Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Holy Cards

In the fold out window of my wallet, sandwiched between my state ID and my badge for work is a faded holy card.  The edges are worn and the corners are folded.  On the front is Jesus Christ, haloed head, holding court in front of a gathering of small birds perched on tree branches and a rock.  On the back are the following words:


In Loving Memory Of
Florian V. Smolarek
United States Veteran
Born Into Life
July 9, 1944

Born Into Eternity

August 21, 1983



The last word is cut off because that corner of the holy card is gone (it’s “die”, if you were wondering, from John 11:25 and yes, I had to look it up).  The E and K of the last name are cut off as well.  Across the top are four numbers in my handwriting: 8-36-39-67.

It was twenty years ago, the summer of 1993, just a few weeks before I started my freshman year of college, when I visited my father’s grave for the first time.  I’d been to the cemetery since his death to bury other relatives, my great aunt who was in her seventies and my cousin, who was only eleven.  This time I was going for my father and I was going by myself.

There are things I remember about August 21, 1983 but there are lots of holes in my memory, too.  It was Sunday. We must have had pancakes for breakfast because that’s what we always did on Sundays.  I’m sure I was the first one awake and I snuck downstairs quietly to watch TV before my older brother and sister came awoke.  We were going to visit my grandmother on the south side later in the day and we were running late.

My mother screamed.  I think I was upstairs in my room.  My father was crumpled on the floor in the bathroom.  I went downstairs.  My brother followed and called the paramedics from the kitchen phone.  They arrived and worked on my father upstairs.  They brought in a gurney and carried him out to the ambulance.  We sat on the couch in the living room.  My mom called my uncle before she left in the ambulance with my father.  We three kids waited alone at home.  My uncle dropped my aunt off with us then went to the hospital.  My aunt and uncle had just gotten married, just gotten back from their honeymoon.   We had just seen the family photo taken at their wedding.  I don’t know what we did while we waited.  My mom and uncle returned a little later.  She wasn’t crying but I could tell by her face she was carrying bad news.  My aunt and uncle moved to the family room.  My mom sat us down on the living room couch and told us our father was dead.  We cried together.  I couldn’t tell you how long were stayed together on that couch but I know my mother has never hugged us harder than she did that moment.

 We had rabbits in our house.  Not pet rabbits, but wild baby rabbits.  Our neighbor’s dog had gotten the mother and my brother found their den while mowing their lawn.  They were tiny, each one of them could fit in the palm of my hand.  We convinced our parents to bring them into the house and fed them with an eye dropper.  They stayed in a cardboard box next to the basement door.  When we finished crying on the couch, I took one of the rabbits from the box and went down into the basement, sat down in the dark, pet it and cried more.

 Since the funeral was going to be on the south side we stayed at my grandmother’s for the next week.  .  When you die young, your wake and funeral are well attended.  For three days people filed in and out.  Some I knew, most I didn’t but they all talked in hushed tones.  There’s not much for kids to do at a funeral home.  You can only play so many hands of Uno, you can only go for a walk around the block so many times.  I remember going to see Return of the Jedi at Ford City Mall with my mom’s cousin, Katie.  She fell asleep while the people behind us cheered for Luke Skywalker and the fall of the Empire.  The father-son dynamic of the story was over my head at the time.

 The church was packed for the funeral.  I’d never sat in the reserved front rows before.  I don’t remember the mass, only the flag draped across the casket.  Then a limo ride to the cemetery.  Then it was over.

 We went back home. Just the four of us. School started the next week, third grade for me.  People treated me differently, especially the teachers.  Like there was something they all knew about me but didn’t want to talk about if I was there.  “That’s the boy whose father just died.”  Was it compassion?  Pity?  I don’t know.  I was eight.

 I cried a lot that year.  Anything could set me off.  If I got yelled at, if I was by myself, if something went wrong at school, if I got in trouble, sometimes for no reason at all.  To say I was emotionally unstable was an understatement.  Even though I was having problems I’m sure it was hardest on my mother.  Everything fell to her to do.  She started working a few months later, her first full time job since my brother was born.  My father’s company had offered her a job.  We’d be okay.

