And so it goes

St. Mary Cemetery, Evergreen Park, Illinois

I went to WhirlyBall with my son Adam for his eighth grade outing. Adam was all excited about this trip because he’s graduating from grade school this year. Well, I’m excited, too, if you must know.

We met in the Most Holy Redeemer Church parking lot. The bus ride was a boisterous event for all the eighth graders because they’re graduating very soon–but not soon enough for them. This would be an evening of WhirlyBall and all the pizza we could eat and all the pop we could drink.

WhirlyBall is a game like lacrosse or polo, but it’s played in bumper cars. All the kids were excited about playing WhirlyBall and so were some of the parents. Me? I had never even heard of WhirlyBall before. But I like to be open-minded and try new things. I actually had no choice. Adam made sure I went out and played. He also made sure I had plenty of pizza to eat and pop to drink. He insisted that I drink a beer from the bar, but I didn’t want to drink and drive the very first time I played WhirlyBall.

The father who organized the outing made up schedules so that everyone would have a chance to play. I was impressed with his organizational skills–something I sadly lack. He had all the eighth graders playing each other in every combination possible on one court and the parents playing on the other. For the last hour, parents and their eighth graders would play on the same team. An elaborate set of brackets was designed for a tournament in which one team would be victorious and be awarded a special prize.

Well, we played exactly one match of the bracket when the tournament came to a screeching halt. I wasn’t sure why the next match wasn’t starting, so I started walking back to the organizer. I saw an eighth grade boy walking to a corner table. Then, I noticed he was crying. As I entered the main party room, everyone was very quiet. Adam told me that one eighth grader’s mother, Mrs. Menke, had just died. All the eighth grade girls had gathered together and started crying. About half of the boys were crying. Many of the mothers were also crying because they knew Mrs. Menke, or Patty as they called her. The organizer made a brief announcement about the death and then led the group in a short prayer. I had no idea that she was sick and that she was expected to die.

Needless to say, no more WhirlyBall was played. No one was in the mood to play WhirlyBall anymore. We soon boarded the buses and headed back to Most Holy Redeemer. The bus was very quiet. So quiet that I was afraid to ask Adam more details about Mrs. Menke’s death. He told me that she had thyroid cancer and that the doctors said she would die very soon. That’s why her son didn’t come on this outing. She only weighed about fifty pounds when she died. When we were about halfway back, one of the parents made the announcement that we would return to the church for a short service.

The eighth graders had the day off from school for the funeral, but any student who wanted to attend the funeral could also take the day off. I went to the funeral with my sons Adam and Alex. I didn’t actually know Mrs. Menke, but I always saw her at school activities. I felt that I should go to the funeral to be with my sons who were affected by her death. The church was full of family, friends, students and teachers from Most Holy Redeemer and Brother Rice High School, where she taught. The church was quite full. The funeral procession was also very long for the short drive to St. Mary Cemetery in Evergreen Park. Her whole life seemed to revolve around Evergreen Park and according to the speakers at the funeral mass she was very happy. Unfortunately, her life ended at age 47.

The funeral is a ceremony to honor and to pray for the deceased. But funerals are also for the living, to remind us that you and I must also go the way of all flesh. So live each day as if it were your last.

Bonus years

Queen of Heaven Cemetery.

When I was little, I wasn’t sure how long I would live. I was a healthy boy, so I’m not sure why I always wondered about my longetivity. Of course, being a Catholic, I was always reminded not to commit any mortal sins because if I died suddenly and unexpectedly I would immediately go to hell.

And now that I think about it, I could die at any moment. I could some day walk out onto Halsted Street and get hit by a bus. I only say this because I was once almost hit by a bus on Halsted Street just the other day. I was thinking about many things other than paying attention to crossing the street. I’m still not sure why I didn’t see the bus.

When my uncle Joseph “Pepe” Rodriguez died in Viet Nam, I was sure that I would never live to see twenty-one. I was sure I, too, would be drafted and die in Viet Nam. So I always considered all the years beyond twenty-one bonus years.

My mother died when she was fifty-one, and now that I’m fifty-one, eight months old, I have lived longer than her. I have always been an optimist and I realize I’m lucky to have lived to be this old. I actually like having gray hair, particularly because I have a full head of hair. I can still run six miles everyday, when I have time. I’m not rich, but I’m not starving either. Since I didn’t get drafted to go to Viet Nam, I’ve had all these bonus years that I haven’t always used very wisely. However, I realize that I’m lucky to be alive! The way I see it now, all the years that I live beyond fifty-one will be bonus “bonus years.”

There was a time when I wanted to live to be a hundred, mainly because 100 is a nice big round number. Now, I’d rather continue living the happy life that I now have without thinking about how much time I have left. I am ever the optimist!

Abuelito materno

Mi abuelito

My maternal grandfather, José Guillermo Martínez, is another family mystery. My mother told me several stories about him, but I’m not sure if any of them were true. Although they may be based truth, my mother embellished them beyond recognition. My cousin and I compared stories when I was in Mexico and all the stories seem to be plausible to a certain extent.

My mother truly loved her father and many things often reminded her of him. She would tell me about him on these occasions. I really believed all these stories for most of my life.

When I began playing chess religiously in high school, she told me that I reminded her of her father because he always loved to play chess. People would always go to visit him so they could play him at chess. One day, my mother asked me what was the highest chess ranking. I told her chess grandmaster. She then said, “That’s what my father was! A grandmaster!” I was truly proud of this fact! No wonder I suddenly developed this interest in chess. It was in my genes.

I started bragging about this little interesting tidbit about my grandfather to my chess friends. My friend Jim asked me what my grandfather’s name was, so I told him. A few days later, he gently broke the news to me. My grandfather was never a chess grandmaster, or even a master. Jim had looked up the names of all chess masters and grandmasters who had ever lived. If my grandfather was really a chess grandmaster, his name would have appeared on one of those lists. I was so embarrassed. I told my mother about this little discrepancy in her story and she brushed it off as if it were nothing. I told this story to my cousin in Mexico and she had heard that our grandfather did like to play chess, but didn’t know much else about his chess career.

My mother also told me that her father’s father had come to Mexico from Ireland during a potato famine. His surname was either McLean or McLin, but she really wasn’t sure. Well, he met a Mexican girl, and when she got pregnant, they killed him. That’s what my mother told me when I was a boy.

My cousin had never even heard this story. She had heard that he was possibly Jewish and possibly from Germany. He had studied electrical engineering and had many books on the subject in German. He also knew various languages. My cousin’s mother told her that they called my mother and her sisters, las judías, again suggesting that my grandfather was possibly Jewish. When my grandfather was on his deathbed, my mother flew to México from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, to be with him. I went, too, but I was still a baby in my mother’s arms. My mother was so concerned about his spiritual well-being in the afterlife that she told her father that she would go get him a priest to administer him his last rites. My grandfather indicated that he didn’t need a priest and said, “If he comes, I’ll talk to him. But I won’t confess.” My mother never told me that story.