Rainbow Cake!


Today, my youngest niece, Natalie, turned 10.

Ten. A decade. So young. Hell, I have sweaters that I still wear that are older than 10.

I remember 10. Long ago, I was a 10-year-old myself. In fact, it was the last best year of my life. Too soon I was 11, my dad died and my life changed immeasurably and forever. And when I forget about 10, I have frequent reminders. See, I work in a school for girls in grades 5-12. Lots of the people here act like they are 10…or 12…or sometimes even 5. But there are also some real, actual 10-year-olds here who have the perfect right to act their age. And when they do, it’s a lot of fun. Of course, I don’t have to be trapped in a room with them for seven hours a day, so it’s all fun and cute to me (Natalie’s mother, her teacher and the three Grade 5 teachers at my school might disagree).

But 10 is fun. Ten is amazing. The life of a 10-year-old is perfect. Santa and Tinkerbell are still real. American Girl dolls and Nickelodeon TV dominate most of your waking thoughts, once you get boring old school and its insane demands for memorizing the U.S. states and multiplication tables out of the way each day. You play outside until its dark, you don’t care much about showers or whether your hair is combed, and boys are those icky, smelly things that for some reason you must allow to live.

There is lots of drama if you are a girl. Friend drama, school drama, Mom drama (just beginning, so hang on for the ride of your lives, moms of 10-year-olds), and sometimes, just plain drama for the sake of drama. But there’s also lots of fun.

When you are 10, you are delighted when your brother ties Look and Life magazines around your arms and legs, hands you a broom and tells you to play goalie for him and his team of 9th grade friends out on the backyard ice rink. When you are 10, you are ecstatic at an eight-inch snowfall because it means you not only have a snow day, but you get to help your dad shovel snow at 11 p.m., reveling at being with him on the dark and quiet street, with only the sounds of his breathing, the shovels crunching in the snow, and his occasional jokes and whistling. You are happy and safe, soaking up the joy of just being in his presence.

When you are 10, you don’t care if your mom makes you keep your curly hair short and easy to take care of because she rewards you by buying your first pair of pantyhose and letting you wear them to your cousin’s summer wedding…your first official grown-up event at which you felt pretty and really cool and sophisticated. When you are 10, you spend endless happy days playing with your best friend – your sister – and creating entire melodramas and real-life soap operas from the dress-up box that keep you both laughing and entertained…even 44 years later.

Best of all, when you are 10, you have NO idea that there are dark days ahead of you. You don’t even know what a dark day is (other than when your little brother drinks the rest of your Pepsi when you aren’t looking or your big brother takes the last slice of bacon off the breakfast plate). You believe with all your heart and soul that the whole rest of your life will be nothing but sunny days, starry nights, cute puppies and kittens and unicorns…with Sanders’ hot fudge sundaes for every meal.

And rainbow cake.

Yesterday,  I went to the school dining room for lunch at the same time the “real” 10-year-olds (5th-graders) did. Their excitement that it was LUNCH TIME!!!!(heart, heart, confetti, purple squiggles, 10,000 exclamation points!!!!!) was almost deafening. I had grabbed a cup of soup and salad and was moving to the cashier’s counter when a bevy (gaggle?) of 10-year-olds cut me off to get to the dessert table. “WE HAVE RAINBOW CAKE!” one yelled to the other 30 little girls. RAINBOW CAKE! RAINBOW CAKE! RAINBOW CAKE! The joyful cry sounded throughout the dining room. I let them grab their cake and move on to their tables, a chattering, skipping, hopping, vibrantly alive little bundle of khaki, green, pink and purple all tied up with animal-themed hair ribbons and fuzzy hats. I watched as a virtual trail of sunshine and happiness followed them out the door.

Then I turned to the cashier and said, “hey, why not add a slice of that rainbow cake to my bill? After all, we’re only 10 once, aren’t we?”

So, Natalie, happy birthday and all my love to you, along with hopes for a lifetime of puppies, kittens, unicorns, bright, shiny days, peaceful nights, bold adventures, a happy heart, and only make-believe drama.

Oh, and all the rainbow cake you can eat.

Categories: Uncategorized

On being (an O’Connor)

March 17, 2012 3 comments

On days like St. Patrick’s Day (PLEASE don’t call it St. Paddy’s Day or I’ll have to box your ears), and, of course, on days that end in “y,” I think of my parents and my brothers and sisters. But especially on St. Patrick’s Day.

Ann and Pat O’Connor were by today’s standards, dirt-poor. But they didn’t live today. They lived their adult lives in the 40s, 50s and 60s (and Mom, a bit into the 1970s – thank God she didn’t live to hear her beloved Frank Sinatra sing a duet with U2’s Bono). They had literally nothing of their own: they never owned a home, or a car, or property, or jewelry. They didn’t take vacations, or worry about retirement funds, or try to keep pace with their neighbors. They worked and lived, sang and joked, prayed and went to church, loved one another and doted nearly completely on their children.

It was like they lived in this big bubble of love and laughter and learning. And the four of us (at the time, since Patty was the gift from God that Mom got to open four and a half months after Dad died) were warm and safe and happy knowing we were in the middle of this big bubble, being cherished and cared enough about for Pat and Ann to have given up almost everything else in life. They didn’t drink, they didn’t party, but they knew how to have fun with one another and with us. While St. Patrick’s Day for many people means drink until you puke or until the police drag you away, for we O’Connors it meant learning about your heritage, singing songs, knowing why the Irish hated the English, singing more songs, scoffing at Irish stereotypes while singing Irish songs, and occasionally, when Mom got silly, decking the entire house in green crepe paper ribbons and dyeing the dinner potatoes green.

Of all the things that Pat and Ann weren’t, what they were was smart and curious. They read, they talked, they were aware of the world and its woes. They asked questions and more importantly, they taught us to ask questions, pursue answers, understand justice and seek the truth but always, always  remembering the dignity of each person. Looking back, it seems like they must have known they weren’t going to be around long enough to see us grow up and be our own people. So they taught us to be our own people right out of the gate.

I think they did fine. None of us wound up in jail. We are smart. We love God and our families. We all work. We all pray. We have friends and better than that, we ARE friends. We laugh and we love and we read and we question and we sing (although most of us, not very well – cheers to you, my sister Claire, for inheriting the pipes). And most of all, we know what it means to be an O’Connor:

It means that none of us will ever sit alone worrying in a hospital emergency room; even if the other four aren’t physically there, that sibling knows that we ARE there. With our arms wrapped around one another.

It means that at least four other people in the world understand our sense of humor. Sometimes, maybe just those four, but at least four.

It means that even when we don’t speak for days or weeks (Kevin – call your brother Sean today), we each know that there are four other people out there thinking about us, hoping for us, praying for us, and thinking of ways to make us laugh.

