Author's note: This story was inspired by a post by Meteor Blades. The names of the parties, as well as certain other details, have been changed for privacy, but the story is based on real events.
Memory is a funny thing. Sometimes you think you recall the details of an event, only to hear someone else tell a completely different story. The older the memory, the more fluid it seems to be, one moment a still reflecting pool, the next a series of rippling waves radiating out from the event. This story retells what I thought was such a memory.
I can't tell you exactly how old I was. I know what house we lived in, and I know who lived (or more precisely who did not live) with us at the time. I remember the kitchen as it was, with the green asbestos file floor, and the black tile squares - on in the kitchen, showing a rocket, the other in the breakfast area, with the planet saturn cut into the tile. That would put it in the era of the Saturn Rocket - late Kennedy or early Johnson administration, perhaps. That would make me twelve or thirteen perhaps, just old enough to become aware of what was going on in the world around me.
I can still see the table, and where we all sat, Mom in the "jump seat" closest the kitchen, where she could jump up to the stove or refrigerator for extra servings, etc. , Dad at the other end, the de facto head of the table, and the three of us on the two sides, myself next to Dad, and my sister next to Mom, my brother on the opposite side: as it was every night for the twenty plus years I lived in that house, we all sat in our assigned places. Dad went into work early - arrived between 6:30 and 7 every morning, so dinner, too, was early. A night like any other night, we began with grace "In nomine Patri, Filia, Spiritu Sanctum" (I wonder if Dad thought there was spiritual "extra credit" for crossing himself in latin.)
It was like that for all the #9 men on the north side. Up early, a long day outside, driving from intersection to intersection keeping the lights on time, and home with stacks of reports to fill out before the start of the next day. But they were living the dream, all of them, having made it from the parishes whose members lived in walkup apartments in courtyard buildings to those slightly nicer parishes further to the west, where houses sat on luxurious thirty-five foot lots, and women drove to the supermarket instead of pulling two-wheeled carts. Life was good.
Not so good this night, though. Dinner conversation was generally the usual stuff, and we all reported in on the events of our day, but this night Dad and Mom were more serious than usual, and dinner had an ominous beginning.
"I want to talk to you about something" he began, "You kids all know Dan Callahan." Well of course we knew Dan Callahan. He was a #9 man, after all. For the men of #9, the union wasn't just an assembly of co-workers. It was a brotherhood. "Well I don't know if you've met Dan's sister, Rita." Mom sat quietly, solemnly in fact, as Dad went on to tell us about the sad fate of Rita Callahan.
It seems that Rita's husband Mike was a shipbuilder. Another good union job, but dirty work. Mike O'Donnell, had developed cancer. I'm sure Dad probably didn't say what the cancer was, or what its cause, but it was mesothelioma. Years of exposure to asbestos had taken their toll, and Mike's lungs.
That, as bad as it was, was not the problem Dad brought to the table. Or at least not the whole problem. Mike and Rita had five kids, "stairsteps" ranging in age from teens at the high end to toddlers at the low. But that wasn't all: Rita was pregnant with number six. Ordinarily that might be cause for rejoicing, but this circumstance made it, well, - Mom was looking pretty pale herself as she took a deep breath in.
But that, as it turned out, wasn't all. Rita, you see, had been coughing and short of breath herself, and had mentioned it when she visited the doctor to get the pregnancy confirmed. And a baby on the way wasn't all Rita had. She, too, had cancer.
Let's review: Five children, and one on the way, about to be orphaned. Now this was well before Roe v. Wade, and there had been no national conversation about choice for anyone, let alone the O'Donnells, but that probably wouldn't have mattered. Mike and Rita were faithful Catholics, this was not a matter of choice. And there was the catch: While Rita was not as sick as Mike, perhaps was even treatable, even by the primitive oncology standards of the time, the pregnancy meant she could not be treated. No radiation, no chemo, no hope.
So why would Dad bring this sad story to the dinner table? And what did it have to do with us? Now Dad got to his point: "How would you kids feel if we took some of the O'Donnell children? How many do you think we could take?"
I know it had been my parents' hope to have a bigger family than they ultimately had. They were happy with three children, but several lost pregnancies, a foster child and periodic efforts to mentor other children weren't mere coincidence. But not in a million years would they have wished for this. This possibility must have left them feeling sick, perhaps even guilty for ever having wanted more children. Who, after all, would want them at that price to a friend?
I hope it was some relief to my parents that their children welcomed the idea. At least I did. This is one of the places the memory swirls about; I can't recall what my sibs said, but I don't recall public opposition to the idea.
The dinner continued quietly, my mother offered another reminder that we should not take our good fortune in life for granted, and we probably finished with a prayer for the O'Donnells. At least that's what it seems like we would have done.
No O'Donnell children ever came to live with us. The episode faded into the far reaches of my memory. And then, two or three years ago, I ran into Dan Callahan's daughter, Jeanne Marie, in an online forum.
We exchanged the customary pleasantries, and shared memories of one another's parents. I told her that Dad was gone and Mom was now in a home, and in her more chatty moments would tell me that Dan and his wife Sheila were coming to take her to dinner and a movie. A great way to spend an evening - except that both had been gone for fifteen years or more. But if Mom still had that to look forward, who was I to argue? Jeanne Marie and I agreed that this was a testament to the closeness of their friendship.
Than I recalled the sad story of Mike and Rita, but because of the age of the memory, I wasn't really sure the episode had happened. So I laid out the facts, briefly, and asked if anything like that had happened. I was taken aback at the response:
Your memory of my Aunt's illness is remarkable. But what's more remarkable is that your parents would even consider taking in children from another family. That says a lot about the compassion of your parents and the friendships that our fathers shared.she went on to explain what had happened:
He was a shipbuilder and got exposed to asbestos and got cancer from that. They already had 5 children at the time and I'm not entirely sure if she was pregnant when she found out she had cancer as well, but her cancer was related to his because she washed his clothes that has the asbestos fibers on them. I believe that Mike saw the final child born (before his death.) Rita was given 6 mos to live around that time.She went on to explain that Rita had somehow pulled together the strength to hang on for a few more years, and that the six children had stayed together for some time after her death, so there was a reason that no children had ended up with us.
The details had been lost in the swirling streams, but the memory had been real. I gasped as I read her note, breathing in the enormity of it all.
Now let me be absolutely clear: Not in a million years, not now, not ever, would I presume to tell Mike and Rita what they should have done in their circumstance. And never, never ever would I wish that young woman, (not so young anymore, I guess. Middle aged, even) out of existence. Because it was not then, and is not now, my business what Mike and Rita should have weighed as they faced an unfathomable catastrophe.
And I'll be damned if it's yours, State Rep. Lance Kinzer, or yours, Governor Brownback.