas songs on the record player.
"He was in the hospital for awhile," my cousin continued.
"First, he lost his legs," she said.
I thought: What a gruesome way to go. Limb by limb.
I flashed back again to those Christmas meetings. Michael was in his late teens. He brought a girlfriend one year. There were whispers in the family that she was trouble. There was too much drinking. Too many late nights. I looked at her differently after that. But I never said anything to anyone. Family secrets were not to be told especially by the young. We heard, but no one expected us to understand.
"That's awful," I said to my cousin. I paused. "And I feel bad that it's only stuff like this that brings us together."
"I know," she said.
The last time I would have seen Michael was at a funeral of another relative, but he wasn't there. I don't remember why, but now my mind was buzzing. Maybe there were problems back home. His son was there, though. He was in the military. Stoic and a bit too stern I thought. A buzz cut. Devoid of expression. I wondered if this was the seed of his parent's alcoholism. Why we think that way, I don't know. But we connect the dots when it comes to family secrets; we take the sordid and extend it to where it might not belong. We judge.
"I'm sorry I never got back to you after that note in your Christmas card," I said to my cousin.
"Oh, I understand," she said. But I could tell in her voice she had remembered the unintended slight, the lost connection.
"We'll have to get together," I said as I'd said before.
I thought of Michael, legless, a dying alcoholic, and remembered he was young once, sitting in the same living room with me, listening to Johnny Mathis sing Christmas songs on the record player.
It wasn't that long ago, or so it seems. But it was so many years ago; so many changes ago.
Fates sealed too early.
"It's too bad, it takes things like this to bring families together," I said again.
Those Christmas parties masked hidden worlds, but thank God we had them.
And I was thankful for the phone call, too. Even if it was about death, at least we connected — and connections are what families are all about.
It's a lesson I have a hard time learning.
John Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News