Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Chess Set

When my only brother died—on the 6th of November 1991—he was only 29 years old and in good health, so his accidental death caught everyone by surprise. My oldest daughter, Meg, had just been born the month before. My baby sister, Julie, got married at the end of that strange and dark November. It was supposed to be a happy time for all of us; instead it was a time of extreme emotions and staggering stress.

Somehow we all got through it, although I don’t exactly remember the time clearly, only bits and pieces. I remember that Meg’s colicky screaming fits no longer bothered me after Mike’s death. I’d just hold her and cry along with her. When it came time for me to return from maternity leave to my ‘exciting’ Air Force job, Chief of the Barksdale Command Post, I had no taste for it anymore. It pained me to leave Meg in child care each day and I suddenly realized how all the rest of my life had suffered because of my total dedication to my career.

I had scarcely seen my brother a half dozen times in the past 10 years—and he was the person, after my husband--I felt closest too?! After Mike’s funeral I went with my father and sisters several times to Mike’s house, looking, searching through his things. I didn’t want any of them. I even wondered at stories I’d read and heard about people fighting over the deceased person’s possessions. How could they? I loved my brother fiercely but I wanted none of his things.

My Dad kept trying to interest me in Mike’s books (I love books!) or his CD’s but I could only muster a half-hearted glance at a few things before my eyes misted over and I wanted to scream, “I don't want any of his things! I WANT MY BROTHER!!!!!!” But I stifled this desire. Even in this state of raw and self-centered emotion, I recognized my Dad’s sorrow as deeper and purer than my own.

I was at Mike’s house to help sort and bundle his things to be given away to various charitable organizations, but I doubt I was any help to anybody. I just kept wandering around, not really seeing, crying every once in awhile, confused and lost. If I thought about God at all, it was more with bitterness and anger than as a source of comfort and compassion. After all, hadn’t God taken my brother? Wasn’t this terrible pain His fault? What kind of cruel God would poison the joy of the birth of the first child (for me) and grandchild (for my parents) with death? And what about Julie’s wedding? How would she be able to enjoy her special day, with this cloud of sorrow hanging over her head? No, God had deserted us, at best; was punishing us at worst. But while I had turned away from God, I allowed myself to recognize and empathize with those around me. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

Eventually I did stumble across something among my brother's effects which did arouse my interest—letters and pictures. Mostly they were letters he’d received, but there were a few he’d written (including one to me) and not sent. I had something tangible to hang on to. My dad indicated Meg’s birth announcement which was proudly displayed on a shelf. “I don’t want it back!” I thought. Or did I say it?

Then Dad brought me a ceramic chess set which I’d made for Mike 10 years back. It was still in the same shoe box wrapped in yellowed newspaper. Had he even used it? This was too much.

“No!” I said firmly, “I don’t want it!” No one in the family, besides Mike, played chess so one of my sisters started to take it to put in the discard/give away pile.

“No!” Dad said, equally firmly, “we’ll keep it.” Dad was feeling sentimental too, I thought. He never saved anything that wasn’t useful. He’d been very adept at pitching anything and everything. Nostalgia was not a consideration in our family--if you weren't using it, you got rid of it. The Donovans were practical folk.

Nothing more was said. I left Mike’s house that day with 3 children’s books (for Meg), 2 CDs, a small electronic keyboard and a box of letters and pictures. Not much to show for 29 years of life, but it was more than I wanted even so.

A year later I gave birth to my second daughter and named her Michelle after her much beloved uncle. During those brief and busy months, I’d started to pray again and was beginning to turn to God, occasionally. God was no longer ‘the enemy’ but I still regarded Him with suspicion and well-founded (so I thought!) mistrust. If I could have defined my concept of my LORD in those days, I think I viewed Him as an angry storm which comes, destroys everything and then leaves, allowing His poor creatures to rebuild their pitiful lives—only to live in fear and suspicion, nervously awaiting another vengeful visit. I prayed in those days to placate God, in the hopes that He’d leave me alone.

