Still Saying Goodbye

still in our hearts

Two days ago, we celebrated the ninth anniversary of the passing of our oldest child, Kristy. Celebration may seem an odd word to choose. Yet, there are two reasons it is entirely appropriate. First, by the time she left us, Kristy deserved to be in a better place than this one. Second, we had been exceedingly fortunate to have shared forty-five years of life with her. There had been so many times we feared she wouldn’t reach her next birthday.

The following is the story of one of those times.

Deep heart wishes

On her fourth birthday, Kristy sat on a booster seat at our round oak table in the dining “L” of our new little house. Surrounded by her sisters, aunts, cousins, and uncles, under pink and white crepe paper streamers, amidst purple balloons, she drew in her breath and blew out four candles with one breath. “I wish for a kitty,” she announced.  No one had the heart to tell her you shouldn’t tell your wish.

But I kept my wish silent. For the past year, living with Kristy was a rollercoaster ride of increased hopes as her vocabulary increased, she learned to ride a tricycle, and she engaged readily in play with her little sisters, and deepened fears as her seizures happened more and more frequently. Not a single month went by without Kristy suddenly going into convulsions. They were no longer connected with fevers or illnesses of any kind, but random–and occasionally dangerous.

without warning

The most recent one had occurred while she was rocking her lullaby doll in her little green chair. Her arms flew outward, and the doll sailed across the room. Kristy’s head jerked back so quickly that I barely had time to unlatch Betsy from my breast. I lay her in the middle of the rug, grateful that she didn’t crawl yet. Her immediate shriek pierced my ears and my heart, but I had to ignore her.

By this time, Kristy’s back had arched, her legs and arms were spasming, and she had fallen face forward onto the floor. Carrie was already at her side, looking frightened, but patting her back–and she was only two years old! With shaking hands, I slipped a couch pillow under Kristy’s head, turned her to her side, and gently held her arms and legs so that they wouldn’t crash into the dining room chairs. Almost as quickly as it had begun, the seizure was over, but I sweated like a marathon runner.

worse than ever

As Kristy’s muscles relaxed, I slid my arms under her to lift so I could move her onto the couch. She screamed in pain. That shocked me. Usually, after a seizure, Kristy was a limp, unresponsive rag. I couldn’t see any injuries. Nothing was bleeding. But each time I tried to move her, she screeched. Behind me, Betsy’s cries subsided to whimpers. I glanced over my shoulder. Across the room, Carrie sat with her back to the fireplace, legs straight in front of her, and the baby in her arms. She had thrust her tiny thumb in Betsy’s mouth. My heart went out to her. Two years old and already shouldering responsibilities!

I needed help. The best possible answer was my neighbor Dee, a nurse at nearby Grant Hospital. I lay Kristy back down and moved into the kitchen. My hands were so slippery I could barely hold on to the phone, but I managed to dial Dee‘s number. “I need you over here now,” I blurted out, and hurried back to Kristy.

band of two angels

Two minutes later, when Dee flung open my front door, her ten-year-old daughter Evie was right behind her. “Kristy’s hurt,” I told them. Dee scrunched down beside my little girl and studied her. I went to Carrie, scooped up the now sleeping Betsy, and pressed my lips against Carrie’s dark curls, drinking in their soothing scent.

“What do you think?” I asked Dee. By now, Kristy was struggling to get up, but when she put her left hand on the floor to brace herself, she screamed again.

“Could be a broken collarbone,” Dee said. “We need to get her to the hospital. Evie, get me a clean diaper.”

Her daughter sped up the spiral staircase and down again in seconds. Dee formed a makeshift sling for Kristy’s little arm. “Jule, wrap her in a blanket. Evie, you stay here with the babies. I’ll bring the car upfront.” And she was gone.

yet another hospital run

Five minutes later, Dee dropped us at the emergency entrance of Children’s Memorial just two blocks from our home. X-rays confirmed my friend’s speculation. Kristy came home with her arm supported by a shoulder immobilizer, a combination of a sling and a strap around her waist to brace the injured arm. One of Kristy’s strongest traits had shone with full brilliance at the hospital. Although only four years old, she had listened to instructions attentively. She accepted the immobilizer without complaint and after that, she complied with the whole regime the doctor had set up for us.

time to heal

For the first week, I put a pack of frozen peas over her collarbone for twenty minutes every couple of hours. During that time, I would sit on the couch, slip Kristy onto my lap, and read a picture book aloud. Carrie crawled up beside us. I tried to coordinate these sessions with Betsy’s infrequent naps. Sometimes I would enlist Evie to come over and take Betsy for a walk in her stroller so I could spend the time with Kristy. The immobilizer remained in place for a month, but it didn’t always ease Kristy’s pain. Reluctantly, I added children’s Tylenol to the phenobarbital she was already taking.

reprise emergency

At the end of the month, I walked Kristy back to the hospital. We cut through the brick alley behind our townhouse complex on our way. Halfway there, she cried out, flipped backwards, and went into convulsions. I caught her going down, but her head hit the edge of a brick hard enough to bleed. I balled up the cloth of my skirt and held it against the minor wound.

For twenty minutes, we sat in the deserted alley. The sharp bricks cut into my legs as I prayed that help would come, but my angels slept that morning. When Kristy was fully awake, we continued our walk to the hospital. She came home without the immobilizer, but with four stitches on her forehead.

move on through the maze

There were times between such incidents that I just wanted to curl up on the couch, drink coffee, and read a good romance – anything to escape the reality I had somehow constructed for myself. But instead, every day I threw myself into the myriad of other responsibilities that were mine as the mother of three small girls. Romance could wait.

How to Stay Married

Just Married
which anniversary is this?