It means that we each know that after being through the hell of losing Pat and Ann and all the millions of pounds of other assorted stuff and nonsense that has come after, nothing can truly knock us down. We may stagger (and no, we don’t drink anymore), but we still stand – together.

It means that on the days that we are the saddest, or the most stressed out, or the loneliest, or the poorest, or the most frustrated…that four other people are there  to see us through that moment (and laugh at us later).

It means going out the door each day knowing that you are at least as good – and probably better – than nearly everyone you will meet.

Thanks, Pat and Ann. And Slàinte, Sean, Kevin, Claire and Patty.

Categories: Detroit, Family, Home, Irish

But I DO care if I never get back…

March 31, 2011 3 comments

It’s Opening Day of the major league baseball season. Where I am – physically – it is dark and dreary, cold and rainy. But my soul is seated in section 218 of Tiger Stadium in Detroit where it is warm and sunny, loud and joyful, and where the boys of 50 Detroit summers play a kid’s game on the lush emerald lawn in front of me.

There’s Kaline…and Cash…and LeFlore…and the Gator. Gibby and Rosey and Tram and Lou. Jason Thompson and Cecil Fielder and Miggy to bash the ball. Mickey Stanley and Chet Lemon and Dick McAuliffe and Steady Eddie who made it look so easy, something that “Five-Tool” Juan Encarnacion would never figure out. There’s Lolich and Jack and Mark the Bird…and of course, there’s never been any quite like Denny.

And there’s Billy Martin and Ralph Houk and Mayo Smith and Les Moss. There’s Sparky.

For me, no matter what, no matter where I am in life, there has always been baseball. For me, it has survived and thrived…at Briggs Stadium or Tiger Stadium or Comerica Park.

Baseball – but especially Tiger baseball – has meant so much in my life. Some of the best times of my life have been centered around baseball.

My brother Sean and I at a doubleheader on Bat Day, which coincided with my June birthday. 10 hours of baseball in 90-degree Detroit weather, in the Tiger Stadium bleachers. Tiger catcher Bill Freehan’s postgame interview wasn’t very complimentary; something about the torture of 48,000 bats banging on concrete for 10 hours in the baking sun of a too-humid June day (and two losses to the Yankees as well). I loved it – time with my brother and his antics? A birthday filled with hot dogs, pop, cotton candy, lots of laughing and BASEBALL!

At 10, I played baseball every day in the summer. We played in our backyard, where Dad had painted the lines and bases of a baseball diamond and where Mom – who played on women’s leagues in the 1940s – showed me how to lay off a sinking curve ball. And we played at the local sandlot, where one day, my Dad and his co-workers stopped to eat their lunch and watch all of us kids- plus the neighbors – play baseball. That’s the day I learned that sliding headfirst – even if Pete Rose did it that way – can be painful for a blossoming young woman.

At age 14, my best friend Marianne and I joined the “Pepsi Tiger Fan Club.” A very small investment allowed us to buy lower deck reserved seats in Section 218, under the overhang, for something like 20 games (plus a hot dog and a Coke). Marianne’s mom drove us down to the game sometimes; other times we took a bus, getting off at the downtown branch of the Detroit Public Library and then walking about a mile down Michigan Avenue to the ballpark, stepping over sleeping drunks along the way. At 14!

The Tigers weren’t very good that summer. Or a lot of summers, for that matter. We didn’t care. We loved the game, the atmosphere, the crowds. Oh, how we’d laugh! At anything: the 90-year-old peanut vendor who gave up walking around by the first inning and had patrons come to him. Drunks. People with funny shirts. Canadians who thought they knew baseball. Even at the idea of figuring out the exact angle at which Red Sox homers left the stadium in a 20-to-something drubbing of the Tigers one sad Friday night.

Marianne and I even skipped our Servite High School prom to go to a Tiger game. We also played hooky from high school on three consecutive opening days…I remember calling in sick and hiding in the back of my brother’s Dodge Dart as he picked Marianne up from school and we headed down to the game. Yes, me and the Valedictorian, skipping school for Opening Day. If the nuns ever knew…

I think of those days often. They were fun, happy days. The baseball wasn’t very good most of the time. But the friendship was. And baseball was the one thing in my life that was a constant. Almost every day, from April through October (and three times in my life, DEEP into October) the game has never let me down. No matter what, I’ve had the Tigers…and Ernie Harwell’s voice, reminding me that even when I was far from home, when the Tigers were on, I WAS home.

Even when I was struggling, or sick, or sad, or suffering, or alone…I had my radio and Ernie and my baseball game. The game was my friend, it gave me comfort, and it made me brave. I think of the night in 1972 – at age 15 – when I watched the Tigers beat Oakland in 10 innings to tie up the ALCS…I went alone since I’d only won the ticket lottery to buy a single game ticket.  That’s brave…me, alone, at night, among 41,000 Tiger crazies.

It’s still that way today. I still read box scores. I still watch Sunday Night Baseball even though the Tigers are hardly ever on. I still hate the Yankees with every fiber of my being. I’ve seen both Field of Dreams and Fear Strikes Out hundreds of times. I know why Lou Gehrig was the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. I still hold on to my dream of a retirement trip that will take me to every stadium in North America. The first thing I did when I moved out here was to buy the MLB Extra Innings package on cable, so that I can watch my beloved boys nearly every game. And I already have my tickets for when the Tigers visit Seattle in mid-April. All three games.

And even though my much-loved Tiger Stadium is now a parking lot and I live 3,000 miles away from my Bengals, I can always close my eyes and remember the amazing sights, sounds, smells and sensations of baseball. After all, it’s in my heart and soul. And at this moment, it’s even on my computer while I work, so technically, I am once again skipping school for baseball. Shhhh….don’t tell the nuns!

Happy Opening Day!

Categories: Detroit, Sports Tags: ,

Oh, Danny Boy

March 17, 2011 8 comments

Those who know the Sean-Peggy-Claire-Kevin-Patty version of the O’Connor Family of Detroit, know that we’re not exactly big fans of the Irish tune, “Danny Boy.”

Having been to a funeral or fifty in our time and having heard “Danny Boy” played, sung, cried, mimed, signed, whistled and bagpiped beyond all recognition, we’ve come to despise the song. “Cheap sentiment,” my brother Kevin growls, rolling his eyes upon hearing the church organist crank it up once again. “What’s wrong with having dry eyes in the house?” asks my sister Claire, as she dabs away Danny Boy-induced tears, cursing. “Wonder what’s for funeral lunch,” Sean says in a stage-whisper.

Over the years, the five of us have planned several funerals together, including those of our parents. We have not, will not and plan to NEVER request “Danny Boy” to be played in any way, shape or form. We’ve spent too much time together, walking back down the church aisle after the funeral Mass of yet another family member, or trudging away from the much loved-and-lost guest of honor at a graveside service, to ever want to hear “Danny Boy” played again.

