So, the double-cousin thing: Two brothers marry two sisters and the offspring are doubly tied. I only mention it because it led to an extraordinarily tight clot of family, a kind of solid knot in the trunk of the family tree. And over the last decade or so, as his cousins one by one loosed their grip on the planet, my father felt more and more beleaguered, as if it increasingly fell to him to keep alive that sense of family his parents had given him.
Here’s an anecdote: My father was an old-fashioned small-town lawyer whose practice consisted, so far as I could tell, of real estate and probate. He was there for you when you moved to town and there for you when you left. At any rate, one day he comes back from lunch to find one of those pink “while you were out” slips on his desk with the somewhat cryptic message “Stan Thetherd called. Pls. call back.” The girls, as they were forever known, were all gone to lunch so, without anyone or anything to tell him more, he went ahead and dialed the number on the pad.
A man at the other end picked up after the first ring. My father identified himself and the voice at the other end—Stan Thetherd, presumably—thanked him for calling back so quickly and then launched into his story.
“Well, my father died this morning,” Mr. Thetherd said.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” my father said.
“Well, you know, he's been so sick,” Mr. Thetherd said and they talked a little about that before getting on to the business of the call, namely the disposition of the late Mr. Thetherd Sr.’s estate. As they talked, my father was surprised to discover that he had, apparently, drawn up a will for Mr. Thetherd Sr. some years past. The name did not ring a bell. It didn’t even approach the belfry, really, but dad didn’t let on. He just kept talking in the hope that the pieces would fall together. And, in fact, bit by bit, the details of Mr. Thetherd’s life that were emerging—his wife’s name, his children, a reference to family up north—began to remind my father of someone close to home.
He picked up the little pink slip. Stan Thetherd. Stan the Third. Where Stan the Second was cousin Stan who had lived half a block away for fifty years and was dying of—was now dead from—cancer.
“Who calls up and announces himself as ‘Stan the third’?” my father wondered to me as he told me this story. “And then who writes it down as Stan Thetherd?”
It seemed to me that he knew the answer to both these questions. The first is a guy pretty much caught up, for the moment anyway, with his place in the family, putting a call in to someone he can count on for recognition and understanding. The second is a less-than-razor-sharp secretary on her way to lunch.
The point of this anecdote? Maybe it’s just the way that a person is born into this world, grows up, goes to school, falls in love, builds a family, starts a home, grows sick, dies and ends up at the butt end of a mildly amusing anecdote that points to the importance of good office help. Of course my dad had a different take on it.
“Well, shit,” he said. “I guess I’m next.”
And he was right about this, as he was about most things.
Since this has had little or nothing to do with ER so far, let me just throw in a brief description of a dream I had last night. I was at Peter Benton’s wedding—I believe he was marrying Cleo, but it hardly mattered; it was Peter’s ceremony and no one else’s. We were outdoors, about fifteen or twenty of us, gathered beneath the leafless branches of an enormous oak tree. The sun was trying to come out but there was still a mist in the air and some in the group had yet to furl their umbrellas.
We were all gathered around Peter, who looked, let’s face it, great—regal and soulful—in a dark suit, dark shirt and a tie of solid ochre hue that seemed almost to glow. Suddenly he spread his arms and lowered his gaze to the ground and launched into a song:
“I believe the children are our future, treat them well and let them lead the way. . .”
His voice was rich and sonorous but almost immediately fell away to a whisper as though he were making room for us all to join in. But a closer look showed that he had begun crying, uncontrollably—his face had collapsed, his lips trembled and shivered. The rest of us tried to pick up the song, to carry him as we knew he would surely carry us were we in need, but as I looked at the company, one by one—my point of view had become disconnected from the earth and floated through the group like a crane shot—one by one, I saw us all succumb to tears: one old mother crying red-eyed behind her veil; a man with his head bowed over a tight collar and a red tie, openly weeping, tears flowing over his fleshy cheeks. Then everyone was crying, the song dropped away to nothing and the camera continued up in a slow spiral, rising into the sky but looking back to earth where we stood in close silence, in the sunlit mist, gathered around a child’s new grave. Cue the music. Run the credits.