Another Christmas upon us, and I'm thinking how life is a meteor -- fast and never again. A generation has blasted by before I'm getting around to try to finally doing what I should have done before.
My cousins lost their father, my Uncle Don, when they were young children. "Lost" is a euphemism, since he was ripped from their lives by a heart attack, and from Mary Ann, their mother and the wife he revered, when he was 40.
A fate cruel and tragic and all that, but what is also unforgivable is that there are people walking around, like myself, who know things that others' childhood memories are still owed.
Surely, my cousins have Super 8 movie film showing how their father walked and stood and smiled and waved his arms in silence. And cassette tapes playing his voice and infectious laugh.
But I can only imagine how many mornings each of the four of them, now grown, wake before light, aching from a dream. Wondering how it might be to sit across a table from him in a warm kitchen, coffee steaming -- a conversation -- his presence, that power, in their lives. If only.
But I can't give them that for Christmas. The limit of my presumption is to recall a story as well as I can remember, then trust to his love and their longing for its truth:
A chill Monday afternoon long ago, the start of our Christmas vacation, my brothers and friends playing touch football on the narrow asphalt gridiron between parked cars where we lived, while Don was visiting my mother -- Aunt Gert to my cousins -- having a sandwich of cold turkey and hot gravy, and a Pepsi. Slouching way back the way he did, legs crossed in a tangent to the kitchen table.
He was in the neighborhood, had been in court earlier, representing a juvenile for assault or traffic or something. He stopped by his big sister's often.
So here he was, wearing a suit, but they never fit. Like dressing a six-and-a-half-foot dolphin, permanently arced, with a broad trunk, narrow hips -- never stops treading water.
It was only a question of when he'd come out that door, flow down the stairs, drop jacket and tie, and raise his hand for the ball. We kept looking up at the house.
I was 18, wearing a sleeveless ski jacket, shoes with leather heels, an unlit Marlboro protruding from the corner of my mouth. We were fooling around. Punting. It would only mean something when he came out, when he would tell us the teams, where to run, where he would pass the football.
Don Cichowski was a pure athlete, unlike any of the rest of us. I'd gone through the archives of the papers where both he and I went to school, with stories about "Chico" hitting a ball over the roof of the power house, a feat never replicated, and old "Chico" scoring a hat trick, though St. Joe's had lost the game.
But it was more than sports. He had a tall man's way of standing in our street, head slightly bowed, eyes level, arms hanging loose. It was his gaze, a perception, like that of no other man I have since known. Everybody on our street -- my brother Pat, our neighbor Bob -- he appraised with a kind of manic joy.
His passion for testing limits, his ceaseless vigilance for adventure: You wanted to be there.
His look was challenging, demanding; his smile saying I bet you cannot do this; his eyes on fire with I hope to God you can.
His magic was harnessing his brains and energy and will, then inserting it into you. It's why in every courtroom, banquet hall, softball field, church and park I'd ever been in when Don was present, the oxygen level was higher, the electricity charging, the expectations ascending.
It was delicious for me, watching the others -- Rob from the neighborhood, Vince from next door -- their first encounter, like receiving a blessing, and their instant commitment not to a mere game, but to him.
I sat back at free safety, as Don singled out Bob Remiasz, whose need and will and heart he saw plainly, the way a hypnotist knows.
He sent him long, straight at me, turning abruptly in a banana curve, snatching the cold hard ball out of the sky, crashing heavy into Jerry Jesenius' new car, plowing a hip sized dimple in the driver's door.
Don let out a whoop, for the touchdown, or maybe the throw, or more likely the exhilaration of unlimited possibility.
And then we all ran for it, Don at the head of the pack, laughing like hyenas, scuttling from the scene of the crime.
The dent was made right later, the adult thing to do. What I can swear to is that instance of pure joy, Don's immortal, evanescent spirit. That for me is recollected; for his children, inherited.
This started out, at least, as a remembrance for my cousins.
But Christmas is for celebrating the stories, spiritual and traditional, that connect us all.
* * *
David McGrath, of Hayward, Wis., is an emeritus professor at the College of DuPage and author of "The Territory," a story collection.