Two forty five, Tuesday, June 21. The phone rings, cutting into the silence of my afternoon.
"What are you doing?"
"Trying to put together my resumes so I can mail them tomorrow. Why?"
Noisy, just like dad. "He's at work, why?"
"Are you sitting down?"
Uh oh. She's gonna tell me she's having another baby. "Yeah."
"Yup." And she started to cry.
Here begins the worst five days I can remember. I hang up with my sister, and begin to cry. My four and one-half year old daughter, Noelle, waking up just then, sees me crying and asks me what is wrong.
"Arbie (my children's name for my father) died. Do you know what that means?"
Still crying: "We won't ever see Arbie again. He has gone to heaven to see God."
Yeah, like my daughter really understands this. I begin to pace, for some reason the one thing I do when I am really nervous and upset. Who to call, I wonder?
My next thought. Damn my husband. He is never home when catastrophe strikes. Call the restaurant. Tell someone to get him, it's an emergency. Hang up. Who to call next?
A couple of hours previously, my oldest son, Alexandre, went to my friend's house to wait for my mother to pick him up to spend the night. In a panic, I called my friend Charlene. I doubt at this point I am coherent, yet she understands what I am trying to say. I tell her that Joe and I will pick Alex up later that afternoon.
Pace. Pace. Pace. Hang up with Charlene. Try to call my brother-in-law. No answer. It figures. No one is ever around when I need them. Call my sister- in-law at work. Panic. She asks if I want her to come to my house. I say "no," she has to worry about her job. She tells me she'll be here soon.
Hang up. Pace. Call who next? Call my husband's restaurant again. Talk to his partner. "It's an emergency," I almost scream into the phone. "Find him!" His partner tells me they will; I tell him what the emergency is. He finally finds my husband, but doesn't tell him what is going on. He just says "go home."
My daughter is watching me pace. Dial. Pace.
Hang up. Pace again. My youngest son, eighteen months, wakes up from his nap. I pick him up and hold him tightly. Noelle just looks at me. In my panic-ridden state of mind, I finally realize my daughter is totally confused and getting upset. I sit on the couch.
I am going to try to explain death to my four year old. "Arbie died. We are never going to see him again. God decided that he wanted Arbie more than we did, so he called him to Heaven. He's with the angels now. Do you understand this?"
"Yes, mommy." Yeah, right. I don't understand death. What makes me think my daughter will?
"Ma (her grandmother) is going to be very upset, so we need to be very good when we see her. Okay?"
My sister-in-law arrives. She walks in. By this time, I have calmed down considerably. I need to be strong for my children and the baby I carry.
"Are you all right?" she asks me.
"I will be fine. Can you stay with Noelle and Nikolas? I need to go to my mom's. Alex is with my friend; I will pick him up in Narragansett."
No sooner do I finish speaking then Joe arrives.
He gets out of the car annoyed. I later find out that his employees tell him that I am sick; he figures I am just imagining things, that because of my problems with this current pregnancy, my mind is working overtime.
"What is the matter?" he asks.
"My father died."
"What?" He visibly stumbles. He is as shocked as I am.
We enter the house. We leave instructions for Gail, my sister-in-law, and we leave for my mother's house. The only thing I say in the car for forty-five minutes is "I can't believe it."
We arrive at Charlene's house to collect Alex. Her family expresses their condolences. I behave like a zombie, not quite hearing, not quite grounded in this reality. Alex and I get in the car.
"Alex, mommy and daddy want to talk to you. Okay? You have to listen carefully."
"We are going to Ma's house. Arbie died this afternoon. Do you know what that means?"
My six year old answered: "He went to Heaven, right?"
"Right. God wanted him to go to Heaven. We won't be able to see him again. We need to go to Ma's house, and you need to be very good. Ma is very upset, and you need to listen to mommy and daddy, and not get in her way. Okay?"
We arrive at my mother's. She is not there, but various relatives are. I notice, even in my zombie- like state, that the "family grapevine" is working overtime. Only an hour and a half has elapsed since the phone call to me, and already people know.
"Your mother is at the hospital waiting for you. Go there," we are told. We leave Alex at my mother's, and we drive the mile or so to the hospital. We enter.