It WAS played at our father’s funeral. And at Uncle Mike O’Connor’s. That was enough.

Wikipedia says this about Danny Boy:

Although penned by Englishman Weatherly, “Danny Boy” is considered to be an unofficial signature song and anthem, particularly by Irish Americans and Irish Canadians.[2]

“Danny Boy” enjoys popularity as a funeral song but, as it is not liturgical, its suitability for funerals is sometimes contested.[3]

Only SOMETIMES? Just ask Sean, Peggy, Claire, Kevin or Patty.  We despise the song. Read the lyrics and you’ll see why:

Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountainside.
The summer’s gone, and all the flow’rs are dying.
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.

Clearly the words of a mother who cannot bear to bid her son farewell as he goes off to face God-knows-what in the world. Also clearly not the mother of MY son…who likely will NEVER go off to face anything in the world more difficult than a cable TV outage or a broken Internet link, since he is very comfortable ensconced on my couch, hooked up to the laptop, TV remote in hand and a full refrigerator nearby.

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow.
‘Tis I’ll be here, in sunshine or in shadow,
Oh, Danny boy, oh, Danny boy, I love you so.

Being the good Irish mother that she is, she’ll wait and she’ll wait. In sunshine or in shadow. It’s what she does: remain ever faithful to her child, helping, caring, hoping, and sharing.  Like she did all the hundreds of nights that he was supposed to come home but didn’t – or sneaked out while she was sleeping and went God-knows-where – and she spent the night pacing and worrying and praying and imagining every horrible thing that could have happened to her beloved child.  I love you so, she sings, but I hate you, too, for making me worry so much. Welcome to the Irish psyche.

And when ye come, and all the roses falling.
If I am dead, as dead I well may be,
Ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “ave” there for me.

Ah, the “I’ll be dead” card. Well played, Irish mother. Well played. If the guilt of making “yer poor old Mam” wait for you while you traveled the world, fancy-free, doing as you please while she waited and prayed the rosary wasn’t enough….now you’ve gone and killed her. She’s died of grief (or too much whiskey, but that’s another song). And it’s your fault, son. What are you going to do about it?

And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me,
And, all my grave shall warmer, sweeter be

I’ll tell you what you’ll do. She’ll continue to wait, you see. And you’ll visit her grave, all grief-stricken, guilty and sorry. And she’ll be there. Waiting. Again. Still. And you’ll tell her that you love her and she’ll hear it, even though she’s deader than the Irish economy in 2011.  Because the fear/expectation of death and the guilt about everything that comes both before and AFTER death are the solitary Irish emotions. So she’ll be dead (well, she DID warn you…and she waited…but you got here too late). And you’ll be guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Drunk and guilty. Drunk, guilty, telling jokes, waiting for death. It’s your heritage, boy. Embrace it.

We did. Sean, Peggy, Claire, Kevin and Patty. And we still do. When the calls go out to let us know that Aunt So-and-So or Cousin Skippy-Lou have passed, God rest their souls, and the funeral is Friday…well, the O’Connor Funeral Team assembles (everybody into a circle, put your hands together, now BREAK! and go get ’em!). We pay respects. We listen to the homages to the dead. We make ourselves and our cousins laugh – in church, in the procession, and at the wake. It’s what we do. And we do it well.

But please don’t play “Danny Boy.” It isn’t fair. Danny Boy. Grandma Ryan crooned it…her one remaining tooth shining in her mouth as the sad words tumbled out, her beautiful, soft voice singing while she stroked our hair and helped us get back to sleep. Our mother sang it the night our father, her husband, died. Alone in her bed, worrying and crying, she whispered it in her clear, calm voice that if you listened closely, sounded a lot like Judy Garland’s. I’ve even sung it hundreds of times myself to my then-babies…I only had a repertoire of four songs and Danny Boy was better lullaby material than “Why Don’t We Get Drunk And Screw” or “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “Whiskey in the Jar.”

Uncle John Jay Patrick Ryan sang it best, I guess. He’d crank up his whiskey-touched, lovely-but-untrained Irish tenor voice, and the drunken crowds in hundreds of bars would hush and fall silent while he sang, his voice catching every time he hit the higher notes in the final words:

For you will bend and tell me that you love me,
And I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.
Oh, Danny Boy, Oh, Danny Boy, I love you so.

Yes, even though he was English, your man Weatherly knew a good guilt-death-pain-suffering-sadness song when he penned it. No matter how hard you try, you can’t avoid it. Especially on St. Patrick’s Day. My son Patrick played it this morning in the car on the way to school. And of course, on cue, I teared up at just the right spot: “you will bend…and tell me that you loo0ve me…”

God, I hate that song.

Pretty is.

February 23, 2011 7 comments

At 53, try as she might, she cannot remember a single day in her life when she felt attractive. Never mind pretty. Beautiful is straight out of the question. And, at 53 and fairly well-worn by life and circumstances, that day is not likely to dawn anytime soon.

Sometimes, when she is down (which is a lot) or tired (all the time) images of herself appear and move slowly in her mind, cycling through like a Powerpoint presentation.

There’s one from the day she was on the Poopdeck Paul kids’ TV show at age six. She wanted to wear her pink taffeta party dress but her mom said, “no, wear your blue plaid skirt and matching sweater.” So she did. Then she spent the entire time on the show – which featured a bowling competition – watching the other little girl competitors in their party dresses and staring at her own, plain outfit in the TV monitors. She bowled horribly and lost, then began to sob on live TV when Poopdeck Paul himself handed over the first place trophy and all the prizes to another girl who stood there smiling and victorious in HER pink taffeta party dress.

In another image, she is a gangly 10-year-old – all legs – getting her hair cut at a fancy Detroit salon. Her aunt had her own, personal hairdresser – an elegant, perfectly coiffed, silver-haired gentleman named “Prince,” as he was both formerly AND formally known. His  real name was Prentice. He owned his own shop – with his much older wife – yet he actually drove to his customer’s home, picked up the aunt in his ruby-red Cadillac, drove back to the shop and performed his once weekly magic on her hair.

That late summer day, she rode along with the aunt for her own hair appointment. She enjoyed the drive to the shop in the red convertible – loved the sun and breeze on a summer day, loved listening to the grown-up talk in the front seat as the Prince and the Aunt chatted and laughed, excited about getting her hair “done” at a real salon! Two hours later, she sat miserably the  back seat, quiet and unhappy, peeking up every other minute to look through red-rimmed eyes at her hair, as reflected in the rearview mirror. Prince had clipped her thick, frizzy brown hair incredibly short – Audrey Hepburn short – all around, leaving a half-inch row of bangs – Moe Howard of the Three Stooges-style – across the front of her head.

It wasn’t long and blonde and straight and silky the way she had imagined that a Prince could magically transform her hair. It was ugly and thin and short – scalped, nearly – and made her head look unbelievably tiny while at the same time forcing her body to look enormous in comparison. She spent the weekend in her bed, sobbing and hiding her head under a pillow, wondering if she could get by with wearing a stocking cap until she turned 14.

