I attended a wake for my cousin’s husband a few months ago. It was one of those times when we tell ourselves that “only the good die young” to help us understand why he was gone. My cousin Mary Pat is salt of the Earth, and Joe, her husband, was, too. Mary Pat’s family, the Liskewicz’s not unlike the Kennedy’s, have had their share of tragedies. My cousin George Liskewicz died young in 2005. I remember the year because Bridget was a baby, and Father Gavin Quinn pointed her out as the new life present at the funeral. He said God required a baby at every funeral so we can be reminded that when one soul transcends this world another one is born. The wake and its partner the funeral are sobering occasions. Joe’s was no different. Like every Irish wake, there were familial reunions bathed in joy, sorrow, and laughter.
I spent some time with Debbie, and as we talked my mom and my sister, Geeg, wove in and out of our conversation. Debbie asked my mom why she didn’t like her when she started to date Uncle Jerry, my mom’s husband, and my father. My mom was aghast at the thought. “I loved all of you girls,” my mom said and waved off Debbie’s remarks as nonsense. The two of them started running through birth dates and names, each trying to validate their version of my parent’s courtship.
At some point that evening, Debbie shared a topic my mom had teed up for me earlier in the week, it was about my cousin Corey, who was feared to have early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. As they spoke, I looked over at him. He was seated in the back of the funeral parlor, nearby my Dad, my Aunt Cathy, and my Uncle Steve. He didn’t look different. Didn’t look like he was losing his mind’s memories. He looked like Corey, a someone who was special to me for a couple of reasons.
First, Corey is the same age as my brothers Kevin and Brian. Corey’s his birth like my brothers’ and all births, was a blessing, but their common denominator is that their lives happened against some odds. Quickly, Kevin and Brian were born in 1975, six weeks premature. My parents had no idea my mom was having twins, something unfathomable today, and when they were born their chances for survival were slim. Corey is the son of my Aunt Patsy, my Dad’s younger sister. Patsy found out that she had breast cancer when she was pregnant with Corey. The doctors recommended that she terminate the pregnancy and be treated for cancer. She refused. Corey was born. Patsy was treated for cancer. Because of the nine months that she waited to be treated, it was bad. Really bad. And, against the odds, she survived. Corey’s arrival into this world has always been special to me. I don’t know who handed this story down to me, but I will never forget his mother.
Second, Corey is special to me is because his mother Patsy and he lived with us at one time. I knew my Aunt was having a tough go at the time, but I didn’t know why. One night I happened upon Patsy as she ironed her clothes in our basement. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to her. I was about 10 and looked for some clothes in the laundry baskets that overflowed with clean clothes that awaited to be walked up two flight of stairs to be put away. Then I saw her. I was shocked by what I saw. My aunt did not have a top on, and her bosom did not resemble my mom’s. It lacked a breast. It was like nothing I ever saw before. A bra with a filled cup sat nearby. I wanted to run. Patsy would not have it. She talked to me. She taught me how to use starch. I don’t know if she told me the story about her breast cancer then, but I do know whatever she said instilled my love for her. Her story was so powerful, that because of her, years later I was able to raise more than a $1 million dollars for the Breast Reconstruction Awareness campaign.
It’s understandable that when I think of Corey, I think of his mom, and when I think of his mom, I think of love. Patsy’s birth connected my family. In January of 1942, my Grandma Craven and Grandma Burns shared a hospital room at St. Bernard’s Hospital on Chicago’s’ South Side. Grandma Craven gave birth to her daughter Patsy, and four days later Grandma Burns gave birth to Marie. It would be 27 years before they would meet again, and through the marriage of Marie to Patsy’s older brother Jerry, the Craven and Burns families were officially joined.
Who knew that two families would legacies would be intertwined from that moment on? My grandmothers’ deaths are the most significant in my life. They died more than two decades apart, Grandma Burns with her memories intact and Grandma Craven’s absent. We visited my Grandma Craven a week before she died. She was in the front bedroom at my Aunt Mary’s, Debbie’s mom’s house, where my cousins took care of her. By that time Grandma Craven’s mind had been robbed by Alzheimer’s disease, and her body had nearly returned to her fetal position. The once strong, confident matriarch was no longer such. When I said my prayers that night I asked God to take her and give her peace. She died a week later.
Reflecting on all of this, I’m struck by the power of our memories. Like my mom and Debbie’s exchange about her courtship with my father, sometimes our memories are the same, most times a little different, and all times we find joy and a sense of purpose in our ability to recall lifetime events. I think it’s important that this story started at a wake. It’s there when we memorialize the dead. We unite to celebrate life and death, and through that gathering, we make new memories, like this story, which I could not write without Mary Pat, Debbie, and Joe’s death. Writing this blog I recognize that my love to tell a story solely relies on my ability to recall. I am humbled. The volume and details of memories that often flood my mind, will soon become absent in his life. Corey has been diagnosed with early, really early onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
It is no coincidence that Marie and Patsy, whose lives started days apart and whose mothers shared that hospital room in 1942, brought life into this world in 1975, against the odds. Marie and Patsy’s legacies continued with the births Corey, Kevin, and Brian. In those men, you will find, kindness, compassion, and love characteristic of their mothers. Characteristics passed on to their mothers, from their mothers.
My cousin Corey Ryan is 43 years old today. He’s been employed by Arbon Steel for 20+ years. The diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease leaves him and his coworkers vulnerable to injury. This risk makes him unable to work. His inability to remember means he can no longer provide for his family. His inability to remember means he needs help.
Happy is not the word to describe how I feel about this happening to a young man, who turned his life around years ago, got clean and sober, loves his wife Marie, their kids, his God, his community, and loved his departed mother, my Aunt Patsy. However, I am happy, that in Patsy’s spirit, a woman who spat at cancer when it meant she couldn’t bring her child into the world, my cousins and his wife Marie have come together to ask for help.
Corey and Marie will not make it on their own. Eventually, the disability will kick in, but until then, we all know what that interim looks like. It’s a bleak period when between employment ending and social security starting there will not be enough money to pay the mortgage and health insurance will not magically appear. Life doesn’t work like that. Sometimes there are hiccups, and this one is a big one.
My family is hosting Caring for Corey a benefit to support my cousin’s family during the interim. It’s Sunday, April 15 from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. at 18520 Spring Creek Dr, in Tinley Park. Like many in my family, I’ll be there. Because it’s family’s do. We’ll make memories that Corey will never remember, but that’s ok because his wife Marie will know, and their children, too, that their father, like his mother Patsy and each of them, is loved.
Note: Learn more about early onset of Alzheimer’s disease here. You can help by making a donation at the Caring for Corey, go fund me page. And you can learn more about the benefit, and even donate raffle baskets, etc. by visiting the Facebook event page.