It's a complicated story, to say the least. But what better time to share it than today. My mother, Darlene Sveum, passed away Sept. 14 after a years-long battle with cancer. But before she died, she gave her family a gift. The gift of family.
I come from a family of eight children. My oldest brother, Bill, hadn't been in contact with the family for nearly 35 years. As my mother's health declined, she insisted on making sure all the arrangements for her funeral were finished, so my sister, Cheryl, didn't have to do it. My mother moved to Florida four years ago to live near my sister Cheryl, who became her caregiver, and my brother, Barry.
Barry was tasked with writing Mom's obituary, a skill he honed decades ago when he worked at The Minot Daily News. With Mom's help, he accomplished the task, but there was a gap in the obituary information: What do we do with Bill? List him with the survivors or with those who preceded Mom in death? We didn't know.
I'd thought about Bill off and on through the years, but it was never more than a passing thought. Last spring, that changed. I gathered what information I could from Mom and other family members (Bill's birth date, last known state of residence, etc) and enlisted the help of a local private investigation firm. With some computer searching, we found a few promising leads, but without Bill's Social Security number, we weren't sure.
Initially, instead of finding Bill, we found Bill's son, Jim, whom the family had known about, but had little contact with since he was born. That night at home, my hands trembling as I dialed the phone number, I spoke to my 36-year-old nephew for the first time in my life. He's a teacher and lives in Pawtuckett, R.I., with his wife, Lori, and two children, Ryan and Emma. It was an amazing conversation, both for him and for me. To connect with a new part of our family was truly a gift, one we might never have received had it not been for Mom's insistence on finalizing the details of her funeral arrangements. My wife and I later spent time with Jim and his family during a trip we took to Maine in June. The connection was instant, life-changing and permanent. They are family.
Soon after, Mom proudly provided the final piece of information to finding Bill. She found his Social Security number in some old college information she had saved. With that info, finding Bill was a breeze for the private investigator. The best news? He lives in Florida, roughly 40 miles from where Mom lived. I spoke to him soon after, and after a few phone calls and e-mails between Bill and the other siblings, he visited Mom, Cheryl and Barry at Mom's place in Florida. He continued to visit, including on the weekend before Mom died. Although there are still unanswered questions and awkward feelings, another piece of the family puzzle has been found, because of Mom.
In August, we gathered at an amazing house on the beach near Daytona Beach, in what we knew would be Mom's last big family event. Her health had deteriorated, so we had Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners rolled into one, since we knew Mom wouldn't be here for the holidays. She was the queen of the house that week. Relaxing in a big recliner in a windowed family room overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Mom told tales of her early life, remembered family members who have long since passed away, helped identify people in old photos and obviously relished the moments with her family, including her newly found grandson and great-grandchildren. It truly was one of the best weeks of my life, and everyone who spent time there left that house a changed person. We all dreaded saying good-bye to Mom, because we knew it was much more than that, and so did she.
Three weeks later, Mom was gone.
It's been a difficult year for my family. Besides losing my mother, my mother-in-law, Vicky Gerhardt, passed away in February. With the memorial services and funerals behind us, our family is left with memories, photos, keepsakes and stories of these wonderful women. Those will last forever, but family life is not the same. It can't be.
But we are left with some new family connections, because of my Mom. And we've learned a lot this year. We've learned our family has room for forgiveness. We've learned we have plenty of room for new family members. We've learned to appreciate each day and each other, because it all could change tomorrow. Most of all, amid the hustle and bustle of daily life, we've reaffirmed what matters most: Family.
Sadly, there will be a couple of empty seats at the dinner table today. Still, we truly understand that despite this year's events, our family has much to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving.
(Bryan L. Obenchain is editor of The Minot Daily News)