The ice storm was over. After spending nearly 60 days in various hospitals, O. J. and I were home. In three years my husband had suffered major health threats; strokes that left him almost blind, surgery for cancer twice, a heart attack, and an aneurysm of the aorta so large his shirt moved with its pulsing. For months I had cared for him like an infant.
Worst than the physical problems was the loss of wisdom and humor . Tucking the shocking pink sheets around him, I found it hard to recognize the gaunt features. If only I could think of him as he used to be, The illness had robbed him of so much, but it had also robbed his family of the person we knew. We disputed the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s because of the brief glimpses of rational thought he occasionally displayed. Sometimes he would be lucid for almost an hour and could grasp new information and answer our questions. But it might be days before it happened again.
“Lord, please give us our memories back. We’re losing him, but we know that You will keep him safe. His children and I have lost the sense of who he is. This shrunken old man who seldom recognizes anyone has no resemblance to the solid, friendly man who could fix ‘anything but a broken heart’ as he often bragged.”
That morning I had written in my journal,
“Often I feel helpless about the continuing disintegration of personality and body of my beloved . My feelings cover a wide range of emotions from tender love, frustration, glimpses of hope, and sometimes bitterness. Sometimes I feel trapped in an unrelenting 24 hour schedule that means I am reminded of the hopelessness of the situation every waking moment. So where’s the fear? In my gut, in the lump in my throat, in the tightness around my chest when he has pain, I register the fact that he might die today.
There had been no mail for 5 days, so when we heard the mailman stop I hurried down the icy driveway to see what he had brought. In the stack of letters there was a hand addressed letter for O. J. Gast at an address about 20 years old. It was from London, England. As soon as I got back into the house handed it to him and let him feel it.
Did he want me to open and read it?.
The letter stated that the writer was the daughter of O. J. Gast, born in London, England in 1945, that she had tried to get in touch with him over the years through the U. S. Army, but had been told that he was dead.. A recent television program in England had given information about locating long lost family members so she had tried again, writing to the last address in the army file.
She stated that she had a twelve year old son that wanted information about his deceased American grandfather and asked if the family would just send a photograph or some information about him. The letter ended by stating that the writer did not wish to cause trouble, discord, or scandal and to disregard the request if it might do so.
When I finished reading the letter to O. J., tears were rolling down his checks, I asked if he were angry, no, upset, no. Then I asked him if I could read the letter to our children. He nodded. I called our son David and asked him to come down immediately. Within one minute he had ran the 200 yards to our house and was in the bedroom concerned that there was a medical emergency. He read the letter and looked at me quizzically.
‘What do you know about this?” he asked.
“Your dad told me about this before we married. He talked about going to England to find her years ago, but we did not know where to start” .
“O. J. Were you surprised to get this.?” David asked.. O. J. nodded. Talking had become increasingly difficult during the last weeks of hospitalization.
“Ma, have you told anyone else about this?
“Just got it. I’ll call Martha. Should be able to reach her at the office.”
When she answered “ What’s wrong? “
“I’ve got something to read to you.” I read the letter.
“Oh, my God, it’s Enda’s child. When did you get this?” my stepdaughter asked.
“Just about 10 minutes ago. What do you know about it?
“Mother had told me about a child born after he left London. The mother, Enda Curran, had written about 1946 when mother was pregnant with the son who was stillborn. They had a big blowup over it and evidently he agreed to have nothing to do with the child. Mother said it was a girl and her name was Ann and there had been trouble when he named me Martha Ann.”
“Does the letter sound authentic?” I asked.
“Sounds about like Mother described. Is there a phone number or information enough to place a phone call?”
I gave her all the information in the letter and she and David began trying to establish connection by phone on their phones while I called the other daughters.
O. J. had drifted off to sleep,wearied by the excitment. This was the most alert he had been in days. The confusion had lifted for a few minutes and he seemed to understand the letter and its import.
As I called each of the other three daughters and found much the same response. Surprise, then excitement and a wish to find out more. All expressed the thought that Ann needed to come immediately to see O. J. since his health was extremely fragile and the possibility of death eminent. All offered to help raise the money to pay her flight to the USA if she needed the money.
I immediately wrote a letter to Ann explaining that her father was still alive, but in precarious condition and that I had read the letter to him. The family was happy and could not wait to meet her. Enclosing photos and a brief family history, I explained that there were two half sisters, two step sisters, a half brother, various in-laws, 13 nieces and nephews, and 3 about to be 6 grand nieces and nephews. Also included a brief description of his strokes, dementia, and continuing medical emergencies.
A week later I answered the phone to a distinctive British voice. “ Hello, this is Ann. May I speak to Dorothy?’ After a brief talk I put the phone to O. J.’s ear and he listened. He tried to say a few words, but had to give up and hand the phone back to me and I talked for him.
I got Ann’s phone number and made arrangements to call back with conference calls so that other members of the family could share the calls. I set up the calls and each of us got to visit by phone. Evidently the pictures and letter had been studied carefully, for the questions were very apt. A flurry of letters and calls went back and forth over the Atlantic. Plans were made for Ann, her husband Reg, and their son, Steven to come to the states when school was out. They refused to accept financial help from their new relatives.
Before O. J. died on April 17, 1996, he signed legal documents acknowledging Ann, preparing the way for her to obtain dual citizenship in her father’s country.
The family celebrated his life with a upbeat funeral in accordance with his wishes. There was a celebration of his life filled with warm memories and funny stories. The congregation sang Amazing Grace and It is Well With My Soul and poems by members of his family were read. His picture, his bible, and his glasses were on a table beside the casket. After the service the family received friends and visited in the church fellowship hall with the country luncheon he had asked for.
Because of her teaching schedule, Ann could not be there, but was kept informed and sent clippings and documents. During school holidays, She, her husband Reg, and son Steven came to visit for two weeks. After a few minutes, it was as if we’d been family always. We keep in touch by phone and mail.
In sharing our memories with Ann, the rest of the family found our happy memories restored. . O. J.’s stories of his stay in England became more real to all as Ann identified Picadilly Circus, the Thames, and Big Ben. The double decker bus Reg drives now is like ones we’d heard described.
My prayer for renewal of my memories was abundantly answered as family members pored over photos and videos and told stories from their growing up years. The experiences became a collage of family life we all could share.