When I was 18, my sister Linda gave me a gift. That gift was my father.
When I was 51, my sister Linda gave me another gift. That gift was my mother.
Our parents divorced when I as 3 and Linda was 8. For complicated reasons, our father allowed us to be adopted by a new husband, and so we did not see him again.
But when Linda reached 23, she was haunted by her memories. She began an earnest effort to find him. Having tracked him to an apartment building in New York City, where she was living, the trail vanished. But in a therapy group, as she discussed this situation, one of the others said that she actually lived in the same building, and could introduce my sister to the doorman. From that clue, Linda traced him to Florida.
She didn't know whether he would agree to meet, but he did. She didn't know what else to expect, but she felt a real hunger for a hug. As she waited for the elevator that would bring her to him, her anxiety rose-- how would she manage to communicate her need, how would it be received, would she be rejected?
Floor by floor a panic began to grow. The elevator door opened, and there he was, arms already wide open. This began a beautiful relationship that lasted another thirty years, until our father died of cancer.
Not long after that elevator ride, as a first year college student I gave the OK for him to call me. When I first talked with him, it was not a big hit. The invasion of Cambodia had just begun, four students were killed at Kent State by the National Guard, I was a hippie, and he was a banker who told me his core belief was "My country right or wrong." As the years rolled on, I would visit every couple of years, mostly uncomfortable visits. He advanced to a corporate vice-president and then president, and his pride and sense of command grew, while my career path was basically nonexistent. Our political views were at opposite poles. Our relationship developed very uneasily.
But in 1979 crises hit him, and me. For me, it was a failed marriage engagement, and an unexpected deep connection to my father rediscovered through a memory back to the age of two. For him, after a business disaster, he began reconsidering his sense of invincibility and his trust in colleagues with expensive shoes. It took many years for his world view to evolve. One day he read of the killing of a small black man in a nice car, by police late at night in a Pittsburgh neighborhood. By assumption of a lifetime of assumptions, there had to be a good reason, a provocation. But the man killed was Johnny Gammage, a successful businessman, active in charitable enterprises. He and my father had met and worked together in Safety Harbor, Florida on a Lions Club project. The standard response just did not fit.
Over the years I changed too. I got a career together, my new marriage continued and strengthened over 20 years, and we raised three children. He saw past the "hippie" tag and came to find reasons to respect me. We became very good friends.
My father was indeed a great gift to me.
We rewind many years. As my sister reached age 30, a series of conflicts led my sister to shut off contact with my mother. My mother and I continued to get along well. But a few years later, an acute crisis around my wedding caused our relationship to tear. Over the next couple of decades, we saw each other only twice. Finally after she went through several moves without contacting me, I lost track of her location for good. This always gnawed at me. Between filial duty and memories of a single mother's heroic years and her really good personal qualities, I felt worry, guilt and loss. I didn't know what to do about it.
But my sister did.
Into her forties she found a lump in her breast. Her emotional mistrust of her doctor led to a year of delay before diagnosis and treatment. The tumor disappeared on a clinical trial regimen, the control group as it happens. But eventually the tumor returned, and began its slow inexorable march. A year before her death, the decline was clear. Her beloved traveling with companions was shadowed by her dwindling energy level, Soon it plummeted. Here I will credit my friend, a brilliant oncology fellow, with a novel yet old-fashioned idea. She suggested steroids, I passed it on, Linda's doctor agreed to try it, and Linda's life roared back, appetite, energy, verve and all. In fact when I visited in the fall she had me out shopping with her until I nearly collapsed.
This burst of energy she used to make preparations. One of these was to begin the hunt for our mother's whereabouts. With some investigative work which might have crossed a few bounds, she located the current address.
It was on a piece of paper that she handed me, with the words, "Do with this whatever you think is best." I put it aside and saved it.
Months passed. My visit to the Pacific Symposium on Biocomputing brought me to heavenly Kawaii, Hawaii. As the day ended for me around 10pm, I would call her each night that week. In Pennsylvania it was 4am, but courtesy of the steroids, she was roaring away, and we enjoyed what would be our final belly-laughs together.
Two weeks later, I got a call from her. She was quiet, had little to say, and it was clear to me that she was telling me that it would not be long now. With my family, I headed out to her house four hours away. The story of the next few days is a story in its own right, for another time.
After she died, after two weeks had passed, I was molested by that piece of paper, and a sense that I had a duty to perform. I wrote to my mother, a short note, to inform of Linda's death. The response I had no ability to predict at all, based on past experience. In fact, it was a return card, very sincere, direct, heartfelt and appropriate. At the heart was this, that it is difficult to mourn alone. Followed by a phone number. With a good deal of trepidation, I called. The call was a good one, and reawakened the cherished part of our connection, without the conflicts and confusions that had often marred it.
Since that time, we have talked frequently, and I have visited a number of times as well. There are topics to avoid, where airing the clashing historical views would cause only damage. I know how to do this, the old feelings of vulnerability are gone. Interestingly there is a style of sense of humor that I share with only two people that I know, my sister and my mother. This connection has relieved an ache that plagued me for years. And for this gift, to my sister again, I am deeply grateful.