We see my mother, sitting on a chair outside the emergency room. We approach her.
"Do you want to see your father? I didn't want the coroner to collect him before you arrived in case you wanted to see him. You don't have to, but you can if you want."
My husband turns to me. "Do you want to?"
I stand, undecided. I want to, yet some part of me is worried about the baby, and I'm not sure I will be able to keep my emotions in control. Yet, finally, I decide to go in with my husband.
We enter the room alone. I squeeze Joe's hand, and tell him I don't think I can go any further. Yet, strangely, I want to. So Joe and I approach my dead father.
The first thing I notice is that he looks so peaceful. He really looks like he is sleeping. He hasn't looked this calm in a long time. That is when I totally lose it. I begin to cry, and have to walk away. I don't even say goodbye. I have to find some Kleenex, so my mother doesn't suspect I have been crying. I turn to Joe and tell him that I am glad that we left Alex at home; he had wanted to come, but I wouldn't let him. I am glad now that I didn't.
We go back to my mother's house. We sit. We wait for the family members to begin arriving. We find out that no-one in my immediate family called to spread the news. I, inadvertently, began the calling grapevine.
I had previously called my best friend; she had called her babysitter, who happens to be the sister-in-law of my second cousin. She called him, he called his father, and he called . . . And so it went.
The night is never-ending. June 21st is the longest day of the year, and that night seemed even longer. By the time Joe and I arrive home, I have a headache the likes of which I have never experienced and never want to again. I don't even talk to my sister-in-law when we arrive home. I lay on the couch, and sleep.
Four o'clock in the morning, June 22. I can't sleep anymore. I rise, and sit on the couch, silently crying for what seemed like hours. I still don't let myself get very emotional; I have to be strong. My children will take their cue from me. I want to be in control of my emotions. By the time they get up, my eyes are red, puffy and swollen, but I have tried to come to grips with what has happened. I have made some phone calls to friends, securing babysitters for the day and night. I don't want my children at my mother's; they don't belong there yet. Time enough for that when the wake and funeral begin.
This is the day when the planning begins. So much to decide, so little awareness with which to do it. My mother, accompanied by Joe and I, my sister and her husband, my sister and her boyfriend, and my brother and his fiancee, arrive at the funeral parlor to make decisions. We talk, we discuss, we decide, we plan.
While my father always said he didn't want a wake- and who can blame him? It's always seemed like a barbaric custom to me- he was getting one anyway. I think he knew that we had to have one for us. God, no-one should have to make decisions at a time like this. But we do.
We go home to my mother's. A steady stream of people comes to offer their condolences, to see us, to try to help. Someone says to me: "What can I say?"
I answer: "Nothing. There is nothing to say.
"I'm sorry" are the two stupidest words at a time like this. I know you're sorry; you wouldn't be here trying to help if you weren't." Snappy? Maybe. But I really think that, in this situation, the words "I'm sorry" are really moronic and obtuse. My opinion, remember.
At last, the long night is over. I plan to sleep at my grandmother's house, but I begin worrying about the children, and whether my husband will hear them if they awake during the night. I decide to go home, and come back in the morning.
Thursday, June 23. He has now been dead almost forty-eight hours. I decide to bring my children to my mother's; I want my two oldest to attend the wake. My husband and my mother disagree with me. I, however, am adamant, yet I do place a call to their pediatrician and to my priest. Neither is available, so I decide that Alex and Noelle, if they want, will come to the funeral home in the afternoon, when only the family members view the body. We arrive, oldest kids in tow, and wait outside while my mom enters the funeral home. It is her prerogative and right to see him first.
While outside, I happen to mention to the funeral director my family's indecision regarding my children viewing their grandfather. He looks at me and says: "There are two things you should never do in a situation like this. Never force a child to come to a wake, and never leave them home if they want to come."
Thank God for that advice. I had already decided that I would bring them into the back room where they could see the casket, but couldn't really see their grandfather. If they wanted to go up to him, they could. The decision was theirs. The funeral director echoed my thoughts.