Over the last couple of weeks, when invitations to various events came our way for December 19, I would reply, “Sorry, can’t be there; it’s our anniversary.”

Each time the response is “Which one?”

“Fifty-ninth,” I tell them.

The reactions differ from “Wow,” to “Wonderful,” to “Amazing,” but the most frequent is a question, “What’s your secret? How did you keep your marriage going strong for so many years?”

It’s not a new question. A newlywed couple asked us that exact question on our fifteenth anniversary!

the secret to staying married

Over the years, I’ve pondered the query and tried to answer it honestly. Maybe I needed the answer for myself as much as for my listeners. For the first twenty years, I usually replied, “Make time just for each other every single day.” This was a promise we made to one another around the fifth month of our life together because I realized one evening that I hadn’t “seen” Jay for two days. Sure, we had slept in the same bed, but I was asleep by the time he got home at night, and I left for work before he woke in the morning. Both of us worked and were in school. Our only free time was Sunday. Even then, most of the hours after morning Mass, we spent studying-he was in a corner of the living room with his law school buddies and me curled up in our bed.

every marriage depends on compromise

On the night of my ah-ha moment, Jay found me in the living room, wide awake at eleven o’clock. When he quietly shut the door behind him and saw me, he was startled. “Are you okay?”

“No.” I said. “We need to talk.”

Seeing how upset I was, he sat on the couch beside me, wrapped his arm across my shoulders, and hugged me. And I cried. In between sobs, I told him how lonely I was. “We spent more time together when we were dating than we do now,“ I said. “Is our marriage old hat already?”

He gave me a deep kiss and murmured, “I doubt it.”

“Okay then,” I said, “We need to spend more time together.”

“But Yulsey, we have impossible schedules. How are we going to do that?”

“I’ve been thinking,” I told him. “Although our days are crazy, we could have breakfast together. But…” I hesitated.

He nodded. “I’d have to get up before you leave for work.”

“Right. Could you do that? I’ll get up early and make really nice breakfasts.”

His response was, “When you look at me with those deep blue eyes of yours, I’d agree to anything.”

good marriages must be flexible

It often took some complicated juggling as we graduated school, took on new jobs, had four children, and moved several times, but breakfast remained sacred for us right until our twenty-fifth anniversary. By then we had added a once-a-week date night.

Then the children grew up. They moved out of our family home. Our job stresses lessened. We had more time for vacations and weekends away. The breakfast and date night rituals gradually drifted away. Now we are retired and spend much more time together than away from each other. Our love story has come full circle because now we can have all the time we want with one another.

The twilight marriage

This doesn’t mean we can’t drift into routines where our daily paths don’t cross very often. Jay’s continuing vivid interest in politics has him watching several newscasts every day and reading TIME religiously. Our garden also occupies hours of his day even in the winter. (Don’t ask me what he finds so engrossing out there!) This computer of mine keeps me glued to my desk as I pursue writing for hours a day as I yearned to do in those years when I taught and cared for our children. We no longer share breakfast every morning, but we always meet for lunch.

Best of all, every night is date night now. At 5:30, we put away the day’s tasks and join each other in the living room for an evening cocktail and an hour’s chat about all sorts of things. Then we savor an uninterrupted dinner. Although much of our conversation becomes nostalgic as we recall the crazy, chaotic, glory years of raising of wondrous children.

good marriages depend on grace

Our secret remains-Spend as much time as you can together. In our heart of hearts, we know this has been possible for us because a loving God has gloriously graced us.

A Time Eclipse

answering a critique

One of the joys and burdens being a writer are working with writing groups. Without their support, I couldn’t go on, but sometimes their questions feel like barbed arrows.

A critique I receive is, “There isn’t a sense of time and place, of era and world in your memoir. Readers want to be grounded somewhere and they need details that you, as protagonist sense and know, to do that for them.”

If I tie this aspect of reality to my memoir, it will have to be in retrospect and through research, because in some odd sense I didn’t truly live “through” those times in history.

one shattering moment
Riot and fire
Photo by Florian Olivo

In the world, but not of the world. This is how I can best describe my life in the late 1960s and the 1970s. The instability of the times did sometimes impact me directly. Like the moment when Martin Luther King, Jr. was fatally shot through the neck on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.

I was high above the skies of Wisconsin, flying home to Chicago from a visit to my family in St. Paul, Minnesota. As I stepped off the plane at Midway Airport, I searched in vain for my twenty-seven-year-old, red-headed husband. Instead, a burly, Chicago policeman approached me, “Mrs. Ward?”

My throat constricted with fear.  I didn’t yet know of the assassination but could sense deep unrest within the airport crowd. Had something terrible happened to Jay? Although his job as an Assistant State’s Attorney in the Cook Criminal Courts sometimes took him into dangerous neighborhoods, I never  worried about him.  I had spent hours of my life in those same neighborhoods as a caseworker for the Cook County Department of Child and Family Services. I knew safety in any urban space was a relative illusion.  Yet, here was this policeman, I glanced at his badge, Officer Andrews, asking for me.

He sensed my unease. “Your husband is fine, but I’m here to see that you get home safe.  He has to remain on duty tonight.”

That was really strange. Jay often worked late into the evening, but never all night. “Why, what’s happened?”

“Dr. King has been assassinated.  The westside of the city is rioting — fires, shooting, and looting. It’s a real bad scene. The trains are shut down. It’s not safe for taxis to come to the airport. My partner and I are here to see you home.”

skirting the turbulence

I numbly followed him to baggage claim. Our route from Midway to my Rogers Park apartment circled the city. We rode west to the suburbs, then north, back east, and finally south into Rogers Park. Because I didn’t have a key with me, the officer had to break into my place – just one of many ironies on a night when people were killing one another in anger over the death of the disciple of non-violence.

