My great uncle Paul was one of my favorite people when I was a kid. He was an intellectual, and a talker, and I could listen to him tell stories for hours at our dining room table. He adored his wife, my grandmother’s younger sister Lorena, whom he called “Fritzie.” They were two of the sweetest people I knew, always smiling, always tender. The night before Aunt Lorena died in 2008, I dreamed she was knocking on a tall wooden door to the German Lutheran church I attended as a child. Eventually the door opened, and my grandmother and father, both dead, let her in. That was the last I saw of Aunt Lorena.
The tragedy that marked their lives made me timid around them, though, as if getting too close to them might disturb the dust of their sadness, which they kept settled from view. Their only two children both died before I was born. Jim, who was studying to be a doctor, died when he was a senior at Valparaiso University. It took years before family whispers about Jim became recognizable words to me: He had committed suicide. Their daughter Susie, born with severe spastic cerebral palsy, died a year after Jim, just months after my aunt and uncle made the wrenching decision to move her out of their home and into a nursing facility downstate in Anna.
Jim and Susie’s deaths, and that of my mom’s little brother Ronnie, who died after contracting both mumps and measles when he was almost four, hovered over my childhood, casting shadows. I learned from these shadows what it means to persevere in the face of unimaginable sadness, but I also learned that such sadness never goes away. Long before I had children of my own, I understood the deep, vulnerable love for a child, how the loss of that child never leaves you, no matter how many other children, and grandchildren, you may have, no matter how many joyful years you manage to tuck behind you as you plod forward, living.
Shortly after Aunt Lorena died, I contacted a childhood friend who is a writing professor at Valpo and asked for her help in finding out what happened to Jim. At the time of his death, nobody understood why he had taken his life, and I’m not sure what I thought I would find that would make it any easier to comprehend. Allison put me in touch with an archivist at the Valpo library, and the two of them graciously passed along yearbook photos and newspaper articles about Jim’s death. At Valpo, Jim was an honors student, lettered in varsity golf, worked on the student newspaper, was a residence hall counselor, and a member of the honor guard and Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.
These pictures of promise from Jim’s college yearbooks are the first I remember seeing of him. I was astounded at how familiar he looked, and how alive. Charlie Jones, one of Jim’s best friends from high school in Quincy, Illinois, later told me how much everyone loved Jim: “He was good-looking, well-mannered, had a great personality, and I never knew or heard of anybody who didn’t like him.” Charlie last saw Jim at a Frank Sinatra movie over Christmas Break in 1965, when Jim was home from Valpo and Charlie was home from medical school. “He sure seemed like the old Jim the night we saw the movie,” he told me.
On January 4, 1966, back at school, Jim took an overdose of sleeping pills. He left a note in his pajama pocket, saying he was depressed and thought he had cancer. He wrote that he worried about the impact of such a diagnosis on his beloved parents, who already had their hands full with his disabled sister. He awoke some time the next day, added to his note, and likely took more pills. His housemates discovered him that afternoon, and he was rushed to the hospital where he died the following morning without regaining consciousness. He was 22. The final semester on his college transcript shows a list of W’s, wishes left unfilled. The autopsy showed he had no cancer.
At Uncle Paul’s funeral yesterday in Quincy, there were no children or grandchildren to serve as pall bearers although certainly the small gathering of people at his funeral loved him dearly, just as I did. He died a week after his 96th birthday. When he was laid to rest at Quincy Memorial Park, next to his wife and two children, I want to believe–no, I do believe–that one of those leftover wishes finally came true for all of them.