“Dad’s on his way to the hospital.”
That was all I needed to hear when picking up the phone at 3:00 a.m. Panic set me in motion. Shoes, wallet, cell phone. Brush teeth before heading out. Thank God Dunkin Donuts is open for coffee. Oh God, please be with him. Whatever is going on, we both know he’s afraid. It took 30 minutes to get to the hospital where my mother, two brothers, a sister-in-law and niece were seated in the ER waiting room. No one had been allowed to see Dad yet; the other two brothers were on their way. When my out-of-state sister was contacted, she, too would be heading to Chicago.
When the paramedics took him from the house, Dad couldn’t breathe.
Anyone who’s ever been in ER can relate to the dread when first seeing a loved one hooked up to countless beeping machines, needles piercing bruised skin up and down the arms, and for us, cracked dried lips forced open to hold the tube that kept my father alive. His hair was plastered back, not in his usual side part, so his face became fully visible—his pale face. The uniform gown hung off his shoulders to reveal patches that attached his chest to monitors with numbers I didn’t comprehend. His body, covered in a thin white sheet, appeared shorter than the strong man’s vertical posture I knew as a child. And as Mom sat beside the bed in a chair, and Phil stroked her back, and Steve and Bob stood bravely by the curtain, I walked up to Dad and took his hand in mine, gently as to not disturb the reddened tape which secured the IV. I had two rosaries with me. My St. Pope John Paul II beads dangled on the left of our clasped hands, and my grandma’s beads dangled on the right. It was Grandma to whom I prayed with eyes closed. I began with a Memorare, followed by the routine Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, and then started talking in my head to a woman I had never met. She was Dad’s Mom, and old pictures showed that we shared the same cowlick. I spoke to her with an unconscious ease about motherhood and wondered what my dad was like when he was a kid, and I asked her to hold his hand through mine because, having two boys of my own, I like to believe that every son feels safer when he’s got his mom by his side. I prayed to Grandma to join me, as parents do, in supporting this stage of “life.” I don’t know how long the conversation lasted, but I remember that once in a while I felt myself smile as if I heard her response, and I remember feeling a calm come over me as if everything was going to be okay, no matter the result of this tragic night. I opened my eyes to find the blood pressure screen in clear view, as if no other machinery existed. I almost giggled, which might have seemed inappropriate for the circumstances, but my heart bounced at the sight of the numbers. She was listening. Those numbers were her way of assuring me that she was there, as she had been there when Dad entered this world, as she had been there when I entered this world, too.
“What’s does that say?” I asked out loud to whomever was behind and around me.
“130 over 68,” one of my brothers replied.
“Say that again, please.”
“He was near stroke levels when they brought him in.. 130 over 68 is unbelievable,” said another.
“Now say it without the word ‘over’.”
“Geralyn, it’s been that way ever since you closed your eyes. It’s a good reading,” Phil explained.
“1-30-68,” I whispered and smiled. “That’s my birthdate.”
Whether Dad was going home with my mom here on Earth or going home to his mom in Heaven, I was at peace because Grandma answered my prayers. Everything would be okay, and it is.
I’ve never been a morning person, let alone a walking morning person, but something has to give. Life has gotten so hectic and busy, and I’ve lost momentum with my health and exercise. So, last night I decided to set the alarm for 4:50 a.m. in order to get my “stuff” completed by 5:30 and head out the door—not to embark on a fast and sweaty pace, rather, to leisurely stroll, to get myself going, to find brisk inspiration.
It was unsettling, this nighttime/not nighttime hour when the skies were just as dark as they were when I fell asleep. My first observation—everything was silent, eerily still, as if the gods pressed pause, and I was the only one not controlled by the command. I say “gods” because that was my second observation. In the heavens, the crescent moon and her shining companions were brighter than I remembered for a “morning” view. With no hint of the sun, the blackened sheet remained crisp with little cut-outs of light, like a grade school constellation project. A joyful Diana hovered over me in a slow waltz, and then I got lost in the silence again. My feet crunched on fallen leaves, and the wind blew strands of hair out of my ponytail and across my face. Every once in a while I’d pass a house and hear the slightest whoosh of a shower head or see a kitchen light turn on, simple reminders that daily life was on the horizon. The horizon. There was a fading from above; deep navy waned into a line of royal blue that swept above the trees and rooftops. Could Aurora be on Diana’s tail? I wondered how many city folk might have been up and about 144 years ago on October 8, trudging to work on Chicago’s desolate streets, unaware of the conflagration that would prevent such a walk for months, years even, to come. Hidden in the stillness of the Crosby Opera House with the curtains and gilded molding, the stage lights were waiting to illuminate once again the replica of Guido Reni’s fresco, Aurora, where images of the Goddess of Dawn led a parade of twelve figures dancing around their God of Sun, Apollo. These figures, the Hours, would see this day as their last back in 1871, as swirling flames would soon transform the painting, the building, the entire district and surrounding neighborhoods into ashes. What tragedy was in store for my geographical ancestors!