Chicago would never be the same again. The curtain that had hidden the deep resentments of its oppressed citizens had ripped away. American culture fell apart at the seams. Traditional meanings of personhood, humanity, and civility no longer held but appeared greatly flawed. I had been a civil rights activist since I was fifteen and participated in my first sit-in. Now those dreams seemed to be going up in flames, but I couldn’t stay to fight the fire.

At that moment of my life, the intensity of a deeply personal struggle overshadowed all concerns outside our family.

barren?

Jay and I had been married for four years. I was twenty-six years old, ancient by the standards of a time whose cry was “Never trust anyone over thirty.” We had been trying to conceive a child for three years, but I remained “barren” – the word I gave myself. No medical tests gave us any answers as to why this should be true. Still, like clockwork, my detested menstrual cycle arrived every month. We decided to apply for adoption and were turned down.  You’re too young, the agency worker told us, “Give it time.” Would I never be a mother?

The turmoil that arrived in the spring of 1968 made working as a social worker among the marginalized people of the city much harder than it had been.  And it had never been easy. My gynecologist speculated that perhaps the stress of my job contributed to my infertility. I loved my work but my yearning to become a mother overwhelmed all my other goals. Every time I heard the lullaby, “Hush, Little Baby,” I ended up in tears. I handed in my resignation at work – and lost my best black friend, my desk mate.  “I thought you were made of tougher stuff,” she said.  We never spoke again.

lady in waiting

Within a month sitting at home hoping to conceive became as stressful as any job.   I applied for a position as a secretary to Building Construction magazine, a job I figured wouldn’t carry the stress of casework. I got the job and soon after moved up to associate editor, work I would have killed for when I first left college.  My lifelong ambition to be a journalist, however, had been swept away by the tsunami of my drive to become a mother. I treated the position as a stopgap measure, not a stepping stone.

Reading, researching and writing about the field of architecture, my workdays flowed in a calm remote from the continuing storms that tore the world as I had known it from stem to stern. Mass protests in Prague signaled the beginning of the end of Soviet control of Eastern Europe. The Tet Offensive by the North Vietnam forces made it increasingly clear that our nation was in a fight it couldn’t win. On June fifth, just when it looked like Bobby Kennedy might bring the Kennedy magic back to the White House, he was gunned down in a hotel kitchen.

riot in the park

Then in August Jay, my husband once again responded to the call of duty.  This time the turmoil arose when hundreds of students and other young Americans traveled to Chicago and massed outside the Democratic Convention Headquarters. Their intention – disrupt the convention process to protest the country’s on-going involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Determined to keep law and order, the Chicago police force sent officers to disperse the protesters.  Those who would refuse to go would be arrested. Jay would be there to monitor the legal process.

As I could see on my television screen, nothing that formal or settled could have happened. The students pushed back and broke away, storming the city streets.  The police officers reacted by clubbing the protesters.  I curled up in a tight ball and prayed that Jay would get home safe. After several months of concentrating my whole being into remaining calm and relaxed, I collapsed emotionally, unable any longer to ignore the world falling apart. Jay came home, safe and sound, with some fascinating tales to tell, but I felt as battered as any protestor.

Like the phoenix

Yet, that was the month that after four fruitless years, I finally conceived. When my period didn’t arrive as it should in September, I put it down to the stress of the times, but by October I began to have hope.  I made an appointment with my gynecologist and didn’t tell Jay.  I didn’t want him to suffer the intense disappointment that would go with getting his expectations raised.

The doctor confirmed my suspicions.  He had no idea why now after all these months my reproductive system had clicked into proper order. Nonetheless, deep inside, under my heart, a new life blossomed.  Very few moments in my life have matched the joy I felt at that moment or the continued euphoria I experienced as I share the news first with Jay then with our parents. The only one I wasn’t too happy about telling was my boss, the editor at Building Construction. I loved my job, but I strongly believed that I’d be happiest being a full-time mother.

living a dream

When Kristin was born the following May, we were living in an apartment in the far flung southwest suburb of Palos Hills. It was a grassy, pleasant environment, but very isolating for me because Jay needed the one car we could afford to drive to work.  Still, I was so wrapped up in the wondrous adventure of caring for Kristin that I barely noticed how alone I was. A beautifully delicate little baby girl, she had round blue eyes that took up half the space on her heart-shaped face.  She needed to nurse about every two hours, which I would later learn is natural for many newborns, and I found meeting her needs filled my days.

On weekends, Jay and I went adventuring. Kristy did very well on car rides. Travelling through Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin, we discoverded “antiquing.” The last century was so much more satisfying than the present. We returned with large and small treasures with which to furnish our home.  Kristy went along with anything and never showed a single moment of stranger anxiety. For me the nine month following Kristin’s birth were the true honeymoon period of our life.

for a while

There’s a verse in a song from Fiddler on the Roof –

  • “Now i have everything,
  • Not only everything,
  • I have a little bit more
  • Besides having everything,
  • I know what everything’s for.”

It often ran through my head in those halcyon days.  I couldn’t imagine that life could ever be better.

To say it was never again that good would be false. In the coming years, however, my life blurred the chaos of the 1970s. My stormy everyday life blurred the turbulence and tumult beyond my front door.

Kristy and Jule
Photo by John Ward

Patti wins the lottery

Children jumping for joy
another win

In my last blog post, I shared with you the story of our family’s move to 832 Belden and described it as “winning the lottery.” I invited readers to share with me any “winning the lottery” stories of their own that my post suggested.

My dear sister Patti Ward shared the following tale of dreams that come true beyond our wildest imaginations.

“I Won The Lottery!”

No monetary prize could surpass the value of the lottery I won.

I always knew where I wanted to go to college. It never occurred to me to apply anywhere else. I applied for early admission. Then, in the fall of our senior year of high school, many of my friends received their acceptance letter. But I did not.

