Since moving to San Antonio, Texas, I have become so much more aware of family – I don’t come from a very large family, although there are a ton of cousins on both sides of my family, but none of us are particularly close. On my Dad’s side of things, I know very few of my relatives, and I could probably walk right past the majority of them on the street and never realize who they are, or that we share family ties. So many of the people that I’ve met here in Texas come from pretty big families, and they are all SO close: you attend one of the family birthday parties and it has to happen at a community hall-type of place because there are at least 75 relatives there (seriously)…it’s a lot for me to wrap my pea-sized brain around. It seems to me like I have built my life around the relationships that I have chosen – the family I’ve made for myself with my friends, rather than the one I was born in to. I’m very different from a lot of my relatives, I think, and our life experiences and priorities have always been very different, making the finding of common ground to be somewhat difficult. However, there is one branch of the family that I can certainly relate to – here is part of their story.
My Gram was every sort of fantastic, and she and all of her siblings who grew up in the middle of nowhere on the prairies in Canada had all been dipped in awesome sauce – they were such great people. She had one brother – my beloved Uncle Harry – who was the dictionary definition of a ‘character’…and he was one of my very favorite people ever. He had a rather troubled existence, with alcohol problems and complicated relationships, but at his core, he was a wonderful man. (Fun Fact: when I was in university and sick as a dog with pneumonia, he made me soup and Jello and delivered these items every day for a week until I was feeling better - good guy, or what?) Uncle Harry had quite a few kids, and they all seemed to have troubles in their lives, too…but they were such good people in their hearts, where it counted. I knew a couple of his kids pretty well, and also knew his grandchildren, although I sadly didn’t see enough of them – and I’m not entirely sure why that was, as we all lived in the same general area, but…I guess people were just busy with their own lives and didn’t have time to build bridges with long-lost cousins. One of my Uncle Harry’s daughters was married to a well-known journalist who wrote for the Winnipeg Free Press – I greatly admired his writing, but understood that he, too, like so many of us, struggled tremendously with his demons. Just over a year ago, that particular daughter of Uncle Harry’s passed away, and a few months later, her husband the journalist died, too. At the time, I read about these things in the Winnipeg Free Press online, and felt that although these people were my family, I was reading about strangers, since it had been so long since we all had seen each other. There was an update on this family in the paper again over the weekend, and I found the piece incredibly moving…I’m pretty sure that you will, too:
It takes most of us a lifetime to learn how to live our lives.
It’s only taken Katie Oleson the last three of her 23 years to learn the most important of life’s lessons. Katie is the younger daughter of Free Press colleague Tom Oleson, who died a year ago Friday, having waited all 66 years of his own life to teach the lesson to Katie and his other daughter, Jen.
But it would take more than Tom’s death to impart it because before their dad died, so did their mother Laurie and their brother Kris. All three within little more than two years.
So how is Katie doing?
Well, how she’s coping, in large part, is why she reached out to me in an email last March, a couple of days after the first anniversary of her mother’s death. She wants to go into journalism. But there was more to the email than that.
“I am sitting in the Tucson International Airport having been down here for two weeks at a horse show,” Katie wrote.
She went on to explain she hadn’t been able to compete because a month earlier, while show jumping with her horse in Brandon, she was thrown head-first into the fencing. At that point, she was already coping with the partial paralysis of her face, the result of Bell’s palsy that struck after her brother accidentally fell to his death from a third-floor balcony. Her own fall — the result of not cinching her saddle tight enough — left her with two skull fractures and short-term memory loss that, like the effects of the Bell’s palsy, persist to this day. The paralysis and memory loss is expected to get better. Understandably, it’s her long-term memory that haunts her most.
As she wrote in her email from the Tucson airport: “I thought coming down here would be a good opportunity to sort out my life, which feels like its been a whirlwind the last year.”
Later, we would meet over breakfast and talk again more recently on the phone, and Katie would open up about her family in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I knew there were problems at home, primarily because Tom was a heavy drinker and Laurie tried to manage it as frustrated wives do. All I had to do to get that was look at the yellowed cartoon strip that’s still pinned above the empty desk of his Free Press cubicle wall.