My head peeked upward, and there she was. I didn’t have time to relish the moment, so I introduced myself before climbing the stairs of my awakening home.
Good morning, Aurora, Goddess of the Dawn. My name is Geralyn, Goddess of the Pre-dawn Walk. I hope we meet again!
(An old essay from 2011, maybe?)
“Are you from Elmwood Park?”
“No. I’m from Chicago.”
This was my youthful response to many years of the same residential question. Growing up on the last "O" blocks on the city limits, I never swayed from my obstinate declaration that I was, and always had been, a city girl. In all practical terms, those words were technically accurate, but there were many winters when I wondered if my city, too, had thought I was from Elmwood Park, having never seen a plow and witnessing my four brothers and father breaking backs and spirits on the mounds of powder and slush and frozen patches that paralyzed my neighbors during vicious months of blistering temperatures, dangerous ice, howling winds, and that never-ending drifting snow. The cars would spin and bounce down our street; near-miss collisions and fender bender parking were a daily occurrence. But we participated in the infamous city-living spectacle, which put the rubber stamp on our true address—we placed lawn chairs on the street, marking Dad’s spot for the family station wagon when he went to work.
The residential question paused briefly when the area codes changed. Elmwood Park became the 708 area, while we city folk maintained our 312 status. There was no denying where I was from. The line in the sand had been drawn. If I had a 312 phone number, well then, I was definitely from Chicago, and I took pride in that fact. I didn’t want to be a suburbanite. I didn’t want to be perceived as anything but a working class girl. That’s what I thought Chicago was because my parents grew up in the city with their working-class families. I heard glorious stories about “the old neighborhood” (not understanding, of course, that all the “old” places - homes, schools, hangouts, etc.- had been long gone, torn down or fully dilapidated beyond recognition of their memories). I wanted to live in their city forever. After all, Chicago was a nostalgic place and an exciting place, too. Sure I went to school in a suburb each day, and I went to church in a suburb each Sunday, but didn’t the real fun happen in the city? Field trips to the Field Museum and Adler Planetarium, the Museum of Science and Industry and the Shedd Aquarium—they were in Chicago. MY Chicago. Even when I attended college in a suburb, we always looked forward to Schubas or the Green Mill, the Wild Hare or the Empty Bottle (depending on our musical whims.) The city was alive all the time. It never slept. It kept rolling on and on without stops. I admired that energy, and every time I picked up the phone to dial a 708 friend, I was reminded of where I lived, in a city unlike their town or village. So when the area codes changed a second time, when the 312s got split, and we became a 773, we were still Chicago. Maybe not the historic city, not the downtown city or lakefront city or ethnic city or inner-city, but still “city.”
Then the big blow came. The dreaded zip code frenzy.
Our phone number started with 773, not 708. Our address was listed on an “O” street, not a numbered one. Our city was listed as “Chicago." We were NOT listed in the meager suburban directory, but in the mega book of the city directory. So why, why, did my fine Chicago abandon us? “Big Tony” was our alderman; we had massive block parties that sometimes got a bit out of hand; we walked to our local dollhouse-sized branch of the Chicago Public Library system; we biked to Hiawatha and Shabbona parks; we took the bus to Cubs games. Heck, Mom took the bus to her job as a deli worker every day, too. We were Chicagoans! Why did we get pushed on to the Elmwood Park zip code? Couldn’t they handle just a few more blocks of 606s? All of my city friends had a 606 beginning... 60634 or 60635. But I was being forced to concede to the dreaded suburban 60707. The boundaries were announced, and our little square of 16 blocks (eight streets with two blocks each), would have to take a big gulp, swallow our pride, give in to the woeful zip. That dreaded suburban zip.
My parents are still there in our humble home of city living. Mom still takes the bus when she needs to, and Dad still shovels out the street, but his car is parked there most of the time now, so no need for lawn chairs. During the warmer months, those chairs are on the front porch where they sit and look out at the new neighbors and new generation of children who head west toward our old suburban Catholic school. They’re still Chicagoans with a 773 area code, living on an “O” block, with a city address and an Elmwood Park zip.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from that zip code confusion, it’s this: no matter where I place my head at night; no matter where I travel or work or raise my kids; no matter my phone number or full address, whenever I’m asked where I’m from, I still say I’m from Chicago. I guess it’s just my kind of town.
Originally posted at http://www.chicagowrites.org/my-kind-of-town-contest-winners/