In the small society of my childhood, nice Catholic men, pillars of church and community, fathers of four young children, did not suddenly and inexplicably commit suicide. Mine did. Thus began a period of great sadness, bewilderment and a heartbreak so severe that I thought I would die next.
We were shunned by those “more Catholic than the Pope” who insisted that our pastor not allow Daddy a funeral Mass or burial in a Catholic cemetery. It resulted in his thunderous sermon on Christian charity that still echoes in my ears today.
Just three days after his 14th birthday, my brother, Joe, became the head of our grieving family. He didn’t do a half-bad job either. While we took a variety of paths in life and made vastly different choices in careers, we all grew up to become hard-working adults with a variety of successes both large and small. Probably the greatest of these was Joe’s creation of a company that achieved a tremendous reputation throughout California.
We are now about halfway through a period of Joe’s final journey of living with ALS. He has sold his beloved company, settled his legal and financial affairs and embarked on a series of “farewell visits” to people and places while he’s still physically able. He asked us siblings to be the first of these visits, his “trial run” if you will.
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So, pockets full of tissues, I drove back to our family home, now owned by my sister. I brought along two thick scrapbooks, packed with photos and memorabilia. My siblings did the same. After a light lunch, we wheeled Joe down to our old parish church and held him upright as the current pastor blessed us all. We wheeled him through the schoolyard, the scene of our lives for almost 20 years, bringing up memories of classmates, nuns, May processions and the like. We wheeled him home the long way, through Ray Park, and remembered the many hours we’d spent there.
Then we spent hours poring over all of our scrapbooks and boxes of family photos, many of which chronicled special events celebrated in that same room around that same table. We spoke of relatives long gone and happily argued over which sibling has been the one who rolled the peas into the floor air vent under the buffet. We told stories on ourselves and on each other and I found out that Joe wasn’t quite as perfect as I’d always thought he’d been.
For the first time in more than 50 years, he spoke of Daddy. As we put our adult heads together, we realized that we understood his actions so much better and we let him go in peace.
When Joe’s wife came to pick him up, he was physically exhausted but smiling broadly. She thanked us for coming so far and for our gift to him. I replied that it was a gift to all of us from all of us. And it was. It was a blessing of a day. No spouses, no kids, no holiday meals to cook, no Bowl games blaring on the TV, no cellphones allowed. Just us four! The absence of others meant that we didn’t need to explain any backstories. One could just say “Pine Grove” or “altar boy picnics” or “Kezar Stadium” and we were off to the races with our memories.
Give a gift to someone you love. Call your siblings. Pick a date. Leave any petty grievances at home. Just bring yourselves and your photos and celebrate your lives with each other.
P.S. I brought home pockets full of tissues all unused!
Cathy Marvier lives in San Luis Obispo.