Thursday, May 24, 2007

 

In Which I Count to 43 (you do the math)...



I meant to write something yesterday, on my birthday--when I turned 39, for those of you keeping score. But for some reason I just didn't have it in me. This is my first full week back at work and I'm completely overwhelmed. Not because my staff let things go in my absence, just the opposite. It's just...the business of getting back to my life, finding my groove. Heavens, but it's exhausting.

At work, anyway. At home, most everything is a balm to my soul, even the daily and nightly annoyances, in their way. I left work last night to go to Thomas' baseball game--his team is in first place, and they would be defending their title against a really tough team of hitters. But then majestic purple clouds blew in from the West and an electrical storm, fierce and beautiful, drove us to our cars. Thomas hates storms and cried a little, so while we waited for the storm to abate, I soothed him with the tale of the time a tornado touched down on the roof of the house we rented in Kansas. You'd think this would be like putting out the fire with a can of gasoline, but Thomas is easily distracted by tales of disaster, and the Time the Tornado Landed on the House was a good one to tell him last night.

For one thing, it also happened in late May, quite probably May 24, my parents' wedding anniversary, which is the day after my birthday (at least, it has been for as long as I've been around). I do know I had just turned 10 because the downstairs was still littered with wrapping paper and the rent boxes of new toys. I also know that none of us had the slightest idea what was going on at the very height of our danger.

So for our purposes, let's just say it was the dead of night on my parents' 14th anniversary when the storm came. But even if it had been broad daylight, we wouldn't have heard much of the storm. We lived in one of the oldest houses in town, a huge place, with 10 rooms, 12-foot-high ceilings, and walls of more than a foot thick, seeing as they were made almost exclusively of plaster and field stone. This made the house bone cold in the winter, but deliciously cool in the summer. The walls also tended to deaden most any sound from the outside.

(And if you don't believe me, you can go there yourself and spend a night. The place is a bed-and-breakfast now. My old room, if you want it, is the one directly over the old kitchen, where the stovepipe used to come through the floor from below.)

So at first we heard only the distant patter of rain, but then the rain stopped and we thought the storm had moved on. A few moments later, we heard the muted roar of a freight train, but again we thought nothing of it. The Santa Fe railroad went right through our back yard, in a ditch less than 40 feet from the end of the house. In the 1970s, they often sent freight through in the dead of night and we'd long become inured to the noise of the cars as they rumbled past.

Then the house shook and we heard an ungodly racket on the roof and watched through the front windows as a deadly rain of slate shingles slid off the top of the house and embedded shards to a depth of two feet in our front yard.

Dramatists that we were, my Big Brother and I were sure a tornado had struck us a glancing blow (we did live in Kansas after all. Surely it was only a matter of time before a tornado swept us away). My dad, however, sagely announced that a bolt of lightning must have hit one of the corners, and in the morning, when he climbed up to the roof to survey the damage, it certainly seemed that way. A large, long gouge wended its way from the northwest corner of the house, along the peak, and then disappeared about midway along the length of the roof, where one of the lightning rods that had been up there for more than a century was simply gone. Blown to smithereens, we thought. That settled it for my dad. He assured us that had a tornado touched down on the house, it would have been like the finger of God, and would surely have wrought more destruction than tearing off a few shingles.

But then a week later, my mom was upstairs vacuuming one of the little-used rooms at the back of the house--in the northwest corner--and noticed that everything seemed dustier in this room. Brighter too. It took her a moment, but it finally registered that light seemed to be coming from the far corner of the room.

Through a four-inch wide crack in the stone wall of the house.

"It was a heavenly light," my mom recalled later. "So pretty, filtering in from outside. It gave the room a glow." But a second after that, she began screaming her brains out and made us evacuate the house, so fearful was she that now the whole place would collapse.

She needn't have worried--if the house was going to cave, it would have done so long before. That didn't make the damage less impressive, though. The crack ran all the way up the northwest corner of the house where, apparently, a tornado had indeed touched down for the briefest of moments. Think about that: No more than a second or two, and yet it had sufficient force to make a four-inch crack that ran 24 feet down the length of a 16-inch-thick stone wall.

It made us quite the celebrities in town. Tornado experts from all over, and even the Channel 13 news van from Topeka, paid a visit to survey the damage. My favorite looky-loos, though, were the old codgers in town who'd seen houses blown away by tornadoes past. They came to look, and to tell their tales of death and weird destruction--trucks swept up in cyclones and deposited safely back on the road, but with their occupants gone; blades of grass driven with unnatural velocity through phone poles and statues and even cows. And now we were another story in their repertoires: the funnel that cracked the house open, walnut-style, but spared the family inside, who didn't even realize what happened. For a week.


