Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Bonnie’s Sparrow…by Robert M. Katzman

© June 11, 2012


The thing about extraordinary experiences is that you’re never ready for them.

You forget what came just before, then the moment itself, and then what happened next, and you stand there stunned, caught up in the swirl of unearthly phenomena.


My older sister, Bonnie Sue Katzman died today, two years ago, at age 62, from blood cancer.

She was married to a good person named Chelin for a long time, and then another person, but I prefer to remember what her name was when I first met her in 1950 when she was two and a half.

We both came from a terrifyingly dangerous home where her solution was to disappear into the homes of her many friends and mine, well…I had no solution and suffered the consequences.  We had no relationship. I never saw her.

I left home in the middle of the night on June 8, 1964 at fourteen while still in eighth grade on the South Side of Chicago and she was sixteen and a sophomore at Bowen High School.  I moved five miles north to Hyde Park and two years later she went to The University of Illinois at Urbana.  Now we were both free of the person who cursed our lives, but still, I never saw her.

Except for occasional family holiday parties, there were no calls, no contact, although I did send her birthday cards every October 22nd.  I’d go to her home for Passover and the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, but she’d never greet me, hug me, talk to me while I was there or say goodbye when I left.

This all was incomprehensible to me and over time, my resentment to her indifference grew stronger.  Our father maintained an illusion that we were actually a “family” and the year I finally decided I’d had enough of being made to feel inconsequential and refused to go to one of those semi-annual parties at her house, he called me to change my mind.  He pleaded, threatened, yelled at me and when he realized he had no power to make me do as he so fervently wanted, broke down in tears.

I, of course, then felt like a dog.

Realizing that my actions were so hurtful to him, I never did that again until Bonnie became too ill to host those parties.  I wanted her love, her respect and her to be interested in my life and my own little family, but I accepted the futility of these desires.  But there remained a dead zone in my heart where she was supposed to be, my absent sister.

Once, toward the end of her life, her doctors sought a donor for a bone marrow transplant to try to restart red blood cell growth in her body.  I volunteered immediately.  But even though I was biologically her closest relative on earth, we were not a match.  Not only did she reject me as a sibling and friend, but even her body did.  Whatever medical terrors her future held for her, I could not save her from them.  Though my love for her was seemingly one-sided, it was always there, always hoping that one day…we would become closer.

One evening, when she was rushed to an emergency room, one of countless times, there was no one else close enough to be with her, and I was called and asked to stay with her until a nurse or her husband could get there.  No one had ever asked me to do that before.

She was cold and asked me to rub her feet, and then her hands and her back. She was shivering. I did as she asked, slowly and steadily.  I asked her if it helped her and she said yes.  Then she thanked me for being there and doing that.  In those two hours very near the end of her life, that was more physical contact than she and I had had in total than in the preceding sixty years.

I marveled at that fact, even though I knew that I’d been called as a last resort.  In my situation, I grasped at straws and held them tightly.

When Bonnie died, and the synagogue was packed with her friends, family and former co-workers, the tension that existed between me and a part of her family did not abate.  Though many eulogies were delivered, mine was not allowed to be given.  The paper was in my hand, I had hoped to have the opportunity to say goodbye in that way, but there never really was a chance.  My delusions continued even after her death as did the rejections.

My four children who were there during the long service and who were somewhat aware of the lack of relationship between my sister and me, sat in stunned silence when in the hour of the service, not even my name was mentioned.  They never really knew how I felt all my life, and then, all at once they did.  Small comfort.

When her casket was lowered into the ground, as other mourners walked by and dropped a rose into her grave as has become recent custom, I dropped my eulogy onto her casket, and then shoveled in three scoops of earth on top of that.  A much older custom.

When all of the dirt was shoveled in and the workers drove away, and all of Bonnie’s friends went away, I knelt on the soft moist earth, trying to sort things out.  I ran my fingers through the dirt seeking some connection.

