Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A Death Remembered

Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me; The carriage held but just ourselves and immortality.
Emily Dickinson, 1830-1866
I am no stranger to death. The past six months have brought notice of the deaths of three of my uncles, two by blood (paternal) and one by marriage (maternal). My only memory of my paternal grandfather was his funeral. There was the untimely death of a cousin via an automobile accident in 1979. And the anniversary of my maternal grandfather's death is later this month.

While all remind me of the words of John Donne, there is one which casts its shadow a little darker than the rest. It is the one which reminds me of the lesson I still need to learn: learn to love before it is too late. It is the one which leaves a void. It is the one which makes me ask at times, "What if...?"

I speak of my father, Francis Joseph Rolling. It has been fifteen years since he passed from this world. The memory of that day still lingers.

Expect The Unexpected

December 5, 1991 was a rather routine day for me at that time. I was working for a family-owned sporting goods store in Sioux City, Iowa in their trophy and engraving department. It was only a part-time position, but as a sports official, the advantage of being able to leave work by 2:00 PM was a big help. I had a junior high basketball double-header to work in Ida Grove later that afternoon; after a brief stop at my apartment to grab my gear and a bite to eat, I was on my way.

The first game started at 3:45. Late in the first quarter there was a time-out. I was standing on the opposite side of the benches, holding the ball. I looked up at a clock on a wall beyond the basket at that end.

The time was 3:53 PM.

The second was done about 6:15. I returned to Sioux City about 7:00 and went back to the store, which was open later that night during the Christmas shopping season. The newer road salesman, a guy in his early 20s, was still there. After he finished processing an order and closing the store, we went out and grabbed a pizza, played a few pinball games, and basically "shot the breeze" the rest of the night.

It was 10:50 when I unlocked the door to my apartment. At that moment, the phone rang. Having not been home all day, I needed to answer it. The first voice I heard was rather unfamiliar to me; it was my younger brother's wife, who then passed the receiver to my brother who broke the news to me.


My first reaction was one of incredulity. "Is this a joke?" was the first thing I asked. Assured it was not, he and I made arrangements to meet when he arrived in Sioux City via airplane. My next call was to a member of the church choir which I was directing, letting her know the news and asking if she would keep me company for a bit. We visited for about an hour; then I was ready to sleep as best as I could.

The next morning found me preparing for the journey home. I went to work for an hour, making sure some things that needed to be done were completed and being told I had whatever time off I needed. Next was a trip to the pastor's office of the church, where I informed him of the situation, as was my contractual obligation as director of the choir. Then there was a stop to a social worker who I had seen for counseling, who graciously saw me on very short notice. Finally, back to my apartment to finish packing and wait for my younger brother's family. They came; we left my place at 12:30 PM for the two-and-one-half hour drive.

(Some) Details, Details

Due to a problem getting the body released, the funeral Mass would not be until Monday. During that time the family was told of the nature of my father's death. He had suffered a massive coronary. Not meaning to sound callous, this really was not unexpected. He was overweight, at least a pack-of-cigarettes-a-day smoker, may have had a milder heart attack a number of years earlier, and has a family history of heart disease. From all accounts, he was dead before he hit the floor of the auto body shop where he was working. The shocker was it happened sooner than anybody would have guessed.

The estimated time of death was 3:53 PM.

The days in between were unremarkable. There were a few moments which I recall:

1. A visitor on Saturday, a nun as it happened to be, has asked me how I was doing. While my mother would have the community minister to her and my siblings were married, I was going at this alone. I replied with the opening lines from Psalm 121.

2. Saturday afternoon was the first chance I got to get out of the house and be alone. As I had done when I was living there, I took a long walk around town. The route was still very familiar to me, even after leaving there five years earlier. The only person I encountered was the gentleman who would be the organist for the funeral.