Thomas became so absorbed in the story, he failed to notice the hail that briefly pounded us as we splashed home, which was of course the point. And by the time we got in the house, and the hail had reverted to an ungodly pounding rain, it didn't matter anyway, because a homemade cake was waiting for me, made special by Her Lovely Self and the Brownie (with the Éclair supervising).

As I blew out the candles in one puff and the kids yelled, the poor Éclair jumped and squealed in her seat, startled. Thomas comforted her briefly. "It's okay, baby Elizabeth," he said. "It's not like a tornado hit us."

Of course, a tornado has hit us, more than a glancing blow, and it will take us more than a week, more than a year, to realize how hard we've truly been hit.

Sitting with my family last night, eating cake and opening presents and telling stories loud enough to drown out the storm outside, I prayed for strength and grace in the time to come. Strength to face that damage when I would finally grasp the fullness of it.

And grace to stare into those ugly cracks and to see the light beyond.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

 

What really matters...



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After two grueling weeks in New Hampshire and a hideous 36-hour drive to and from Indiana (of which more later), I awoke this morning sick and crying, but in my own bed, surrounded by my family.

And right now, that's enough to make me content.

Indeed, that's all that really matters.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

 

In Which We Pay Our Respects...

Wednesday, my parents came home.

We went to see them at the funeral home. The funeral director, a lovely woman who knew my parents, warned us that she was not satisfied with the cosmetic work that her husband had performed, although he had done his level best. Mom and Dad had numerous cuts and bruises on their faces and this alone would have altered their appearance, no matter how much make-up was applied. But it didn't help matters that the coroner had to autopsy their skulls, which required making an incision in the back of the head, an act that couldn't help but alter their facial features.

The funeral director was right to warn us.

I entered the darkened viewing room and a hush fell over my life. In one coffin, there was a corpse with a beard and glasses, wearing my dad's old suit. The face of the corpse was slathered in waxen makeup that barely hid the black bruises beneath, and did absolutely nothing to shadow the swelling on one side of the corpse’s head. This body resembled my dad only slightly.

In the other coffin lay the body of a woman I didn't recognize, so severe was the swelling from numerous facial injuries. The body had hands that looked like my mother's--one hand even sported her wedding ring--but otherwise, this body looked nothing like my mom.

My Big Brother stood next to me, eyes wide, lips pressed together, as though he were afraid to speak or utter any kind of sound.

"Doesn't even look like them," he finally said.

"It's not. It's not them. They're not here," I agreed.

"We can't let people see them like this," BB said. I nodded. We told the funeral director it would be a closed-casket viewing, and except for a few close family members--my parents' brother and sisters--no one else saw the two bodies in the coffins.

"You okay?" BB asked as we drove home. He looked as waxen as the corpse that resembled our dad.

"Fine," I said, staring out the window. "I'm fine."

That night, Her Lovely Self called.

"You okay?" she asked.

"Fine," I said. "I'm fine."

There was a long pause. "How did they look?" she finally asked.

"Just awful," I blurted. Then, for the first time since hearing the awful news almost a week ago, I started crying.



Thursday, we met the mourners.

The viewing started at 4 and for the next three hours, BB and I were overrun by an army of well-wishers. I was reminded obscenely of my wedding reception, when I got to see people from so many different chapters in my life mingling and interacting with one another, as though every character from every book you ever loved were mashed into one unlikely opus. Here were Chris and Mike, my best friends from childhood. Standing next to them were my dad's cousins, the whole clan of them, who I recognized on the spot even though I hadn't seen them in 30 years. Here was one of my editors, who flew in for the funeral, rubbing elbows with one of Her Lovely Self's best friends, someone who had met my parents only once, but who came to pay her respects to them.

There were groups as well as individuals. Dozens of my brother's coworkers arrived as one to comfort him. A contingent of local members of AA showed up, sober-faced but all looking like they could use a drink, men and women my dad had helped either as their sponsor or just by being at their regular meetings as he had for the past 20-plus years. Several of my mom's friends showed up, women that she had coffee with or spent hours on the phone with (an inexhaustible talker, my mom was). They just kept coming. Later, I counted more than 250 signatures in the guest book, and many of those were signatures on behalf of entire families who had come.

To give them something to view besides two closed caskets, we had hung several collages of photos, ranging from one of the few surviving pictures from my parents' wedding to a 70s era snap of my parents standing on a doorstep in Maine, my dad with a bushy red beard and a long swoop of thinning black hair; my mom next to him, slim and beautiful in a stylish topcoat, her flaming red hair in an almost festive perm. In another collage, my dad winked into the camera, a wonderful candid shot from our visit last summer. Next to it, a letter from the Brownie, saying goodbye to her Grandma and Papa, and hoping that they have a good time in heaven. It was hopelessly mawkish and yet it brought a tear to the eyes of every person who read it.