That same year, the women-only college to which I had applied announced a merger. It would become part of the men-only university whose campus bordered theirs to the east. Because of the announcement, applications had flooded their admissions office.

Still, my faith never wavered. In April, my letter finally arrived!

You might suspect this was my lottery win… but my lottery hadn’t happened yet.

The college, anticipating the merger, had accepted more new students than they could house. And then the merger fell through. This miscalculation was my winning lottery ticket.

lucky miscalculation

Apr. 15, 2015; LeMans Hall, Saint Marys College. (Photo by Matt Cashore)

In their scramble to find room for the overflow of students, the college carved “dorm” space where none had existed before. Much to the shock of eight sets of parents, mine included, a former dance studio became the new home for eight incoming freshmen. Situated directly under the bell tower in the college’s main building, it now held four bunk beds, eight desks and 2 large walk-in closets. Like the rest of the dorm, the room was not air-conditioned. And the windows began eight feet off the ground and rose upwards towards the 24 foot ceiling. In order to reach the window to crank them open, the girls used a movable staircase. A “private” staircase led from the fourth floor to the former dance studio. The bathroom was at the bottom of the stairs and off the landing halfway up was a small room the girls used as a gathering place.

The arrangement was supposed to be temporary, but we happily settled in for the year.

“the tower”

Not only the space, but the eight girls who lived there, became known throughout the school as “The Tower.” The roommates started out as L. They came from New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Kansas and Wisconsin. But by the time the school found other arrangements, we had become such fast friends, we wouldn’t accept splitting us up.

Like all first year college students, we filled that year with exciting new beginnings. We also helped one another through the traumas of the year. Sharing these joys and trials forged a bond that would last a lifetime.

Lose one, Win One

At the end of freshman year, our New Yorker returner home for good. Her Tower friends had helped her ride the storm of losing her twin sister, but now she needed to be with family. Her mates were sad to see her go, but understood.

With the beginning of the new school year, the “Tower” added my best friend from high school to our number. Once more we were eight. No longer in the Tower itself, we roomed scattered through the dorms. Our bond, however, remained as strong as ever. Being loved by this group alone would have been a lottery win.

enduring win

Who could have known it would not end there? Graduation was simply another new beginning.

Years went by. We gathered for weddings, celebrated news of births, and cried as our parents slowly left us. As we approached our 60s, we searched each other out and made a plan to meet up. What fun we had. It was as if the years had melted away. The difference now was we had more stories to tell.

Our little group of eight, now fondly referred to as The Great Eight, or Gr8 8, moved into using technology. We formed a private group chat where we could keep even closer tabs on day-to-day events. Shortly before Covid hit, we established a weekly Zoom gathering. Every Wednesday evening at 8:00 p.m. we hop online to share events of the week. It’s so familiar-like being back in the dorm room, The Tower, when we were freshmen. When one or more of us can’t make the gathering, someone sends out a recap on our group chat.

the true prize

The other girls are married with children, grandchildren, so there is always something to share. I am the only single in the group. For me, it has become a lifeline. My siblings, nieces and nephews know how important these women are to my life. They know not to call me on Wednesday at 8 pm unless it’s an emergency. Family is, of course, first in my life. But the point is these seven women ARE family to me. They are my sisters. They have been there through my triumphs, my trials, and my losses. They have supported me when I couldn’t do it for myself. Our lifelong friendship sustained me better than financial wealth ever could.

So if you want to know what it’s like to win the lottery, look at your friendships. There I found the biggest prize of all!

by Yaroslaw Sluraev

The Good Life

Candy Day volunteers get ready to got out and beg.
candy on a mission

If you live in the Chicago Metropolitan area, this weekend you cannot miss a major fundraising drive. This coming Friday and Saturday, over 10,000 volunteers head out to the street corners, bus stations, train stations, and groceries stores of this bustling city and suburbs to beg. Wearing bright white and red aprons, they approach everyone they meet with a friendly smile and the request, “Help Misericordia.” As they do so, they offer the recipient a delicious packet of Jelly Belly Jelly Beans and a small card explaining the work of a magical place that is the home for over 600 persons with physical and developmental disabilities.

As you’ve learned from other blog posts, two of my children, Kristy and Johnny, once were lucky enough to live at Misericordia. The good work goes on and parents continue to be grateful. Here’s one mom’s story. I’ll let her tell it in her own words.

one mother’s story

“It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 40 years since that day when two of my best friends and I drove my son Jon to move into Misericordia South. He was only four and a half years old. I knew he needed the care they could offer him, but it still was one of the toughest days of my life.

tears into triumph

“I could not know then that it was also the beginning of what would become a rich, fulfilling life for my son! For the first six years, even though I saw how he thrived at Misericordia, I felt guilty and sad whenever we took him back after his frequent home visits. I would cry on the way to our house. But as the years rolled by, I slowly realized that Jon was not only happy at Misericordia, he prospered there! Every member of the staff adored him. Endearingly, they called him “Chocolate Eyes,” offered him the special attention, loving care, and stimulation that he needed. Then, when he came home each weekend, his brother and sister and all their friends outdid themselves, constantly entertaining him. His was a ‘good life.’

“When Jon was ready for school, he took the bus from Misericordia to Oak Park for elementary, middle, and finally high school. I had the privilege of serving as ‘honorary room mother’ throughout his school years.

exciting new challenges

“Midway through high school, Jon moved to Misericordia North and became the first resident there to have a g-tube! Pam Dreyer, the Head Nurse, told Jon it was his job to teach all the other Mis nurses about g-tubes, and he loved this great new challenge!

