Showing posts with label blessed family. Show all posts
Showing posts with label blessed family. Show all posts

04 January 2016

It Was The Best of Times, It Was The Worst of Times

by Susan Rogers Cooper

I claim it was 1998, but it really all started in 1997.  I was lucky.  I'd been around for quite a few years by then, and still had an intact family.  Two parents, still married to each other, a big brother, his wife and two sons, and a little brother and his wife.  I was most fortunate to have a husband to whom I'd been happily  married since 1972 and a beautiful teenaged daughter. As a family we were blessed.

My big brother's name was Frank Rogers.  He was three years my senior and had been my hero as long as I could remember.  He had two webbed toes and eventually grew to be six foot, fix inches.  He saved me from death (or a slight concussion) when I almost fell off the porch into a pile of bricks our dad was saving for a patio he might (or might not) build.  He benignly blackmailed me for multiple decades for an indiscretion when I was seven years old.  He missed me so much when our family went on vacation without him that, upon my return, he took me to downtown Dallas to see a Troy Donahue movie -- and he didn't even like Troy Donahue.  He introduced me to the Kingston Trio, the Smothers Brothers, and Alan Sherman.  He made fun of me for a week when I cried while watching an episode of "Wagon Train."

As adults we became scattered as jobs took us to different parts of the country, but we seemed to manage to all get together at least once a year, and quite often on Thanksgiving.  As the years progressed we started a Thanksgiving tradition:  tequila shots before dinner.  Our parents didn't partake, but the three siblings and our spouses certainly did (and even some of the kids when we weren't watching closely enough).  It was silly, but, hey, it was tradition!

Then in 1997, Frank got sick.  He was in the hospital and I called him as I had been doing on a daily basis since he'd been in there.  But something was wrong.  My big brother was crying.  And I could hear my sister-in-law sobbing in the background.  Never, in all those years, had I ever known my big brother to cry.  The doctor was in his room.  The doctor just told him he had terminal cancer.  The doctor just told him he had a year to live.  To my knowledge, Frank never cried again.  He yelled, got drunk, and laughed a lot, but never cried.

The whole family was staggered by this.  We were blessed.  Things like this didn't happen to us.  Our family members only died when they were in their eighties or nineties.  Not like this.  He was only fifty-four.  One child left in college.  Things like this didn't happen in our family.  We were blessed.

We learned that what Frank had was cancer of the common bile duct -- a very rare cancer that no one was studying.  He could try chemo and radiation, but the results wouldn't amount to much, if anything at all.  He opted not to bother.  He and Rosella, his wife, took leaves of absence from their respective jobs and decided to spend the year he had left doing whatever they wanted and, as he told me, he had no intention "of suffering fools gladly."

In those last months of 1997, my sister-in-law and I conspired to save him.  It was a real reach, but one does what one can.  There was a Mexican bodega my husband and I frequented when we wanted ingredients we were unable to find in the regular grocery store.  But this bodega had more than mere spices and strange fruits; it had talismans and cancer cures.  Frank and Rosella lived in Baltimore, and I lived in Austin, but I found a way to send a talisman and cancer-curing tea to my sister-in-law.  Both of us knowing Frank would laugh at such an attempt, she hid the talisman deep in his wallet (the lady at the bodega said he must always have it on him for it to work - duh), and slipped the tea into Frank's morning coffee.  And then Rosella prayed and I kept my fingers crossed.  One does what one can.

That last Thanksgiving, 1997, before our tequila shots, we had a meeting at my younger brother's house in Dallas and decided we were going to take a vacation together -- something we hadn't done since we were kids.  So we made plans.  It was to be eight days at a rental house on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and I started saving for the trip we'd take in March.  But in February of 1998, I got a call from my agent in New York.  I'd been nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Novel of 1997.  After telling my husband, who was in the room at the time, the first person I called was Frank.  He was elated, I was elated, everybody was elated.  And I wanted to win it for him.

In March of 1998 we left for St. John.  It was a wonderful eight days of conch fritters, rum, and too much Jimmy Buffett on the CD player.  We saw giant turtles, beautiful white beaches, and pigs walking along the roads.  We learned to drive on the wrong side of the street and found that a pint of Ben and Jerry's cost over eight dollars.  And we discovered my daughter and Frank's youngest son had "found" a bottle of champagne and had taken that and a bottle of orange juice out to the pool late one night and were making "mouth mimosas."  And it was all over way too soon.

In April I left for New York and the Edgar banquet.  My friend Jan Grape had also been nominated that year for Best Non-Fiction and we were able to rent a small apartment on the east side and spent a wonderful week up there.  I had strict orders to call Frank the minute I won.  He never said anything about my not winning.  Needless to say, I didn't win, and it was the hardest phone call of my life.  I called my husband first and he was stoic about it, but then I had to call Frank.  Somehow in my mind I'd confused my winning that Edgar with my brother living.  I'm sure my winning would have worked as well as the talisman in his wallet and the tea in his coffee; i.e., not at all.

In early October I went to Bouchercon in Philadelphia, just a train ride from Baltimore.  Frank was once again a guest at Johns-Hopkins, and I took the train down to see him.  He was excited.  He and his doctor had just seen Carl Ripkin, Jr., in the halls of the oncology ward.  The two of them, on seeing Mr. Ripkin, Jr., going down the stairs, followed him, my brother carrying his IV pole and clutching the back of his hospital gown.  Frank's doctor told me the son was there to see his father, Carl Ripkin, Sr.  I found the mental picture of my brother chasing the baseball star down the stairs amusing and shared this later that evening, back in Philadelphia, with my dinner companions.  I forgot that one of them was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.  The headline in the next day's paper?  Carl Ripkin, Sr., hospitalized in cancer ward at Johns-Hopkins.  For a short while, my family referred to me as "deep throat."

It was only a few short weeks later that I got a call from Frank.  "I need to tell you something," he said.  His voice was ragged.  "Anything," I said.  "I'm sorry I blackmailed you," he said.  "That's okay," I said.  "It's what brothers do."  And he told me he loved me and I told him I loved him.  Two days later he died.

We buried my brother's ashes on Halloween on a beautiful hill in the Maryland countryside.  My sister-in-law stuck one of Frank's favorite cigars in the hole with his ashes, then we went to her home, got drunk, and all smoked the rest of his cigars.

And our family was no longer blessed.  I lost both my parents in 2001 -- Dad in January, Mom in April.  Five years later my beloved husband, Don Cooper, had his fourth heart attack and was unable to come back from that one.  He was sixty-one.

To this day, my sister-in-law, my daughter and nephews all call each other on Thanksgiving and give a tequila toast to Frank.  After a few years, we added Don's name to the toast.

But I'll always remember the year 1998 as the best and the worst.  An Edgar nomination, a trip to St. John, a week in New York -- and the death of my hero.  My big brother.