Who gets the call if the unthinkable happens?
October 24, 2003
BY DEBRA PICKETT SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST
In April, when Sonya Karatosic went into labor, her friend Sara Chapman drove her to the hospital. And she stayed -- through the whole thing -- spending two days in a hospital room, sleeping, when she could, in the room's single, uncomfortable chair.
She was the first person, besides Karatosic herself and the doctor and nurse, to hold baby Cynthia.
She even took a few days off from work later when Karatosic, a single mom, was feeling overwhelmed by her colicky first-born, just to help out.
Karatosic and Chapman were neighbors. They lived in the same Ravenswood Manor condominium building for a couple of years. More than that, they were friends.
Even the word friendship seems a less-than-adequate way to describe their bond, which is something more like being part of a family. But, of course, they're not really family. Not legally. Not officially.
And so, on Friday night, after Sara Chapman died in the Cook County Administration Building fire, detectives came to her building to look for her real family. They knocked on every door and on the window of Karatosic's basement studio.
"Do you know Sara?" they asked. "Do you know Sara?"
Of the six people who died so needlessly and horribly in last Friday's fire, two -- the 38-year-old Chapman and 51-year-old Felice Lichaw -- were single women who lived alone.
This is how the system works: Something bad happens to you, the police check your ID, then they start trying to track down your relatives so they can tell them about it.
But this process doesn't account for the "urban tribe," a term coined by journalist Ethan Watters to describe the collection of friends and acquaintances, which has become, for increasing numbers of us, something like an extended family -- or a substitute for the family we aren't yet having.
Who would get the call if the worst thing happened to you?
What would your neighbors be able to tell the detectives about you?
And, if the detectives came into your apartment, as they did Felice Lichaw's little one-bedroom place in Logan Square, looking for clues, what would they find out about who you are? Who would they determine is the person "closest" to you?
As fewer and fewer people live in traditional families, it might be time to rethink the whole idea of family notification.
And, morbid as it might seem, maybe single people need a special version of a will, a set of instructions on whom to notify, something we could put on file somewhere and then try really, really hard to forget.
Domestic partner laws are finally catching up to the reality that some people fall in love and choose to spend their lives with people of the same sex. But there are also plenty of other forms of relationships -- with roommates, best friends and long-term, non-living-together romantic partners -- that lots of us choose to put at the centers of our lives.
Last Friday night, detectives couldn't tell Sonya Karatosic exactly what had happened to her friend. "She's in the hospital," was all they would say about the woman who gave her a crib for her baby and who was her "three-in-the-morning friend," the one she would never hesitate to call about anything.
Fortunately, Karatosic happened to have a phone number for Chapman's mother, whom she'd met at a Mother's Day celebration in May. The detectives called Susan Chapman at her Glenview home and told her they'd be right there.
Chapman's family, a tight-knit North Shore clan including three sisters and a brother, knows how close she and Karatosic were. They've included her in their mourning.
It could easily have been different.
Felice Lichaw's family lives in Ohio. When the detectives came to her apartment building, her neighbors didn't know what to tell them -- two of them had just moved into the building and hadn't even met any of their neighbors; others didn't know much more than Lichaw's name. Eventually, Lichaw's landlord, Juan Delvalle, came and unlocked the door to her third-floor walkup, letting the detectives in. They looked through her photos and the pile of mail on her kitchen table. Her mother's return address was there.
"She never had anyone over here," Delvalle said, standing in the apartment where Lichaw had lived since long before Delvalle ever bought the building. "But I think she used to go out to dinner with people a lot."
Lichaw's mother, Bette, knew that her daughter had lots of friends, that she used to crochet things for people, that she was the godmother of a baby born to a couple she'd fixed up on a blind date. But she didn't know the names of many of those people -- Felice Lichaw's urban tribe -- or how exactly to get in touch with them. She didn't know who to invite to her daughter's funeral.
Who would get the call if the worst thing happened to you? And who, in turn, would they call?
Maybe what we need is some sort of tribal registry, some record of our connections to each other. Maybe it's time to find a way to notify the families we create for ourselves, not just the ones we're born into.