 There was a man who worked at our grade school, the only male besides the custodian.  He was the school counselor and I started meeting with him every other week.  We played Yahtzee and invented the practice roll which didn’t count and you could use at any time during the game by crossing out the P we wrote in above the top line of the Yahtzee scorecard.  We talked a lot.   For four years, every other week I was in his office.  I was in high school before I realized he was checking on me, making sure I was okay, making sure my family was okay.  Later in life my sister worked at the same school that he did. I had her thank him for me because I never did.  Thanks Mr. G.

 The hardest part was answering questions about my family.  It always came up but as soon as I answered the conversation ground to a halt.  Most kids don’t know what to say when you tell them your father is dead.   A year later another kid’s father passed away.  Finally another member of the Dead Dads Club.  We spent father’s day playing together in his back yard.  His mother remarried a year later and they moved away.

 Then junior high.  My first girlfriend, my first kiss.  Her father had died too, about the same time as mine. Another Dead Dads Club member, this time one who would French kiss me at the movie theater during Three Men and a Baby.  She broke up with me a month later.

 Then High school.  I met more members of the Dead Dads Club and dealt with fewer family questions.  Graduation.  Moving on to college.  Now it had been ten years. A long time, more years without him now than with him.  I wanted to go to the cemetery.  I told my mom.  She gave me the holy card, told me how to get there and gave me the numbers to write down so I could find the grave site.

 Have you ever had to find a grave site in a cemetery?  First of all, cemeteries are huge.  Even after studying the map by the entrance gate for ten minutes, I could barely find the section where my father was buried.  That turned out to be the easy part because once you find the section, you then have to find these four inch diameter concrete lot markers buried in the ground to match the next pair of numbers.  If you get lucky and match one number, then you are halfway there.  Now you just have to walk in a straight line, either left to right or up and back until you find the next number.  If you are a widow visiting your departed husband for the twenty-seventh time, this is easy.  If you are an eighteen year old kid visiting your father’s grave for the first time since he died ten years ago you wander lost through a cemetery by yourself for a long time.

 Eventually I found the right numbers.  Then I found the headstone.

Florian V. Smolarek
My Lord and My God

The tears started immediately.  I sat down and picked the dirt out of the engraved letters with my fingernails.  Grass crept over the edges of the light gray marble stone and I pulled it out.  The surrounding graves were well kept, many with potted flowers resting on their headstones.    My father’s looked neglected.  I felt bad no one had looked after it.

Now you know what the F stand for in my middle name.
 For the first time in ten years I talked to my dad.  I told him what he’d missed, how I was off to college, about my mom, how she was about to get remarried.  Then I just tried to remember what I could of him.  How he always jingled his keys.  How he used to say “Mmm, hm,” the pitch in his voice rising on the “hm.”  How that’s the only thing I remember of his voice.  How he had us pick out the “cooties” from our carpeting every night before bed.  How he would nap on the floor of the living room on weekends and I would curl up next to him.

 After an hour, I left.  It was a relief to finally go there and I’ve gone back many times over the last twenty years.  I don’t stay as long and I seldom cry now.  When my son started asking me a lot of questions about my dad, especially as we were driving by the many cemeteries near our old house, I took him, too.  It seemed like the best way to explain it to him.

 It’s been thirty years since my dad died.  I’m just a year younger than he was when he died.  Next year is going to be tough for me, my older brother says.

 My son still asks me questions about my dad.  How old was he?  How did he die?  How old was I when he died?  Am I going to die while he is young?

 I wish I could tell him that I’ll be here forever, for as long as he needs me.  I’ll be there to coach his soccer team, to teach him how to ride a bike, how do drive a car.  I’ll teach him to play chess, to be nice to people, to play tennis, to mow the lawn, help him with his math homework, and show him how to throw a curve ball.  I’ll be there when he graduates high school and moves away to college, when he starts out on his own, when he brings his girlfriend home to meet us.  I’ll be there when he gets married, at his younger sister’s wedding to walk her down the aisle, to see their child born, my own grandchildren. I’ll be there for a long time.