“Honey, I’m home,” the bedraggled man in the frame says — as he punches a time clock.
But it wasn’t as if Laurie hadn’t known what Tom was like from the start, as Katie pointed out. They met when Laurie was bartending at the Winnipeg Press Club. That was the beginning, but it’s the end Katie really wanted to talk about.
Her mum had bladder cancer, although it was a stroke that sent Laurie to the hospital on Feb. 2, 2012, a year to the day before Katie’s loose saddle sent her flying from her horse. It was in the final weeks of Laurie’s life when the parents began to teach their children about what’s important in life. Starting with their mother.
“It was on a day when her speech was terrible,” Katie recalled. “She said, ‘I’m so proud of you and I love you so much.’ And I said, ‘I can’t wait for you to come home. I need you forever.’ “
Of course, Laurie knew she wasn’t coming home. “When I stop fighting,” she told Katie, “you guys need to let me go. I need you to be the strong one.”
Then she implored Katie to get to know her father and not to be angry with him because of his drinking.
“She said, ‘All he’s done is love you the way he knows how.’ “
Sometimes,” her mum added, “I think your dad would hang on to me forever.”
Katie did get close to her dad, something she’s grateful for. But her mother was right about her dad needing to hang on to her mum forever. Two months after she died, he followed.
By that time, Tom had told his daughters he couldn’t continue without Laurie and his wanting to die wasn’t because he didn’t love them.
“He said, ‘I don’t know how to be without her. She kept me alive for 35 years.’ “
It was a few months before that, after Laurie’s stroke, that they both began to let go. Katie recalled the night she and Jen were told to go home and leave the two of them alone at the hospital. Instead, they decided to eavesdrop by the door.
“I wanted to listen,” Katie said, “to make sure my mum was being nice.”
To their surprise, what their daughters overheard was two people being nice to each other. Two people who had nothing more to lose by being honest, humble and vulnerable.
“My mum just apologized. She said, ‘I’m sorry I was a nag. I never meant to treat you poorly. But it’s the only way I knew to keep you alive. It’s the only way I knew how to love you.’ “
Laurie was slurring her words. Tom was holding her hand. “And he said, ‘I know that’s all you tried to do.’ Then he apologized and said, ‘I’m sorry that I wasn’t the husband that you deserved.’ “
I asked Katie what it was like to listen to that.
“It was sad, but it was really, really sweet. It was like they were saying goodbye. It was like their relationship had come full circle and anything that had happened in the past, and the mistakes that either of them made — nothing mattered but them in that moment.”
Katie summed it up in these words: “It’s a beautiful story.” That’s how Katie sees it now.
“I’m so lucky to have had them as parents and to watch their relationship change over the years. I feel it gives me a lot more perspective on my own relationship. You always think you have tomorrow to apologize or to make something right. And I’ve learned so quickly that you don’t.”
In the end, what her parents really taught her is that life is about relationships, and the most important is the one with yourself and those you love.
Speaking of those you love, Katie and longtime boyfriend Ben Hodges are to be wed on Aug. 17. Of course, life is too complex, too unpredictable for happily ever after. But with all she’s been through and all she’s learned, who knows?
May you live happily ever after, Katie. You deserve it.
Doesn’t that just break your heart? I know…me, too. Those children – my second cousins – deserve so much peace and happiness in their lives that it’s not even funny, and I so hope that they are on their way to finding it, whatever happiness looks like for them. It’s funny, you know…everyone has their story, and there are days when it seems that we all have had about as much shit as we can possibly take without losing it completely – and then you hear the crosses that other people have to bear…and, suddenly, your problems don’t seem nearly so bad. Regins Brett said that ‘If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back’…and I agree, don’t you?
PS: One thing is for certain – Katie (and her sister) will be absolutely fine, as they come from a long line of hearty Icelandic women, and we are a resilient bunch.