“You’re not a family. You’re a Tribe.” –Fr. Jack Hurley
Last week was rough on the family. Things were strangely coming together, however for some it was falling apart. The impact that losing a loved one, older than any living person I know, can be a devastation and for my family, it was something that (how can I put this without it sounding horrible) we were used to.
He was a 94-year-old World War II Veteran with two daughters, a handful of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, two sons-in-law who adored him and friends that he’s had longer than I’ve been alive. About 22 years ago, he lost his wife to cancer. Last week, he lost his life to it.
“But he was 94!” We all keep telling ourselves. But little do we ever think of the negative to that positive. Think about it: That’s 94 years of memories. Thank God he still had his mind fully intact. That was 94 years of history, experience, life-threatening situations, violence, travel. Ninety-four years of creating habits and breaking them; of making people laugh and crying tears of sadness; of hugs and kisses for and from everyone he loved; years of missing his loving wife and partner; years of losing those he loved and being ready for when God called his lucky number. Those years hold much more than we know, previously filled by an incredible man, 10 times as big as the void he left!
Those 94 years held a lot. We saw it in my uncle’s memories of him; he is living proof that his father-in-law had a strong impact on individuals. We saw it in the pictures all over the funeral parlor. We heard it in my cousin Donna’s loving words at the funeral mass. We heard it in the sobs of people who were related only by association and experiences with him, as the Marines played Taps while they folded up the American flag that covered his casket. We remember how much those 94 years held, by remembering him; his raspy voice telling us his stories.
His name was Lee. His full name was Leonard Wojnarowski. Clearly Polish. Lee was a quiet man who I remember looking exactly the same since I was a kid. He always had a cigarette in his hand, his white hair combed back, wearing sweater vests, khakis, white shoes, collars– showing off his unique sense of style. “Hey, how you doing, babe?” he would say as we went up to give him a kiss hello. The way he spoke carried the old neighborhood accent. You know, that Chicago “dem, dees and does” Bridgeport accent. He was a straight-up Chicago guy… with a twist!
I can hear him talking to my dad, too. “How ya doin’, Chucho?” Slow, pronounced. “Good, Lee. How are you?” my dad would respond. The two quiet men could sit next to each other in comfort and not speak the rest of the evening. It made me laugh.
I’ll never forget the time I got to sit down and talk to Lee by myself about his experience in WWII. He fought in the South Pacific, engaged in hand-to-hand combat and survived it all to tell me about it. The stories were intense. Out of the millions of the people who died during that war to end all wars, he made it. Fighting the Japanese soldiers, being in a ditch as they surrounded them, the close calls and the scares he endured were all stories that made it into a report I wrote for school: “My conversation with a WWII Veteran.” It got an A+. Well, sure it did. It wasn’t about me. It was about Lee. I told his story– documented it, in a way– and that story deserves an A+++. I guess it was an introduction into journalism for me.
Obviously, there’s a secret part of Lee and a private side that the larger family didn’t get to experience. But it left an impact on my cousins. He was always there for them and for my uncle, especially since we lost my grandfather back in ’72. I mean, like they said at the wake, he watched as my aunts and uncles grew up.
Our Tribe is vast, but we stick together. As in-laws started marrying into the family, not having as large of a family as we did (my mom was one of eight), their parents and siblings have always been invited to join us. We would literally swallow up families and expand because of it. But each little family within our Tribe has their quiet alone time; sacred and separate from the rest of the group. And I can only imagine the stories there.
Driving back to the city from the cemetery, I cried thinking about the other family members we’ve lost. But along with that, I thought about my own morality and that’s where it gets you. The lump in your throat forms and you feel pressure in your eyes. What’s it going to be like when I pass? I don’t know but it’s not my time yet.
Over the few days between his death and funeral, I realized that I would rather celebrate the life of an old person than mourn the loss of a young one. LIke I said, my grandfather passed at 45, my cousin at 12 and my uncle at 35 and those were rough. Really, really rough. It was sad to see them go so early, with years of experiences they’d never get to enjoy before them. The reason you cry at young persons’ funerals is because they didn’t get to live as long as they could have.
This one, wasn’t bad. This wasn’t a losing game. This one was a “It’s time to come home now, you’ve done it all.” That, in and of itself, made it all OK.
I cried tears of joy when I heard that my cousin’s little boy Emilio had a dream about him. They come back in dreams and bring you messages and let you know things. I’ve been there. It is comforting and consoling, and because Emilio experienced that, he’s going to remember his great-grandfather happy along with all the good times. When remembering this time, Emilio won’t remember being sad.
To this day, I still have dreams about my loved ones. And each time they come to me in a dream, I remember that they’re doing much better than us and that they’re happy.
When we talked about people who have passed at the wake and funeral, we mentioned the in-laws and the family members who’ve gone along before us. Remember how I said we’re a Tribe? Well because of that, we all knew that the receiving line after entering the gates of Heaven for Lee would be lined with nothing but family. Blood related, or not, but definitely part of the Tribe.