Friday, March 21, 2014

On This Date in 1999 (March 21, part 2)

On Friday, during the return trip from Warren to Middleton, I spent most of my time in the passenger’s seat writing down my thoughts about the past few days. I used the backs of picture postcards I bought at the first rest area we stopped at. 

“What are you doing, Dad?” Eddie asked once he and Andy and Mom finished a round of 20 questions. 

“I’m writing some postcards,” I answered cryptically. 

“Who are they for?” he wondered. 

“They’re for all of us. I’m writing about Grandpa and everything that’s happened recently,” I explained.

And so, I’d like to share these thoughts with you. You may not understand all of the references or recognize all of the names, but I think you’ll enjoy reading these reflections nonetheless.

I left the house at 2:52 Tuesday afternoon, coinciding with the boys’ dismissal from school, timing my travel preparations and houseorderly tasks to perfection. I found Eddie standing expectantly along the curve of Elm Lawn School’s semi-circular driveway.

“Where’s your brother?” I asked him, a trace of annoyance in my voice.

I scanned the area looking for a blue-and-yellow Michigan jacket.

George Mavrolis, the school principal, approached and made a comment about the unseasonably warm weather. He then asked Eddie if he knew when the first day of spring was, but Eddie seemed not to hear him and continued to gaze at some unfocused distance.

“Eddie, Mr. Mavrolis asked you a question,” I prompted, my words accompanied by a little nudge to his shoulder.

Eddie refused to make eye contact but managed to mumble the correct answer. 

I was on the verge of asking George if Andy’s class had been dismissed, but two things stopped me from forming this question. First of all, I didn’t want George to think that Andy had fucked up (again), to put it in the crude vernacular. Then Andy walked out of the school. 

After a quick stop home so Andy could drop off his trumpet case and pick up a couple pillows, we drove to the Loraine Building just off the capitol square. All three of us rode the elevator to the ninth floor to retrieve Mom and escort her to the van. JoAnna’s desk is located just outside the Attorney General’s office, which provides a spectacular view of the capitol. 

We merged onto the interstate at 4 o’clock and remained in motion, for the most part, until 10:00. We chose the direct route through Chicago, which resulted in stop-and-go delays along a stretch of the Kennedy Expressway from two miles west of O’Hare until a mile or so past the I-94 interchange. I felt stressed and eager to give up my turn at the wheel. Occasional yelps and squeals from the boys only served to exacerbate my anxiety. A few times I turned my head and barked a staccato “Boys!” over my right shoulder. 

We switched drivers at the first rest area east of Gary on the Indiana Toll Road. Since it was too dark to read and I wasn’t in the mood to continue listening to The Good Mother, I turned my thoughts toward our destination and started to fret about our arrival time, doing some math, mostly subtraction, in the process. 

Let’s see. We left Madison at 4 p.m. The visitation at the funeral home begins at 2:00 tomorrow afternoon. That leaves us with 22 hours. Minus one for the change in time zone. 21. With the delay through Chicago, the entire trip will take 12 hours. 9. Before I worked my way through these calculations, I had a panicky vision of pulling into the driveway of 4 East Third Avenue at quarter of 2, the four of us racing unsuccessfully against time to get into our dress clothes and drive to the funeral home before the first mourners arrive. 

We stayed at a Motel 8 literally a stone’s throw from the Wauseon exit of the Ohio Turnpike, 356 miles under our belt, which erased my fears of a chaotic tomorrow. Andy quickly slid into a pouty mood when his parents took control of the TV, JoAnna and I preferring to unwind to scenes of urban realism (Law & Order) instead of cartoon fantasies. 

At 5:30 a.m., the alarm quickly buzzed its way into my consciousness. It took us an hour to rouse ourselves, get dressed, and pack the van. I returned the room key to the office and helped myself to two cinnamon rolls, the most appetizing continental breakfast choices. I would have eaten one myself had some coffee been brewed, willing to make a rare exception to my now-in-its-second-year java prohibition. 

We arrived in Warren at quarter to 12. JoAnna became weepy when she embraced Mom, but Mom kept her composure, which I felt was a significant sign of things to come. Ruth Benander, Dad’s sister, had arrived the previous day, flying into Jamestown from Chicago via Pittsburgh, after a bus trip from Rockford to O’Hare, a tiring trek for anyone, let alone an 85 year old who had just lost her sister-in-law, her dead husband’s twin, and her beloved younger brother in a 2-week period. She looked worn down, deeply tired, the flip side of her sunny appearance and vivacious manner when JoAnna and I saw her at Charles’s wedding during the late afternoon of February 28th, a few hours before she learned of Ruthie’s death. 

We changed clothes at the house rather than drive the seven miles to Larry and Kim’s camp, where we’d be spending the two nights of our brief, “unscheduled” visit. A single question looped through my mind at this time. How am I going to react once I see Dad’s made-up, withered body lying in a casket? 