So we enter the funeral home. Alex, Noelle, Joe and I stop in the archway between the two rooms. I ask Alex if he wants to see Arbie. He does. He and I walk up to the casket. My mom is sitting to our right; I'm not sure she even notices our entrance. Alex and I kneel. I ask him what prayer he knows and wants to recite. He decides to say the "Our Father," which, unbeknownst to him, is the only prayer my father knew.
We stay at the casket a while, Alex helping me place family pictures around my father. Noelle and Joe come next, although Noelle won't really look at her grandfather. She looks at the flowers instead. Then we leave, so the rest of my family can pay their respects.
The afternoon and evening simultaneously fly by and drag. I don't cry in public, so every once in a while I get up and go into the ladies' room to splash my face with water. All in all, I think I hold my emotions in check pretty well.
I had volunteered to read at dad's funeral the next day, but I decide that Alex can read, if he wants.
So we find his children's Bible, and pick a reading: Jacob meets an angel. I know my mother won't mind, and neither will our priest. I bring my reading, just in case, but I have faith in my son. For a six year old, he is doing just fine.
Friday dawns dreary and overcast. The funeral is set for 10:00 a.m. We had asked that people bypass the funeral home and go straight to the church, for my father never liked the procession that began at the funeral home and ended at the church. We encouraged people to come by, say goodbye one last time, and go on to the church.
I walk up to the casket; I think that even though my father was sometimes one of the most miserable men alive, I did love him, even though I never said those words aloud to him. He was not that kind of man. I realize that we have to go to the church soon; I leave the room, walk outside, and begin to sob. I can't hold it in any longer. My grandmother, aunt, and assorted immediate family members just look at me. My husband sees me, comes over, and just holds me. It helps.
We process to the church, five lonely cars, bringing the grieving immediate family to seek solace in the bosom of God. The service begins-I can't call it a Mass, for my father was not Catholic, and we were in the Catholic church- and it is nice. Short and to the point, just the way dad would have wanted it. My emotions are in check; Alex and Noelle are with Joe and I seated next to my mother in the front pew. Noelle begins to act up; I send her to sit with a friend a couple of rows back. Father Allaire calls Alex to the front to read; I go with him, to hold the microphone.
Alex, for a six year old, does a superb job. There is not a dry eye in the house. We come back to the pew; the organist begins playing my father's favorite hymn, The Old Rugged Cross; I later find out that it is an old Negro spiritual. It is a beautiful piece, and I begin to sniffle. Because I am sitting next to my mom, I try to hold my emotions in check. It is hard, but I manage to do it. Barely.
The service ends. We process down the isle, the grieving widow, her children and two oldest grandchildren following the flag-draped casket. We watch as the casket is lifted into the hearse. We leave to find our cars; the next stop is the cemetery.
We follow the hearse, along with dozens of other cars. I remark to my husband that my father would have been surprised to see so many turn out for his funeral. I, however, never doubted that everyone would come. My father was not an easy man to get along with, but almost everyone respected him.
We arrive at the cemetery, at the gravesite my father had bought a few years back. Father Allaire says a short prayer; the graveside service concludes.
My two oldest children place baby roses on top of the casket; one rose for each of dad's grandchildren, five in all. We turn to leave, to return to my mother's house. So does everyone else.
We eat, we talk, we reminisce. A few hours go by; now all who are left at the house are immediate family and close friends. It has been a long day. It is time to try to deal with the situation, to remember him as he was, to remember that he is now with God. We leave, come home, and try to get on with our lives.
One month later. Alex, Noelle and I are watching a movie that takes place at Christmas time. We begin to talk.
"You know, guys, that this Christmas will be very sad, don't you?"
"Why?" asks Alex.
"Because Arbie won't be with us. Ma will be very sad that he is not here to share Christmas with us; it was his favorite holiday, especially since you came along. He loved to see you open your presents."
"Yeah," said Alex, "but don't forget it is also baby Jesus' birthday, so we can celebrate that."
"You are right, honey," I say. "But it still will be sad."
"Why? Don't be sad, mommy. Arbie won't be. He's lucky. He will be at baby Jesus' birthday party. He won't be sad."
Out of the mouths of babes. Leave it to a six year old to think of something like that. We call Ma, and tell her what Alex has said. It is the bright spot for her.
Thank God for children; they make life and death worthwhile.