Yesterday I received word that my sister Susan is in the hospital again. Susan, who is seven years my senior, was born with a variety of cardio-pulmonary issues which have plagued her for her entire life. As a toddler she had multiple surgeries on her heart to help repair certain elements of her congenital condition, and thereby extend her life expectancy considerably, but there was not then – nor is there now – any series of drugs or surgical techniques to provide a cure. As I understand it, my parents were told by someone foolhardy enough to offer an opinion on the topic that Susie “might manage to make it to her 40s.” Susie could never physically exert herself the way the rest of us could – she couldn’t run or swim or ride a bike as vigorously as we (it was incredibly easy to beat her at games like “hide-and-seek” or “tag”), and her relatively poor heart functioning sometimes caused her appearance to be ghost-like, her skin a near-constant, blood-deprived bluish-white, with her lips and fingertips an odd shade of purple. But I am thrilled to report that Susie has carved out quite a life, rich in accomplishments, travels, adventures, and human relationships. She is 64 now.
In any case, I received word about Susie’s recent hospitalization from a beloved niece named Karen (my sister Lisa’s daughter; Lisa and Susie were born 16 months apart and have been best friends, and occasional fierce combatants, since. As a consequence of her being born to Susie’s closest “friend” and of her physical proximity to Susie, Karen has inherited – and, to her enduring credit, embraced – the unspoken mantel of Susie’s protector, advocate, and even honorary child. Susie has never been married and has no children of her own, but her relationship to her eldest niece is a testament to some of the finest virtues we humans all-too-rarely manifest: selfless love, a sense of duty, compassion, altruism). The fact that it was Karen who dispensed the news concerning Susie’s current medical challenges, rather than our laconic and stoic-Norwegian-of-a-pater-familias, was a break. Karen is highly descriptive and willing (inclined, even) to bare and articulate emotions that accompany the arid facts surrounding an event like this. My father, the aforementioned laconic pater familias, is a wonderful story teller who can spin a detailed-laden yarn with the finest when face-to-face and in the mood. Alas, his email missives are notorious for breviloquence bordering on (unintended) brusqueness.
Karen sent my sisters and me a succinct but detailed description of Susie’s condition, what precipitated it, where she was, how she was doing, what the short-term plans were, how they both were doing emotionally, and what was needed. My sisters and I acknowledged receipt of the news, thanked Karen for her generosity, and began the predictable back-and-forth concerning who was going to visit when and for how long. Because I am the most mischievous and tasteless of my siblings, I couldn’t help musing how dad would have communicated the same news and offered my conjecture: “Dear Family: Susie is in the hospital. She hasn’t been feeling well. Mom and I have been really busy with church events and retirement home committee meetings. Love, Dad.”
My younger sister, Barbie, was (I think) amused by my crassness and offered her own take. “Tim, your Clifford (our dad) note is way too long. It would go something like this: ‘Susie is in the hospital at Methodist. She was feeling really bad. Love, Dad.’” On reflection, I am forced to admit that Barbie was probably right.
To be fair, dad has seen a lot of tragedy, triumph, and farce in his 92 years. He lived through the depression and went to war when he was 18 years old. He fathered five demanding and profoundly independent children, his first arriving when he was 22 years old, and raised them on a shoestring (i.e., professor’s) budget. And – mon dieu! – he shared a bathroom with all of them AND his wife for many years and somehow kept his sanity. No small feat, really. I suppose verbosity and introspection was sometimes too energy depleting, emotionally threatening, and even maladaptive. It could create anxiety and second-guessing, and there was no room for either of those when there were mouths to feed and a career to establish.
Moreover, he came by his communication style honestly. My paternal grandparents were kind and loving people, but neither were verbose or emotionally effusive. No doubt dad inherited his terseness from his parents, though it’s also true that my mother and my sisters chipped away at that trait – with some success – over the years.
Or perhaps my father’s incisiveness is an unconscious attempt to outduel the Nobel prize-winning novelist Ernest Hemingway, who is said to have penned the greatest flash fiction of all time – six evocative words that manage to convey a heartbreaking beginning, middle, and end: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”