At the beginning of “The Year of Magical Thinking” Joan Didion wrote: “Life changes fast. // Life changes in the instant. // You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. // The question of self-pity.” That is only partly true for me. Joan Didion was with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, when he died, seated at the dinner table, but I was not with Rick. I was at home in Georgetown, Texas, on the outskirts of Austin, with my younger son, Robbie. Our older son, Joe, was in Corpus Christi, working to get the little house we had purchased the month before, ready for rental.
My beloved husband lived his last moments 200 miles to the north, in De Soto, a suburb of Dallas, while on a golfing trip. Rick died on Sunday June 13th, 2004 at 3:20 pm in the clubhouse. First seated, then slumped forward, and finally stretched out on the floor in the middle of a full blown cardiac arrest with three EMS teams working on him. All the while, I snoozed 200 miles away to avoid the heat of the Texas afternoon, oblivious to what had happened.
The temperature in Dallas that afternoon was 103°. The Georgetown team had been playing in a competition and this was the final of four days of play. They told me Rick had played great golf all day when he told Troy, his partner, who had also been his roommate, that he felt unwell. They were on the sixteenth hole and Rick thought he would sit this hole out. He sat in the golf cart on the edge of the sixteenth green and watched Troy play. He felt hot he said. When Troy finished the hole, he drove Rick up to the clubhouse in their golf cart so that he could cool off in the air conditioning. He got him a glass of water – Rick liked his water at room temperature – and a wet washcloth. Troy found him a pleasant spot to sit, in a comfortable chair with a view of the live oak trees that surrounded the eighteenth hole. Rick could watch the team come in from the game. He told Troy that he would be fine, and his partner left him to finish the game. Those were Rick’s last words on this earth.
Back in Georgetown, I was aware of the phone ringing. I meandered somewhere between sleep and waking. I chose not to answer – the answering machine would take the message. If it were that important, they would call again, or I could just respond later. I snoozed some more. My next recollection was of my son Robbie shaking me. He had been working on his truck in the driveway.
“Wake up, mo. There are two ladies here to see you.”
Shit, I thought, I wish people would call before they came by.
I was not dressed for company. I jumped off the bed and ripped a brush through my hair. My T-shirt was stained with cherry juice. I had made cherry jam before I lay down.
When I saw the two women I noticed that they were both immaculately dressed – casual but “groomed.” I recognized them, although I did not know them well. Both their husbands were golfing with Rick.
What the hell do they want?
I recall they did not look at me. Their gaze was fragmentary, dislocated. They made fleeting eye contact and then looked away. I chatted about the Texas heat and how unbearable it was. Each year a little worse than the previous. I told them I had been making jam and laughed. I wanted them to know that I didn’t always look so grubby. They eyed one another, uncertain how to proceed. I remember thinking that they looked like frightened sheep. When I finally stopped talking, one of them told me that I’d better sit down. I sat at the kitchen table.
I had had a mental rehearsal for bad news many times in my head. It would start off with the old cliché “You’d better sit down” and this would be the cue that something dreadful had happened. I always imagined this conversation would tell me of the death of one of my boys. But it could only be Rick.
“Something’s the matter with Rick?” They did not answer.
“So … Is he alive or is he dead?” They looked down and I knew.
“I see that he is dead.”
Robbie stood on the other side of the kitchen table and let out a howl. “Not Dad, please, please not Dad.”
I stood up and hugged him and turned to the ladies.
“Thank you for coming to tell me. I can’t imagine how difficult this must have been for you.”
I hoped they would go away. Back to the comfort of the illusion of their own sensible and happy lives. But they were keen to share how they’d prepared to bring me the news. The taller one told me that before they came by, they had gone on the Internet. Her husband had been the one calling, the one whose calls I had ignored. John, the cardiologist. He had raced from the golf course to the clubhouse when he heard the sirens coming up the driveway. He knew. The initial word, as he came through the door, was that one of the players had collapsed with heat stroke. He joined the weekend manager, a former marine, and between them one delivered CPR and the other did mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on Rick until EMS took over. I think Rick was already dead by this time. They never did get a heartbeat back. Weeks later I spoke to the former marine/weekend manager over the phone. He told me that he helped Rick breathe his last breath, and then Rick sighed and did not breathe again.