She couldn’t. Her bushy, unmanageable hair is far longer in the next image – taken at 14, the night of her eighth-grade graduation. It’s an image that exists in a real Kodak moment that rests somewhere in the bottom of a pile of old family photographs, hidden away for decades. It’s a fuzzy, Polaroid picture her brother snapped of her as she opened a graduation gift from their mother. The gift is a Louisville slugger baseball bat (she always was an avid Detroit Tigers fan). In the image, she is grinning broadly and thrusting the new bat toward the camera. Her hair is horrible – frizzy and out-of-place – but the rest of her is even worse.

She is wearing a pink knit dress adorned with gold buttons down the front and tied – somewhat unfortunately – around her pudgy waist. The dress is a size 18 to accommodate her 180-pound, body that is already riddled with stretch marks. Her rectangular, black plastic framed eyeglasses, which she must wear all the time just to make her way through her fuzzy world, are like huge scabs resting on her broad, blotchy, sweaty cheeks. In the photo, she looks like a mentally challenged 40-year-old as she brandishes the gift bat that could, in an instant she thinks, turn into a weapon to use against the boys who moo and bark at her every day as she walks down the street to school.

Just a week before graduation, her eighth-grade class had taken a day trip to a local amusement park. It was on an island in the Detroit River – Boblo Island – and the only way to get there was on a huge boat. A boy who was her good friend – the one who understood her humor and her intelligence and love for sports and her disdain for most people – said he would ride all the rides with her once they got to the island. Did she mind, though, that he really couldn’t let anyone see them together on the island? That they’d have to ride rides together “by accident” because he had promised Cindy – blonde, pretty, skinny Cindy who wore blue eyeshadow and showed off her tan thighs in white, short-shorts – that he would be her boyfriend that day and hold hands with her.

She couldn’t argue. What could she say? How could she compete? She was fat and pasty white. Her hair was kinky and frizzy in the early summer heat. She hadn’t worn shorts in public in four years. Sweat rolled down her face, diverting around the acne pimples and scars that dotted that sad landscape. The sweat stung her eyes and dripped onto the legs of her stiff jeans – her size 18 jeans. Burned into the image from that day is Cindy, flipping her long, pretty blonde hair and covering her lovely blue eyes with cool sunglasses. Suddenly, there is the boy – her friend – striding toward Cindy and quickly putting great distance between himself and his friend. She watches as they go off, hand-in-hand, whispering and laughing. Then she gets off the boat with his apologies ringing in her ears and sits alone on a bench for the next seven hours until it is time for the boat ride back home.

Other images flash by as her brain clicks faster through the Powerpoint. A humid summer day at age 15 and she is dressed in a bulky navy sweater and white jeans imprinted with large red and blue squares. Her curly hair is flat and dull, pasted down on her head with some sort of gel.  Her fat cheeks are imprinted with the marks from her glasses that no longer fit her face at all. She looks miserable and she is.

Here’s one from her first day on a college campus. She lumbers across the campus – alone – feeling ugly and out-of-place among scores of thin, pretty young women all looking like cast members from Charlie’s Angels. Dressed entirely in brown polyester, she’s looking more like a middle-aged cafeteria lady than a college coed. Sloppy Joes anyone?

There’s another from her wedding day: she is not a wedding gown person and that day – especially that day – she should have known it. She had dieted for months and was down to a size 12 but in her off-white, plain satin gown with a short veil held by a clumsy floral wreath…she still looked like a sad and graceless spinster trying to fool too many people. Shades of Miss Havisham.

There are many other slides in this Powerpoint. Shots of her, much younger, spending miserable days on the beach dressed like all the other old women while the tan, thin 20-somethings frolicked nearby. Jealous glances at Facebook photos of the cute new girlfriends – with their straight teeth, athletic bodies and smooth hair – of old boyfriends and classmates. Uncomfortable afternoons trapped in business meetings wearing last year’s business suit – fitting a little too tightly and bearing ragged cuffs and sagging shoulder pads.

She hardly ever looks at the text in the Powerpoint. Still, sometimes, because she is a writer and a thinker and can no longer bear to look at any more photos, certain words will catch her eye and draw her attention away.

Like this, from a love letter written too many years too late: “You are a wonderful person, full of love, joy, humor and beauty.  You can make a room light up when you come in.  There are people who literally owe you their lives.  You are one of a kind.”

Or this, whispered just yesterday: “I cannot imagine not being with you for the rest of my life.”

Or this emailed from a former coworker and friend: “You are brilliant and funny and competent…maybe too competent for your colleagues to understand. And sometimes, you have to swallow your pride and let them think THEY came up with idea. You can do that because you are an amazing person.”

Yeah, she’s not pretty. Never will be. But when she reads the fine print, she guesses that, in the end, she’ll do in a pinch.

My apologies to Hallmark…and 1 Corinthians

February 14, 2011 3 comments

I used to think that I knew what love was.

I knew it as a naive, dewy-eyed pre-teen who had watched her parents’ loving and way-too-short marriage through the eyes of an 11-year-old…which is how old I was when my father died.

From watching Ann and Patrick O’Connor, I thought love was a husband who accepted his wife’s chronic asthma and bookended his long workdays spent outside toiling as a forester for the City of Detroit with stints making breakfast for his four children and later, long into the evening, scrubbing dozens of pairs of kids’ dirty socks by hand on a washboard because that’s the way his mother used to do it.

Watching them, I thought love was when Pat gently teased Ann about her “elephant” pajamas as she stood ironing school uniform shirts and blouses early one morning.  She looked less than sexy as she stood over the board, sweat dripping down her neck, her bed-head hair poking out in all directions, her baggy pajamas, covered with large, printed elephants balancing on orange circus barrels. Yet as he got ready to go to work, he walked to her side, whispered in her ear, gave her a long, deep kiss, then reached down and gently squeezed her backside, before walking out the door whistling.

I watched this love scene from behind the bedroom door, unwilling to interrupt their most private moment, but wanting more than anything to be right there, snuggled between them, soaking up their love like the thirstiest of sponges.

I thought I knew what love was, as I saw them, night after night, stretched out on their matching vinyl couches in the living room, watching TV as we kids sat on the floor, and knowing that when we went to bed, they’d pull out sheets and pillows and sleep on those same couches (because they never had their own bedroom in our home). They’d watch Johnny Carson together and share their only “alone time” of the long day.  That’s what love was, I told myself.

And I thought I knew what love was when I watched them have the only “fight” I can ever remember them having: Mom wanted to go to a Jerry Vale concert in Windsor at the Top Hat Supper Club. Dad said they couldn’t afford it. She put her head down and wept, quietly, while he put his arm around her and told her he understood her disappointment, but that he just couldn’t change his mind about spending money they didn’t have. That was it. No ill will. No angry words. No blame. No resentment. Just sadness, then resolution, and then, moving forward to another day. Together.

