Dad died in the winter of ’62, just before he was to take office as District Attorney. Mom was playing Bridge with friends at the Country Chicken restaurant, but some of us eight kids were home with him: Stevie, only five, and Seth, six years older than me. At eight, I didn’t understand Daddy’s unusually short temper, restless as he paced between the living room and his office in the small adjoining room. I lay on the scratchy couch, its tiny bumps of fabric sticking into my skin. Stevie played with trucks on the floor.
“Daddy, can we go outside?” I dared ask. I knew even at that young age that this wasn’t the same Daddy who would smile happily at me when I followed him around the yard like a shadow on his days off. “No,” he snapped back. “Turn down the TV.” He went back into his office, this time closing the door behind him. Quieted by his anger, wondering why he seemed so mad at me, I combed my dolly’s blond, silken hair while Seth turned the volume down. We heard a terrible thud behind the office door. Seth ran to the door and yanked it open. Daddy lay very still on his back. Seth went quickly to him, kneeled, and placed his own mouth over Daddy’s, trying to push breath into his lungs. A reflux of vomit went from Daddy into Seth. Seth rushed to the kitchen sink and splashed it out of his mouth.
I stood in a stupor, Stevie nearby. Daddy lay unmoving. What was going on? I stood frozen in one spot, watching the whirling lights outside and the seemingly sudden presence of so many people. Daddy left with the whirling lights, taken by stretcher. He would never return, but Stevie and I didn’t know that when a family friend, Mrs. Nielson, took us into the back bedroom and told us to pray. On our knees, we put our hearts into it, believing God would make it right. Scared and confused, I dutifully prayed, “Bring Daddy back. Bring Daddy back.”
Later we were allowed to go into the living room after Mommy returned. We sat by her side as she held our hands, but she seemed distant. Daddy lay flat the next time I saw him, so still, waxy, and pale. Approaching the casket slowly, I studied his face. It looked curiously pocketed with dips and curves of skin, not the smiling lively face I had known and cuddled up against with warmth and love. I had been warned before stepping up to the coffin about what I would be seeing. “Your Daddy’s sleeping,” an adult voice whispered, her lips brushing my ear in a hushed voice. But I knew it was more than that, something sick and queer. Someone sleeping ought to move. Someone sleeping would come back home to us.
“Now I lay me down to sleep,” Stevie and I prayed, kneeling beside his bed, our bedtime ritual. Our nightly mantra with clasped hands included blessings for Mommy, each of the seven brothers, the dog Sneakers, and most importantly Daddy who watched over us from heaven. Then came our song together, “Silent Night.” Mommy seemed hard to reach, far away, so I comforted Stevie, reassuring him that Daddy remained close by even though we couldn’t see him. Stevie asked, “Where is Daddy?” Mommy didn’t answer, but I always did, “He’s in heaven watching over us.” I smiled, adding, “He’s not gone, he’s everywhere around us.”
I needed to believe it as much he did, yet the feeling a part of me had been severed never left. Goodbyes of any kind became grief- colored endings. I would experience grief in a million different ways because I did not fully grieve Daddy’s passing, comforting my little brother instead. But maybe what came next obliterated all the rest.