But I had abandoned my Air Force career and devoted all my waking hours (which were many) to my husband and daughters. In time, I came to realize that Mike’s death—even more so than Meg’s birth—was a pivotal point in my life. Many women abandon successful careers when their first or second child comes along. But with 13 years in the AF, I hadn’t intended to quit when I was so close to the retirement finish line. And I wasn’t altogether sure I wanted any more children. If I only had Meg, I could give everything to her, couldn’t I? Everything that is, but a sibling… And didn’t Mike’s death teach me how precious that relationship could be?

In the ensuing years, death continued to be a wake-up call for me. Two uncles, two aunts, my last grandparent, several friends, and people my husband worked with. Each death—strangely—refocused my life, my vision of life and my relationship with God. My daughters grew and as I got to know them, I learned to love all over again. God became very real, very close and a good friend. I still didn’t begin to understand Him, but a 1000 little things each day pointed to His love for me and mine: Michelle’s beautiful singing and Meg’s love for horses; their hugs, chatter, giggles, pictures, pranks, and delightful games; the love and strong faith of the girls’ four grandparents; teaching Meg and Michelle to read; watching them become ardent readers like their mom and uncle; my husband’s patience and support; family reunions and weddings; rediscovering the richness of our faith heritage when I began to homeschool; prayer groups; trips around Washington state, Oklahoma and back to visit family; dear friends; visiting the sick from church etc. My life was so different from what it had been when all my time and energy were devoted to success in my career. I had rediscovered family, values and my relationship with our loving and very intimate Heavenly Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Life was very good and very full. As most children do, the girls begged for stories and I told them every story I could remember about my brother and my sisters, Patti and Julie. I think I can say—without boasting—that I kept Michael alive in their memories. And each year when Mike’s bday came around I baked a cake and the girls eagerly joined me in singing “Happy Birthday Uncle Mike” and feasting on chocolate cake—because the girls were sure that was his favorite cake. And when the anniversary of his death came—eventually—I was able to celebrate that day too, although in a quieter and more personal communion with my ‘little brother’.

But as the years slipped by, I began to lose the feeling of Mike’s presence. It almost seemed that as the pain lessened, so did the strength and power of the memories. I couldn’t picture his face (in my mind) or recall his voice without getting out his picture and staring at it. His picture hung over Michelle’s bed and I had others scattered around the house, but they became lifeless. Strange as it sounds, I found myself missing the sharp pang I used to feel when I thought about missing him! Am I losing him, God? My faith taught me he was safe and pain free with the Lord or perhaps still undergoing the necessary purgation in preparation for that glorious reunion. I refused to believe he was damned. He wasn’t perfect, but he was so dearly beloved by so many people when he died, I just knew he hadn’t turned his back definitely on God, so I had Faith and Hope. In keeping with our Roman Catholic tradition, my family and friends prayed and offered Masses and sacrifices for the salvation of his soul and those of others we loved. But, I couldn’t help wondering, if Mike isn’t lost, why do I feel like I’m losing him?

As Meggie’s First Communion approached, I confided this fear to a dear friend. Michael was Meg’s Godfather and I wished fervently that he could sit with our family in church and witness the joy of this occasion. Briefly I did feel that old familiar ache but my renewed faith told me that Mike would be with us in spirit. It was enough, I told myself sensibly. But even so, I admitted my true feelings to my friend. She assured me with confidence and wisdom that Michael would be at Meg’s Communion as he was with me in a very real way every day. Yes, I agreed and I offered a little prayer of thanksgiving to God for my friend and my brother.

Two weeks before the day, I came up behind Michelle at the computer playing chess. “Wow!” I said, “I didn’t know you could play chess.” I was impressed—not bad for a 7 year old, I thought.

“Yes,” she answered ambivalent of my praise, “but I don’t like playing it on the computer because the computer always wins. Meg and I want to play each other and then the game will be more fair.” “Meg can play too?!” I was really surprised. Meg shares my dislike of anything mechanical, especially computers.

“She likes chess too, but doesn’t like playing with the computer either,” Michelle assured me. That I could believe.

