A birthday like no other
For almost a year, I’ve thought about writing this column, in this week.
In four days, I will turn 62, which was the age of my mother when she died. If you’ve lost a beloved parent too young, I doubt I need to describe for you my roiling mix of emotions. If you haven’t, please forgive my envy.
I am the oldest of four; two sisters and a brother, in that order. I was 42 when our mom died, and a single mother. My son was grown, but my daughter was only 12. My desperate prayer for a decade was to let me live long enough to see both of my children launched into the world.
All these years later, here’s what I’ve learned about that prayer: I was fooling myself. It appears that I will always want more time, that I will run out of life before I run out of longing. I am that person in our framed print of William Blake’s illustration — “I want! I want!” — poised to climb the ladder that reaches to the moon.
My children are married and have their own children now, and marriage has brought me several more grandchildren. I’ve become the grandmother I used to mock, mesmerized by their every word, their every move. In our basement, a stack of boxes with ready-to-make concrete “stepping stones” sits, awaiting the imprint of seven pairs of hands. I love watching my grandchildren grow, but a part of me wants to freeze in time a part of them.
Single parenthood is long behind me. I’ve been married for 15 years to a man who still leaves love notes on my pillow. We found each other in middle age, and we’ve never stopped trying to make up for that lost time.
For a year now, I’ve wanted to share my greatest lesson from losing my mother at my age: Every day is a gift.
That was the plan for this column until two weeks ago, when my brother ended his life after a long struggle with alcohol and depression.
Perhaps you think that news mid-column should have come with a warning. I agree. But as I’ve recently learned from so many who’ve lost loved ones to suicide, we don’t see those warnings until it’s too late. And then, too often, we can’t stop counting the ways we failed to help.
My brother, Chuck, was 56. I don’t have it in me to create a fiction about his death, because how he died is the hardest part. I don’t yet know how it will change me, but I already know I will never be the same. In the days since his death, I have talked to friends and family who were as shocked as I was by the way he died. He was not in his right mind, we want to believe, but he was sober at the time and seems to have mapped it out. He left final written directions for me, which is the only thing about this that didn’t surprise me. I am the oldest, and being in charge has always been my job. His job, I keep telling him now, was to outlive me.
I still think every day is a gift, but now I understand how lucky I am to believe that.
One day, maybe, I will write the longer story about my brother, and our family. Right now, I just keep scouring his text messages and emails, searching for — what? I don’t know. Addiction can bring out the worst in people who suffer from it, and those of us who love them.
We had our gentle moments. In February, after another tense exchange about his drinking, Chuck pivoted and wrote this:
“I have a special memory about you which you may not recall. You and I were in the back seat of the car on a lengthy drive with Mom and Dad. I can’t remember where, but you let me lay my head on your lap and sleep. I’m sure you may not remember but I do because at that time in our lives, you were still a tortuous brat older sister but on that day and on that drive, I realized my older sister loved me and I could trust her.
“That’s the truth Con.”
“You were driving me to college,” I explained, and added, “I have always loved you.”
That’s the truth, Chuck.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer
Prize-winning columnist and professional
in residence at Kent State University’s
school of journalism.