One night I was breezing through emails and I answered an unexpected call. It was not the one – of a possible two – that I had been waiting for during several days now.
“Hi grandpa…It’s me, Caitlin,” said the voice of a young girl.
I was, for a very long moment, petrified: the order of the universe was awry in a way we humans are never prepared for. My granddaughter Caitlin had not been born yet.
It was one of those periods in life when things are changing and you are resigning yourself to change. My mother had died the year before, and now my stepfather Charlie, had congestive heart failure. He was now being watched closely in a hospital ward. Charlie was still funny in his earnest, non-snarky way, and all the nurses loved him. He also said some wise things I’ll always try to remember. I visited from Seattle and my brother and sister, who lived there in Minneapolis, and their grown children were visiting with him, one or another during most hours of the day. One of the kids naively asked if he felt bad about being here. “No,” he said, “It’s just another stage of life, I guess. It’s kind of like my plane is landing.” There are times – and certain people — when you realize what a treasure you have had with that person and that it will be gone soon, and that you should try to horde every possible minute left to you. It is a form of pure greed, I think. Wouldn’t it be great if all of us could know at least that legacy before we die, that our last moments were so treasured?
Sometimes things do fall in that orderly, timely progression, even the tandem deaths of two married people. A friend of mine was doing some traveling in China, and agreed to escort the daughter on a task of touching importance. Her parents – teachers – had been jailed as revolutionaries 40 years before, and their young marriage, and young family, were wrenched apart when they were sent to prison. They never saw each other during the 40 years in prison, and when they were very old and sickly the State released them . The prison was in the North and the extended family was in the South, and the family decided to send the daughter to bring them back by train. When the couple, now over 60, were reunited again at the prison gates after all this time, they were like kids in puppy love. It would take several days on the train, and stopping at hotels along the way. The husband was very sick, and though in loving arms at last, he died during the night. His wife was beset with shock and grief after anticipating being with her husband again for so many years. One can only imagine.
It took the better part of a day for my friend and the daughter to arrange for a coffin to escort them on the train back to the family. During that time my friend who spoke no Chinese, and the daughter, who spoke no English, communicated only through Google Translate on their laptops. Finally on the rails again, they stopped again a second night. During that night the grieving mother died of pneumonia, which she had carried with her from the prison. The daughter was almost inconsolable, but my friend did a supremely thoughtful job through Google Translate. Together they dutifully arrange for the second travelling coffin to accompany the first. They travelled two more days on the train, with the coffins, to the families city in the South of China. During that time they communicated intensely through Google Translate, and fell in love. Each had lost a spouse within the last two years and, soley through Google Translate, they decided to get married. They sent that message ahead. That is why the week they arrived with the two coffins, the family was preparing not only for two funerals but a gigantic wedding ceremony as well. Death begetting new life. It happens. It did happen.
Back to my story: So a year after my mother died at 91, my stepfather Charlie died at 92. I was waiting for the call to get a plane to Minneapolis when Caitlin called.
Because my wife is Irish, at the time still an Irish citizen, the kids had Irish passports. And my daughter was pregnant at exactly that time I was waiting for the call. Although they did not look at the sex, one of the leading names my daughter Deirdre and her husband had been considering for a female child was Caitlin. So the time for delivery was actually within the next few weeks, so that was a second call I had been expecting.
What I did not expect — and what caused me this limp, awestruck, feeling — was the tiny voice on the other end that said, “Hi grandpa…It’s me Caitlin.”
“Who is this?” I said, trying to be challenging but also accessible. Who, indeed, was this?
“Grandpa. I’m your granddaughter…Caitlin.”
Who would even know enough to make such a strange joke? I stuttered, and I rarely stutter. “Who are you calling for?”
“I’m calling YOU…Grandpa John.”
Such a relief. Such a load of bizarre confusion lifted in that second. It was after all, a coincidence, one of those supreme coincidences that sometimes results in the perfect storm at sea, or the invention which appears years before its useful time. It was a mistake. It was a WRONG NUMBER! Glory be to God after all. A wrong number: The universe was back in place again, and causes had effects and there was reason to believe that eventually we could figure everything out.
Later that week, I did get the call that my granddaughter was born. Her name…her NAME! Was it Caitlin? No, they said, we decide to call her Clodagh, after the Irish river. All the ancient Celts named their first born females after rivers. Of course…Clodagh was the good choice. My daughter then arranged for Clodagh in her hospital in Kalamazoo to meet Charlie in his hospital in Minneapolis. He seemed ever so pleased. Technology can elevate our human condition so often.
A month later I spoke at Charlie’s church funeral, since he always said I was the talkative one. I tried to relate some funny things he said, but I was ineffectual. It was the kind of humor which does not travel, I guess, you just have to be there. I remembered something about how he told me as a little boy I was born with two heads and one had the brains and the other was empty and just when they were going to cut off the empty one, I rolled over. It was the kind of joke where you had to be there, and probably to be a wide-eyed little boy.
As I was groping through ideas to say anything, anything cogent to the gathered assemblage, it dawned on me that Charlie was leaving just as Clodagh was coming, and there was something in the universe that made that an orderly progression, too.