The priest from the local Catholic church was supposed to come and say a prayer, but due to a miscommunication, he didn't show. The mourners milled about, some kneeling before the closed coffins, others seemed to be looking at BB or me. They seemed to be expecting something. They seemed to want a prayer, a benediction, a speech, even a simple word or two to help make sense of this utter senselessness. But BB and I had no words for them.

As the last of the mourners left, I knelt in front of the coffins and said a muddled prayer that was directed both at God and at the spirits of my parents. Wherever you are, please be all right. I don't know why You let this happen, but please look after them. I'm sorry this happened, so sorry I lived so far away. You were better parents than you thought you were and you were hands-down the best grandparents the world has ever known. Please be at peace. Please give me some sign to let me know that you're all right. Please help me find the strength to get through this.

I was interrupted by Thomas, who knelt next to me, and the Brownie, who squirmed into my kneeling lap and put her head on my chest.

"Are Grandma and Papa really in there?" she whispered, staring at the coffins.

"No honey," I whispered back. "Only their bodies. Their spirits...they're up in heaven. And they're here with us too."

She thought about this for a moment. Then she said, "Good." She slid out of my lap to go find her mother and the Eclair, her new baby sister.



Friday, we buried my parents.

Cars were parked on the shoulder for the entire length of Cemetery Road, from the town meetinghouse, where we would eventually gather for the pot-luck wake, all the way up to the very top of the hill, right up to the gate that led down the slope that overlooked the foothills beyond the valley. It was cold and windy up here, but bright and sunny too. Perfectly defined, billowing clouds skidded along the tops of the swaying evergreens. Beyond these, a mile distant, I could spy a scrap of granite poking out from the hill beyond. That was Aaron's Ledge, a favorite hiking spot that my family and I walked to at least once every summer.

I helped Her Lovely Self out of the car and got the Eclair unhooked from her seat. She wasn't happy about the stiff breeze, no not one bit, and she squawked enough that my mother-in-law finally stayed in the car with her.

I sat with BB, Her Lovely Self, and the other two kids as a wall of more than 200 people crowded around us, blocking us from the wind. Father Byron stood in the center of the circle, facing us and the small patch of earth in front of us. There on the ground sat dozens of floral arrangements--several of which baffled the family and rest of the mourners, since they were all sent in the name of one person, a mysterious but thoughtful gent named Stu. In the center of it all sat a small marble box which contained the ashes of my parents.

Father Byron leaned in to my brother. BB is the older of the both of us, after all, so it was assumed he would be the leader in all things related to the family. "Did you want to say a few words?" he asked BB. My brother blanched, began fumbling with his glasses and nervously poking at his face. "Oh, uh, no, uh, I couldn't, I just couldn't..." And then he and the priest looked at me.

"Oh, I didn't really plan anything..." I began. And it was true. If ever I thought words would fail me, it would be now.

"I think he wants to say something," Her Lovely Self said to the priest, squeezing my arm as she did. And at that second, I realized she was right after all. The priest nodded, stepped back, and began the service.

When he nodded to me and I set the Brownie from my lap to my chair and I stood to face the assembled throng, my mind went completely blank. Actually, it still is. Later, in the town hall, where we all reconvened to break bread and to share a few drinks and tell a few stories, at least a dozen people came up and grasped my hand and told me how wonderful my speech was, how much it moved them, how much it helped them to accept this tragedy. And all I could do was thank them in a slightly embarrassed way. Because the truth is, I don't really remember what I said. Not everything, anyway. But here's my best guess:

"You know," I began, my voice high and reedy as I practically shouted to be heard above the wind, "I really didn't plan to say anything. But my mom, she never would have passed up any opportunity to talk--" this drew a fond chuckle from the audience, who knew exactly what I was talking about "--and I guess I am my mother's son, so here I am.

"Just down the hill from here, right over there, my grandfather is buried. When I was little, I remember my Dad taking BB and me over to pay our respects. And he said something to me that I found myself telling my children this week, something that they would want you all to remember."

I gestured with both hands at the ground, at the marble box at my feet.

"They're not here. We're not burying them today. They're with us, in the memories we carry, in the stories we'll tell, and in the love we had for them and for each other. And they wouldn't want you to remember them here, like this. They wouldn't want you to dwell on how they died, but on how they lived. They were doing exactly what they wanted to do. They were together. And they were happy.

"They would have wanted me to thank you all for coming, but they also would have wanted you to get in out of the cold, so with that I'll just add my thanks to theirs and I look forward to sharing our stories down at the town hall."

There was more, of course, but it was just as bad and cliched as the above, so it's probably just as well that I don't remember the rest of it. I went back to my seat, where the Brownie was waiting for me. She jumped in my lap and gave me a hug.

As the priest finished his prayers, the wind seemed to increase, becoming a withering force, blowing through the crowd of mourners. All around us, people staggered and stumbled. Thomas and Her Lovely Self leaned in on either side of me and the Brownie, arms around one another, hands clasped.