 Hopefully I will be right.  Hopefully I’ll see my children, the two that are here and the one who is on his way, grow into adults, see them through all of the life they have ahead of them.  But I can’t be sure.

 So every night before bed, no matter the time, I sneak into their rooms while they are asleep.  I pull their blankets up, put the stuff animals that have fallen onto the floor back on the bed.  I give them a kiss and whisper goodnight.  Most nights they never know that I’ve been in their rooms.  But sometimes, sometimes the open their eyes, they look at me and smile, or reach out and hug me, then roll over and go back to sleep.  Those are the best nights.

 Thirty years later and I still miss you, Dad.
Thanks for reading.


Monday, August 05, 2013

Twenty Years Later

When the movie 'The Breakfast Club' came out in 1985 I was in 5th grade.  I'm not sure how I was allowed to see it but I was.  At the end of the movie, Brian Johnson, played by Anthony Michael Hall, reads their essay as voice over. 

I always assumed high school would be like 'The Breakfast Club.'  People fit into simple categories and stayed within their clicks and if you had braces you were, well, screwed.  But then high school happened and that wasn't exactly the case. Sure we had people we called geeks and jocks and burnouts and just about any group mentioned in 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off.'  We had the popular people and the not so popular people and, as a recently posted video taken by a classmate of mine on our last day of high school shows, we overused the word 'dork.'  But there weren't rigid walls that prevented a brain from talking to an athlete.  The athlete might not respond, but he wasn't likely to get jammed into a locker (although in 7th grade the basketball team did try to stick me a garbage can, which was weird because I was on the basketball team).  After four years of high school, we graduate and moved on.  We went to college, or we stayed home.  We moved out and moved away.  Then twenty years later, we got back together on a Saturday night at a bar close to our High school.  We were older, balder, fatter and slower, but we were still us.

Reunions are much different now.  With the Internet in general and with Facebook specifically, it's pretty easy to find out the basic information on just about anybody.  We didn't have Facebook at our ten year reunion, but we did for this one.  So, pretty much the whole first hour "where are you living, are you married, do you have kids" didn't have to happen since we all knew that already.   And while we all don't fit into John Hughes' five labels-- a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal—I ran into my own groups.  To protect the innocent (and the guilty) I'll leave out names, but if any of them are reading this, they will easily recognize themselves.

The first person you see that you didn't know was going to be there
This is a critical person because if you recognize them and they recognize you, the night is off to a good start.  If yoy don't know you and you don't know them, it could be a disater.  Walking in with your best friend from high school that you talk to all the time doesn't count (sorry to one of my best friends who I walked in with this year).  Luckily, the first person I saw recognized me and I recognized her.

The Couple who started dating in High school who are still together
Normally, this couple is the annoying couple who everybody hates or the couple that everyone loved who are now divorced.  Fortunately for my classmates, our couple is still together and they still rock.  I do wish the wife would have let her husband wear his old BGHS jacket.  The fact they were able to find each other in high school and are still together is incredible.

The Friends you still talk to but don't get to see much
Most of my close friends from high moved far away.  This was great when I was in my twenties and would just go visit them for a long weekend or over a holiday weekend (I spend years visiting different friends for Thanksgiving in Seattle and Boulder) but sucks now.  Many of them made it and it was awesome to talk to them.  At times, I felt not a second had passed since we were last playing spades on a Friday night or shouting "Penis," in the cafeteria (that's a long story).  So, from the guy who has lived in the same county his whole life, thanks for coming back to visit all of you down-staters and out-of-staters.

The girl who broke your heart
Everyone guy has one of these (and I'm sure every girl has a guy who broke her heart).  These are the ones you get nervous about, but if there is one thing high school teaches you it's that while it hurts, you eventually get over the girl (or the guy).  Mine was in attendance and just like more than twenty years ago, I got that same nervous stomach and shaky hands I felt in high school when I saw her.  We talked, it was brief but good.  Her smile reminded me of why I liked her from the moment I met her Freshman year.

