Francis and his wife Amy, spent the day preparing for their guests. They prepared the three separate tables for dinner, one for the adults, one for the children and one for all of the in betweens. It had been tradition since his first grandchild Matt was born, that they would celebrate Christmas a couple of days early at his house. It allowed for everyone to see each other while not monopolizing the holiday.
He knew that the family’s favorite food had been his homemade raviolis—he had worked as a prep cook in an Italian restaurant for the first year of college, and learned how to cook well—but it was such a huge undertaking to make enough for all of the twenty or so people he would have over. Typically they would make a roast beef, and baked ziti and many other smaller foods. He knew that it would be a great day, it always was.
Every time a new face would come through the door, he would greet them wrapped in his apron. He would grab their heads, and pull them in for a big kiss. He loved his family, and they loved him, and it had always been important to him to show them. He had five children and thirteen grand children, and much of his life seemed perfect.
He often acted as though his life was perfect. He was typically one of the most upbeat and optimistic people wherever he went. He would most often walk around with a smile on his face, and he talked to everyone as if they were family.
Francis had never known real depression like most. He had felt sadness, he had felt overwhelming pain, but not depression. He was mostly an optimist and had spent the majority of his life happy, but there were moments of heartbreak. There were overwhelming tragedies that even his optimism couldn’t overlook.
There had been the moment when his older brother James had fallen asleep at the wheel and died. Francis was twenty-six when James died, James would have turned twenty-eight a few weeks later. Francis had just had his second child, and his world had changed, and now it was changing again.
Francis was the fourth of five children. Patrick was the oldest, five years later Peg, followed another five years later by James, only two years later was Francis, and Anne bringing up the rear six years later. Francis had always looked up to his older siblings. He knew that Patrick was brilliant and responsible, and was great to go to for advice that his father couldn’t give based on the generation gap. Peg was also a very sharp mind, and one of the sweetest women alive. Anne was smart, but more than anything she was determined and unwavering.
However James was closer in age, and as a result closer emotionally. The two really grew up together more than their other siblings. Francis had often worked jobs with James, and the two had bonded in ways that would never be repeated with anyone else. In many ways he was his best friend.
When he was a young boy, Francis thought of his relationship with James as being like that of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The two would spend days together, and look out for each other. James was a bit bigger than Francis, both in his height and in his weight. James was nearly five foot nine inch, and stalky, whereas Francis had been a few inches shorter, but considerably thinner. The two looked like brothers as they would walk to and from school together.
As they grew older Francis and James attended the same college, Boston College. James had graduated with a degree in economics, Francis with his in engineering. James had started out as an accountant at a local CPA firm after graduation, and hadn’t gone that far up the ladder. He spent his days working, his nights, going to local dances trying to meet girls, and his weekends with his family.
Francis hadn’t been jealous of his brother’s bachelorhood, he did look up to how well James juggled his work, social calendar and the family. Francis had never been a bachelor, having got married almost immediately after college, to his high school sweetheart. Francis and James remained close until that night when James fell asleep, and never woke up.
Francis dealt with the death, the way one should, going through the five steps of grieving. The final step, acceptance seemed a hard pill for him to swallow. He knew consciously that his brother was dead, but he had a hard time not thinking about ‘what would James be doing if he were alive’ and often he dreamt of James.
He felt that when someone died at a much later point in life that it was natural. That if a ninety eight year old died, there would be longing, and missing of the deceased, but loved ones were less likely to wonder a year later how the life of the elderly would have continued. ‘James didn’t make it to twenty-eight, he hadn’t created a family, or a career. Who would he have become?’
When Francis started thinking about his brother, he would became frustrated. As soon as the first thought would come into his head, he would linger on him. It was like when he would hear a line from a catchy song and get it stuck in his head, except this was about questions, and second guesses. The problem as it seemed to Francis was that there were an unending list of these questions, and a complete void of answers.
The days progressed and Francis spent time at work, with his children, with his wife. Eventually they had three more kids, and the years kept rolling by. Francis would see his children play with their cousin’s, Patrick’s kids, and wonder how they would have been with James. What would James’ wife been like, his children?’ As the time passed the amount of time lingering shortened once the subject came up passed, but he still thought about James, and fairly often.
Years passed and Francis had grandchildren, and his grandchildren grew up. After the initial grieving process Francis really hadn’t talked about his thoughts on James. If someone else would bring it up he would contribute, but minimally. The only real exception, the only time he would talk about James at all, was when a child or a grandchild would go for their driver’s license. He would tell them ‘You have to be really careful. My brother died because he fell asleep while driving.’ Whenever he’d say it no one would ever ask him about his brother. He hated that, to him, James had been this incredible person, a magnificent brother, and most importantly his best friend, but to the children he was nothing more than a cautionary tale. He was no more real to them than the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’, or ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. Patrick was their uncle or great uncle, Peg and Anne were their aunts, James was a name.
One night, many years after the accident, Francis had his children and grandchildren over for Christmas dinner. The smaller kids were playing, while the older were talking to their aunts and uncles. Meghan, the second oldest grandchild was telling the story of how she had recently been hit by a car while walking. Francis heard her say how much it scared her, but she was laughing at her clumsiness.
Francis was upset, more frightened than angry, allowed his tears to overcome him. Fighting to keep his voice at an even octave, he told her “You need to be more careful. This family has lost too much in car accidents, and we can’t afford any more.” What composure he had been able to muster seemed to fade away as he continued, “My brother died in a car accident, and I still miss him. He’s still there in my dreams. I don’t want you kids to be only memories, only dreams. I expect more from you!” He didn’t mean it as a judgment, he meant it as endearment, as a warning, and he hoped that Meghan had heard it that way. He loved her, he loved them all, and just because he always seemed happy, just because he was sometimes silly with them, didn’t mean that wasn’t serious about them. They needed to know it. He needed to make them know.
Everyone in the room grew quiet, most specifically Meghan, and Francis knew that he had got his point across. No one looked upset, they all looked solemn to him.
Not because he made them feel bad about Meghan, but because they had made them feel sad for him. They hadn’t seen the hurt he carried. They hadn’t been alive, or old enough to realize the pain he had been through, and how even though there was some level of acceptance, there was never a full recovery. He was a slightly fractured man, and he had finally shown them that crack with in himself.
Looking around at the little faces looking back at him, he dried his eyes and smiled weakly. He grabbed Meghan and hugged her close to him. He whispered in her ear “You’re a good kid. I love you.” He smiled as she hugged him back even tighter and whispered back “I love you too Grandpa.”