And in that moment, the wind ceased to matter. Sitting there, together as a family, saying goodbye to my parents, we knew that no force, in this world or any other, could truly separate us.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

 

In Which We Put Our Affairs In Order...



I arrived in New Hampshire three days ago, but it feels like it's been one long day. I'm too tired to sleep, and there's too much to do anyway. My parents put quite a lot of their affairs in order in the past two years, and for that I've been increasingly grateful. Even so, it's been a hard slog, calling assorted insurance companies; dealing with people who manage investments and annuities; and feeling so acutely the presence of my parents' absence. Being here in their house and knowing that they are not and never will be again is almost more than I can bear.

Hardest of all was meeting the funeral director from Chadwick's Funeral Home, who came to the house on Sunday and who patiently sat with my brother and me and walked us through the macabre business of choosing coffins and deciding on assorted methods to dispose of Mom and Dad's earthly remains. Speaking of which, they arrived by freight today. This evening my brother and I will go over and see with our own eyes what has become of our parents.

Their obituaries ran in a few newspapers today, although as many of you discovered, news of their deaths has been all over the Web since the day of the accident. I spent a little time reading those stories and looking at the pictures. It's a hard thing to read about one of the cars in the accident being unrecognizable, but recognizing anyway that it was your parents' Jeep, and that they were sitting in it when it was rendered unrecognizable. It's hard to look at the aerial pictures and to see a red square on the highway and to realize immediately that it was your mother's suitcase. She was planning to spend the summer with us, caring for The Eclair. Now that bag and her clothes and all the gifts she brought for her new granddaughter, as well as for the Brownie (who turned 6 yesterday. I was here in NH already, missing her birthday for the first time in her life), all of it is sitting in storage unit in a salvage yard in Elkhart, Indiana, waiting for me and my brother to decide what to do with it.

But we have too many other things to decide first, although most of the pressing details have been settled. The viewing will be this Thursday, starting at 4. Then, Friday morning, my parents will be cremated, according to their wishes. On Friday afternoon at 2, the bulk of their remains will be buried in the town cemetery, on a slope with a view of Aaron's Ledge, one of our favorite hiking spots when I was growing up. Their grave will be just a few dozen yards from the graves of my Dad's people, my grandparents and great-grandparents. Afterwards, everyone will go down the hill to the town meetinghouse and there we'll gather and share stories about my parents. Virtually everyone in town has wanted to come by and bring with them some casserole or a salad or a plate of cookies for my brother and me, but it's just too much food. Instead, we asked a neighbor to coordinate this outpouring of sustenance and channel it into the gathering on Friday. A potluck wake, if you will.

I haven’t had much time to spend online–except to read up on the accident and to retrieve the accident report from the state Web site--but I've certainly seen and read enough to be touched and comforted by your incredible show of support. Thank you.

Because I was less than circumspect about the details of the accident, several of you easily found the news story--which included the names of those killed--and posted links to it in your own blogs. The upshot, quite aside from having blown my anonymity to smithereens--something I honestly couldn't care less about at this point--is that quite a few of you have emailed either asking or simply stating your intent to attend the funeral. I find this thought both touching and ever-so-slightly alarming.

It's a public event, of course, so you can do what you want. But I think you need to bear in mind that if you come to pay your respects, if you come over to say hello, I will be glad to see you and grateful you've come, but I will be nothing like myself, and certainly nothing like the blogger you’ve come to know here at the Masthead. This is not exactly how I imagined I would meet any of my online friends.

You also need to be aware that other characters who populate this blog will be in attendance and are not, in fact, characters at all, but real people who are grieving for the loss of my parents and who may or may not want anything to do with you.

In particular, I'm talking about my Big Brother, who is beyond distraught right now. But even if he wasn't, you need to know that he and I had a bit of a falling out about the blog a while back. I don't have time to tell you the details, but the upshot is that he doesn't come here and make comments anymore (as surely you must have noticed), and he would just as soon pretend that I don't write a blog at all. If you must greet him, fine, but just tell him you're a friend of mine.

And you are, of course, which is why I would never tell you not to come. I just want you to understand the reality you will face.

And with that said, I must leave you.

See you at the funeral.

Yours,
From Somewhere on the Masthead



And One More Thing: Some of you have already found the link to the Funeral Home and found my parents' obits and made use of the online guest book there, which was wonderful to see. If you love me at all, though, do me a favor and follow the example of those who have already put a message in the guest book: Please do NOT mention the blog. The guestbook is easily viewable by relatives and coworkers, many of whom have NO idea that yours truly has a secret life as the Magazine Man. Referring to my stories is fine, but no need to tell where you read them. Am I being too paranoid? No doubt. But in a time where I have had no control over the events that are shaping my life daily, please grant me this one measure of control and security. Thanks.


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