Death in the Fam ily Sys tem
Moving Beyond Pain Warm tears flowed over my lower lashes and formed salty rivers on my cheeks that eventually dropped into pools of growing dampness on my blouse. My mother was leaving the house. She wasn’t leaving to go to the grocery or to her monthly sorority meeting. She was leaving in a way that no child should ever see their mother leave the house-on a gurney, covered by a stiff white sheet-its starchy folds clearly visible even through my misty vision. Mother was dead. This couldn’t be happening; it wasn’t real. I must be dreaming. Suddenly, the door of the hearse closed with the cold resonance of metal upon metal. The noise ripped through the haze of my sorely fragmented thoughts, striking like an anguished chord in some horror movie musical score. Indeed, this was a nightmare, but I wasn’t sleeping. I pressed my face harder against the cold and lifeless windowpane as I tried to slow the pace of the thoughts that were silently racing through my head. I was just thirteen. I didn’t know how to grow up without a mother. Who was going to fix supper from now on? I was just thirteen, and I only knew how to make tuna fish salad and chocolate cakes from box mixes. Who would trim my bangs when they got long and scraggly and hung over my eyebrows? I was just thirteen,
and I couldn’t read a thermometer. Who would take my temperature if I got sick? I was just thirteen, and all my friends had mothers. From then on, I was going to be different from my friends. I was just thirteen, and I knew that being different was going to hurt-it hurt too much already. The following day, I had to go downtown with Grandma Forbes to buy new clothes to wear at Mother’s wake and her funeral. According to Grandma, my school clothes wardrobe, which mostly consisted of wool skirts, “poor boy” sweaters, and penny loafers, wasn’t appropriate attire, and my Easter dress was much too fancy. We got off the elevator on the fourth floor of the L. S. Ayers Department Store and began to make our way past the racks of what was probably the finest display of young women’s clothing in Indianapolis. Grandma and I usually made quite a shopping team, but on that particular day, we couldn’t bring ourselves to admire anything. Even the finely dressed store models that operated the elevators held no charm for me that day. As a little girl, I had secretly wanted to grow up to be an elevator operator at the L. S. Ayers Department Store. The models were the most beautiful women I had ever seen. I had always been intrigued by the expert way they pushed the buttons and pulled the levers and made the elevator stop exactly even with the chosen floor. This shopping trip was different from any I had ever experienced. At the tender age of thirteen, I knew that I wasn’t a little girl anymore, but I wasn’t ready to be all grown up either. I wandered aimlessly past the exquisitely displayed clothes and mourned for myself and the seeming loss of childhood fantasies more than I did for the imminent loss of my mother. The funeral was held at the Brooklyn Christian Church, in the same sanctuary where my parents had been married twenty-three years earlier. I had seen their wedding photographs many times, and as I sat in the front pew between Daddy and Grandma Forbes, my mind wandered from its current stage to those old black and white likenesses. The familiar images of the smiling bride and groom gave brief respite to my melancholy spirit. The beautiful young woman was gowned in ivory and she stood near an old wooden altar that was adorned with a lace cloth, glowing candles, and a basket of flowers. All too quickly, the soft strains of the organ music lured me back to where only a few feet in front of me, that same altar was now flanked by a profusion of floral tributes as it stood silently behind a polished oak casket. The sachet of all the funeral flowers penetrated to the very core of my fragile thoughts. The combination of roses, carnations and baby’s breath had always been so pleasing when Mother arranged them in a vase on the dining room table. Would their aroma forever permeate my mind and soul and dredge up this terrible searing pain? I was just thirteen, and I shouldn’t be giving birth to such sorrowful thoughts, but I couldn’t seem to stop them as pools of liquid again formed on my breast. Eight years later, I appeared on the aged dais of the Brooklyn Christian Church in my own flowing ivory gown. The old wooden altar was again covered with an elegant lace runner upon which rested tall candles and a spray of white roses, yellow and peach carnations, and baby’s breath. Separating my thoughts from the activities at hand for a moment, I gazed into the delicate glow of the candle’s flame and allowed the sachet of the flowers to penetrate my soul as it had so many years before. Through the heavy floral incense, my mind skipped back to those cherished black and white images and found that the heartache and sorrow did not surface. Instead, I was girdled with a joy that only an ivory-gowned bride could recognize. The peace, which passes all understanding, had allowed me to move beyond the pain of adolescent anguish and fear. My feet were firmly planted on the dais, but I was soaring to the heights of enduring love. —Donna Rhoden (personal communication)
