Last week, my blog To Arm or No to Arm? dealt with my perspective regarding the increased debate on gun control after the mass shooting at Parkland, Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School. This week I’d like to consider the people who survived the tragedy, particularly the parents and siblings, spouses and children of the victims. My story this week relates the time when I suffered the loss of an immediate family member. Although the circumstances were far less tragic in my case, I empathize with the pain the folks in Parkland must be enduring and wish them best.
As always, thanks for stopping by.
May 3, 1985. My wife and I stood on the concrete porch in front of the 1930s brick home on Rambler Drive. The door opened revealing an elderly man with gray fringe around his ears and a hide-my-baldness wisp of hair over the top. The dark red, tortoise-shell reading glasses he’d owned since the ’50s were poised upon his nose.
“Hi, Dad,” I said as my wife and I stepped inside.
“Hi yourself,” my father replied and extended his hand––the typical Miller greeting.
This time, however, he followed the handshake with an emotional hug. Something I was unaccustomed to. My wife received the same salutation, then the three of us proceeded around the divider that separated the entryway from the rest of the living room. My oldest brother, Dave, and his wife had arrived earlier. Both of them rose from their seats to exchange similar regards. Our “middle brother,” Gene, wouldn’t arrive from California until the following day.
“How are ya?” Dave asked, and followed with the standard Miller ritual.
“Fine I suppose,” I said, and fulfilled my half of the rite.
“Anyone care for something to drink? Iced tea, soda, water?” Dad asked and pointed to us one by one.
“No, thank you.”
“Sure, iced tea sounds good.”
“I’ll second that request for an iced tea.”
“Just water for me, thanks.”
My father completed the order. “And I’ll have some iced tea, too.”
Dave and I parked our fannies on our mother’s favorite love seats while our wives followed the family patriarch into the kitchen.
Dave and I sat mute until finally he spoke up. “Kinda weird that Mom died on the same day as Elaine, isn’t it?”
I stared. “Really? I didn’t realize that.”
“Yeah. Thirty-eight years apart to the day.”
“Wow. That is strange.”
A brief silence passed once more before Dad and our wives returned from the kitchen. Once refreshments were handed out, we all settled in and anticipated the impending discussion.
We’d gathered at the family homestead to talk about funeral arrangements for Mom, who had passed away that morning. She’d suffered and endured the effects of two bouts with cancer, plus a stroke. Her death had created mixed feelings.
As he so often did, my father took control and started the session. Although we knew he grieved, Dad approached the task at hand with the organized, businesslike manner he’d used to conduct the majority of his life.
“First off, Mom has been taken to Hoffmeister Colonial for the visitation and the initial service.”
No surprise there. Hoffmeister had become our family funeral outlet. Dad had previously informed us that when it was his turn, the same mortuary should handle his affairs.
“After the service, we’ll proceed to the cemetery where…”
We each paid attention as Dad detailed the schedule of events that would dominate our lives for the next two days.
“What about an obituary notice in the newspaper?” Dave asked.
“Yes. We need to make sure there’s a notice in the Post so that people we haven’t been able to contact are aware of Mom’s death,” my wife added.
Dad smiled. “Funny you should mention it. That was the next item on my list.”
We briefly shared Dad’s grin, then the five of us mulled over the wording for Mom’s obituary until we had a brief, but concise copy. My mother’s personal effects were next on the agenda, which aroused little debate regarding Dad’s intended dispersal of her belongings.
While we patiently listened to him review the contents of his inventory, my eyes wandered around the living room, to features I’d been accustomed to since childhood. The carpet on the floor and the paint on the walls had changed hues over the years, but some aspects of the space would never vary. A TV remained in the alcove beside the entryway––the old black and white long ago replaced by a color set. The furniture, including the pair of loveseats Mom was so pleased to have owned, was still arranged the same way it had been since each item’s arrival. I glanced toward the east-facing, triple windows on the front wall and recalled how morning sun had shined through and bathed me in warmth on cold winter days. Above them, an arched, stained-glass panel had tinted those warming rays and projected a prism of light on the opposite wall.
I focused on the photograph of the smiling young girl who had always been a part of our home’s décor. Elaine was our parent’s first child. Although Mom sincerely loved us all, Elaine was the one she held most dear. Elaine was the sister I never had a chance to know. The daughter I might have replaced if I hadn’t been born with the wrong equipment.
Remembering what Dave had mentioned earlier regarding the correlation of dates between my mother’s death and Elaine’s, I wondered how coincidental the two events really were.
My mind returned to the reason we’d gathered on this day. The woman who made these surroundings a home had died. The same woman who had nursed me back to health when I was ill. The woman who had walked two miles in knee-deep snow one day to ensure I safely arrived home from grade school. The woman who had always been available to talk to whenever I had a problem. The woman who had taught me about love, compassion, and empathy. And the same woman who was no longer alive to share even one of these wonderful memories.
The lump in my throat felt as if I’d swallowed a softball. A flood of emotion filled my eyes. Even though I was in the company of family who shared the loss, I suddenly felt so alone, so abandoned and overwhelmed with sadness. Without explanation, I rose from my chair and hurried from the room to escape and release my anguish.
In the back yard, I stood facing the mulberry tree that had grown along with me to overshadow the small enclosure, the fruit-bearing source of many purple-stained t-shirts in our neighborhood. Sunlight filtered through its branches and leaves upon my grief-stained cheeks as I breathed deeply and tried to compose myself.
The back door opened and closed behind me. I assumed my wife had followed to check on me and do her best to bolster my spirit. Seconds later, Dave proved me wrong when he touched my shoulder and said, “It’s okay. I know how you feel.”
I turned and spotted his moistened eyes. He responded by delivering the second unexpected hug of the day. I understood then that I wasn’t alone. Others shared my deep sorrow and we would be okay.
After a few moments, my brother and I stood back, wiped our cheeks, and smiled. We returned to the living room, where we encountered three puzzled expressions.
I tried to explain, “I’m sorry. All at once it hit me that Mom’s really gone.”
No apologies were necessary. The five of us joined in a family embrace and released a shower of emotion as one.
Many years have passed since Mom’s departure. Hugs never replaced handshakes in the Miller family greeting. Instead, they became a welcome addition to the ritual.
Two years after Mom’s death, my father moved to a retirement village in Arkansas. Moving day for him was my final opportunity to enter the home of my youth.
In July 2000, Dad passed away as well, which turned another page in the chapter of our family’s history.
A genetic disorder, with a medical name long enough to fill an encyclopedia robbed my two brothers of their ability to recall past events, and eventually took both of their lives.
I’ll never know whether Dave ever recalled our back-yard encounter. But the memory of that extraordinary spring day on Rambler Drive, when a special lady reached down and touched her family once more, will linger in my mind forever.