Not as strongly as I anticipated, it turned out. We all approached the open casket cautiously, Dad’s presence like the subtle pull of the moon. I briefly studied his face: the unnaturally orange skin tone, the larger-than-I-remembered nostrils, the lips sewn shut, pursed into a position that the Parkinson’s Disease had made it impossible for him to do on his own. I walked away knowing that I’d never be able to obliterate this sad image from my mind but fiercely determined to focus on images of happy and proud times: Dad’s authoritative yet kindly presence in the pulpit, his ear-to-ear grin while water-skiing behind Uncle Harry’s powerful Chris Craft, his joie de vivre in the company of friends like the fellow Lutheran pastor and his wife Warren and Anna Hollertz. 

I nervously awaited the first guests to arrive at the funeral home, occasionally feeling a trickle of perspiration run down the side of my body, soaked up by my t-shirt before it reached my waist. I hoped to first greet people I didn’t know (or didn’t remember) to help me finetune my emotional thermostat. This approach was quickly overruled as soon as I caught a glimpse of the first arrival. Yolanda Peroski (the mother of Mardi, one of my best friends from high school) walked straight toward me, bypassing Dale at the head of the reception line. As soon as she embraced me, my self-control collapsed and I blubbered some incoherent remark in response to her expression of sympathy. I quickly regained my composure, not because I was embarrassed by the tears reddening my eyes, wetting my face, and thickening my voice, but rather because this emotional bubble burst of its own accord and allowed me to proceed through the rest of the afternoon (and evening) in an almost serene state of mind. 

Mom gave her children much to be proud of. She conducted herself with great poise and dignity, graciously acknowledging the many heartfelt expressions of sympathy. She never once lost her composure and always had a ready word to diffuse any discomfort or tension that might have tried to creep into the room. 

During the two hours of the afternoon, the people seemed to come in waves. At one point, the three main rooms of the funeral home were filled with people and the sound of overlapping conversations. Then, as if Mark Patterson, the funeral home director, had waved a magic wand, the rooms cleared, allowing the family to break formation, sit down, bend or twist at the waist to relieve lower back pain, get a drink of water, and talk quietly among ourselves. 

The boys, not surprisingly or unexpectedly, were not able to last through the entire afternoon visitation. I think Eddie found it too creepy being in the same room with a dead body, even if (or, more likely, especially since) it was Grandpa’s. Barb volunteered, perhaps a tad too eagerly, to take the boys home. She seemed surprised when JoAnna and I informed her that they could be left on their own for an hour. 

“I think I’ll have some tea before I come back,” Barb announced, as if to tell us not to expect her immediate return. 

Warren and Anna Hollertz arrived around 3 o’clock, and after working their way through the reception line – you could see Mom’s face visibly light up when she greeted them – they talked with Ruth until 4:00. They joined us for a portion of a well-deserved intermission at the house. The food – cold cuts, buns, pasta salad, fruit salad -- was all donated by considerate well-wishers. Feeling a need for some fresh air, JoAnna and I excused ourselves to take a walk, enjoying a taste of mid-March, later-afternoon balminess. Our route followed a wide, narrow rectangle: Conewango Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue, across the street to Water Street to Fifth Avenue, and back across the creek to Conewango. Then we joined the others at the dining room table. 

The first hour of the evening visitation provided us with a mostly steady stream of hands to shakes and sympathies to acknowledge. If I choked up at Yolanda’s appearance, how sloppy am I going to be when Barb and Mardi arrive? I wondered. As it turned out, they showed up separately and both received a clear-eyed, catch-free greeting from me. With no guests to greet during the second hour, Barb and Mardi and JoAnna and I shot the breeze until it was time to leave. 

Time to backtrack, to rewind the tape two hours and twenty minutes. The phone rang as we were getting ready to leave for the evening visitation.. Standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the dining room, I was able to pick it up on the first ring.

“Hello,” I announced cheerily.

“Is Marion there?” a familiar voiced asked.

“Yes, she is, but we’re just about to leave the house for the funeral home. Is this Gen?” (Gen is Mom’s younger sister. She and her husband Ed live in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts.) 

She seemed both surprised and disappointed that I had been able to identify her voice, as if I had uncovered a secret before she could spring it on us. And this phone call was all about a BIG surprise. 

Less than ten seconds after I handed the phone to Mom, we heard her exclaim, “You’re in Warren!?” 