3. Saturday night, after my mother finally had literally cried herself to sleep, the four siblings gathered around the table to discuss her financial situation. Despite my remembering seeing a policy, there was no life insurance or any means of support. She would hold an auction five months later to raise cash and eventually work two jobs as a waitress to support herself. The four children would eventually pay the funeral expenses.

4. This was the time I seemed to perfect the ability to shut off my mind mentally and emotionally and sleep. Despite using a recliner for a bed, I seemed to have gotten about six hours of sleep a night.

Religious Readying

I had two roles in my father's final preparations. The first was the night of the wake. Along with my paternal aunt, who is a Fransican nun, we lead the Rosary. It was not hard to kneel by the open casket; in fact, having seen him in it was the beginning and end of the denial stage of my grief. My aunt made the comment about the dirt under his fingernails. And there was a string of Rosary beads in his hands as well. I thought I remembered seeing him use it when I was a child, but I could be wrong.

The second was my choice to be the Reader for the Mass. Despite my twin brother's wife trying to dissuade me (for I was the Reader for their Nuptual Mass), I was resolute; this was part of my grieving process. The Readings chosen were the Old Testament verses which included the text, "For my ways are not your ways," Psalm 23, Rom 8:31b-35, 37-39, and John 11:21-27. With that and Sunday Mass (with December 9th. being the Feast of the Immaculate Conception that year, I don't remember it being offered), all I could offer in prayers was a heart groaning only as the Spirit could know.

Minor Breakdowns

I was able to leave for home about 3:00 PM that day. I made one last stop at the cemetery where he was buried, remembering my twin brother had put a pair of his Air Force wings on top of the casket before it was lowered into the ground. In my solitude I was still asking, "Why did this happen?"

While my body was caught in the physical signs of grief, I never did publically cry during those four days. A deluge was coming though, if I had seen the signals.

I went back to work the next day, asking only not to be called to the main floor. My request was not honored in the last hour. I was asked to help someone find a pair of athletic shoes; I really was too numb and self-conscious to be of help.

Wednesday found me in front of the two groups I directed. Early in the bell choir rehearsal, I had to pause to keep control of my composure and did make mention of my father briefly. It did catch someone by surprise, as she was not around when the announcement was made that Sunday.

Thursday found me on a basketball court. I got through the first game OK. I got through the first quarter of the second game OK. But then for parts of the second and third quarters, I acted like I didn't want to be out there. The game didn't get out of control, but I was not there mentally.

A Veil Of Tears

After almost eleven days of holding my emotions in check, the floodgates of my eyes opened. A week after the funeral, I was sitting in a pew my home parish, waiting for the beginning of a communal penance service during Advent. Playing over the speaker system was a recording of a flute. Its melody to me seemed to be one of peace, something my soul was craving. That was all it took. For the next few minutes, I was crying without end in sight. Despite my plea to God not for it to be in public, I was finally overwhelmed by grief. In my confession that night, I also asked for the grace to be healed of this.

After that night, I was able to move along with my grief. About a month later I was in the same gym. Another time out. I moved to the same spot as I was the last time. I looked at the clock.

3:53 PM. I said a prayer. 

It was about eleven months later when I felt I was finally over the loss.

Last Things

The last time I saw my father alive was July 28. I had made my way home to see if he could repair the latch to the driver's side door in my car, as I could not open it from the inside. No such luck. I learned to live with it.

The last time I heard my father's voice was a week before he died, Thanksgiving Day. Wanting to make it home for the holiday, my car wouldn't start that morning but did later after a jump. I called him later that night for his advice. He thought it was the cable; he was right.

The final irony I discovered was while I was taking a graduate level music history course on the Classical Period. Heavily focused on Mozart and Haydn, I discovered a fact I did not know. Mozart died on December 5, 1791. Two hundred years to the day. 

I prayed for my father's soul at Mass today, as part of my intentions as I recited the Rosary, and around the time he died, I recited the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Requiem prayers. 

I wish he was still among the living.

"But my ways are not your ways."

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