“Moving to Mis North meant Jon transferred to Park School in Evanston. He loved his new school environment, but was especially excited about the many new opportunities, like the art studio and the bakery, that he found at the North campus. His good life had become even better.

“His life got better yet when the McGowan Home opened its doors. One of its original sixteen residents, Jon moved into this beautiful home designed especially for residents who depended on wheelchairs. Windows and tables sat at wheelchair height. Rooms featured wide open spaces. Hallways were also double wide. An extra big elevator served its two levels. With its open-plan living-dining-kitchen, it had a true family style of living. And true to the Misericordia form, the staff were exceptionally caring and competent.

good, better, best

Jon loves everyday at Misericordia
Jon Lives the Good Life

“Jon’s life continues to be rich and full, and over the years, he has grown in ways I never dreamed possible. He’s busy every single day, and he has the advantages of art and music therapy; physical, occupational, and speech therapy; as well as recreation and leisure activities, such as opportunities to go bowling or take part in Bob & Madge’s sing-alongs. He also regularly spends time in the fitness Center, gym, and pool areas. And somehow, despite his busy life, Jon ‘finds time’ to come home to visit regularly!

a second family

“Misericordia long ago ‘adopted’ both Jon and me into what I consider to be our second family. I love volunteering, spending time with Jon both on campus and at home, and interacting with the amazing staff and the other residents and their families. And as I age, I sleep better at night knowing that Jon has a real ‘home away from home’ where his caretakers genuinely love him and where he is safe and happy. Blessings and my heartfelt thanks to Sister Rosemary, Fr. Jack, Mary Pat O’Brien, and the entire Misericordia staff who work tirelessly to make Jon’s life so happy and healthy!”

That is Cynthia and Jon’s story.

one of many good life stories

What is almost unbelievable, but true, is that Jon’s story is a typical Misericordia story. So, please, if you live in the Chicago area and pass a Candy Days volunteer, drop a donation in their can and enjoy a packet of Jelly Bellies.

You don’t have to live in Chicago to help. Thanks to the internet, Candy Days now has a virtual presence as well. Check out the link below.

Our Virtual Candys Days fundraiser is underway. No need to wait until the last weekend in April to donate!! You can donate now or create your own fundraising page! It’s quick and easy, just visit:

Donate to Sister Rosemary’s page: https://secure.frontstream.com/misericordia-candy-days-2023/participant/SrRosemaryConnelly

Set up your own fundraising page: https://secure.frontstream.com/misericordia-candy-days-2023

https://secure.frontstream.com/misericordia-candy-days-2023/

 

Candy Days Banner
Here Comes Candy Days!

Not Quite Empty Nest

Jay and Betsy at the beach shortly after college graduation.
pondering the empty nest syndrome

What exactly is an “Empty Nest?” Many people ponder what it means when the kids in which we invested so much time, energy, effort, and love grow up and move out. Speculators give equal space asking what happens if those same kids stick around into adulthood.

For Jay and me, although there came a time when our four children no longer laid their heads to rest nightly in their childhood bedrooms, our “nest” never truly emptied. Caring for our children turned out to be a lifetime commitment. Yet, I always recall the summer Betsy, our youngest daughter, left home once as a bittersweet time.

a daughter’s dreams

Ever since she had been in grade school, Betsy had dreamed of a career in broadcast journalism. For that reason, she attended Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, an institution renowned for its communication majors. For the first semester of her senior year, Betsy headed to Los Angeles to work as an intern at Paramount Studios. That afforded her the chance to work with Henry Winkler on a show he was producing.

The whole time she was in California, I couldn’t stop telling people about Betsy’s wonderful opportunity and I called her frequently to see how the job was going.

lose their gleam

For Betsy, however, the reality of L.A. plummeted her and her dreams into an unexpected pit. While Winkler was a great boss, the low-level position she had as an interview editor meant she worked alone for eight hours a day in a small cubicle at the back of a vast set.

In Boston, she had lived in a small studio apartment from which she could walk to school and her part-time job at a real estate office. In L.A., she shared an apartment with three other girls. She had to commute almost two hours to work.

For most of our conversations, she was too tired to talk. The eager lilt had gone out of her voice. I would set the receiver back on the phone and wish I could reach out and hug her.

what happens now?

By the time Betsy finished her internship, she found little day-to-day joy in her position. She wanted to talk to Jay and me about it when she came home for Christmas, but our home situation had unraveled so quickly with Kristy’s additional problems. She bit her tongue at home.

After the holidays, she returned to Boston to finish her last semester of college. In June, 1995, Jay and I, Betsy’s older sister Carrie, three grandparents and six aunts and uncles, descended on Boston for Betsy’s graduation. After the ceremony, the crowd drove to Cape Cod for a weekend of celebration.

Sea change in our family

Early the next morning, I sat on a high porch overlooking a wide expanse of beach covered with rocks and seaweed left behind by the retreating tide. I took a deep breath of the fresh acerbic air. Yesterday, our family crossed a boundary; it split into two halves. Jay and I belonged to both halves.

We were the parents of two adult daughters who had college educations and professional aspirations. Capable of making their own way in the world, they were champing at the bit to do so. A sea gull swept down toward an incoming wave with a high squeal that made me think of babies–yes, hopefully that family would welcome new babies someday.

Whatever Betsy and Carrie’s futures brought into our family life, it would be mostly out of our hands, totally their own decisions. It would exist in a sphere separate from the tight-knit circle that had been our family for a quarter of a century.

the uncertain future

This did not mean, however, that our nest was empty. Because, although our other two children, Kristy and Johnny, lived in residential schools, caring for them remained a central focus of our lives. Our weekends continued to include them, making room for their individual needs, preference, and disabilities. Major decisions about their welfare would be ours until…

The seagulls cried again, the wrenching squawk that echoed the sound in my heart. Because only death-ours or theirs-would end our responsibility for Johnny and Kristy. And I could hope for neither. Losing them would open up a void as deep as the ocean before me. My death could leave them unprotected.

the here and now

“Mom, what are you doing out here all by yourself?” Betsy stood between me and the railing. “Were you asleep?”

