A Reminder about Jack Hicks

by Alison O’Connor

Dear future Alison (2034),

How are you, and how have you been? How do you still feel, more importantly, for the purpose of this letter, about Jack Hicks’ death? That old man from the dog park we used to talk so wonderfully with. It happened only three years ago for present me, so it still stands out for me. It will be twenty three years ago for you, so I’ll bet that moment in your life will be much farther off, more like a distant happening, but I seriously hope you have not forgotten entirely how you felt about Jack and all he meant to you, how horrible the news of his passing had been. 

I’m not sure how clear this will be, or how many details you’ll remember from that December afternoon, so I’ll try to refresh your memory, though I’d hate to bring up bad memories and bring you down. I don’t know how your life is going. If things are horrible I don’t mean to be sending even more bad vibes, and if your life is going great, I don’t want to be a buzzkill for those fifteen minutes or so you’ll spend on this (if you’re still a slow reader). But I do think it important to remind you of how things were back in the winter of 2011, back when you and I were only seventeen, just a little over a month shy of technical adulthood. How it had been a quiet, leisurely time and how things that winter break were going very well.

We had been accepted to Columbia College Chicago, the only college we applied to and planned on attending, if you recall, three days before the sad one. The family was going out for tapas, I was ecstatic, remember, and then, of course we had to email Jack to let him know I got in. We walked around the dog park quite a bit with Jack, we had long conversations with him and his wife, Donna, in that Lake Forest Panera close by. He knew I really wanted to go to Columbia, and I’d been telling him how nervous I was to find out if I had been accepted or not. So I had to tell him, I had to let him know that I did make it after all, since he’d be in California for Christmas vacation and we wouldn’t see him for a while. He replied with congratulations, I think I read it the next day, and to see his warm reply had made that day for me. I always get so nervous, I don’t know if you still do, when looking at emails, when reading the replies of others. I still get all jittery where I am now, and his reply so soon caught me off guard, but I was so happy to read it. My face lit up, I recall, and I excitedly told mom about how Jack had emailed back so quickly. Things weren’t so eventful that day, or if they were, it’s a blur by now. I had no idea of how the day right after would change everything.

I was baking two different kinds of cookies for Christmas, which was just three days away. I had Mrs. Fields’ Cookie Book open for the first recipe I was baking from, orange chocolate cookies, a family favorite, remember. I was mixing the wet ingredients in the mixer, had my bowl of dry ingredients right beside me on the dining room table. I would go into the kitchen to combine all the ingredients together, after I finished zesting the orange for the batter. It was a large, vibrant orange, and I was intent on getting as much zest off it as possible. I had this little zester, I don’t know if you still bake or have one like it, but I did and still do enjoy using it on citrus for whatever it is I bake. And it’s always been so therapeutic. It was really relaxing for me in that moment, I was bent over the orange, sleeves rolled up, sitting right at that table, as the dry grey day outside remained a delicate chill. Our dogs back then, Lance and Red, were lounging in the living room with mom and dad. And then mom got a phone call.

I had no idea who was on the phone, and it didn’t matter, I was busy with my baking, I don’t know if I’d still been zesting the orange or hurrying into the kitchen to get one more thing for the batter to be combined. I was, above all, concerned only with getting the cookies done, anticipating the approaching Christmas, and enjoying the calm winter’s day. As the phone call progressed, though, and mom’s tone was getting more grave as the time passed, I got the feeling that the conversation was about something bad or traumatic that happened to a distant relative of one of my mom’s friends. I felt a bit bad for whoever it was that died, but it was nobody I knew or was close to, I was very sure of that. Once mom got off the phone, I’d ask what happened, and, if need be, I’d say “I’m sorry.” Mom was sounding more and more worried, and at last, right before she hung up, she kept offering the person on the other end an invitation up to Wicker Park to get pie, kept saying they’d go get pie, she’d bring her pie. Then she hung up.

As was my plan, I asked what had happened, since she had suddenly become much more serious, more solemn, saddened. She told me, without hesitation, Jack had died. And in that moment, everything stopped. I didn’t know what my face would do, where to go from there, I didn’t even cry, I don’t think, I just loudly sobbed. I nearly doubled over for three seconds, is all I remember. I was lost. Dad went over to me, but I was composed again. Everything felt horrible, though, the grey winter afternoon became something more sinister, the day felt from that point on like this giant weight had dropped on it and everything was both suspended and weighed down. I had no idea what to do. I remember I finished what was left to do for the cookies, put them in the oven, and I really wished I would cry, would weep like I was supposed to. I went out for a walk, after the cookies were in the oven. It was a short walk, just around the block and right by the park a block up, but things felt even heavier and more sour, and I forced a few tears up, didn’t want to be outside much longer.

