Sunday, March 16, 2014

Unexpected Goodbyes

On February 20, we got a call from Jim's sister-in-law Karen. Jim's brother Vic - Karen's husband - had died early that morning.1 His death was sudden and unexpected;2 we were all rather stunned.

Jim's relationship with Vic was never easy, but Vic mellowed over time, and our last few holiday visits were pleasant (if still not quite modeling the Walton family). Vic enjoyed his growing family, as suggested by this photo of him and little A, watching for airplanes. I thought this was one of the sweetest of all the memories that were being shared after his death.

We were delighted that Karen and Vic had been able to travel to Pasadena, to watch Vic's favorite team, MSU, defeat Stanford in the Rose Bowl Game.

We knew he was looking forward to getting his new Springer Spaniel puppy. These last memories of Vic were good ones, and so his death brought more sadness than regret.

In my family, the legendary sudden death was that of my maternal grandmother, our Nanny, Opal Lee Picklesimer Childress.3 In 1955, my parents were living in Taconite Harbor, Minnesota, and Mom's parents were in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was born that April, and Papa and Nanny came to visit.

Then, in June, my dad suggested that Mom should take David (3 1/2 years old) and me to see her folks. Mom thought that was silly - her parents had just been there in April, after all - but Dad persuaded her. So she loaded David and me into the car, and made the trip. While she was visiting, on June 19, Nanny had a massive stroke, and died instantly.

She was only 52 years old. My mother was just 30, and her own family was just barely started. It was a hard loss for her. I remember, one Mother's day, finding Mom in her bedroom, crying. Like all of us, she wanted her mother (I hope I at least gave her a hug).

Mom shared with me, later, what a comfort it was to her, that she and Nanny were on good terms, and that they had a close relationship, when her mother died. She harbored no regrets. And, of course, she was grateful to Dad for his enabling what turned out to be their last time together.

I was thinking of all this when I came across a poem by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, in her book Lucky Fish.
by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

When my father wanted to point out galaxies
or Andromeda or the Seven Sisters, I'd complain
of the huzz of mosquitoes, or of the yawning
moon-quiet in that slow, summer air. All I wanted

was to go inside into our cooled house and watch TV
or paint my nails. What does a fifteen-year-old girl
know of patience? What did I know of the steady turn
of whole moon valleys cresting into focus?

Standing there in our driveway with him,
I smacked my legs, my arms, and my face
while I waited for him to find whatever pinhole
of light he wanted me to see. At night, when I washed

my face, I'd find bursts of blood and dried bodies
slapped into my skin. Complaints at breakfast about
how I'd never do it again, how I have more homework
now, Dad. How I can't go to school with bites all over

my face anymore, Dad.        Now—I hardly
ever say no. He has plans to go star-gazing
with his grandson and for once, I don't protest.
He has plans. I know one day he won't ask me,

won't be there to show me the rings of Saturn
glowing gold through the eyepiece. He won't be there
to show me how the moons of Jupiter jump
if you catch them on a clear night. I know

one day I will look up into the night sky
searching, searching—I know the mosquitoes
will still have their way with me—
and my father won't hear me complain.
Let's say "yes" to family and friends, whenever we can, for as long as we can.

1. Victor John VanderRoest. Nov 28, 1950 - Feb 20, 2014

2. Vic died of an aortic dissection. Apparently the tendency for this is hereditary, detectable, and treatable. I'm hoping to persuade Jim to pursue testing.

3. Opal Lee Picklesimer Childress. May 12, 1903 - June 19, 1955

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