For Ann and Pat, it wasn’t about money, or travel, or gifts, or “working out” together, or “date night” or worrying about what top college we kids would get into, or stressing how much they had in their IRA. Hell, they never even owned their own home. For Ann and Pat, it was about the sheer joy they found in simply being with one another…no matter what. Pat and Ann were, as a dear friend of mine recently said about his own love life, “dumbass happy.”

Even though all I knew of love back then was filtered through the brain of an 11-year-old, when I became  an older-but-still-naive bride who did not relish the pomp and circumstance of a big wedding but had one anyway, I still thought that “love” was pretty easy: all we had to do was follow what was written in the 1 Corinthians passage that was read at our wedding. It was a neat, little roadmap for a marriage, all wrapped up in a few beautiful lines.

You remember:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

And I thought, based on everything I was sure I knew about love, that it would be a cinch to make that happen in my marriage.

It wasn’t.

We tried. We really did. But love wasn’t always patient. It wasn’t always kind. It didn’t always bear all things, believe all things, and hope all things. And in the end, it didn’t endure all things. And when that happens, one tends to forget all about what one thinks love is.

Since our 20-year marriage ended nearly four years ago, I like to think I’ve relearned a bit more about what love…is.

Love is cooperative. It works out its problems together. It doesn’t say, “I don’t know what to say and I’m not going to counseling but you can if you want.”

Love is flexible. It accepts moodiness and the tendency to spend too much, to worry too much, to whine too much.

Love is dependable. It shows up when it says it will, does what it promises, and hangs around no matter how many unpleasant, nasty, miserable and scary things life conjures up.

Love is tolerant. It sticks around even when the other person is overweight and unattractive, or sometimes has messy hair, unshaven legs  and a fairly loud snore. No matter what, Love sees the beautiful soul and loving heart beneath the elephant pajamas.

Love doesn’t quit. It stays around, no matter how tough the going gets. It works long and hard to renew itself, to find every reason in the world to keep going…and no reason whatsoever to throw in the towel.

Love  is thoughtful. It is the husband in a 50-year marriage asking the intensive care nurse for a tweezers so he can pluck the stray hairs that have grown on his wife’s chin since she fell into a coma.

Love is fearless. It talks out its fears and weaknesses and seeks to learn and grow from them and never lets them get in the way.

Love is deep; it is never superficial. Love is listening to the same story for the 1,000th time. Love is listening to whining, bitching and complaining…and thanking God that you are able to still hear the other person’s voice. Love is truth…and sometimes, its little white lies that make the other person feel better at exactly the moment she needs it. Love is acceptance…and talking the unacceptable things through to a resolution. Love is a partnership in which both parties have equal footing…even when one of them needs help getting up the stairs. Love is a fairly young man understanding that his wife’s devastating illness has robbed her of a normal life, so he spends every waking hour making her laugh and tending to her every need.

And mostly what love is, is really, finally for once and for all, understanding that in the end, love is simply all about being dumbass happy.

With apologies to Hallmark, St. Valentine, and Corinthians…

February 14, 2011 2 comments

I used to think that I knew what love was.

I knew it as a naive, dewy-eyed pre-teen who had watched her parents’ loving and way-too-short marriage through the eyes of an 11-year-old…which is how old I was when my father died.

From watching Ann and Patrick O’Connor, I thought love was a husband who accepted his wife’s chronic asthma and bookended his long workdays spent outside toiling as a forester for the City of Detroit with stints making breakfast for his four children and later, long into the evening, scrubbing dozens of pairs of kids’ dirty socks by hand on a washboard because that’s the way his mother used to do it.

Watching them, I thought love was when Pat gently teased Ann about her “elephant” pajamas as she stood ironing school uniform shirts and blouses early one morning.  She looked less than sexy as she stood over the board, sweat dripping down her neck, her bed-head hair poking out in all directions, her baggy pajamas, covered with large, printed elephants balancing on orange circus barrels. Yet as he got ready to go to work, he walked to her side, whispered in her ear, gave her a long, deep kiss, then reached down and gently squeezed her backside, before walking out the door whistling.

I watched this love scene from behind the bedroom door, unwilling to interrupt their most private moment, but wanting more than anything to be right there, snuggled between them, soaking up their love like the thirstiest of sponges.

I thought I knew what love was, as I saw them, night after night, stretched out on their matching vinyl couches in the living room, watching TV as we kids sat on the floor, and knowing that when we went to bed, they’d pull out sheets and pillows and sleep on those same couches (because they never had their own bedroom in our home). They’d watch Johnny Carson together and share their only “alone time” of the long day.  That’s what love was, I told myself.

And I thought I knew what love was when I watched them have the only “fight” I can ever remember them having: Mom wanted to go to a Jerry Vale concert in Windsor at the Top Hat Supper Club. Dad said they couldn’t afford it. She put her head down and wept, quietly, while he put his arm around her and told her he understood her disappointment, but that he just couldn’t change his mind about spending money they didn’t have. That was it. No ill will. No angry words. No blame. No resentment. Just sadness and then resolution, and then, moving forward to another day. Together.

For Ann and Pat, it wasn’t about money, or travel, or gifts, or “working out” together, or “date night” or worrying about what top college we kids would get into, or stressing how much they had in their IRA…because they never even owned their own home. For Ann and Pat, it was about the sheer joy they found in simply being with one another…no matter what. To put it simply, Pat and Ann were, as a dear friend of mine recently said about his own love life, “dumbass happy.”

So, since all I knew of love back was filtered by the brain of an 11-year-old, when I became  an older-but-still-naive bride who did not relish the pomp and circumstance of a big wedding but had one anyway, I thought that “love” was pretty easy: all we had to do was follow what was written in the 1 Corinthians passage that was read at our wedding. It was a neat, little roadmap for a marriage, all wrapped up in a few beautiful lines.

You remember:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

And I thought, based on everything I was sure I knew about love, that it would be a cinch to make that happen in my marriage.

It wasn’t.

We tried. We really did. But love wasn’t always patient. It wasn’t always kind. It didn’t always bear all things, believe all things, and hope all things. And in the end, it didn’t endure all things. And when that happens, one tends to forget all about what one thinks love is.

Since our 20-year marriage ended nearly four years ago, I like to think I’ve relearned a bit more about what love…is.

Love is cooperative. It works out its problems together. It doesn’t say, “I don’t know what to say and I’m not going to counseling but you can if you want.”

Love is flexible. It accepts moodiness and the tendency to spend too much, to worry too much, to whine too much.

Love is dependable. It shows up when it says it will, does what it promises, and hangs around no matter how many unpleasant, nasty, miserable and scary things life conjures up.

