The Geometry test, a broken toe, and an obituary

Death is certain.

I didn’t realize that people actually planned for it, from envisioning the tree you’re going to rest under in the afterlife, to the words chiseled into your headstone. That changed when I was in high school.

open house chicago 2017,  Karen Craven
Breakfast nook, looking East to Lake Michigan, photo by Karen Craven

An early reminder of planning for death came a few months ago, when my brother, Kevin, my sister-in-law, Jami, and my niece, Taylor, and I took my father to dinner. We met at Krapil’s in Chicago Ridge. We left in stitches. At some point, my father and brother started to poke fun at my memory keeping skills. It’s fair to say that I have been deemed the recorder of the Craven family history, from the memories of my brother Brian throwing up all over the Coca-Cola sleeping bag when we drove through the mountains in Pennsylvania on our way to Gettysburg (I had to clean it up), to the medical tape that graced the screen door in the shape of a star placed there just hours after Kenny Harvey ran from front room, through the hall, family room, and right through the brand new screen to jump into the pool, or how my sisters and I awoke one morning in April 1975 to my Grandpa Burns in his t-shirt and boxers sleeping on the couch one morning who was there because my mom’s water broke overnight (we would learn from our father late that night that she had two brothers and what it meant to pray). These are the details that make up a life that is certain to one day end.

On this particular evening, we dove into death. My niece laughed hysterically as my brother’s eyes rolled and our father waved me off, as I recalled the night my parents purchased their burial plots.

“I was sitting in Dad’s chair, the Lazy Boy, in the family room. I was on the phone with Ann Browne, and we were talking about our Geometry test in Mr. Rogers class. Mom and Dad were in the kitchen, facing their mortality and choosing graves, meeting with someone from Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, when I heard the toilet flush, after which Jennine quickly exited. The sound of the sink was noticeably absent.

“Scumbag,” I yelled at her. “Sorry about that Ann,” apologizing for the interruption. No sooner did the word sorry roll off my tongue when Jennine stood there before me. One moment the pinky toe on my right foot was parallel to its siblings, and the next moment it was dangling, barely tethered to my foot.

“You broke my toe!” I screamed. Then I paused in pain and shock to politely tell Ann I would call her back, and I might not be in school tomorrow. My parents were up in arms that they were planning for death and two of their children were killing each other. 

Taylor was near tears. Kevin and my Dad laughed and continued to wave me off, both shaking their heads in disbelief that I could remember all of the details from that night. I told Taylor about the trip to the emergency room, the x-ray technician’s disbelief that my toe was really broken, only to later describe it as a Rocky Mountain fracture, and the wooden shoe cast that allowed me to walk in the middle of the halls at Maria High School like a badass and also take the elevator between classes. My Dad talked over me to Taylor, and nodded in agreement, that yes my story was true, he and Nana were in the kitchen, choosing which tree to be buried under at Holy Sepulchre, when Jennine and me were being Jennine and me, sisters who were always at each other’s throats.

These are the stories that make us who we are. And they are not just important to the familial relationships, they are remarkably useful with professional relationships. For example, when I really need to convey my family’s modest/ humble upbringing I tell the story of my mom becoming a nun. Here were her career choices in 1959:

  • Get married
  • Attend nursing school, teacher’s college, or secretarial school
  • Convent

Depending on the audience, I may proceed to tell people how my mom went on and accomplished three, just a little out-of-order. And how as a novice with the Institute of Blessed Virgin Mary, that she lived in Wheaton, IL, Toronto, and Riverside, CA. During that time, Sr. Claire Marie received her bachelor’s degree at Illinois Benedictine College and began teaching elementary school. After eight years and before taking her final vows, she wrote to the Pope and asked for permission to leave the order to pursue her true calling: Becoming a wife, a mother, and a lay person in the Catholic faith. Later that year, while out at a bar at 75th and Damen with her friend Pat Carroll, another former nun, who introduced my Mom to my Dad.

Some 28 years later, I was working as the Obituary Editor at the Chicago Tribune when Pat Carroll died. That morning I was not faced with my own mortality, but my own existence. What if my mom never became a nun and never met Pat? Well, like death, life is certain, too. I wouldn’t have been born, let alone working at the Tribune. I was in tears later that day when I spoke with Pat’s brother. I felt like I was given a gift that day, realizing how we are all connected. It was an honor to write Pat’s obituary.

As long as I’m above ground, I’ll keep remembering tales from the Craven family, my parents first apartment at 59th and Mozart where I was conceived, to my first home at 80th and Francisco where I became one of 65 children to be raised on the best block ever, and now to my parent’s home at 83rd and Kenneth where our family gatherings are larger and traverse the backyard, basement, and kitchen table. In this automated world of ads, churn, and fake news, it feels good to communicate these authentic stories of life. I am nowhere more alive than when I’m surrounded by the people who will remember me when I am gone: My beloved family.

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