I never expected to see my family again after I walked away in 1995, shortly before my mother died. I blamed the alcoholism and drug abuse of my generation-older brother and sister for pushing me away. I blamed the unfriendliness of my fellow New Yorkers for keeping me away. But as I learned last weekend–visiting my hometown for the first time since 2007 after my nephews tracked me down for the first time in 20 years upon the death of my brother–hiding away for all that time did a lot of collateral damage of its own.
LaGuardia was the same old mess it always was when Ryan and I arrived in my hometown last Thursday night. It took my nephew, Brenden, half an hour to find us and get us the hell out of there. After checking in at a Long Island City Holiday Inn, we spent the next few hours filling in 20 years of blanks at an overpriced Astoria gastropub. He’s 27 years old. I hadn’t seen him since he was eight. How much he reminds me of my brother. Dropping us off at the end of the evening, after photos, we held each other up sobbing on a street corner at the loss of his father and the end of two decades of estrangement.
Friday night over dinner in the East Village, Brenden’s older brother, Sean, told Ryan and me about the recipes my mother used to make that he missed for two decades. I’ve had them all along. I make them frequently. Learning that made his night. Learning the recipes were missed and that I’m the one who kept them away was sobering for me. Sean has a bravery I never had at his age. Threading through a crowd of hipsters at a West Village beer bar, I marveled at his determination. Next weekend, Ryan and I are heading up to Wisconsin on a New Glarus beer run for him. After so long away, the least I owe him is a legally questionable care package.
During the time we weren’t hanging with my family, I dragged Ryan up, down, and sideways across the city of my birth. It wasn’t what he expected. All the stories on my blog about rude, coarse New Yorkers had him on his guard. But he told me everyone seemed as friendly as Chicagoans to him. Friendlier, I’d say. Maybe walking away from New York, the memories I carried with me of unhappy New Yorkers were really memories of an unhappy me. Over the weekend I also learned how much I had emotionally checked out of New York City long before I left her.
Ryan marveled at the view from Top of the Rock, enjoyed his first NYC hot dog in spite of himself, hated the crowds in Times Square (like any true New Yorker!), instantly got the hang of the subway, and felt at home in Forest Hills, Queens, where he spent a lot of time retracing my youth with me.
That’s where we met Little John at an Irish pub on Saturday night. My brother’s first son, my mom raised him when his dad went to prison in the 1970s. Four years younger than me, we were brought up together. The last time I saw him he was 20 years old. Seeing him again, the normal, self-sufficient man that he’s become after all the crap we went through in our youth, blew me away. Over dinner, I was afraid to let on how happy I was. Then Little John stopped in mid-sentence, touched my elbow, and said, “I didn’t realize how much I missed you.”
And in an instant, I knew it was time to come home. The photo above is the two of us later that evening. I still can’t see him as 40. He’ll always be 20 to me. The “Little” isn’t negotiable, either. He can bust my chops like no one else I know. Watching us during the evening, Ryan later told me we didn’t act like uncle and nephew. We act like brothers.
I was wrong. I didn’t outlive my entire nuclear family after all.
The three of us went together to see my sister-in-law, Barbara, at the apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens, that she shared with my brother for 30 years. Their relationship was complex, and some things never change. But sometimes, the things that were deal breakers in the past aren’t as important anymore in the present. We got to see Brenden’s girlfriend, Joanna, and my nephew, Rex, and his wife and daughter.
No, not everyone I call my nephew is technically my blood nephew. But in the end Sean and Rex considered my brother their dad, and that’s a thing I will never dishonor. I have the backs of all of my nephews. We’re all one suddenly, miraculously renewed, crazy family. And as Ryan told me as we were packing up to leave, my family doesn’t seem to ever meet a stranger. So he’s fully included in the crazy, too.
For so long I have blamed others–my siblings, my hometown, eventually Chicago–for the unresolved pain I carried forward from Queens. I moved to Brooklyn over it. I left New York over it. I staked most of this blog over it. Then in one weekend I clearly saw that all I’ve ever been doing is running away. How far away is enough?
It was a two-way street, but the hurt suffered by my family by my own actions I can never undo. I will always carry that with me. I can’t go back and be there for Little John. I can’t watch Brenden and Sean grow up. There’s only one thing left that I can do. It’s the only thing I want to do now.
I can go home.
It’s been an awesome 12 years, but the rest of my time to come in Chicago is now epilogue. The prologue of my life back in New York City started over the weekend. Now it’s just a matter of putting it all together. But the decision is made and Ryan and I are aligned in this.
Who gets their family and their hometown back like this? Who gets their family back after 20 years at all? Point me to a story. Show me a precedent. Because it all just feels like a dream. I love my family. I love my hometown. Who knew? Least of all, me. And it makes me feel like the luckiest, luckiest, luckiest man in the world.
There are second chances, there are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and there are things that are so beyond the unexpected that they can only live in the realm of the miraculous. I know which realm I lived in over the weekend.
And come hell or high water, this time I’m coming home.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.