Jeff Ackerman: Hope for future springs from sister’s funeral
I hadn’t seen most of them since the last funeral. We hugged, shook hands and promised to stay in closer touch, lamenting the fact that we only seem to see one another when someone dies. We all went home and returned to our busy lives, waiting for the next fateful call that would bring us together again.
And so it was as I stood at the podium looking out at all the familiar faces, each one bringing with it a memory. Standing in the back of the room was my high school buddy, Frank. Prior to the services, he reminded my wife that we’d cut quite a trail throughout the Bay Area almost 40 years ago now. I had to cut him off before he got to the part where we pushed his dad’s car out of the garage one night before either of us were able to drive legally. He’d already spilled the beans about “Hickey Hill,” which was right up the road from the church we were standing in not far from Peacock Gap.
Then there were the men in my sisters’ lives. I had six sisters before two of them died. They are and were beautiful and troubled women, attracting husbands and boyfriends who tried their best to handle the spirited women they courted. I tried to count them from the podium … Tony, Shaun, Danny, Jeff, Marty, Mario … I needed a scorecard when we were younger. I realized they were all my brothers now and that we would be forever linked.
I’d been away for a long time and it wasn’t by accident. I graduated high school in Marin County in 1969 and if you know anything about Marin County in 1969, you might understand why I had to leave as soon as I could. If you are a boy with six sisters and an alcoholic father, you keep your bags packed, just waiting for the right moment to leave home.
My moment came when a friend had an apartment for rent in a little town of Larkspur. I’d enrolled in college and was enjoying the best summer of my life, the summer of 1969. I enjoyed it a little too much and stopped going to classes, which wasn’t a good thing to do when your Lottery draft number was 13. And so I quickly found myself doing pushups on a sizzling hot boot camp blacktop, cursing my series of bad decisions and wishing I was back in Larkspur listening to Jim Morrison. But I’d found my ticket out and there was no turning back.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t there to take care of my sisters when they needed me. Standing at the podium last Saturday, where friends and family were gathered to celebrate my sister Joani’s life, I was suddenly overcome with guilt. Another sister had just recalled how she cared for our two younger siblings after our mother died and our father sank deeper into his alcoholism. He’d taken them to New York City, where he left them to fend for themselves inside a cockroach-infested apartment for two or three days. I was a thousand miles across the ocean by then fighting my own demons and wanted no part of it. I’d later ask Uncle Sam to let me out of the military so I could take care of my sisters, but he refused. Uncle Sam, it seems, is not much better at family matters than I am.
I knew Joani had a tough childhood and I wish I would have been a better brother when she needed one. And so I said how sorry I was for running all those years and that I’d finally stopped running.
They say the best thing we can do is leave this place in better shape than we found it and as I looked beyond the podium, I saw the young faces of so many nephews and nieces that my sisters brought into this world and realized that Joani had, indeed, accomplished much in her 46 years. Her son, Shaun Patrick, would head back to Arizona the next day to resume his college studies and daughter Brittany would return to San Diego, where her stunning looks and sharp mind earn her a good living as a top model.
There is a new generation of our family and, from the looks of it, this new generation may be free of the demons our family has carried for some two centuries. I am looking forward to seeing them all under much happier circumstances and plan to stay in touch in between the inevitable weddings and funerals.
Postscript: I wanted to thank all of you who sent condolences after my sister’s death from drug and alcohol abuse. Each of us has our stories to tell and some of them are painful. I wanted to share one letter in particular from a man who wrote from the Nevada County Jail. “You don’t know me,” he began, “but I just wanted to write you a letter to thank you for sharing about your sister. I really related to the article a lot. I have He C and am an addict. I have made a lot of bad choices. But I am in a place in my life now where I am ready to accept responsibility for my problems by getting the help I need. I now realize it is unfair for anyone (much less a community) to have to suffer cause of my problems. Fortunately, this community offers alot of help to people like me and I am grateful for that. I am sorry your sister died that way, but if it means anything to you, your article helped me realize I don’t have to.”
That, my friends, is what this might be all about.
Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears on Tuesdays. Contact him at 477-4299, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.
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