Monday, May 23, 2011

April's Passing Milestones

April is an interesting month. It is the month in which both of my parents died. My father died on April 13, 1961, when I was 11 years old. We all expect our parents to die at some point, but to have that happen at so young an age is not the norm. However, I vividly remember several other elementary school friends who lost parents in 1961 and 1962 so maybe it was the norm back then.

If I am thankful for one memory of my dad - it was the memory I have of him the night before he died. We had the best time that night. He left for work early in the morning at 4:30 a.m. six days a week (before we awoke for the day so we didn’t get to see him until he returned in the early evening). He and his brother owned a poultry business on Maine Avenue in Washington, DC. Occasionally we would take a “field trip” to visit him at the warehouse. It was so cold there (and I guess he was used to that temperature because he would sleep in one of the bedrooms with an air conditioner set to around 50 degrees). I remember lots of chickens and turkeys (on occasion) strutting around the warehouse. It never really occurred to me what happened to the chickens after we left – but I remember eating lots of chicken while I was growing up.

On Sundays, he would drop my sister and I off at church (back then I was a Methodist) and after church he would pick us up and take us to visit his mother, our dear grandmother. She lived in an apartment about 20 minutes from our house, with her spinster sister as my grandfather had died several years before. On the way to grandmother’s house, my dad would sing songs to us, and he didn’t have the gift of music that I was fortunate enough to have inherited. He sang off key on the entire ride to her house. It was always a fun time for me.

My grandmother always had a bowl of vanilla ice cream with Nabisco Brown Edged Wafers for us when we visited. She was a very gentile Virginia woman and I loved our weekly visits with her. I used to feed the squirrels outside of her apartment each week. They would come right up to me to get the peanuts my grandmother would buy for the squirrels.

Anyway, the evening before he died was so much fun. We laughed and joked around all evening. I remember something about one of the Marlboro Man commercials on TV that we laughed about. We had such a great night and when I woke up the next morning, my aunt was at the house. I thought that was strange and she said that my mom had taken my dad to the hospital in the middle of the night because he wasn’t feeling well.

A short time later, my mother came in the door and asked my sister and I to come with her to her bedroom. There she told us that our dad had died. She said he had a “small heart attack” at home and the ambulance came and took him to the hospital. It was at the hospital that he had a second massive heart attack which killed him. I remember thinking what a great night we had just 12 hours earlier and how everything had changed in the morning.

The next several days were busy with funeral preparations, relatives, friends and neighbors visiting the house and bringing food, and lots of phone calls. I also remember discussing the funeral arrangements with my mother and making the decision not to attend the funeral. Fifty years later, I have never regretted that decision. I have such wonderful memories of my dad from the evening before and that is how I will always remember him.

My grandmother died about eleven years later and I did go to the funeral – she was 97 years old and although she looked like she was sleeping, I still remember her in the casket. Her poor body gave out, but she was an amazing person with wonderful memories to share with everyone, even up to the end of her life. She was alive for the first Wright Brothers plane flight and the first walk on the moon  - what a time period she lived through.

Fast forward to April 26, 1986 – the day, twenty five years ago, my mother died. My mom had been sick for awhile and was in need of a heart transplant, however, with her medical complications and her age, that wasn’t an option. I spoke to her the night before she died. Our local neighborhood group was participating in our city parade the next morning. Each family in our group represented a different decade, beginning with the Gay 90s through the turbulent 60s. We had great costumes and even won a monetary award from the city. When I got home, there was a message on the answering machine – my cousin said to call him. I knew when I heard that message that my mom was dead and sure enough, when he answered the phone, he didn’t have to say anything – I said, “I know, she’s dead.” My sister had stopped by to see her and found her dead in her condo. Once again, going from a “natural high” from the parade to a “natural low” from the news of her death.

I was 36 when she died. My children were 12, 10 and 6. I indicated that I didn’t want an open casket at the funeral home. Instead we had lots of photos of my mother throughout the room. I remember how many comments we received that evening about all the photos – people thought it was a great idea and they were able to remember my mom as she was – with a smile on her face, throughout many decades with clothing to reflect those decades. We had a graveside service for her as she joined my dad in the cemetery (with my grandparents) in the same area. Since then my aunt and uncle were buried near them so it’s kind of like a family reunion to visit the cemetery.

When I look at the calendar, I marvel that their death dates were within two weeks of each other, in the same month, although 25 years apart. And now it’s been 25 years since my mom died and 50 years since my dad died. I’m so grateful that my children have had a totally different experience with their parents and hope we will be around for many more years to come. For some reason, those numbers really struck me this year.

I know that losing my dad at such a young age taught me a lot of things and made me grow up faster than if he had died when most parents die – in his seventies or eighties. I have a painting in my house that my mom had commissioned from a photo of my dad and he has a small grin on his face in the painting. I can totally remember him looking like that when I was a little child. I sometimes wonder what life would have been like if my dad hadn’t died, but then I remember we all are given situations we have to learn to live with and that, in the end, makes us who we are. I am just so grateful for the childhood memories of that wonderful night before he died. I think he would have been proud of the woman, wife and parent I became.