Love is tolerant. It sticks around even when the other person is overweight and unattractive, or sometimes has messy hair, unshaven legs  and a fairly loud snore. No matter what, Love sees the beautiful soul and loving heart beneath the elephant pajamas.

Love doesn’t quit. It stays around, no matter how tough the going gets. It works long and hard to renew itself, to find every reason in the world to keep going…and no reason whatsoever to throw in the towel.

Love  is thoughtful. It is the husband in a 50-year marriage asking the intensive care nurse for a tweezers so he can pluck the stray hairs that have grown on his wife’s chin since she fell into a coma.

Love is fearless. It talks out its fears and weaknesses and seeks to learn and grow from them and never let them get in the way of living life to its fullest.

Love is deep; it is never superficial. Love is listening to the same story for the 1,000th time. Love is listening to whining, bitching and complaining…and thanking God that you are able to still hear the other person’s voice. Love is truth…and sometimes, its little white lies that make the other person feel better at exactly the moment she needs it. Love is acceptance…and talking the unacceptable things through to a resolution. Love is a partnership in which both parties have equal footing…even when one of them needs help getting up the stairs. Love is a fairly young man understanding that his wife’s devastating illness has robbed her of a normal life, so he spends every waking hour making her laugh and tending to her every need.

And mostly what love is, is really, finally for once and for all, understanding that in the end, love is simply all about being dumbass happy.

Faith: working without a net

February 6, 2011 3 comments

Years ago, my second cousin died in an awful, tragic car accident when he was a senior in high school.  As you would expect, the young man’s funeral was unbearably sad. Hundreds of stricken teenagers and our entire extended family – in shock.

At the end of the funeral Mass,  his mom –  my first cousin – her husband and six other children walked up the aisle of the church, following the coffin. They were crying, as one might expect. The amazing thing was they were also all smiling – broadly. Through the shock and grief they leaned heavily on one another…but more importantly, on their faith. Each one of them seemed to have an absolute, complete, unshakable faith that this beautiful young man, despite dying far too young, had gone to a better place.

And although it sounds awful, I envy them. I’ve never experienced deep faith in that way… not that day nor any day since.

My mother had complete faith in God. Despite a terrible chronic illness that robbed her of a “normal” adult life, she kept the faith. Even after losing her second child in a premature birth, she kept the faith. And when she was four-and-a-half months pregnant with her sixth child – at age 44 – and her husband of only 15 years, my dad, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm, she kept the faith.

In fact, it was even stronger. The night before Dad’s funeral, with dozens of relatives roaming around trying to “help” and her four children staggering around the house in a mixture of grief, disbelief and utter terror over losing their father, Mom lay in her bed, trying not to have a miscarriage.

The stress of losing her husband and preparing to bury him had taken its toll. Mom was bleeding and her pregnancy was in danger. The family doctor had told her to remain on bedrest…even advised that if she wanted to keep the baby, she needed to seriously consider missing Dad’s funeral.

Mom listened politely to the doctor, who was also her good friend. She had some cousins put bricks under the foot of her bed, propping her feet up, and did what the doctor said, for the most part. Then, throughout that sweltering night, while the rest of us slept, she prayed the Rosary, talking to God, to her husband, and to Mary, the Blessed Mother of Jesus. She literally WILLED that baby back up into a safer spot in her womb and trusted that God would make sure it stayed there. And in the morning, Mom went to Dad’s funeral. Four months later, a healthy baby Patty was born.

Yes, my mother had faith. She was faith personified. Unfortunately, she died before she could share her secret with me.

How does one believe when belief seems impossible? How does one trust when disappointment is a daily occurrence? How does one let go – completely – of trying to control a situation that by its very nature is out of control?

Despite attending weekly Mass, reading the New Testament whenever I can, and consulting often with a priest who happens to be a good friend – and hell, even after teaching fifth grade catechism for a decade, I still wrestle with the concept of faith. I still have a hard time believing what I can’t see. A hard time trusting in what I can’t control. And a hard time being assured that there is a reason for everything and that somehow, some way, things will turn out okay, even when many times…they haven’t.

I’ve had a few tests of my faith (such as it is). I was tested at 11 when I found my dad unconscious on the bathroom floor. And again at 15 when I was diagnosed with a chronic pain and inflammatory disorder and later that year, when Mom was rewarded for her lifelong faith by getting to discuss it face-to-face with God.

My faith has been tested a dozen times more since then and I still feel weak and frightened, as  battle-scarred as I’ve been by life’s usual challenges.  At 53, it bothers me that I am still seeking answers, that I feel that I am always walking on eggshells with God, and that each day I feel the stomach-twisting fear that I am convinced must go hand-in-hand with a lack of true faith.

I am not sure I know what the answer is. Right now, I am struggling with another of life’s many challenges that seem to be around every corner. It’s a situation that demands ultimate faith. And I am…well, still a little weak on the concept.

Because every time I remember my cousins and their ultimate show of faith…and every time I hear my mother’s voice in my head assuring me that everything would be all right…all I can think of are the Flying Wallendas.

You remember the famous aerial artist Wallenda family act that toured the world?  They thrilled thousands of fans around the world for decades, entertaining people by soaring high above the ground, doing amazing, fancy tricks on tightropes and swings, flying through the air, performing, death-defying, dangerous highwire acts without a net. Kind of like I feel like on many of my days.

And we all know what happened to the Wallendas, don’t we?

There’s an IV in my arm so it must be December.

December 8, 2010 5 comments

First Saturday in December and there I was again: hooked up to an IV, EKG sticky strips plastered all over me, oxygen running into my nose through one of those disgusting nose things, scared, feeling awful and worse, very badly dressed in the baggy, open-in-the back, dignity-stealing garment that screams “HOSPITAL! SICK! WEAK! VULNERABLE!”

I WAS in the hospital. And, as it turned out I really wasn’t sick or weak, but I WAS rather vulnerable. Earlier that day, I was working out at the gym when I had chest pain and shortness of breath. It kept happening after I stopped working out, so I went to the emergency room near my home in Issaquah, WA. There, they got two suspicious EKGs so they sent me by ambulance to the Swedish Cherry Hill campus in Seattle which is “all-cardiac, all the time.”

Two days, thousands of dollars of tests, 11 blood draws, 48 hours of cardiac telemetry monitoring, two IVs of potassium (not the lethal injection variety), six very bland cardiac diet meals, one massive allergic skin reaction to the sticky stuff on the EKG strips (I can provide photos), and one nasty thallium stress test (I now glow in the dark!) later, they told me the following:

  1. I did not have a heart attack.
  2. The stress test shows excellent blood flow to my heart, so it is an 85% sure thing (the best that non-invasive technology offers) that I have no blockages or other cardiac ailments.
  3. I have more stress in my life than 14 human beings collectively and need to reduce it immediately. If not sooner. Let me add that to my “to-do” list, won’t you, Doc?
  4. I take in too much caffeine and caffeine can cause wonky EKGs. I need to work on cutting out caffeine…but first, a cuppa Joe.
  5. I should be grateful for Obama healthcare; if I didn’t have it, I’d owe them my first-born son.
  6. Only I could be assigned a young male nurse who looked like he’d be much more at home playing World of Warcraft and Beer Pong than taking care of me.