Then I went home.  I was unquestionably burned about my eulogy being unable to be delivered.  So, in an everybody-else-can-go-to-hell frame of mine, I defiantly posted it on my story/poetry website.  Here’s the link:


Rereading it, it is angry, defensive of Bonnie, and both pugnacious and challenging toward Life and Death

It is Bonnie’s little brother telling off God for what I felt he let happen to her.  I don’t regret it.

To my amazement, it received more “hits” or people reading it than anything I’ve posted before or since.

More people than were at the service in the synagogue when she died.  Took a while for that to sink in, as the days passed after her funeral.

Months went by.

On October 22, 2010, what would have been her 63rd birthday, I closed my Skokie store early and decided to go visit her grave, miles southwest of where I was.  But closing at 4 pm in rush hour was not early enough, because when I arrived at the cemetery, all the black steel gates were closed. I felt cheated, defeated.

I just wanted to say hello, wish her a happy birthday, and do it in person, too.  But, too late.

So, I parked my car and walked along the tall black steel fence running my fingers past the vertical bars of this prison for the dead.  I thought possibly I could see her grave from outside of the fence.  But where was it?

I couldn’t remember.  It was a family plot, but I never went there and hadn’t been there since the funeral.

I walked along and watched the flocks of sparrows swooping and swirling in the evening gloom, probably scooping up flying insects.  There were many sparrows.  I kept walking along, my fingers flicking from bar to bar.   I kept looking at the many tombstones, trying to remember.  I didn’t want to just leave feeling worse than ever.  I noticed there were no more sparrows.  I thought that was odd.

Then one sparrow appeared, swooping and zooming past me.  I watched, since it was only one and I had nothing else to do.  Then the sparrow landed on this one large tombstone.  Kind of a tan colored monument.  The sparrow began hopping all around on it, and I watched it.  Then the sparrow took off, flew to my left into some nearby branches.  But a moment later came streaking back to the same tan monument, dancing on it and looking at me.

I stared at the bird.  Then something clicked and I realized that it was my family’s gravesite.  That was where Bonnie was buried.  I looked to my right and recognized the intersection of the two roads where I noticed the grave was located when the service took place months earlier.  I pushed my face tightly against the cool steel bars, staring at this solitary sparrow, hopping all over the monument, uncomprehending what I was seeing.

The sparrow stopped hopping, looked at me and then it took off, flying very fast directly toward me, flying exactly over my head, just a few feet higher, and then it disappeared into the sky.

Too much for me, I sank down to the ground and sat there.

This was not something to tell other people.  No.

I wished Bonnie a happy birthday, out loud.

Then I stood up, walked back to my car parked a block away and drove home.

Not long afterwards, Bonnie’s older son Brad (Jeff is her younger one, who graduated college yesterday) called me and asked if he could come by my store, that he had something for me.  I told him sure, that I’d wait for him.

A couple of hours later, the tall thin handsome lawyer (who looks nothing like me) told me he’d been going through the last of his mother’s papers and came across something he thought I might want to have.  He handed me this large paper bag filled with flat things.  I tilted the bag over so whatever it was would slide out.

It was birthday cards.  Mother’s Day cards.  Anniversary cards.  All from me, to Bonnie, going back almost fifty years.  I stared at them.  Then Brad.  Hugged him and thanked him.  He smiled, and left.

She saved my cards?  For half a century??


So, this meant she loved me?

Well, damn it, why not tell me while you were still alive?

Angry, grateful, surprised and in tears, I let the cards spill over my hands onto my counter, and I gazed at them, wishing things had been different.

I will keep these treasures, all I have of her, for the rest of my life.

I will keep Christian mythology out of this last part, because my people have enough of our own.

I don’t believe Moses parted the Red Sea.

I don’t believe Lot’s wife turned to salt.

I don’t believe God talked to Moses from a burning bush.

I don’t believe, sorry to say, that the burning oil in the menorah that was supposed to last for only one day while the rider rode far away to fetch more, so that the eternal light in the temple was constantly lit, lasted eight days.  I still, however, celebrate Chanukah.