Mama Was There When I needed love and someone to care, Just someone to hug me-Mama was there. When I was young and carefree, Mama would hold me in her arms. She’d tell me how it used to be and I’d feel so safe from harm. Then I became a young lady one day and all those changes came over me. Mama sat down with me to say that everything was fine, I’d see Now that I’m grown up and on my own, I visit my Mama every chance I can. And because I can’t be there, I often phone just to let her know I think she’s grand. When I needed love and someone to care, Just someone to hug me-Mama was there. —Sandi Straub, August 1, 1987
Blue Skies, Rick In 1997, I received a phone call from a special investigator at March Air Force Base, informing me that my oldest son, Rick, was dead. I was beyond devastated. My son had been estranged from his family the last six years of his life. I wanted to chase after him but I thought that it should be his choice to come home. During this time I did know that Rick was in the National Guard, had a roof over his head, and that he was pursuing his lifelong desire to become a pilot. What I did not know was that he had become very ill in June of 1996, was hospitalized, and diagnosed with Type 1 Insulin Dependent Diabetes. I later learned that as soon as he was discharged from the hospital he stopped the insulin and tried to control the Diabetes with health foods and nutritional supplements. In a letter to a girlfriend Rick said, “I plan to get it together naturally.” I know why he made that decision. Admitting he had Diabetes would have been an instant discharge from the Guard and the end of his flying career. FAA regulations do not permit insulin dependent Diabetics to hold a pilot’s license. Rick survived for the next fourteen months on his “natural” regimen. The first weekend in August 1997, Rick and his audio/video business partner taped a conference in Palm Springs. Afterward, his partner headed for another job and Rick stopped off at the base to spend the night before returning to their studio in the city. The weekend maid saw Rick Sunday morning and asked if he wanted his room cleaned up. Rick said “no” because he would be checking out soon. The maid said he looked fine and she went about her business. Shortly thereafter his body went into Ketoacidosis, a complication of unchecked Diabetes, then his heart went into cardiac arrest and he fell dead. I felt a glut of feelings from Rick’s death. The three most prominent were a fear that my child would be forgotten; a nearly uncontrollable rage inside of me that wanted to scream, “This cannot be true,” and a nagging denial. I was determined that he would not be forgotten. I told my story over and over and ignored everyone that didn’t want to hear about him. I wrote continually about him and posted what I wrote for others to read. About ten months after Rick’s death, I joined an Internet group for grieving parents. Then I could announce my battle cry “I WANT MY KID BACK” at any time of the day or night. The rage I felt inside made me want to go on a rampage smashing everything in sight while screaming, “No, no, no, it is not true.” When those times hit as soon as I could I would go out to the patio and throw plates (from the thrift store) against the block wall. I felt a great sense of relief after. Later I learned that chili cans worked better and were easier to cleanup. At the autopsy Rick’s height and weight were recorded incorrectly. That along with not seeing my son’s body after he died fueled my need to know for sure that it was my Rick who was dead. Never mind that I had Rick’s belongings, knew his friends and associates, and had proof from the hospital my son did have Diabetes-I had to have more proof. So, sixteen months after Rick’s death, I was in the coroner’s office pounding my fists on his desk and demanding he prove it was my son that died on that sweltering day in August 1997. The coroner could not provide conclusive evidence, but he said that my son was not coming home.