The Power of Intense Fragility

* Title attributed to E. E. Cummings

The other evening I attended a musical program at Wheeling Jesuit University. Looking up from a table of delicious desserts after the performance, I saw Mary Hamm across the way, who was on a walker. I should have gone to greet her then because the next timeI looked for her she was gone. I was saddened to see the walker. It is hard cold proof of the inevitability of the end of all our illusions and/or dreams.

Back in that other life we were neighbors and I can still see the Hamm kids running up the alley to play with ours in our big back yard “Hogan Stadium”. All our children were at home in everyone else’s house, and that went for all the houses with children. My favorite story was of the evening the Krivchenias, Dr Greg and his wife Megan,went out for dinner.   They introduced the baby sitter to their five children with instructions for bed times and such, and left to enjoy a quiet meal. When they returned, Megan made the rounds to kiss the gang goodnight and to tuck them in. Lo and behold, there was a non-Krivchenia asleep in one of the beds. Calmly, cool as a cucumber, she called Mary Hamm and asked her to check her twelve children which she did and reported back that one of Megan’s was asleep in one of her beds. Megan informed Mary that she had one of hers in one of her beds. They agreed to make the switch in the morning. And so after reassuring the baby sitter who, after all had put five children to bed, that it was an understandable mistake,they retired for the night.

Nostalgia always puts an extra sheen on the people and events of the past. Our old neighborhood of big houses situated on large grassy lots was with a mix of older couples who seemed to enjoy the clamor of lots of children and the activity of the houses of the younger families. We heard Christmas Carols being sung by young voices, opened the door to listen and saw Megan with a big gaggle of children of all sizes singing their hearts out. There were plays written and produced in the back yards for which admission was always charged even though the rehearsals had been going on for days and all the homes were ransacked for props and costumes.

Halloween was a really big affair. We had a big bonfire and a ghost lit up by a kerosene lantern inside a chicken wire body covered by a sheet that swooped down from the third floor window. We had hotdogs, carrot and celery sticks and s’mores with toasted marshmallows impaled on sharpened green sticks. The adults were treated to a bit of something to ward off the chill of the night air inside the house.

We had six. One evening a salesman was trying his best to sell us a burglar alarm system. He was making his pitch in the kitchen where he was constantly being interrupted by kids running into the kitchen for a glass of water or to report “Mr Hogan …. Mrs Hogan……. Mom………….Dad “ the screen door banging, our dog barking excitedly at the activity, and the phone on the wall ringing off the hook.   He finally packed up his exhibits and went out the door with a parting comment, “Anyone who would break in here would have to be out of their mind!”

The years relentlessly slipped by and the neighborhood grew quiet as we grew old and our children faded into all parts of the country and world, and for a time, the reports of their activities at Christmas time and other holidays would breathe life back into the homes and neighborhood in a more subdued way.

Fast forward. It is early morning, dark, on New Years day, half asleep, I pick up a ringing telephone, my daughter Brady is calling me from Bangkok to tell me the good news that she is coming home, the bad news is that she has uterine cancer. I immediately switch into “control mode”, after our conversation ends.

I called Mary Hamm and explained to her Brady’s situation. I knew Mary was close to Senator Byrd and Congressman Mollohan. She told me to stay by the phone and within fifteen minutes I received a call from the Congressman’s office requesting information on Brady. They told me to stand by and shortly I received a call from the Embassy in Bangkok, they instructed me to contact Brady and instruct her to go to the Embassy and they would get her home.

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I called Ron Hobbs who was President of Wheeling Dollar Bank (now WesBanco) explaining Brady’s status and not knowing her physical condition wanted her to be able to fly First Class if necessary. Ron called me back shortly to tell me to advise Brady that she had no limit on her credit card. I called Brady and gave her the good news concerning the Embassy and her credit card. She had already made reservations to fly home and had made arrangements to get to the airport.   So much for my “control mode. I will never forget Mary or Ron for their efficient assistance in our family crisis more than fifteen years ago.

Brady was quickly admitted to The University of Virginia Hospital where she has a very close friend who was on staff there. The hospital is known for its research and treatment of malignancies in women. Her surgery was done laparoscopically, a fairly new procedure at that time. It was successful in that she has been healthy ever since, and it has been well over fifteen years.

A small incident happened during her hospitalization. The day of her surgery, I asked her if she needed anything. Brady knowing what a hopeless control freak I was, gave me a ”chore to help her.” She told me she needed a pair of slippers or heavy socks to wear when walking post-op in the hospital. I headed for the outdoor mall in Charlottesville about a mile from the hospital, and it was snowing rather hard. It felt great to be wrapped in the white, brisk, cold air knowing that Brady was in good hands. In the middle of the mall, in the snow storm, was one vendor set up, the only one. He was standing behind one of those fold up stalls with his goods displayed as though it was the middle of summer. I spotted a pair of cable-knitted red and white heavy socks with the little tassel hanging from the top where they would cover the calf. Perfect! I approached the lone vendor who was Asiatic looking, with a face that looked like worn saddle leather, wrinkled around the eyes. He wore a funny looking hat. I said “Namaste” and made a little bow. He responded in kind adding that he really appreciated the greeting but he was from Tibet and the greeting there is “Tashi delay”.

We chatted, I bought the socks and returned to the hospital. I knew Brady had worked with Tibetan refugees so when she started to come out of the anesthetic I said “Tashi delay”.  A couple of weeks later she asked if I had said that as she heard my voice making the greeting.

The next day, a beautiful day with clear blue skies and warm sunshine, I returned to the mall to thank the vendor. He was gone. I have never understood, in our terms, why a Tibetan was in Charlottesville in a snow storm to teach me’ Tashi delay’ and to have the perfect gift.

And now for my gift to women like Mary and Megan and so many others who lost their partners who were their support and bread winners. These were women who carried on raising the children with such class, and they have continued to be beacons of strength and stability.

                                                Love after Love

The time will come

when, with elation,

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door,

in your own mirror,

and each will smile at the other’s welcome

and say, sit here, Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine, give bread.

Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life.

— Derek Walcott