Rick would have liked the fact that a military man helped him in his final moments. He worked for the VA (Veterans’ Administration) as a Primary Care Physician and had great respect for the fighting man. While Rick had never been to war, he had worked as a flight Surgeon in Upstate New York, at Fort Drum. Rick was in the army for only two years. His military career came tumbling down when he failed to salute the General on post.
“I always thought Generals rode in Cadillacs and were preceded by a fanfare of trumpets,” he said, “I never heard of a General in a compact car.”
When Rick failed to salute his commanding officer, the General screeched around the block and pulled up in front of Rick and his friend and intercepted them as they crossed the road. They saluted smartly, but by then it was too late.
“Your arm broken soldier?”
The General slowly looked Rick up and down.
“Get a haircut,” he said.
Later that evening Rick told me the story.
“Nobody tells me to get a haircut. Does he think I’m in fucking grade school? That’s it!”
In his own mind, Rick’s military career had ended. When time to renew his commitment came up, he got out of the US army.
As the news of Rick’s death sunk in, I worried about my older son, Joe, in Corpus Christi. I had contacted my parents in Portugal, and my sister in England, before the time difference made it too late to call. 4:30 pm CST translated to 10:30 pm in England and 11:30 pm in Portugal. I notified Rick’s parents. I could not tell his mother that her only child, the focus of her entire life, had died barely two hours before. When she picked up the phone, I asked to speak to his father instead.
The only remaining member of our immediate family who did not know about Rick’s death was Joe. I could not give him the news over the phone. I had to drive there and tell my son in person. Corpus Christi is about a four-hour drive from Georgetown. I called Rick’s best friend from work, Gregory, the psychiatrist, and he offered to come with us.
The two ladies were still in my house. I wished they would go. I had followed their instructions and called John, the cardiologist, who was waiting with Rick’s remains in the hospital morgue. He was ready to sign the death certificate if I agreed, and by so doing we would obviate the ordeal of an autopsy. I thought if I concurred, maybe the two messengers would depart, and I could get to my other son. I was wrong. According to their Internet source I was not to be left alone.
“But I’m not alone. I have Robbie with me and we are going to pick up Gregory on the way to Corpus. I am not alone.”
The ladies were not deterred. I needed to choose a funeral home in Georgetown for Rick’s remains to be taken to the next day. I knew this had to be done. I think that it was my last refuge for denial. They asked me if I wanted them to make the call. I did. They telephoned the funeral home and finally left. It was 5:00 pm. Rick had been dead for over two hours.
Robbie and I began our drive to Corpus. We picked up Gregory who was waiting with his wife, Athena, in a Hobby-Lobby parking lot off the interstate. We had called Joe and told him that we were coming down to take him out to dinner. Just Robbie and me – something spontaneous, spur of the moment. He sounded surprised, but pleased that we were on our way. Several times on the journey he called.
“Where are you now?” he asked.
“Not far. Maybe another three hours.”
“Okay. I’m glad you’re coming down. Where do you want to eat?”
Then … perhaps another two hours …then … only another hour, Joe. We arrived at 9:00 pm. Rick had already been dead for nearly 6 hours. We honked the horn of the car as we parked outside the house. Joe came out of the garage where he had been cutting tile. He smiled at Robbie and me, but when he saw Gregory seated in the back of the car, his brow furrowed in question.
“Joe, there is no good way to tell you this. Dad died this afternoon.”
Joe did not let out a wail like his brother. A wide stream of tears coursed slowly down his cheeks and he looked numbed, lost. We all hugged and in silence closed up the Corpus house and drove back to Georgetown.
I was not able to eat. Since I had learned of Rick’s death, I could not even look at food. Months later, on the way to Dallas to see where Rick had died, Gregory told me that on that night, as we traveled to Corpus and back, he was starving. He mentally willed us to stop many times as we passed a convenience store or a gas station and pick up something, because he had not eaten dinner. I vaguely remember his comments: “Oh! They sell food there?” and: “Is that a convenience store? Do you need gas?” I just thought he was a little crazy at the time and decided to ignore it. Poor man, Robbie and I were oblivious to everything except getting to Corpus so we could be with Joe.
