On the Anniversary of a Loss

On April 24, 1964, my cousin Andy was laid to rest at All Saints Cemetery in North Haven, Connecticut, after a Mass of the Angels at St. Vincent de Paul Church in East Haven, our parish.

I knew that this day was coming. I was between city buses on the way home from my college classes. On the corner of Chapel and Olive in New Haven, the sky was gray and threatening rain, and a thought passed through me that Andy could die this very day.

After supper, Mom put my baby sister to bed and I settled down at the dining room table to do my homework. At 8:23PM, the phone rang. My cousin Jeanette, only ten at the time, shouted into the phone, “Get Uncle Carmen!”

Dad listened for a moment, and then called to my mother, “Let’s go!” They quickly pulled on coats, rushed out the front door and left us. At about 10PM, Mom and Dad returned. Mom said nothing, went directly to their bedroom to lie down. Dad looked over at my brother and me and said, his eyes slightly red, and said, “We couldn’t save him. I did mouth-to-mouth. We couldn’t save him.”

The details came in the following days. Uncle Pete had gone out to pick up some food for Jeanette’s Confirmation party, planned for Thursday. He also picked out a few more record albums for Andy’s 17th birthday, coming up on the 29th. He was gone less than a half hour. When he tried to pull into the driveway, it was blocked by an ambulance – lights flashing – and a police car. My father had moved his car up the street. Pete went in and I can only imagine that the scene broke his heart. Andy had been struggling for breath, suffocating, and then was unresponsive. The ambulance took them Andy, with Rose and Pete, to the hospital because you do not let a child die at home.

At our place, my brother went to bed. Dad sat down on the sofa next to me, turned on the TV to one of those detective shows popular in the 60s, though we did not watch it.  I could not speak. After a while, I managed to say, to no one in particular, “It’s so hard.” Dad hugged me. I went to bed, but could not sleep, could not cry. I call my advisor, Sister Simon Peter, in whom I had recently confided, and told her. She told me how sorry she was and for a moment, I felt her warmth.

Andy had been ill for two years and never did anyone in the family circle say the word “cancer.” He had salivary cancer, and, as predicted, he lived for two more years. I think he had drug therapy. I know, because I saw the burns on his face, that he had radiation. He was tired, but he did not take to bed. He was on the track team, and he kept running as long as he could finish the race. Then a wonderful teacher, Mr. O, came to the house to tutor my cousin. This big, friendly man brought his friendliness with him, and sometimes sat and talked with Pete. He was not only an excellent teacher, but he became a mentor and a good friend for Rose and Pete.

We spent most of the in-between-days  at their home. Relatives and friends came and went. It was our tradition to sit with the family. After the meeting at the funeral parlor, Rose came in, said she had a splitting headache, and went to lie down for a while.  Andy’s dog, Caesar, was lost. He wandered around the house looking for his master. Then he sat or lay down for days.

The evening before the funeral, Rose asked Andy’s friends to stop by; she wanted to tell them that she expected them to attend their junior prom, set for Friday evening.  Several said they did not feel like going, and my aunt, generally a docile person, told them that they must go. Andy would want it. She wanted them to go. They could even stop by before the dance to introduce their date to Pete and Rose.

At the time, I was a bit confused. It seemed like the end of the world to me, but here was my aunt telling them to celebrate life, that they must go on living.  I did not realize that she knew more about life and death than I did.  She knew that the guys were as lively, talkative, and friendly a bunch as you would want. Moreover, they themselves were not sure what to do. She took away their hesitation; she took care of them, by telling them it was OK to go on living.

The day after someone dies, the sun rises. If it is springtime, the tulips continue to bloom, and the lawn starts looking as if it will need a trim soon. The mail carrier brings the mail, says hi if you go to the door. The families have returned home; Dad was back at work, chatting with customers, born salesperson he was. Mom put in some laundry, even turned on WQXR for the classical music she loved.  We were told that Andy’s dog started to eat again. He ran around, as if he understood that life would go on.

That weekend I stayed home, knowing that by Monday, I would have to return to college. My homework was tucked away in the bedroom. I left it there the night when everything changed, when Mom and Dad came home with the shattering news that my dear, dear cousin had passed away.

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