Gen was calling from the room that she and Ed had just checked into at the Holiday Inn. Earlier in the week, Gen had informed Mom that they wouldn’t be able to attend Dad’s funeral, no doubt already having planned this sisterly bit of subterfuge. JoAnna and I haven’t seen Gen and Ed since Larry and Kim’s wedding almost 12 years ago. Gen has a prominent widow’s hump due to her osteoporosis, but otherwise looks great. She still colors her hair, which helps to solidify her status as Marion’s younger sister. Despite his heart problems, Ed looks to be in good shapes for his 75 years. He’s still as quick as ever with an amusing story or a witty aside. After the evening visitation, they joined us for another of our relaxed family gatherings around the dining room table. We adjourned around 10:00, and an hour later, Mom and Dad and the boys were at the cabin, in bed, with the lights (and TV) off. 

When I called home the previous Sunday evening to learn the specifics of Dad’s funeral arrangements, Mom asked me to read two scripture passages at Thursday’s service. How could I refuse? Immediately, though, I had to ask myself: Emotionally, am I going to be up to the task? 

Before going to sleep Wednesday and right after waking up Thursday, I carefully practiced reading both passages, Philippians 4: 4-7 and I Corinthians 13 (the entire chapter), concentrating on the longer passage. Sometimes I reread a certain phrase or sentence until my tongue and lips could form the words effortlessly. “Childish speech” provided the biggest challenge, saying these two words in succession without sounding like my speech was slurred. 

The funeral was scheduled for 11:00, but the family had to be at the church at quarter to ten since there was a final visitation and viewing of the body one hour prior to the service.

An impressive contingent of ministers, numbering more than a dozen, attended the funeral. Jim Seeley, on of my best friends was grade school, was part of this group. We had a chance to reminisce about the grief we used to give our Sunday school teachers and the wiffle ball games we played at the Jefferson Street schoolyard. I neglected to mention our Saturday afternoons at the bowling alley with Dave Blair and Bob Feldman, which we dubbed “Beat the Jelly”, a reference to Jim’s protuberant stomach, a shape he has maintained through the years.

Mom had selected Roger Thelin, Howard Ford, Tom Scarcella, as well as her three sons to serve as pallbearers. Later, JoAnna would comment on how unusual this arrangement seemed, that the immediate members of the family generally do not serve in this capacity.

“It would have been nice if we could have all sat together as a family,” she said.

As it turned out, there was not enough room for me to sit in the family pew.

As we wheeled the casket to the front of the church, I could feel a succession of small tremors of emotion inside of me. I was unable to sing along to the first hymn, “Amazing Grace”. In fact, I found that I couldn’t even mouth the words. 

The scripture readings took place early in the 45-minute service, after a choir anthem. I read the two selections with surprising assurance, although halfway through the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians, I felt another one of those emotional bubbles start to rise up my throat. I was able to swallow it unobtrusively, my voice remaining unbroken, although it must have had a quivering pitch for a brief moment. When I returned to the pew, Roger Thelin leaned toward me and whispered, “Great job,” as my body convulsed slightly while it briefly wrestled with a strange mixture of relief and grief.

During the bishop’s homily, I felt a stab of emotion when he made reference to Dad’s retirement party at this same location in 1981and quoted one of the parishioners as saying, “We are going to miss him. We love him so much.” To my ears, the sharp sound that involuntarily escaped my throat seemed to echo throughout the church, carrying with it a jagged note of pain.

A luncheon was held in the church’s fellowship hall immediately following the service. Once people had finished their meal, Mom visited each table and chatted amiably with our guests. She seemed to know every move that was required of her in this difficult situation, as if offering help and giving advice were, like Abby and Ann Landers, her life’s work.

Drained by the intense emotionalism of the past 24 hours, I was relieved to return to the house and unwind. I did so in grand style, falling asleep on the recliner in the living room for two blissful hours of unconsciousness. I woke up refreshed. The family, all ten of us – Mom, Larry, Kim, Barb, Dale, Ruth, JoAnna, Andy, Eddie, and me – went out to dinner Tootsie’s Restaurant at the Holiday Inn. For Mom, this was her first evening out in more than three years, perhaps even twice that long if I really think about it. Dale surprised everyone by volunteering to pay the tab. Larry and I couldn’t even talk him into a three-way split. Later, JoAnna and I wondered if this outcome had been prearranged. Mom had a certain determined look on her face toward the end of our meal, I noticed, as I was keeping an eye out on the waitress for our bill. 

The evening ended with one more gathering around the dining room table. 

Dad will certainly be missed, but his death was a welcome blessing. Parkinson’s had reduced him to a mere shell of his former self. During the last ten days of his life, he couldn’t sit up, eat solid foods – had become as helpless as the day he was born, had come full circle in his 83 years of life. The visitation and funeral helped me, and the rest of the family, I’m sure, to put a big exclamation point at the end of his life. As we heard so many times on Wednesday and Thursday, Dad touched many people’s lives very deeply. 

The boys and I will be back in Pennsylvania at the end of this week. Mom will no longer be housebound, all her days taken up by her duty as Dad’s caregiver. For the first time in a few years, she’ll really able to focus her attention on the boys.

Hope all is going well with you in Arizona. We send you our love.

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