Yes, I’m certainly Jewish and don’t need myth upon myth to have an identity, but I am certain, absolutely certain about what I saw happen at the cemetery on October 22,  2010, that I was clear-headed and sane and that that strange solitary sparrow and my sister Bonnie were somehow…connected.

Publishing News! 

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
Vol. One: A Savage Heart  and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history and about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: https://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info.
I will get your books to you within ten days.
Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
PO Box 44287
Racine, Wis. 53404-9998                                                                                                                    (262)752-3333, 8AM–7PM

Books cost $29.95 each, plus shipping

For: (1)$3.95; (2)$5.95; (3)$7.95; (4)$8.95 (5)$9.95;(6) $10.95

(7) $11.95; (8) $12.95; (9)$13.95 (10)$15.95 (15)$19.95

I am also for hire if anyone wants me to read my work and answer questions in the Chicago/Milwaukee area. Schools should call me for quantity discounts for 30 or more books. Also: businesses, bookstores, private organizations or churches and so on.

My Fighting Words Publishing Co. four original books, published between 2004 and 2007 are now out-of-print. I still have some left and will periodically offer them for sale on my new website.

 Twitter handle: bob_katzman


Comment by Darleen Coleman

June 10, 2012 @ 12:15 pm

What a beautiful story! Thank you for sharing it.

Comment by Bruce Matteson

June 10, 2012 @ 8:52 pm

beautifully done my friend! B.

Comment by Helene

March 12, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

Wonderful story.
I understand that relationship and the years of wanting and never getting from a sibling.
And the sparrow….most definitely

Comment by Elaine

June 12, 2013 @ 1:20 pm

Awesome story, Bob.
How sad that Bonnie could never truly express her love towards you–you’re such a lovable person most of the time! (kidding)
I am surprised though, that from someone who doesn’t believe in “god”, that you could give him all the blame. There’s also the adversary who can and does create destruction and divisions wherever he will in our lives. Put the blame where it belongs.
Oh, and that sweet, sweet sparrow on Bonnie’s grave stone was a messenger of Yah. Everything good is from him. 🙂

Comment by James Myles Payne

June 10, 2018 @ 6:39 pm

The gulf between you and Bonnie kept you planets apart but you managed to touch her once and to touch crowds of us with your longing. All who have read your story remember your Sparrow as they remember their own longing that never was satisfied. All your life you will know you once came so close but only touched for minutes, no hug, no kiss, just a massaging touch. Your unfulfilled heart doesn’t die it just reminds that you love and still live even if it isn’t fulfilled. Bonnie was not a love you lost, but a love you long for, the love you long to give. Keep giving.

Comment by Charlie Newman

June 10, 2018 @ 9:51 pm

good stuff, Bob…!

Comment by Brad Dechter

June 11, 2019 @ 12:49 pm

Sad that we don’t know what we should know when we should know it. You know now.
It’s tough to be a sibling in the circumstances you both found yourselves in. Perhaps the thoughts of you reminded her of her own struggles of survival and she could not relive those?
Hang on to the thoughts you now have about her loving you. That’s a good positive!

Comment by Jim Payne

June 14, 2019 @ 3:48 pm

Again I loved reading your story. You told it so humanly that I too believe Bonnie and the Sparrow are connected.

Comment by Elaine M. Campion

July 26, 2020 @ 8:58 am

I got very emotional, tears were falling while reading many parts of your relationship with your sister and then when she very ill you were at her bedside she allowed your touch, and the many parts of your life trying to connect with her. Apparently what you both went through together in an unhappy childhood affecting her much differently as she wanted to hide herself with no interaction with you. My story with 9 children to raise His/Mine/Ours had some similarities, but my husband began drinking and I suffered abuse, hiding from him at times. There was a lot of love at the start and part of my hiding was in singing to uplift myself. Well, anyway, he gave up drinking later and life was much better, but later he died from Lung Cancer. My children love me, and I have good relations with them, but your post resonated with me and thus the many tears.

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