Several months after the funeral, I asked Gregory to come with me to Dallas. Seeing where Rick had died was something I needed to do. I felt I could only move on once I had been there. Put some order into the chaos. Rick died at 54 years of age and I became a widow at 49. Our boys were 20 and 21 when they lost their father. This wasn’t supposed to happen to us, it wasn’t in the plan … but it did happen. I had to at least know “how?” and “where?” I realized there would never be an answer to “why?”
When Gregory and I arrived at the country club, the manager met us at the entrance. At the time I thought it was kind of him, but on reflection, I wondered if he wanted to contain what we did and where we went? Damage control. It could not be good for business to have widows roaming around the property seeing where their husband went on the last day of his life and where he took his final breath.
The manager escorted Gregory and me to a row of four chairs by an elevator, looking out over the eighteenth green. He took us to “the spot” and then backed off. I was sorry that the marine who helped Rick no longer worked there. I did not get to shake his hand and thank him for what he did.
“This is where they found your husband,” the manager said.
He pointed in the general direction of the chairs and then retreated. But therein lay a problem. Which of the four chairs was “the” one? I looked at Gregory and raised my hands in question?
“Which one do you think?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Then there’s only one thing for it.”
I sat down on the closest chair and closed my eyes. Was this the one? I had an idea that some energy or feeling would permeate my senses. I had not slept the night before, wondering what might happen when I got here. Shortly after Rick’s death one of his friends told me that Native Americans performed a ritual at the place of transition to help the spirit of the departed on its way to the next plane of existence. But I felt nothing. Not a damn thing! I moved onto the next chair and sat there willing something to happen, some sign, some indication of the fearful drama that had occurred here. Nothing. I sat on every single one of the four chairs. Gregory did too. The manager lingered in the background. Our macabre game of musical chairs must have made him uncomfortable. He fidgeted and shifted his weight from one leg to the other. We were welcome here, but only up to a point.
“Well that’s it then,” I said, “buggered if I know which one it was.”
“Well fuck it then,” said Gregory and stood up.
“Well fuck it!” I said.
We thanked the manager and left the country club.
When we returned from Corpus Christi with Joe it was 2:00 am. Rick had been dead for nearly 12 hours. We had an appointment at the funeral home later that morning, at 10:00 am. We all slept together in my room. Robbie on Rick’s side of the bed and Joe on the sleeper sofa. We had dropped Gregory off at the Hobby-Lobby parking lot and he went home with Athena. He must have called her while we were on the road, because she arrived with a sandwich for him.
The boys and I got to the funeral home just before 10:00 am. I had no idea how the meeting would go. What does one do at these events? I had no prior experience. Athena had primed me in her own inimitable way that morning.
“Just remember, babe. All those funeral guys are swindlers. They want your money. Don’t fall for their bullshit.”
The gentlemen who greeted us at the funeral home were gracious and kind, and ushered us into a side room. The younger man was a school friend of Troy’s, Rick’s golf partner. I found out later that Troy had called him before our meeting, and told him what a good guy Rick was and to take care of his family. I was grateful for that.
The first order of business was to find out how we planned to pay for the funeral. Did Rick have any insurance policies? The funeral home accepted most policies but not VA policies. No government dollars! Rick did have a suitable policy, and so I was relieved to find out that the remains of my late husband would be accepted for burial. What happens to people without the means?
The next part of the procedure was to select a coffin. The gentlemen moved us into the showroom, so that we could look at the selection of caskets. After a brief overview of prices, they left us, so that we could make our decision. No pressure. As we looked, I noticed that each coffin had a little drawer. A place to put a memento. A Bible maybe, or a flower, or a letter.
At this point I must explain the “glide test”. The glide test was a test that every drawer, ever purchased in our house, was put through by Rick. Rick would clasp the pull or handle of the drawer between the tips of his right thumb and index finger. Lightly. Then he would pull the drawer and see if it glided open without any friction or impediment. Only furniture that passed the glide test would be a candidate for our purchase. Once he had conducted the test, then whoever else was with him was invited to do the same. Refusal was not an option.
