Tommy (I call him Tom, now that he’s nearly 70) has a very quiet voice. In that understated tone, he told me the other day that my first cousins, Wendy (her husband Ted) and her sister Carol were gone or descending into dementia.
I was shocked. Just….shocked.
Tom, who was born with a congenital disorder of the bones which made him highly susceptible to breaks, is thriving. He’s a gym rat like I am, and each year he rents a place down in Florida, my old home state.
We have family business regarding land holdings that once belonged to our respective grandparents. The income is minor, but it supports a few things for those of us remaining kids.
Kids. Kids who are now dying and diminishing from dementia. Kids. It’s remarkable to me that I still couch my generation in those terms.
I wrote Tom this morning when I woke up at 3 am, which is my wont. I am about to head down to my elliptical, and then do a series of exercises. I’ve got an aging and often injured body from my travels. But I am not experiencing dementia, despite my propensity to whack my noggin on any available surface through my sports.
The last time I spoke to my cousin Wendy, she was returning from a music recital. Her husband Ted sold luxury yachts. They lived in Massachusetts, where yachts are part of life for some folks. Moved there from Madison, where my mother’s family hails. Wendy had my mother’s great, room-filling horse laugh, which she inherited from my Aunt Alice, Mom’s favorite sister. I have that laugh too, the product of generous genes and an ability to see the humor behind much in life. That laugh is getting stilled.
My grandfather was the mayor of Williston, North Dakota. He and his brothers, who with one exception were all doctors, moved to Madison. There they began a clinic, which was named after them for years until the Jackson Clinic, like the great, spreading Jackson Oak, also named after my family, finally died or moved on. Life does that.
It’s shocking when you realize that a number of members of your generation, you, the grandkids, have succumbed. My family’s imprint on Madison, Wisconsin, is indelible. Far more so than anything I have done, or hope to do in the course of my lifetime. I have remarkable forebears indeed. If I intend to leave a legacy (more books, is my guess) it would behoove me to get busy.
As in NOW.
Talking to Tommy, which is how I still think of this mature man who is close to my age, was sobering.
He and his family recently traveled from Arizona, where his brother lives, to Florida. Like me, Tom is looking around for a town or a spot to settle. I am exploring the Pacific Northwest. Initially, from Boise to Walla Walla, Western Montana and surrounds. Recent events have expanded that search to the coastline, where I found a few places that were within my financial reach. I’ve always adored the Oregon Coast but assumed housing was too dear. I was wrong. There are spots, if I am willing to tolerate a certain isolation, where I could thrive. I’m jazzed. New vistas have opened up.
But I need to do it now. NOW. The house is packed up, I am selling in spring. I am eager for new vistas, new lands and new challenges. There’s work to do while I can still do it.
I hardly know my family’s real history, although it’s storied, and the characters involved are in many ways quite remarkable people. As I age, I get more intrigued, while at the same time my time is limited. As I speak to Tom while we work out the various details of a will that to this day provides a bit of income to those of us who are left, I am reminded of the tendrils of history that weave us all together.
And how some of those stories are ending far too soon.
A maiden aunt wrote a book on our family history called Three Hundred Years American. I am uniquely fortunate that someone took the time to research the family tree. Most of us don’t have that kind of connection to our past. That book is in a box, ready to be moved wherever I head next. It’s time to explore my past, honor their gifts, and find my place in my family history.
There aren’t many of us left to continue the story. Mine ends when I die, as I have no children. That means that what I add to the tapestry that is the continuation of my family’s contributions needs to happen now.
It is a minor miracle to me that of all my relatives, I am one who — after 21 concussions - doesn’t have dementia. While I work hard against those odds, I am still exceptionally fortunate. So is Tom, given his history. He and I, and likely others in our dwindling family, are the last bearers of the Jackson flame, such as it is for this generation. My forebears were frontiersmen, and civically-minded folks. People who left a deep imprint on a forming nation, a developing West.
I have a lot in common with my grandfather. We share military history and horses, and the hunger for new lands. He was a cattleman, politician and rancher in Montana. A Colonel in WWI. His blood runs in my veins. He made a big difference for a thriving town in Madison.
It’s my turn to live up to that legacy. And time is running out.
It is a terrible lie that at some level we honestly think that death or dementia may not, will not, cannot come to us. But it does. Something does, whatever that looks like. News of losses in my family are deeply sobering, but at the same time, richly invigorating. The message is go. Do it now. Get busy. Life doesn’t hang itself on a hat hook while we watch football games and hope for a miracle cure for the one thing that comes for us all.
This coming year, 2020, is already full of promise and portents. If nothing else, I owe it to remarkable predecessors to be worthy of what they gave me: history, a desire for adventure, and a willingness to risk.