Just My Luck – Chapter 2 – Part 2
Death in the Third Person, A Primer
In terms of family, guess what: I have been exceedingly lucky.
Because of my family I know that I have been loved unconditionally and continually from the moment of my birth (and probably even before). And through family I had the great pleasure to begin learning how to give love. There is no greater joy.
As a child I was lucky always to feel safe and valued. Growing up I doubt I ever realized the importance of my support systems, protection, advocacy, belonging, security, sustenance, privilege, personal values, modeled behavior, and all the other benefits I had by virtue of my loving family. I was a happy, well-adjusted, upbeat kid in my early years, and I knew I had it good. I didn’t know that an astounding number of kids didn’t (still don’t) have it good.
Encountering the loss of a loved one for the first time put the first grey cloud in my spotless blue sky. Once identified, Death introduced the first significant cause of real worry to my juvenile mind. Death was a difficult reality to consider, but when my age was in single digits I was actually less concerned about my own death than I was about the gonna-happen-some-day deaths of my loved ones.
Meet the Reaper
As is probably very common, grandparents were the first of my close relatives to die while I was alive. My paternal grandmother, Myrtle (Krum) Ash [yes, she transformed from a Krum to an Ash when she married] died within a year of my birth. She’d known and loved me, held me and cared for me, but I have no recollection of her. Family photographs confirm she was a nice part of my life, but she passed away before my lasting memory was enabled. Thank goodness for the photos. The love in her eyes and smile of her kind disposition are easy to see, even in black & white. By all accounts, she was a gem. But her death didn’t faze me in the least. Changing my diaper was the only relief from discomfort I needed then, not much else.
Her husband, my grandfather Samuel Bailey Ash, survived her by about five years, so I knew and remember “Pop” Sam. He let my sister and me stay up late when he babysat us for our parents. He smoked cigars and read the paper and talked with us while we played with our toys on the floor. He always got us to bed and asleep before my parents returned home, so we kept our little stay-up secret with him always. He had been a milkman and later worked in the train yard of the New York and New Haven Railroad before he retired. After Myrtle died he moved in with my dad’s sister, Aunt Evelyn, her husband Uncle Charley and their four girls. Theirs was a small home full of big hearts. Pop volunteered as a school crossing guard; he smiled a lot and was great with kids.
I have a fond memory that ‘pops’ up every now and then. Whenever my parents took us to visit the small house of big hearts, I’d run upstairs to visit Pop’s room and to smell his pipe tobacco. Next to his easy chair stood a combination side table/floor lamp that illuminated his newspapers and held what I thought of as his best possessions – his ash tray, rack of briar pipes, a pipe tool, and his leather tobacco pouch. I’d climb up on his lap and he’d reach for the tobacco pouch, open it, and give it to me. I’d bend my head and stick my face into that pouch to breathe in the aroma of pipe tobacco and leather. I loved it and he always got a kick out of that.
I was six years old when Pop died. He had a heart attack while coming home from someplace in town, and drove his old Plymouth into a telephone pole. He was dead before they got him into the ambulance but was only pronounced DOA (dead on arrival) at the hospital.
I still remember when my sister and I got home from school that day (all of the neighborhood kids walked to and from school in those days, even at six years old) I was surprised to find that my father had come home early from work. He lifted me up, looked me in the eyes, and gently told me that Pop had died. I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but I did know that because he died, I would never see him again. That was enough to make me bury my face into my dad’s shoulder and cry.
The most vivid memory I have from that afternoon is that when Dad put me down I ran to one of the soft upholstered chairs in our living room, knelt before it and cried into the seat cushion. To this day, whenever I look at photos taken in that living room and I see that chair, I remember it being the altar I cried on for Pop.
Youth is resilient and the death of one in a family’s elder generation, while painful and sorrowful, is not an unexpected tragedy. In the 1950s the life expectancy of a male in the United States was 67.6 years. Today it is 76.3. So when my grandfather Sam had his fatal heart attack, he was very near his average life expectancy. When he died, Pop’s four offspring were all adults, all married, and all with families of their own. He even had a great-grandchild.
Pop was a widower and was in the end of his days. In the natural course of events, Pop Sam’s demise was unwelcome but not surprising. I was too young to go to the wakes and the service at the funeral home; my introduction to the rituals of death in my native culture was postponed to a later date. Early in the following week, my Dad left for work as usual and my mother got my sister and me prepared for school. The return to normalcy was comforting; our lives resumed essentially unchanged.
But I occasionally felt Pop’s absence among us and would sometimes think about the implications of this death thing while trying to fall asleep at night. I’d never really worried about anything like this before. When I tried to wrestle with the thought that I would also someday die, it was beyond my comprehension. I would end up thanking God that I wasn’t an old man and took some comfort that I would not be one for a long time yet. The only way I could deal with the concept was to tell myself that I would “cross that bridge when I got to it,” (which is what I am doing now). My immediate future was my outermost reach; considerations of old age and death could wait.
As mentioned, I was far more worried that my parents and sister might die than that I would. I was too young to die, but they were older so it was easier to conceive of their demise than of my own. I remember one day making all three of them promise that after we died, we’d wait for one another in heaven so we could be together forever.
Even at the age of six, I somehow understood that the suffering of death was left to the living. I was much more afraid of suffering than of dying. I remember ardently praying that I would die before my parents did. Not now, not soon, but first. I’d be the trailblazer and would pick out the place in heaven where we would all meet after we died. I’d know they were coming so I wouldn’t miss them. If they died first, I’d be very sad and would miss them every day. I simply didn’t want that to happen.
My childish prayers were not answered.
©2016 James Ash