“Don’t dick around, Val. Go on … see if it glides.”
The boys and I went over to the nearest casket and without thinking we reached for the handle on the little drawer and pulled it to see if it glided. I think this was the first time I had laughed since I learned of Rick’s death.
The caskets ranged in price from $2,000 to $10,000. The boys and I huddled. We wanted to make the right decision. I remembered Athena’s words.
“Hey mo,” Rob said, “you know Dad was a cheap-skate. He wouldn’t have wanted us to spend a lot of money on a coffin.”
“Get him something respectable, but nothing fancy. That’s what Dad would have wanted.”
“God! You’re a pair of gangsters,” I said, “ I can’t ask them if they have any specials going this week.”
But I knew they were right. Rick loved a bargain. He would have hated the thought of spending money unnecessarily on something that was going to be buried within the next few days, never to be seen again. We finally settled on a lower mid-range priced casket. We had made our selection.
The gentlemen returned and directed us back to their office. Our last task was to choose the flowers for Rick’s Memorial. We chose 2 large bouquets of white lilies that would be placed at the foot of the casket with a yellow carnation in each one. The yellow carnations were significant.
One year Rick asked me what I wanted for our anniversary “A dozen yellow roses,” I said, “Like the yellow rose of Texas.”
On the day of our anniversary Rick came in with a large, conical, paper-wrapped package on his arm and a smile on his face. Flowers.
“For you, baby!”
I opened the package slowly so that I did not tear the paper. Rick could not contain his joy.
“Val, I never knew that roses were so cheap!”
I removed the packaging.
“Ricky, do you know what roses look like, exactly?” I asked. “Sure baby. Right in front of you.”
Before we left the funeral home, the gentlemen told us that Rick’s remains would arrive that afternoon, and we needed to bring in some clothes to dress him. The boys helped me. We decided on a favorite suit and tie. The socks, too, were special. One Christmas my sister gave Rick a pair of maroon socks with a golden coronet on them and an insignia that read “His Lordship.” Rick loved them, so it seemed fitting that he be buried in them. We decided that internment with his shoes on would not work. I could almost hear him chastise me.
“Don’t waste those nice shoes, Val. You could give them to the boys.”
That afternoon, our waiting was over. Rick came home. Gregory and Athena came with us to the funeral home. I wasn’t sure how I would handle the sight of his dead body. Would I faint? Would I throw up? What? I was so fearful, but it was not what I had imagined at all. The sight of my dear old man one last time was the greatest comfort. So much more precious, because of the brevity of it. We were a family once more, one last time. Each of us went together and then separately and sat by his side. It didn’t make it right, but it did help. On June 19th, 2004 Rick was buried in Coaldale, Pennsylvania in his family plot next to his grandparents, his cousin Patty, his Uncle Joe, our elder son’s namesake. His final resting place is a leafy green hillside, shaded by gigantic trees, overlooking the Lehigh River.
I often think of Joan Didion’s words these days: “Life changes fast. // Life changes in the instant. // You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. // The question of self-pity.”
I only occasionally succumb to self-pity. Our culture does not encourage it. One time I was sitting on the bed, feeling sad, a moment of self-pity, and Robbie came in.
“What’s up mo?”
“I was thinking about Dad, Robbie… I’m so sad that he’ll never get to meet his grandchildren.”
Rob looked at me for a minute.
“Mo, did you ever consider the possibility that maybe … he already has?”
Six years ago on this day, also a Sunday,
My husband sighed his last breath and was no more.
I have raged and wept for a very long time.
And yet, on this day,
I can no longer deny the living that surrounds me.
As I walk around the garden that I shall leave very soon; And despite the cacophony of the dawn chorus,
And the cool of the wind against my neck,
And the shimmer of the rising sun that dazzles my eyes,
I feel the silence.
A trembling, elemental quiet
That stills my soul
And thrills my mind
And for a moment … I do not breathe.