counting: an exercise in loving

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my brother started it. my brother who wasn’t yet 20 the night we all got phone calls, urgent phone calls, to get to highland park hospital. it was dad, we were told in those long-ago calls. and it didn’t look good.

there was a blizzard that night, but we all drove through it–two from milwaukee, two from downtown chicago (one was already there, the youngest; he’d walked in the room steps ahead of my mom, and he saw the team bent over my father’s bed, as they tried to start his heart again). i remember holding my breath as snow flakes fell and blew. i remember thinking the edens expressway, the most direct route from my little apartment to the hospital where we waited, i remember thinking it would never end.

three of my four brothers, especially, were too too young for the news–one, the youngest, had only just turned 13, the other two were in or in and out of college, finding their way–too young for the news that would come when the doctor walked stiffly into the hall, gathered us, and we all leaned in as he looked down at the shiny tiled floor, and said only, “i’m sorry.”

that was not enough for me, the one who needs things spelled out, in more refined detail, so i spurted out, primally, “did he die?”

he did. and so five children and a widow walked back into the snow storm, with a plastic bag of his “effects,” a cold and clinical word for the relics of the one you loved.

all these years later, my brothers especially, try to resurrect the faint outlines of the one we loved and lost. my brother, now the father of a feisty second-grader, he especially reaches into the vapors for the father he never got enough of, none of us got enough of.

this week, on the eve of the 39th february 10 since that snowy awful night, my brother sat down and made a list. a beautiful list. one raw, and unfiltered. he wrote all the way to 39, one moment captured for each year since we’d lost the great gregarious eugene shannon, felled by a heart attack, a massive one, at 52.

my brother’s litany of moments was nothing like mine. so i sat down and wrote my own. and my other brother in arizona, he wrote one too. he wrote his on paper and when he lined up the pages to send us a picture, the pages stretched from one end of his living room clear out into the hall.

in all, we counted out a portrait of the man we loved.

the one, i wrote, who “unwrapped from squares of wax paper his chicken or tuna salad sandwich from the Wesley Pavilion Auxiliary Tea Shop at the side of my hospital bed, almost every day, the entire month or five weeks i was there.” i wrote how, that whole long month in june of 1975, he walked down michigan avenue, from his shimmering big-city ad agency, ducked into the hospital gift shop, bought his sandwich, chips and iced tea (tall with lemon), carried his white paper lunch bag up the elevator to the fourth floor, which everyone knew was the psych floor, and came to my room on the north side of the hall, where he pulled up a chair, and sat beside me. he sat beside me the whole while, as i tried to make my way through whatever was under the metal lid of my hospital tray. we ate side-by-side. i was anorexic, and in 1975, no one knew what to do with a girl who’d all but stopped eating, so they signed me in to a psych unit, and my dad came every day. it remains the tenderest definition of love i know.

i wrote, too, of my dad and his affinity for the backyard hammock strung between two oaks, and his red-plaid christmas pants, and his pride in a closet full of brooks brothers three-piece suits (for a kid who grew up in paris, kentucky, with a train engineer for a father, and a country schoolteacher mama, it had been a long and shining road to brooks brothers’ chalk-striped suits). i wrote of the scar that ran down his bald pate, left there by a german shepherd when my dad was six, and climbed a fence he shouldn’t have.

and i wrote about coming home from the hospital that snowy february night in 1981, “finding dad’s creamy cable-knit tennis sweater, the one with the v-neck rimmed in stripes of blue and red, draped over the kitchen chair (i’d always thought it must have been dropped there when he went off from tennis to the ER that saturday morning, and it still hung there tuesday night).” i wrote of “wrapping myself in the sweater, and literally not wanting to take a breath because I didn’t want to breathe in any air from a world not inhabited by dad.”

we wrote on and on, the three of us. and we all wept reading each others’ litanies. it was, in the week that pauses for love, quite an exercise in bringing back to life the ineffable, the ephemeral, the love that slipped away too soon.

we counted our way into the very depths of love. we brought threads of our father back to life just long enough to wrap ourselves in the thick of it, in the heart of him. love doesn’t die, we proved again, counting the whole way.

i know there is grief gathered round this table, and i wrote this in part because the list-making proved so resuscitating, at least for the short while we were hard at work remembering, conjuring, lifting moments out of the vaults of our heart. we typed through tears. we gathered words as traces of a time now slipped away. the time might be behind us, but the love is living, breathing, even now.

how would you begin to count, your exercise in loving?

and may the swirls of love — lost and present — rise up and swirl around you this day of hearts.