The Athletes who are computer nerds now
This may sound like a stretch, but I couldn't believe how many people are IT nerds now.  I'm pretty nerdy.  I can tell you what an ERP is and let me tell you it is nothing fun or interesting to talk about unless you have survived implementing one.  By some small miracle, there was another person there who knew exactly what I was talking about and survived an ERP himself.  Was he the math geek who got a 5 on the AP Calc test?  Hell no.  He was an athlete who played basketball, football and baseball, the big three. Now he runs an IT department.  Nerds rule, even if they are just really athletic nerds who were smart even back then.

The Drunk Huggers
There were a lot more of these at our ten year reunion but we are older and smarter, so we didn't have an open bar event (I'm pretty sure I was one of the drunk huggers ten years ago).  Now, if my memory serves me correctly, most of the girls in our school were big huggers back then and what guy is going to pass up a hug in high school.  A girl wants to voluntarily touch us, instead of being force to, like during square dancing in gym glass?  Who could say no.  Clearly this was learned behavior.

The Shot Pusher
No, not the two guys who threw the heavy ball in Track and Field (our two shot putters were missing), but the guy who wanted to ensure everyone was having fun at the reunion.  And he wasn't pushing shots as much as he was sharing them.  In fact, he is probably responsible for the drunk huggers, so he should get extra credit for that.

The Guy you knew was going to be a doctor
This was the guy who kicked ass in every math and science class.  We had a lot of these in high school and a lot of them ended up being doctors.  One became an anesthesiologist (I totally had to look up how to spell that) which was funny to me because in our English class, he had a hard time pronouncing the word "ether."  He tells me they don't use that anymore, but if I ever need surgery, he could totally hook me up with the good stuff.

The people who look exactly the same twenty years later

I hate these people.  No, I'm kidding, I don't.  These are likely the people who are not married and have no kids.  Do you know why? Because getting married and having kids turns you grey and makes your hair fall out.

The Crush
Normally, this would have been about some girl I had a crush on that I never approached and it would have been titled "The Crushed."  You see, I wasn't good at the whole girl from age ten to twenty nine.  It's a miracle any girl wanted to marry me and looking back, if I were a girl, I would have never dated me either.  In a prior blog post, I mentioned how my popularity in school peaked in seventh grade.  But near the end of the night, a girl who I didn't recognize started talking to me.  I had to look at her name tag (thank you, name tag!) to remember her name, and in my defense, she had much bigger hair in high school.  We talked for a few minutes and then she told me she had a crush on me in 7th grade.   She even tried to sit close to me on the bus to cross county meets.  I was floored.  No, literally, I almost fell down.  This was news to me, something I didn't remember, something I was probably too dumb to notice in 7th grade.  I told her this would have been good to know twenty six years ago when we were in 7th grade.  But let's be honest, even if I did know back then, I still wouldn't have known what to do.  Most likely I would have done something horribly embarrassing, like ask her out then puke in front of her and she would have avoided me all of high school and at our reunion so it's probably good I didn’t know.  But man, I sure felt even worse not recognizing her right away.  So, thank you, secret crush.  It was flattering to hear that, even if someone sitting next to us said, "Wait, you had a crush on HIM?"

I wonder if there were ever plans for a Breakfast Club 2.  The gang likes hanging out in detention together so much they keep doing it one Saturday a year then fall out of touch, only to gather together for their twenty year reunion.  The five of them, the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess and the criminal, sneak out of the gymnasium where the reunion is held and meet up in the library around the statue, which, twenty years later still has a baloney stain.  They talk, they laugh, Brian takes Bender's bag of weed out of his pants, Andrew tries on his old tights and Claire passes around the sushi.  I know, without John Hughes the movie can't be made.


This is not what our logo looked like in 93
But the Buffalo Grove High School class of 1993,  we made ours and overall, it was a great reunion.  Time stood still, we forgot about everything else hard in life, working, raising kids, taking care of our parents as they age, feeling old as our hair grays and are bodies break down, everything the last twenty years dealt us and we just talked. We laughed.  We told the same stories to each other and they all started with "Remember when?"   I just hope we don’t have to wait ten more years to get together again.

Thanks BGHS Class of 93 and thanks for reading.