Now, when most people think of December they think of holidays: peace, love, giving, Christmas, Hanukkah, 24 hours of The Christmas Story on TV, parties, caroling around the Christmas tree…the whole nine yards worth of holly and berries.

Me? When I think of December, I think first of call buttons, nurses, waiting for test results, bad hospital food, uncomfortable yet magically moveable beds, ambulances, disembodied voices calling out “code blues” in the ER, people waking me up in the dead of night to take my “vitals” and then telling me to “get some rest, now.” Because for me, December has always meant “hospital month.”

My first December in the hospital came when I was five and I had my tonsils out. Back then, it was a three-day adventure in the pediatric ward that ended with mega-doses of ice cream. With my luck, it stretched into eight days, thanks to a post-surgery hemorrhage leading to having my nose packed leading to an infection leading to no ice cream because I couldn’t swallow.

My most vivid memory of that visit was sitting in the window of the pediatric ward and watching the movie Lady and the Tramp on the large screen of the now-defunct Eastside Drive-In a few blocks away. How very cruel to position a drive-in screen pointed directly at the St. John Hospital pediatric ward where tiny patients could watch the movie but never hear it!

My next December in the hospital came at age 15 when I spent Thanksgiving and part of December in the peds ward being diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. By the time I was well enough to go home in early December, I had lost most of my hair, still had swollen joints and limbs, and was forced to walk with a walker (such an attractive option for a teenager in the 1970s!).

My first day home from the hospital, I wanted to visit my church to see the Christmas decorations. When the pastor heard some slight commotion in the otherwise empty church (I couldn’t travel alone so some of my siblings – the noisy troublemakers – went with me) he came to investigate. Despite my explanations, Fr. O’Shea just chased us all out of building, shoving me and shaking his cane at me. The walker that seemed so painfully obvious to me was apparently invisible to the crazy, old priest. Season’s greetings and wise men, indeed.

It was another December when I was in the hospital for the birth of my first child, Megan Claire. She was born more than three months early, though, so she died in December, too. I spent a lot of the month in the hospital that year – 1990 – trying in vain to keep that pregnancy going, to keep her inside me as long as I could. While I prayed for enough time for her to grow and for her lungs to be strong, I remember hearing the carolers walk through the hospital and wondering why their songs made me so sad during such a happy season. 

Beautiful little Megan was born on the night of December 13, 1990…so impossibly small, too small to survive. As Mike and I held her in our arms, saying hello and goodbye at the same time, the delivery room nurse told me through her own tears that she suddenly had an unusually strong sense of joy.  She felt this joy, she said, because she – she who barely knew me but because of what we had just been through together had come to know me like a sister – had experienced an overwhelming and amazing feeling of hope.

“I know that you will be back here…soon…and you will have  a strong, healthy child. Don’t ask me how I know that. I just know,” she told me as she gently prepared me to give up the body of my child and go into surgery myself.

Indeed, she knew. One year and 17 days later, after much worry, pain and even some laughter (one hasn’t lived until, while one is in her 12th hour of heavy labor, one’s husband points to the TV and says, “look dear, it’s the “Big Breasted Women” show on Montel Williams today!”)…I gave birth to Patrick John Andrzejczyk. He entered the world with a husky cry, a full head of curly, red hair and weighing enough for the delivery room nurses to wince as they helped me push out his 9 pound, 8-ounce, 23-inch frame without benefit of any pain killing drugs (for me…still not sure what the nurses were on).

Three years later, Patrick and I were to spend another part of December  in St. John Hospital. One morning, while  I was getting his baby sister, Erin, ready to go to daycare, Patrick was in the other room watching cartoons and eating breakfast. When Erin was ready, I went to get Patrick into his coat and boots. He was on the couch, sound  asleep. Or so I thought. After five minutes of trying, I could not wake him and his heartbeat was faint and breathing very shallow.

My sister Patty bundled up the baby and I grabbed Patrick’s limp body and we raced to the car. “Please God,” I begged as I drove like a crazy woman all the way to the hospital. “Please don’t let anything be wrong with my baby boy.”  I literally did a dead run with the unconscious 3-year-old in my arms, pushing past the security guard at the ER entrance and telling him to go to hell with his metal detector…my baby was sick!

Patrick spent the day in a 14-hour “nap,”  oblivious to the doctors administering a spinal tap (I watched them do it, but barely had the backbone for it). After many tests and more reassurances from the doctors, it was determined that Patrick had – in the span of five minutes – spiked a fever, had a febrile seizure, and when I found him, was already in the post-seizure slumber. He would be fine, they said.

We spent two days in the hospital that year, Patrick and I. He was sick and crabby and miserable. I was tired and stressed and rumpled (still dressed in the work clothes I’d put on the day before) but very, very relieved.

That night, the carolers came by once again, singing and bearing gifts for the poor children stuck in pediatrics in December. The nice volunteer held out a box filled with gifts from which Patrick and I could choose. Inside were toys, kid videos and games. Patrick’s chubby little hand hovered briefly over one gift before choosing a package of Hot Wheels cars. I looked into the box to see what he had elected to leave behind: a videotape of Lady and the Tramp. It’s amazing how the circle always closes.

All of these “December in the hospital” memories came flooding back to me today, as I spent the day off work, recovering and trying to “de-stress.”  Funny, there were no carolers serenading me this past weekend, I mused, as I recounted these December hospital memories to my now-grown son, Patrick, as we drove around in the car.

“It’s okay, Mom. “Here, we can listen to Handel’s Messiah,” he said, popping the CD into the car stereo. I looked at my nearly 19-year-old “baby,” and marveled at his kindness, his intelligence and good humor, and his patience at my retelling of ancient history. I chuckled as I watched the little boy-like love for all things Christmas that seemed to literally pour from the 6-3, 270-pound, curly-haired, man-son squeezed into my tiny car.

And then I smiled as I thought to myself: “Sometimes, you get to take some pretty cool things home from the hospital in December.”

Giving thanks. But not for what you’d think.

November 26, 2010 1 comment

Today is Black Friday for shoppers – the now-traditional (since the advent of the “real” Mad Men anyway) day-after-Thanksgiving holiday shopfest that promises to put American retailers in the black.

Since I am not a shopper, the day after Thanksgiving has always been “eat leftovers, do dishes and feel sorry for myself” day. It doesn’t quite have the cachet that “Black Friday” does, but it works for me.