“No, just thinking.” I smiled. Her wide eyes sparkled and gleamed. “Come inside. I’ve made raspberry pancakes.”

“Sounds yummy. Will you keep making those when you come home?”

“That’s something I need to talk to you and Dad about. But after breakfast.” She held the door open for me to pass into the kitchen, a madhouse of conversation, cooking, eating, and washing dishes.

I remained in the kitchen until the last dish was in the dishwasher; the pans were clean and stowed away, and the counters gleamed. As I hung up my apron, Betsy walked in. “Great, you’re done. Come on out on the porch with Dad and me.”

Dreams fade

Someone had lowered the awning against the sun. Jay basked in the shade, slouched in an old wicker rocker. “Hi, Betsy, has called a family council.”

I plopped onto the sofa next to him. Betsy perched on a stool at our feet. She might have been six years old again. “So, let’s hear your plan.”

She pushed her shoulders back. “I’m staying in Boston.”

Jay nodded. “When you had little to say about L.A. at Christmas, we gathered you weren’t going back. But why stay here? Your college friends will scatter now. You’ve got roots, friends, and connections at home in Chicago.”

“True, but I’ve got a job here.”

“A broadcasting job?” we both burst out at once.

trading dreams

Betsy shook her head and rushed ahead. “Tony, the owner of the real estate firm I worked for during college, wants to hire me full time. He’s offered me twice the money I could make at any starter job I could get in the television industry.”

I slumped in my seat. “But you’ve wanted to be a broadcaster for so long. I thought real estate was just a temporary thing.”

She put her hand on my knee. “I did too, Mom, but I never realized how good I would be at selling or how much money I could make in this industry, and…” She gazed down and away. “I didn’t have what it took to succeed in television.”

“How can you say that? You only spent a few months there.” I shoved my hands under my legs to keep them from gesturing.

“People said things…things that let me know I’d never get in front of the camera, and even if I gave up on that, making it as a producer, which is the first level that pays a living wage, would take years.”

“But, honey, you’re giving up on your dream.”

She shook her head. “I’m not. The dream wasn’t what I thought it would be. And it wasn’t my only dream. I’ve always wanted to travel–a lot! Working in real estate will give me the money and the flexibility to make that dream come true. Life’s a trade-off. This is mine.”

Betsy and Rich in Australia
In Australia with Rich

When had my twenty-two-year-old party-girl become a philosopher?

“Cased closed,” intoned Jay. “Let’s hit the beach.”

 

Bringing Back the Blog

Heart-shaped loaf of bread
happy spring

With great glee, I announce the sling has come off and I’m typing again.

So, here’s the first issue of JuleWardWrites for the new year (if you are like me and your year begins when the first flowers pop their heads out of the grass.

where i left off

My last post shared a couple of poignant vignettes about our son John and his experiences at the wonderful residential facility for persons with physical and developmental disabilities, Misericordia Home.https://julewardwrites.com/committed-relationships/truly-a-heart-full-of-mercy

Those stories inspired other to write to me with permission to share their own stories of their equally wonderful “Mis” experiences.

Many of the people who love Misericordia are those who volunteer there. Today one of them, Terry Baugh, tells you his story.

hearts and flour

“Misericordia held a warm place in my heart even before I heard about the Hearts and Flour Bakery. My friends, Barb and Dave, had undertaken a long and nearly impossible search to find a nurturing place for their son, Seth, to live. When he was accepted at “Les Mis” as they fondly refer to it, the search ended, and Barb moved to Chicago to be close to Seth. Visiting Barb in Chicago and volunteering at the bakery was a great opportunity for me to catch up with my friend and spend a week working hard and feeling great about every day.”

hairnet? apron? gloves? go!

Volunteering for the bakery at Misericordia was a satisfying experience in giving back for Terry. The bakery is a hub of activity, with experienced bakers and novices, like him. He volunteered in 2019 just before the holidays. Christmas music played in the background and staff and volunteers and residents cheerily greeted each other as new people arrived for their shifts. Got a hairnet or hat? Apron? Gloves? You are ready to go.

just like downtown

The organization of the bakery was–and is — amazing. Every step for baking, cutting, and packaging is well thought out. It was fun to package soda bread, operating a packaging machine just like the bakery downtown. Over the days, Terry was there, he worked on a lot of different stations, but he loved the brownies the most. Bakers mixed large batches of brownies, baked sheets of brownies, and finally flipped them to prepare for cutting into heart shapes. There is a proper technique to getting all the hearts you can out of a sheet and then evenly powdering them with a gentle tap on the sifter. Packaging is always part of the production cycle — stacking the brownies in boxes and sending them on their way to treat a lucky recipient. They are such a delicious and simple treat!

sister rock-star

Beyond all the baking tasks, Terry loved being at Misericordia and seeing the operation. “Sister Rosemary has rock-star status in my book.,” he claims. “The caring staff, the amazing facilities, and the meaningful ways of raising money that Sister Rosemary created to support this amazing facility is something to admire.”

working the line

Besides the unique operations of the bakery, Terry met some lovely people while “working the line”. Weekly regular volunteers, school groups, families whose children were at “Les Mis”, or had passed on, were there helping and sharing wonderful stories. And he loved visiting Seth’s house, his classroom, and meeting his friends and the residents who helped the bakery.

make giving easy

Take a hint from Terry, “if you are looking for a way to give back, a way to spend an extra afternoon or day a week, or a way to open your heart — consider volunteering at the “Les Mis” Hearts and Flour Bakery. They also make gift giving easy. Shop here! 

