Sunday, March 7, 2010

bye, john

My brother-in-law, John Peterson, passed away last Sunday. I traveled north to attend his funeral and to be with my sister. I first flew to Allentown, Pennsylvania to my father and stepmother's home. Then the three of us drove over to Newark to pick up Ursula, John's cousin who came all the way from Scotland to attend the service. We arrived at Lenore's apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey about three hours before the beginning of the visitation at the church. There we found the usual gathering of brilliant, unusual people that make up Lenore's family circle of friends.

After Lenore graduated from Michigan State University in the 80's, she relocated to Hoboken, New Jersey along with most of her friends from MSU. John attended Yale, but came to know the group, collectively known as The Hobbits, by way of a friend with whom he worked. For almost 30 years this group has gathered and gnoshed and debated the issues of the day. They have sung and played games and shared interesting trivia and argued over obscure ideas and events. They have loved each other and fought with each other and supported each other. And in this, my sister's saddest hours, they have gathered round and embraced her and loved her and worried over her. They are a blessing to her and to us, her birth family.

John grew up in London, Ontario in Canada. He was a brilliant man and knew something about everything, it seemed to me. No matter where we were or what we were doing, John would comment on something that was relevant to where we were or the topic we were discussing. He just knew.

My relationship with my brother-in-law wasn't all rosy. He was used to being in charge and so was I, so we bumped heads when we were together. I experienced resentment when he got his way and he clearly did not like it when I had my way. I spent most of my life in the South where men cater to women, carrying their bags and opening doors. John was a very nice man, but he was not interested in catering to me!!! Intellectually, I recognized this as being perfectly fine. Emotionally, I experienced it as being abandoned and uncared for, which made no sense, but was still part of the dynamic.

John and I still managed to have some fun moments. One early morning in Montreat, North Carolina, we both woke up early and took off in the rental car for a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway while Lenore slept. The views from that road were just gorgeous that morning. John stopped in a rest area because he knew of a little hiking trail. I don't hike, but got out of the car and followed him up the trail. I didn't make it far before I was heaving for oxygen! John patiently waited each time I had to stop, finally going on alone to the summit, with my blessing! This was followed by a descent, in the rental car, down a twisty, gravel service road, which scared the daylights out of me. Part way down, we came to a waterfall. We got out and I took a picture of it with my brand new digital camera. I accidentally discovered that I could take a short video of the waterfall and did. I watched it just last night, enjoying the beautiful images and listening to John's voice in the background. It made me remember that day so clearly.

Just after John got sick, I called to talk with Lenore. A conversation with her was never just the two of us, unless she was home alone. Because of her hearing impairment, my side of the conversation was loud enough that John could always hear everything that I said. So he would participate in the conversation. I could never hear what he said, so Lenore would have to repeat it. I remember asking him if he had started his Bucket List. He laughed and thanked me for not saying something sympathetic or pitying. After that, I called more frequently and our conversations included the latest news, as well as laughter over something silly that I would ask or say. I called once when Lenore was bathing John. I said I would call back but John said no, he wanted me to stay on the phone to cheer him. So I sang him the Rubber Ducky Song, which I happen to have memorized. ("Rubber Ducky, joy of joys, when I squeeze you, you make noise ...") This became somewhat of a tradition. When they traveled to Montreal, they called me to ask me to sing it in French. Undaunted, I translated the entire song using an online translator, and sang the song in French. ("Canard plastique, joie de joies ...") I also gave them many rubber duckies, some of which joined John in the tub each time he bathed.

My own brother is almost ten years older than me. He is a bit of a recluse, so I rarely interact with him. My other brother-in-law and I are not close. John was a brother to me, with equal parts affection and annoyance, as any brother/sister relationship should be! He was a perfect match for my sister. I can't imagine how devastated she must feel. But she is moving through each day, one step at a time. I am so proud of how she has stepped up to meet the demands of this situation. She has proven that she is a strong, brave woman. I think she has even surprised herself.

I will miss my brother, John. I will miss his interesting trivia, his voice in the background of my conversations with my sister and I will miss his long, wild ponytail, the symbol of his individuality. I will miss his singing and his identification of birds on the wing. I will miss his leaving the room when he has had enough of a group. I will miss his brotherly words, so gently and cautiously spoken. I will miss him standing by my sister's side.

"I wish life was not so short," he thought, "Languages take such a time, and so do all the things one wants to know about."
--- J.R.R.Tolkien, The Lost Road


jonesnori said...

Thank you, sweet sister. I cried a little reading that. It was lovely and so true to him. I love to hear people's stories, because I learn some more about him, too.

I do want to correct one little thing - I didn't bathe John, just kept him company while he bathed. He liked to soak his sore bones each night, and I would spend some time with him, and we would say/sing compline together (a bedtime prayer service). It was a sweet way to connect, and sometimes we needed it to "put us right with each other" as John said, if we'd argued or the tensions of his illness or the day had gotten to be too much. One of our rituals.

Jessica Burdett said...

Catherine - This is such a beautiful writing of your relaionship with him. I am sitting here in my chair crying. I remember the day you came into my office and told me you had sang him the rubber duckie song the night before. He seemed like such a precious individual. What a treasure on Earth. I am keeping you and Lenore in my prayers. I love you.


onceuponasunflower said...

I am so sorry for your loss.

OyaSophia said...

Thank you, Jessica - I had forgotten that I shared that with you. But now I do remember it!

OyaSophia said...

Thank you, Sunflower!

Mama Zen said...

I'm sorry for your loss. It sounds like the two of you had a wonderful relationship.

Slamdunk said...

I am sorry for your family's loss.

The Crafty Blogger said...

I am never an emotional person; however, your story touched my heart.

Rob Taylor said...

This was a magnificent tribute to a person you obviously loved and respected greatly. He sounds like the genuine article. Well done!