|The boys, 6 and 8, work on a clue. Saturday, Dec. 6, 2003|
I heard from a reader on Sunday with an unusual request.
"I hope I'm not bugging you," she wrote. "My 86 year old Dad passed away this week and I'm writing his eulogy. Years ago, you wrote a column about walking home and the warm glow coming from the windows of home. Maybe you talked about your childhood home. My Dad read your column regularly and he was telling me about your column that day and as he spoke of it, he choked up. He never cried, and your column meant a lot to him. I was hoping to reference it in the eulogy, but, I cannot find it. I have no idea when you wrote it. It could be 10 years ago, could be 5. Do you have any recollection? I like to think that what you wrote in your column was his conception of an afterlife, if there is one. Any help you can provide, I am most grateful."
I vaguely remembered that it involved a cancelled flight, and that was enough to let me, eventually, dig up the following. The neat thing about this column is that I have a family photo that illustrates it. I could never photograph the boys playing the Clue Game, because I was always gone when they played it. But I wasn't gone this one time, due to the cancelled flight, so could get a single shot of them working on the opening clue.
My mother calls. This is last Friday, a week ago today. There's going to be five feet of snow in Boston, she says. Mmm, I say, mildly concerned, even though I am set to fly to Boston on Saturday to spend a few days at the John F. Kennedy Library and then on to New York.
Hanging up, I apply the formula designed to transfer my mother's concerns into quotidian reality. Now my mom is great (Hi, Mom! Don't be mad; it's just humor) but sometimes, when a lone sentry of fact enters her centrifuge of love and anxiety, it emerges as a battalion.
I log onto the National Weather Service Web site, expecting to find, perhaps, light flurries. To my vast surprise, a major storm is coming to Boston. Not five feet, but two, which is close enough. Score one for mom.
Still, I go home and pack and try to gather the research materials that an organized person would have been assembling for weeks. On top of it, I have the Clue Game to concoct. I have never written about the Clue Game, because it goes against the image I cultivate as a bitter and cynical man living on bile and bourbon. But whenever I go out of town, I leave behind a scavenger hunt of envelopes containing clues and prizes to occupy my boys until I return. They love it, and I'd explain how it works in detail—each clue is a puzzle or riddle leading to the location of the next—except I'm certain nobody else in the world would bother doing it. Even I forgot, until Friday morning, when my wife mentioned the youngest had asked about the Clue Game, and I leapt into action.
So I'm packing, I'm writing rebuses and coded messages in purple ink and hiding envelopes underneath carpets. Meanwhile, the weather in Boston—monitored through the miracle of the Web—gets worse and worse. I go to bed anxious, hopeful and resigned.
Now it's Saturday, 4:30 a.m. With the distant storm in full cry, I'm just steeling myself to a day at the airport, slouched uncomfortably in a plastic chair, when I make an uncharacteristically bold decision. Don't wait for them to cancel the flight. Don't go. Don't try. Call now before everybody else wakes up and shuts down the system. So I phone American—the automatic voice tells me I have to wait four minutes—and shift the flight to Sunday afternoon.
Happy to have Dad underfoot
And here's the surprising part, the reason I'm boring you with all these travel arrangements. The rest of the day goes wonderfully. The boys, who have their bored-with-dad moments, are delighted that I am so unexpectedly home. They insist on hugs and Monopoly. The wife—and how shall I say this?—who is, like me, like anyone in the third decade of a close relationship, sometimes not exactly aglow with the wonder of being in proximity to another person, seems truly happy to have me clumping around the house.
Or maybe they are the same and it's me who is different. I still want to go to Boston, with New York to follow. I want to paw through the stacks of the Kennedy Library and marvel at the soaring reading room in the New York Public Library. But I am so happy to be home. It's as if I've never been there before, as if I'm one of those dead people in the movies who comes back to wander among the living. The boys insist on starting the Clue Game, though I haven't left, and when I point out the envelope resting on the sideboard, marked "Begin," the youngest one seems about to vibrate himself apart with excitement. I've been making those damn games for four years, and this is the first time I ever got to see the boys do one—I'm usually gone—and it makes every minute spent composing riddles and burying pirate chests worth it.
Sunday is a repeat. We finish Monopoly, make french toast. It's still snowing in Boston. American kindly cancels my flight before I even consider going to the airport. I phone—now the wait is 23 minutes—and reschedule.
About dusk Sunday I walk over to the Northbrook Public Library, in my back yard, to return a book that's a few weeks overdue. Coming home—and I wish I were a good enough writer to convey this properly—walking back through the chill evening. Carrying the stack of books I of course had to check out while I was there. Softly singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" to myself. Catching sight of the lighted windows of the house through the fir trees. It's one of those inexplicably joyful moments that live in memory. I stop, marveling, and remember what Ruth Elias once said in a speech. Elias wrote an excruciating book about surviving Auschwitz. I heard her five years ago, so can't quote her, directly, but she ended her speech by saying something like this:
I have this dream. I dream I am walking up to my family's home in Czechoslovakia. The windows are all lit up, and I know that everybody is well, and there, home, waiting for me. And then I awaken, and it's so sweet, because they were all there, clearly, and so sad, because it was only a dream. And that is what I'd like to tell you today—if you are lucky enough to be going home later, and the lights of your house are bright, and your family is all there, waiting, you should stop and savor it as the precious gift it is, because someday it too will be just a dream.It was sort of like that.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Dec. 12, 2003