For information about volunteering at Misericordia click here -> https://www.misericordia.com/volunteer/get-involved/

Heart shape in powdered cookie
Almost too good to eat

COPING WITH A BROKEN ARM

right now because my arm is in a swing I’m doing all my composing by dictating and for me that doesn’t lend itself to very creative writing, so for now I’ll be taking a break from blogging.  my arm should heal by the mid-March I will begin publishing again then.

enjoy the rest of winter

Jule

Truly, A Heart Full of Mercy

Johnny reads during the speeches.
bright memories

For thirty years, our family shared the care of our two of our children, Kristin and Johnny, with Misericordia Home, a residential and learning center for persons with multiple developmental disabilities. Many treasured memories of our family’s time at Misericordia live in my heart, but the ones I remember best are times when its generosity of spirit lit up like a giant Christmas tree.

a giving heart

In 1985, when we took our son John for his first visit to the school, we shared a dinner with a friendly group of fellows in one of the Village Homes. At the end of dinner, one resident pushed back his chair. “I’d like to stay and have desert with you,” he said, “but it’s my night to volunteer at the homeless shelter.” His words solidified my trust that Johnny would find love and empathy among his new housemates.

heart big enough for the entire world

Some years later, the students at the Learning Center engaged in a geography program which focused deeply on one nation each year. Through their studies, they became aware of hunger in the world. This realization heightened the gratitude they felt for the abundance of care they received at Misericordia and motivated them to help those less favored. With their teachers’ help, they organized an on-campus “Walk for Hunger.” Family and friends pledged funds to support the walk.

please, stay off the grass

Johnny’s dad remembers that bright October day as though it happened last week. The residents, staff, and some parents gathered outside the Learning Center. Sister Rosemary gave a rousing opening talk–and then asked the participants to stay off the grass because landscapers had recently seeded the lawns.

the last shall be first

Johnny’s pace was a slow slouch in the best of times. So, his dad had stationed them at what he believed to be the end of the line. But no, at the end of her speech, Sister pointed out the direction of the walk. It put Jay and Johnny at the front! For a while Johnny set the pace, but then Sister broke ranks and walked on the grass to get around him! Soon, everyone followed suit. By the time father and son arrived back at the school’s gym, the organizers were putting away the refreshments. That didn’t matter, the spirit of joy and generosity of the day still lives in my husband’s stories, which he is willing to share with anyone who will listen.

Neither of us ever tires of telling the world how blessed we are to be a part of the Misericordia family.

 

Johnny has a party in the Mis greenhouse restaurant.
Jay and Johnny in Mis Greenhouse Restaurant.

A New Baby Ushers in an Unexpected Change

Newborn Betsy and Jule in hospital

This won’t be in the memoir even though it completely changed my life.

baby number three

On an unusually mild January morning in 1973, I awoke to the powerful tug of a contraction across my belly. Our third child would be born that day. Jay and I determined we didn’t want to spend the entire day in a hospital. We calmly woke Kristy, age three and a half, and Carrie, age two, and fed them their breakfast. By the time we called Jay’s mother, the contractions were coming closer together. While we waited for their grandmother to arrive and watch the girls for us, I sat in our big oak rocking. Kristy and Carrie nestled around my belly, and I gently sang and rocked to soothe them and myself.

labor at the movies

“Gramma Mary,” as they called her, arrived in a half hour. Jay and I hurried out and went – to the movies. (We didn’t, of course, tell his mom where we were going.) The film Sleuth, with Michael Caine, was playing at the Hinsdale Cinema. Its suspenseful plot let my mind ride above the increasingly intense and rapid contractions. When a contraction started, I’d grip Jay’s hand, he’d look at his watch, time it and whisper the duration to me. The solution to the mystery eluded me, and I was determined to remain until the movie ended. We heard loud whispers in the row behind us. One of which was a shocked, “I think she’s having a baby.”

off to the hospital

Movie over, we sped to the hospital. When the emergency room nurses realized the intensity of the contractions, they summoned the obstetrician. They sent Jay straight to registration and me right into Labor and Delivery.

There, a resident doctor examined me. “She’s nine centimeters and dilating rapidly. Have you called her obstetrician?” he demanded.

“Yes.” a nurse replied. “As soon as emergency informed us they thought she was pretty far along.”

“Good, well, get her husband up here. He can do the paperwork later. This baby is coming now.”

Two interns slid me onto a gurney for the hurried ride to the delivery room. Jay in his heavy khaki overcoat and Dr. Halama, my obstetrician, rushed through doors at opposite ends of the room like a choreographed scene in a stage play. My doctor wore a tuxedo, which the nurses helped him cover with a surgical gown. I laughed, “Where were you?”

And then I gasped in pain. I panted through the contraction, trying my best to keep my breathes even. Jay stood at my side, holding my hand and gripping it so hard it hurt. Hospital regulations had prevented him from being present for Kristy or Carrie’s births, so we had changed doctors and hospitals so that he could witness this one. The enormous pressure in back and lower belly subsided a little. I repeated my question to the doctor.

birth of our party girl

He laughed. “I was at the cocktail hour before a friend’s dinner party. This baby is making me miss out on fresh lobster.”

“In January, that’s ridiculous.” I retorted, and then gasped again. “Count,” I shouted to Jay and tried to pant in rhythm with his slow, “1…2… 3.”

Dr. Halama wheeled his stool over to the bottom of the delivery table. “The baby is crowning,” he said. A nurse stepped to either side of him, instruments I couldn’t see in their hands.

“There’s the head,” he announced. Excitement blocked my sense of pain, but my body contracted and shoved.

“Slow down. Try not to push. I’m easing a shoulder out,” the doctor said.