You see, I’ve always had sort of love-hate relationship with Thanksgiving. In my mind, Thanksgiving should be just like Norman Rockwell painted it. In reality, for me, Thanksgiving always winds up being more like “Norman Rockwell Meets Sam Peckinpah With Finnish Subtitles.” And that’s the way I like it.

I cooked my first Thanksgiving at age 5. No lie. Just three years out of diapers, I was pressed into service that Thanksgiving morning long ago when my mother was too sick from asthma to prepare the feast. My mother was a “never say die” kind of person. She just didn’t give up. She probably could have stayed in bed and concentrated on getting enough air to stay alive, and let the rest of the stuff just fall by the wayside. Not Ann O’Connor.

She had a perfectly good and capable – if whiny – daughter who even at an early age was eager to please. So, she tied an apron around my waist and then sat in the kitchen, tethered to her oxygen tank, sipping the hot water that would help keep her airway open, and slowly and carefully gave me step-by-step instructions on how to make a turkey dinner.

I washed the turkey and brought it to my mom to arrange in the pan. I made the stuffing – cutting up the bread, onions and celery under Mom’s watchful eye. We worked together with me doing the moving around, mixing, heavy lifting and stirring. I even sewed up the turkey after it was stuffed. I mashed the potatoes AND the rutabaga, and even lit the candles on the table after I set it with the good china. Dad was busy with the other younger kids, but helped to make gravy and carry the golden brown turkey to the table. I was happy to help and be the center of attention. Mom, with tears in her eyes, pronounced the meal a success and told me she loved her wonderful little helper.

The whole thing is as clear to me today as it was in November 1962. It was the day I became me: hard worker, dying to please anyone and everyone, damn the torpedos we’re gonna make this work if it kills me, fun – what fun? relax? I AM relaxed, can’t you tell? I am exhausted from trying to make it all come together Peggy. Whew. Black Friday indeed.

Every Thanksgiving since then has had some mini Greek tragedy or another woven directly through the middle of it…gravy stains and all.

There was the first Thanksgiving two months after my Dad died. Mom was seven months pregnant with Patty and once again determined to give us a nice Thanksgiving. Offers for dinner came from both sides of the family but Mom, in her grief, had neglected to confirm any of them. So when the day came, we listened to Dad’s sisters and their extended family enjoying the day in their downstairs flat and wondered what we were doing for dinner. “I forgot to tell anyone we were coming,” she said, crying. Her sister and parents were enjoying dinner at another sister’s home and we really couldn’t get there since Mom didn’t have her driver’s license yet.  We ended up eating a “second round” dinner of leftovers sent up from downstairs. It was weird.

Then there was the year that I was 15 and spent the entire month of November in the pediatric ward at St. John Hospital in Detroit being first diagnosed and then treated for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. In August, I had snagged my first-ever Thanksgiving Game tickets to the Detroit Lions’ contest in 1972: Joe Namath and the Jets vs. my Lions and my favorite: Wayne Walker. My older brother Sean – my steadfast sports buddy since we were young – and I planned on a great morning at the game and then home to dinner.

It seemed like it took forever for Thanksgiving Day to arrive…only when it did, I was in the hospital unable to walk, swallow easily or even hold a fork. Our pediatrician, Dr. James Fisher, was my only visitor during the day. Mom’s asthma was acting up, she had a 4-year-old to keep happy and the other kids to worry about. She couldn’t make the trip. Dr. Fisher had been the one to break the news to me earlier in the week that I was not well enough to go to the football game. He walked into my room that Thanksgiving afternoon, watched the entire Lions’ game with me on TV, spoon-fed me my hospital holiday dinner (it was hamburgers, for God’s sake), and held my hand while I cried. “It’ll be okay, Peggy. You’ll get to the game next year when we get you all better,” he said as he stroked my hair and wiped away my tears.

That night, just before visiting hours ended, Sean poked his head into my room and said, “The game was good, but it wasn’t the same without you. Turn on the TV channel that shows the hospital chapel in closed circuit.” Then he was gone. I did as he asked. A few minutes later, he appeared on the TV screen, leaping around the chapel, zooming in close to the camera, capering around in the semi-dark chapel making rude gestures to the holy statues, and thoroughly entertaining me for 20 minutes until hospital security escorted him out for conduct unbecoming a hospital holy place.

Then there was the year that Patrick and Erin were 10 and 8, respectively. Thanksgivings for the previous 10 years had been at our house in Grosse Pointe – complete with everything made from scratch by a grumpy-but-willing husband, a fire in the fireplace, and every corner of the place filled with good food, shaky folding tables, lots of laughter and kids and siblings everywhere. It was truly Rockwellian…until that year: 2002.

Mike’s mom had been in a coma since September and was not expected to improve. In fact, the decision had been made that the next day – Black Friday – she would be moved to a facility that provided long-term care for ventilator patients. Even in a coma and on the last day of her life, however, Barb Andrzejczyk was a stubborn woman. She lived long enough that Thanksgiving Day until her daughter could fly in from Virginia and say goodbye. My side of the family filled the house with their usual antics and good humor. They were present, but subdued. We fed the grieving family, told Patrick and Erin about their grandmother’s death, wiped away tears, and sat, talked and ate quietly for the rest of the night, unwilling to give up at least some spirit of the holiday.

Not surprisingly, Thanksgiving was also the day that dear Aunt Margie  – our surrogate mother and grandmother – had the accident which would lead to her death in less than three months. We made it through dinner and were basking in the O’Connor glow of eating and laughing way too much…when Margie, more than a little senile and unsure of just how long it should take to make a cup of tea, got up to see about hurrying the process along. A few minutes later, she lay on the floor after tripping on a step, suffering a broken hip and fractured arm, and her destiny was sealed.

Since that night in 2004, the kids and I have had a string of sad and lonely – and mostly uneventful – Thanksgivings. We lost our home, my marriage ended, and things have been very odd indeed every fourth Thursday in November. One year, we dined at a restaurant, eating mediocre food served by overly enthusiastic strangers. Another year – my first in Seattle – my kids spent Thanksgiving in South Carolina and in Virginia with their dad and assorted strangers, yet most of the time they were on the phone calling me to complain that things just weren’t right. For the last three holidays, I’ve found myself celebrating the day in the midst of dear friends and people I love here in Seattle. They know I miss “home” and they have worked hard to make it festive for me. For that and for them, I will be forever grateful.

Yet, somehow, it’s not the same. And it never will be.

But that’s okay. Like Ann O’Connor, I am determined to keep trying…to enjoy a Thanksgiving  that is different…but the same, somehow. To spend Thanksgiving not like Norman Rockwell depicted it, but maybe with the attitude my late Aunt Margie had as she looked up at me from the EMS gurney, on her way to the hospital, late that Thanksgiving night as the clock turned into Black Friday morning.

“Well, my hip hurts like hell, but dinner was great. Thanks for a wonderful evening.”

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