The Sun Also Rises
by John Roach
The winter has been long. The raw cold of January. The snows of February. The winter storm warnings that continue to be posted through late March into early April.
Winters are a struggle, and none so much as this one. The ice on our lake up north is over two feet thick. I have been wearing a winter coat all my life.
The news doesn’t help. Television adds only the color of blood to liven up the final gray days of the cold season.
CNN is a depressing drone.
There is a litany of tawdry news that would matter less if we fwere housebound by ice and snow. The Bobbitts. Tonya and Nancy. Michael and his little boys. The Menendez brothers. The Quake and its aftershocks.
Citizens going to market to buy bread become mortar fodder in the old Yugoslavia. Israelis and Palestinians find new and more manic ways to kill each other. In Washington, instead of handling the people’s business, Bill and Hillary are dogged by a two-bit Arkansas land deal.
And in Madison, Mayor Paul returns home from emergency cardiac surgery. While his heart should be resting, it is forced to beat fast as he and his wife bundle up their children and run them out into the dark, cold street when some cretin tries to torch his home.
A cholesterol and arson victim all in one week. Tough winter.
I ran out of firewood in early February, just in time for the big snows. Instead of enjoying a crackling fire and a good book, I ate bad, fatty food and wore down the batteries of the remote control. Winter has made me fat, stupid, sallow and dull.
But worse than that, it has made me sour with despair. Haunting business problems have jerked me awake at 3 a.m. Just me, one light, and the chime of a clock. At that time of night, at this time of year, there seems no escape.
But then it happens. First there was Dan Jansen’s Last Ride. If anyone had a right to wallow in despair, it would have been that falling Milwaukee boy. But he persevered against doubt and history.
Then, a week later, walking out to get the morning paper at 6 a.m., I heard them high overhead. Geese, northbound.
And then I was invited to The Party.
It was to be another gathering of my wife’s family. A Pizza Party in late March. Billed as “Say Good-Bye to Winter.” A bonfire. A special surprise guest. Big deal.
These are the events that I try to avoid. Too many screaming children. Too many Big Catholic Family conversations that aren’t conversations at all, just words shouted through the bedlam.
The festivities were to be held at Tom and Sue’s. Tom is Diane’s older and only brother. Sue is his lovely wife. Party aside, they are two of the more remarkable people I have ever met.
Death has made them that way.
Tom and Sue had two sons. Jeff, the oldest, is a junior at Michigan. On July 26, 1984, their youngest boy, seven-year-old Andy, was riding his bike on the sidewalk with a gaggle of neighborhood boys along a quiet tree-lined street on the west side. They were following the garbage truck as it made its weekly route.
The details are hard to write. Andy crossed at the corner hoping to follow the truck on its usual path up the street. But the truck turned into him. The driver did not see the Boy, the Son, the Brother, the Grandson, the Nephew, the Cousin, the Friend.
Andy was run over and killed instantly.
Someone ran to get Sue. She collapsed on the front lawn. They wouldn’t let her near her son’s body.
Tom was called at work. His car screeched to a halt at the scene, the driver’s door left open as he rushed out to meet the worst moment of his life.
They buried Andy two days later.
A haunting incident occurred after the funeral, during the reception held in the family’s back yard. I was talking with Tom. He was shaken but strong on the saddest summer afternoon. Suddenly our words were drowned out by a low-flying squadron of jets. As the four fighters flew overhead, one peeled away in the Missing Man Formation.
Tom had a friend who was an Air National Guard pilot. A friend who knew Andy loved jets.
I still hear Tom’s deep, long sigh as he looked up into the sky.
For many months after the death of their son, Tom and Sue bore that haunted, awful look of grieving parents. They both dropped weight. Tom, a regular churchgoer, stopped going altogether.
But slowly they rebounded. Unable to have any more children, they became the second parents to a whole wave of nieces and nephews. When any of us needed a toddler break or a quick vacation without the kids (usually to conceive more of them), Tom and Sue were there. With the possible exception of Pizza Hut or Jumping Jack’s, Tom and Sue’s home is still our kids’ favorite destination.
So it was with enthusiasm that Diane and the brood headed out to their place for the Pizza Party, Mystery Guest and bonfire.
I grudgingly decided to attend at the last moment, when an NCAA tournament game I was watching didn’t go into overtime.
The pizzas arrived. But just before the feeding frenzy began, Sue asked everyone, all 40 sisters, in-laws, nieces and nephews and grandparents that make up this big family, to hold hands and offer a prayer.
Cynic that I am, I did not hold anyone’s hand. I’ll pray over turkey or ham, but I could not bring myself to pray over pizza.
After grace, Tom spoke up.
In a clumsy little speech, he explained that the much awaited Mystery Guest wouldn’t be arriving until late August. He continued to explain, with a glowing smile, as a blushing Sue lifted her oversized sweater to reveal a belly swollen with four and a half months of child. That they were going to name the new arrival “Goober” or “Thelma Lou.”
In their mid 40s, a full 17 years after the birth of their last child and 10 years after his death, Tom and Sue were going to be a Mom and Dad once more. After the tears, bedlam and cries of incredulity from the gathered clan, I asked Tom how son Jeff, now 20 years old, took the news.
“Not too well,” Tom said.
“Yeah,” I responded. “I am sure it brings back some tough memories for him of Andy.”
“No, that’s not it,” Tom joked. “I think he just couldn’t deal with the fact that his parents were still having sex.”
Tom, not the one for complicated philosophy, also remarked, “More than anything, it makes me think about the randomness of life. Andy was taken from us so quickly, and now this new little life surprises us. You want to plot out your whole life, but you really don’t have as much control of things as you think. You just gotta have hope.”
So there you have it.
The snow is vanishing. Dan Jansen is a millionaire. And Tom and Sue are going to be chaperoning prom when they are sixty.
And you know, Doug. I think this just might be the year the Cubs win the pennant.
Ain’t spring grand?