A nurse turned to me. “I’m sure it’s a girl. She has such a beautiful face.”

Across from her, the other nurse shook her head. “No, look at those broad shoulders. It’s going to be a boy.”

“Just let me push,” I begged. “Then we can settle this.”

“Just a minute. There, got the other shoulder. Good work. Okay, one last push.”

I bore down with all my strength, felt the pressure of the little body sliding down the birth canal, and seconds later, a high-pitched cry filled the room. “You have a girl,” the doctor told us, holding up the screaming, failing little human being.

hello betsy!

“Give her to me,” I demanded. I couldn’t stand to see her cry. They cut the cord, wrapped her in a soft blanket, and laid her next to me. “Hello, Betsy,” I whispered.

Betsy’s birth was the catalyst for an unanticipated upheaval.
She and I remained at the hospital for three days. She had been born on Saturday evening at 6 o’clock. On Sunday, Jay brought Kristy and Carrie to the hospital to visit their new sister. They couldn’t visit the maternity floor, but the baby room had windows along a corridor outside the ward. I stood on the other side of the nursery and watched as the nurse rolled Betsy’s bassinet up to the window, lifted her out, and showed her to the toddlers on the other side. The tiny bundle instantly fascinated Kristy, but Carrie caught sight of me. She lifted her arms and wailed, “Mommy.”

a trip to the zoo

To distract Carrie, Jay took the girls on an excursion to the Lincoln Park Zoo. It was unusually mild for a Chicago January that week. Going to the zoo was a logical choice of diversion. The Brookfield Zoo, however, was much closer to our home in Western Springs. Still, Jay drove to the Chicago Loop and then north to Lincoln Park. He wanted to take his children to the city zoo, the one that held many fond memories of our pre-suburban days.

As far as I know, they had a wonderful time, but I never really heard about the zoo at all because what followed was much more momentous. On the way back to where he had parked our car, Jay passed a “For Rent” sign in the window of a building that sat on the south edge of Lincoln Park. It stopped him cold.

When he and I had frequented the Zoo in the early years of our marriage, we always admired these stately buildings that lined the south end of Lincoln Park. He couldn’t resist taking a peek. He fell in love with the apartment and discovered, much to his surprise, that the rent was in our price range. Wheels started turning in his head.

Jay has questions

That evening, he left the girls with his mom and rushed to the hospital, full of his discovery. Betsy and I had spent a quiet day. She was a champion nurser, and I knew enough about breastfeeding by then to let her nurse at will. Well rested and feeling at ease with the world when he arrived, I listened calmly as his story burst forth. He finished with, “I want you to see this place. It is unbelievable!”

By the following Saturday, one week later, I was exhausted. Jay’s mom had returned home. He was back at work. Juggling the needs of three small girls was exponentially harder than caring for two little ones.

Jay had made an appointment for us to view the city apartment that afternoon. Tired as I was and as crazy as it seemed to take three small children, one merely a week old, out into the rapidly dropping temperatures of a Chicago winter, I needed to get out of the house. Any excuse would do. The ride would entertain the girls, and I could nurse the baby on the way to the city. As we sped east on the Eisenhower Expressway, it was with growing excitement that I watched the skyscrapers of Chicago’s Loop fill the horizon. We swung around Buckingham Fountain. Its ornate sculpture encased in ice delighted Kristy and Carrie. While we drove north along Lake Shore Drive, they both pressed their little noses against the window to watch the crashing waves of the winter lake.

The rental agent waited for us at the central door of the apartment complex. There was no elevator, but the apartment was on the first floor. Its spaciousness overwhelmed me. Twice as large as our home in Western Springs, it had twelve-foot high ceilings in every room but the kitchen. The rooms included a formal library with its own fireplace. Painted buckled on walls. The kitchen appliances were decisively vintage. Doors squeaked on their hinges. The bathroom floors had cracked tiles–but there were three bathrooms!

But I questioned. Why are we here? We have a home. We’re settled, right? Betsy had been whimpering throughout the tour. Kristy and Carrie ran from one empty room to the next as though in a gymnasium. Without warning, the noise, or maybe my increasing uneasiness, got to Betsy. She let out a loud, piercing wail.

“We have to go,” I told Jay.

“We’ll get back to you,” he promised the agent.

the choice we didn’t see coming

We rode back to Western Springs in silence. After dinner, Jay walked across the living room floor singing to Betsy while I gave the girls their bath and got them to bed.

Once I returned to the living room, I settled in a huge armchair, a Salvation Army find, so comfortable that we still have it today. I nursed Betsy off and on over the next two hours. Jay made us cocoa. And we talked. We relived every detail of the apartment and imagined how we would live there, how each room would function for us, how we could decorate it. Our imagination pictured living in the city again, close to the zoo, the park and the lake. Jay spoke of how easy it would be to get to work.

What was holding us in Western Springs? We definitely didn’t plan to stay for the rest of our lives. But didn’t we need to stay in the suburbs for the sake of the excellent schools? Maybe. We had just assumed that, hadn’t we? Kristy was only three, two years away from kindergarten. That gave us plenty of time to explore the city school situation.

By ten o’clock, we were ready to move. “I’ll call the agent in the morning,” Jay said. But when he called the next morning, the rental agent told us another family had rented the apartment late Saturday evening.
That stunned us both. I fixed breakfast in silence. He hunched over his scrambled eggs and bacon. I held Betsy in the crock of one arm so I could nurse while I encouraged Carrie to eat some eggs from a spoon. Kristy pushed her eggs around in patterns on her plate.

When he finished, Jay sat straight up in his chair. “It wasn’t about the apartment–not really. We’re still moving back to the city, right?”

I smiled and nodded.

photo of buildings
Photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com