Reaching out to one who seems unreachable

True Tales From Everyday Living

Real Life


The telephone call itself was a shock, the news even more so.

The caller was Martin, my brother-in-law in New York, a man I had met only a couple of times.

His wife, my sister Dorothy, was in bad shape with ovarian cancer, and Martin thought someone in her family should know about it. He had had to search the Internet for an address for me, and found me in Kentucky.

Dorothy had been undergoing treatment for a year and a half, Martin said, and the outlook was not good. He urged me to call her, though I told him she would not want to hear from me.

After all, it had been 16 years since we last spoke, and she had made it clear she wanted nothing to do with the family.

Dorothy, known to us as Ditty, was the second of six children, the only girl, six years older than I was. She was high strung and moody, and she didn't get along with our parents. Immediately after high school, she left for New York City. She worked as a secretary and took all kinds of college courses, eventually getting at least one bachelor's degree.

During my own college years, I frequented New York, where many of my friends lived, and Ditty's apartment in Queens was a convenient place to stay. Later, while I worked in Boston and Mississippi, we stayed in touch by letter and by phone.

Ditty had a wretched first marriage, and I testified at the divorce hearing about her husband's violent treatment of her.

Eventually, she began a friendship with Martin, a scholarly, reserved man who was especially kind to her. They married in 1981, and soon came the unexpected news that Ditty and Martin would be there for Christmas with our parents in Maryland.

It was the first time in more than a decade that so many of us - five of the six siblings - had gathered in one place. It was also the first time we were together as adults. Ditty was chatty and eager to make a go of it, but after so much time apart, it was hard for us to find common ground. Martin, meanwhile, looked stricken. As the hours passed, it was clear the reunion was failing.

I can only guess what Ditty said to Martin when it was over, but she ended all contact with the family. I would call her and get excuses such as "can't talk now, I'm running the bath water." I would write. I even returned the treasured Beatles scrapbooks that she had created in 1964 and given to me a few years later. There was no response. Nothing, until the phone call from Martin in the summer of 1998.

Martin gave me Ditty's room number at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. I called her the next day.

"Dorothy? Hi, it's Harry Merritt."

"What? Why are you calling me? Who gave you my number? I can't talk with you," she said, more or less at once.

I asked how she was doing. "Fine. I'm fine. Why are you calling?"

Through her protests I kept talking. I told her about my wife, my work. I ran down the list of brothers, giving updates. I told her she had a young nephew in California and a niece or nephew on the way.

That seemed to please her, but still she wanted to get me off the phone. "OK, thanks for calling," she said. "I love you," I said, before hanging up. "I want you to know that."

A few weeks later, on our mother's birthday, Ditty died at 51.

Martin and I talked a few times before and after my sister's death, and he said she had been happy about my phone call. I asked him whether she had ever discussed the lack of contact with her family. She never talked about it, he said, but among her things he found many of my letters.

To listen to podcasts of Real Life essays, go to

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.