Two days ago we celebrated the 35th anniversary of my twin sister’s passing. I say we “celebrated” yet I did little more than treat myself to a few hundred extra calories. But that’s part of a new bulking diet and I’ll write more on that in another post. Those calories, by the way, came from sprouted grain wheat bread, natural peanut butter, and hard boiled eggs; not exactly a trip to the Dairy Queen. In years past I actually celebrated the day with more festivity. We’d go out to dinner at least. But times are different and after shelling out quite a bit to cover travel expenses for Dad’s funeral, a low-key remembrance is fitting.
Today was the anniversary of my brother’s passing. That would be my older brother Owen who was six when he died as a result of the same house fire that claimed my sister. There’s one more in two days and I’ll cover him then.
Imagine, if you will, what that week was like for our family. Put aside for the moment the absolute tragedy and shock of losing your home and all your worldly possessions in the middle of the night (not to mention the trauma of how it went down). Now imagine you’re a relatively young couple with an enormous family. My parents were in their early 40’s. For Dad it must have been hell. Before the fire’s even out your wife is lying critically injured from a jump out the second floor window, your children are being loaded into ambulances to be dispersed to multiple hospitals in the area, your house is gone, it’s cold, there’s snow on the ground, you’re in your boxers because that’s what you went to bed in. And you’ve just realized that your four year-old daughter is dead.
If ever there was a case for daily mass, this moment proves to me where the man got his strength.
Two days later with your wife and many of your children still in hospitals being treated for broken bones from being tossed into the snow from the second floor porch and while you’re planning a funeral for your child, your six year-old son succumbs to the smoke inhalation.
As with my twin, I have no memories of my brother. Years later I did use his middle name for my son (and to honor the pope). Yet, he is the brother I always wished I’d gotten to spend more time with. He was the next closest sibling to me in age (after my twin). Thinking of all this three and a half decades later I’m completely in awe of my father. When my kids get sick I freak out. I can’t imagine losing either of them, let alone both.
Do you know what Dad did?
He planned a double funeral.
These are my first conscious memories. Standing in the funeral home I remember the thousands of people who came, and to the church for the mass. I remember it was Catholic Schools Week and the principal of the parish grade school halted whatever activities were scheduled. Close to 700 children in perfect uniform in the church with us. I remember a procession of priests that, to me, seemed to go on forever. The Benedictine abbot from my father’s alma mater, I think, was there. I’m sure one of my siblings will correct me if he wasn’t but I remember seeing a mitre. Coincidentally, I think this is where my love of Catholic schools was truly formed and to this day it is my life’s work. I remember things like the drive to the cemetery with a line of cars stretching well past where I could see. And I remember feeling like this was huge, like my life was completely different now. And I remember gray skies, light snow, and cold. And from their grave I could see the Twin Towers and I was a twin and that was cool.
He never talked much about it. It’s a wonder the stress of that week didn’t kill him outright. The thing is that he was a man. He was an honest to goodness, genuine man; without swagger, without false machismo – the kind of man we used to hear about and read about and see in Frank Capra films. He wasn’t soulless, he wasn’t a robot. He cried. But he knew and lived his faith. These two were safe and supremely happy. The rest of us needed love, protection, and support. Who had time to wallow, though that wallowing was more than deserved. The fact that he lived another 35 years is a testament to his faith.
And I’ve realized I need to be more like him. I need to return to mass every single day without exception. I need to provide more for my family. I need to show my children what true strength is. From my dad I learned that it involves a healthy dose of having a lot of fun with your kids.
There’s a reason for that. Dad used to say (especially in the last few years):
“Some men invest in their retirement plans. I invested in children.”
Well, I started out talking about my brother’s anniversary and wound up talking about Dad. Please forgive me for these posts of late. I certainly don’t intend to be morbid or to depress anyone. I walked into a friend’s classroom the other morning before school started and he was crying. “Why’d you do that?” he asked, almost angrily. Turns out he was reading my last post about my sister. “Do you enjoy making me cry?” Sidenote: if I told you he’s also the trainer-friend I’ve mentioned before then you can imagine it was a kind of payback for the tears I’ve shed that I’ll never be in his shape. But I never want to make people cry. “Some men can move heavy weights around,” I said. “I guess I can move words?”
Truly I am celebrating the beautiful lives of the people in my family and I do rejoice for them. I’m also realizing so much more now that he’s gone how very special a man my father is. And I’m seeing now so acutely just how much I’ve wanted to be like him. And for now I’ll stop writing.