“Too bad,” I mused, “I don’t remember what we did with that chess set…”

“You have a chess set?!” Michelle’s eyes lighted up and she gave me her full attention.

“I made one for Uncle Mike years ago, but I can’t remember what happened to it. I’ll ask Grandma if she still has it. Don’t get your hopes up; it was a long time ago and Grandma and Paw Paw (my parents) don’t keep things around if they aren’t being used.”

“But you will ask them right?” Michelle asked with serious and earnest eagerness.

“Yes, I’ll ask,” I promised. But no, my mom said we’d gotten rid of the chess set years ago at a family garage sale. Not to worry I told the girls, “Daddy and I will get you a chess set for your birthday or Christmas.” The girls’ faces fell with disappointment.

Again, I was surprised. I was with them every day, but since our computer was in a back room, I didn’t realize how much they’d played chess. All I knew was their computer wasn’t connected to the Internet and I’d checked out all the software on it. And they were required to ‘play’ with the computer 30 minutes a day.

The day before the First Communion I chanced to check my email and there was a message from my Mom. “Guess what? Julie has the chess set. She’ll bring it down tomorrow.” I couldn’t believe it. After all these years…

The next day arrived and our house was a flurry with out-of-town relatives from Missouri, Indiana and Kansas. Everyone arrived safely and our house was a buzz with doorbells, laughter, hugs, phone ringing and all the sounds of familiar voices. My sister Julie arrived with her husband and two sons. I marveled over the fact that if not for a scheduling conflict, we would have had Meg’s First Communion in May and Julie wouldn’t have been able to come. I remembered how flustered I’d been at the time, wondering how I’d be able to secure a week-end acceptable to most (if not all) of our family. My husband, Rod, reminded me to turn things over to the LORD. I had and now He was showing me His magnificent Love and Grace.

Michelle came up to me and motioned for me to lean down for a whispered confidence. “Did Aunt Julie remember the chess set?” I smiled at her and whispered back, “I don’t know but I’ll ask her.” I did and Julie jumped to her feet and went back outside. A few moments later she brought in a very old-looking shoe box with the words, “Chess Set - $8” written in my handwriting on the top of the box.

“That’s pretty bad,” I joked, “We couldn’t even sell it for $8.” But my words were lost in the excitement of Meg and Michelle digging out the pieces from yellowed newspaper.

“I’m glad you didn’t sell it,” Meg said emphatically and I began to see the whole scene in a new light—the still fresh light of her innocent and hopeful 8 year old eyes. Soon all the pieces were unwrapped, the girls had dug out an old checkers' board and were happily absorbed in a fast-paced game of chess.

As I sat back watching them, I thought of my friend’s words about Mike being with us on this day. I marveled at the appearance of the chess set on the exact day of Meg’s First Communion, a chess set I’d seen perhaps twice in the past 20 years, the only thing I ever made for my brother. A feeling came over me I can’t quite explain, but it was more real than the black and white pieces in front of me.

“How did you manage it Mike?” I wondered silently. How indeed? It was too strange, too unreal, too coincidental… “You are here, aren’t you Little Brother,” I thought and the ache in my heart was as sharp as it had ever been. And I knew how he ‘managed it’. It wasn’t a coincidence; it was a God-incidence.

The rest of the day passed in a blur of conversation, prayer, photos and hugs. It was a wonderful day—too full to visit with each of our guests as I’d have liked to do, but a nice time even so. After church, dinner at a local restaurant and coming back to our house for cake and coffee, eventually the day came to an end and we were saying ‘good night’ to those of our guests who weren’t staying with us. As my uncle and aunt, who live in Kansas, were getting into their car, I heard my mom call out, “Good night Little Brother” and he called back, “Good night Big Sister” and it seemed as if Mike was talking to me. It was the way Mike and I had always addressed each other, although I do not remember ever hearing my mom and her brother address each other that way before.

Good night Little Brother. I look forward to seeing you again someday! Thank You Heavenly Father for letting Mike join us—in a special way on this special day.

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