If you’ll believe it, and I couldn’t either, Jack used to be a stranger to me, he used to be this old man mom and Ted would walk with around the dog park some days. I used to not want to talk to anyone, I didn’t know what to say to anyone at the dog park, but after a bit, after months went by, I found myself talking more with Jack, walking around the park with him. Especially after Ted stopped going to the dog park as much as before, and I was going more often with my mom, just the two of us. We’d have long, rambling talks with Jack, on our long rambling laps around the dog park, about politics, music, movies and popular culture, about our family lives and family trips. I found myself forming more of a bond with Jack, found him becoming more and more like a friend to me, and even more so, like the grandfather I never had. He was liberal, like us (you better still be liberal), and he was knowledgeable about so much concerning music and films, about travel and he talked about the things grandfathers are supposed to talk about with you. He was the kind of person grandfathers are supposed to be. Dad’s father died before I was born, and mom’s father (papou), was very superficial for all his life. He barely spoke or did anything aside from make creepy noises and prompt bothersome poking games. He was a very startling person. Not so with Jack, who was there, alive had so much life in him, so much energy for climbing and ranting about the demise of rock, about which films were better than others, about the trips he and his wife would embark on. He was there, he made you feel at home instead of distant or off, he was someone you would actually enjoy being around, who you could learn from. He liked to lead discussions, he liked to be the authority on things, but what grandfatherly person wouldn’t do that?

When I got back from that pathetic little walk, I found mom lying back on the living room sofa, her head tilted upwards, the tears just streaming down her cheeks through her glasses, and her mouth trembling, her body limp. I hadn’t seen her this upset in a long time, and I don’t think that kind of grief was something I had ever seen in her before. I went over to her, sat with her on the sofa, wishing the tears would stream down my cheeks just as fluidly. Dad just sat there, stony and somber, at a loss for words himself. Ted was in the basement with his videogames and we didn’t want to disturb him. We just sat in the living room wondering what to do next, wondering what it would mean, to go back to the dog park in the new year without Jack, without his stories or rambles or rants, without his company. Dad said he always thought Jack, with all his vigor and energy, would have lived to be at least eighty or even ninety, he was very strong and always in motion. When he died, he was only in his early seventies. He had died of a heart attack while in California with his wife, visiting their daughter and her husband for Christmastime, just three days away.

Of course the event changed my life, you must see that. It was our first real encounter with death, with someone like family to us, the closest person to a grandfather you and I ever had. It was inconceivable how he could just die in the most unexpected way imaginable, out of nowhere. I was shaken, and his absence from the dog park, in the later months, was so evident it was breathtaking. I originally didn’t think I could go back, since it wouldn’t be anything close to the same, and when I did go back the park felt so quiet, so blank and empty, like all the spirit Jack brought to its grounds was gone. Just like that. I was, though, during those immediate months, extremely glad I had written Jack when I did to let him know I got into Columbia, that he had sent me his congratulations as he was in California for the holiday, an exchange I would otherwise never have gotten to share with him. I was, and still am, and I really hope you still are, thankful for that.

If anything, this proved how much Jack meant to me. By the way, do you remember that I wrote Jack, back in September, a love poem. I had never written that kind of tribute for anyone else, for anything else, up until then, and he was the only person then, in a love poem, I could honestly and completely say “I love you” to. That poem, throughout that year, into the new year and the years to come, rang entirely true, and I hope it still does for you. It was a poem I could not write for anyone else because Jack was so unlike anyone else I had ever known, he was not someone that could ever be imitated or replaced. He was his own person, and that, for me, I really hope it still is for you, one of the most admirable things about Jack Hicks.

I’m sorry to bring up such bad memories again, likely at a satisfying or serene, I hope, moment in your life. But I hope you remember sometimes all Jack Hicks was, all he had been, and all he will continue to be for me, and still for you. After you read this, though, I hope you go grab a nice latte and take a good walk to get your mind to a content place again, maybe even a bear claw pastry to go with it, just like Jack always used to order.

All my love,

Present Alison (2014). 

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