Among the Missing | Essay | Chicago Reader

Among the Missing 

In mourning for our dead, we sometimes get angry at them for leaving us. Other times we forget they're gone. Often we're confused. Our wounds are as big as our hearts.

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My brother-in-law Lewie wanted me to pack up the boys and take them to the lake sometime this summer. I wasn't going. If he wanted to take them to Michigan it was OK by me. He could even take my car. I didn't have to drive 150 miles for painful memories. I had plenty of them at home.

Home was where Grace had died of cancer seven months before. All of us were grieving: Lewie for his sister, the boys for their mother, I for my wife. I often thought what an inadequate word "wife" was for what she was to me.

I'd never believed she was going to die. As the months went by, friends would talk about how much they missed her and how deeply it hurt that she wasn't in the world anymore. I would nod somberly. But I was infuriated. "You think I don't know this?" I'd rage silently. "I'm barely in this world anymore."

People say that when a loved one dies after a long and painful illness, it's common for the main caregiver to feel some relief as well as sorrow. I felt no relief. I felt worse. The two and a half years after she was diagnosed were hell, but they were our hell. Then hell became mine and mine alone.

Everyone who loved her was pained by her loss, but my pain was different. It was surprisingly physical. The cliches were true: a knife twisting in my chest, sudden lightninglike headaches, constant aching all over my body. I was sick at heart and exhausted beyond caring.

When friends asked how the kids were doing I'd answer hopefully, "Better than me." And how are you doing? they'd ask. Fine, I'd lie.

Nothing mattered except the children. People say they have nothing left to lose. There's always something left to lose. So I kept things going. At 7 and 11, the boys were too young to help much, so what energy I had went into keeping house, planning activities, making sure we had food on the table and clean clothes in the dresser. Shuttling them to school and Little League. Keeping up a facade of mindless optimism. We'll be happy, guys. Yes, there are pain and suffering in the world, but we also have love and wonder and joy. Happiness wins, 3-2.

I said it. I didn't believe it. I hadn't felt any wonder or joy lately, and any love left in my heart went to the boys.

I still wasn't going to the lake. But Lewie wouldn't let up. He came over to our house every few days and talked about how important it was--for the boys, for him, for me.

"No," I told him. "You don't know how I feel."

"Grace would have wanted you to go to the lake," he cried.

"Well, she doesn't have anything to say about it, does she?" I answered.

Fifteen years ago, when I was young and looking for a way out of the lifetime commitment facing me, Grace would point out that I couldn't fight it--she was my destiny. The first time I walked into the cottage at the lake I thought she might be right. For years I'd had a recurring dream of a similar house, a house with beds in every room.

Still, I'd never quite felt comfortable there. The place had been built by Grace and Lewie's grandfather stick by stick and brick by brick, and for the family's younger generation it had assumed museum status: It was a monument to their family's patriarch and to each kid's childhood. Since 1953 time had stood still at the lake. A damp towel on a chair prompted a virulent outburst: Gramps never allowed that! Several years of long and agonizing argument had preceded the installation, two years ago, of a telephone.

In this atmosphere an in-law was an interloper. Welcome, to be sure, but a spare part all the same. I'd had enough of that as a kid. The only family that ever mattered to me--Grace, me, the boys--no longer existed. Now, I thought, going to the lake might be a measure of how much I belonged in her family--something I didn't really want to know.

Finally I thought of a way of dealing with Lewie's pleas. "OK," I told him, "I'll go on one condition: that the Knicks win the NBA championship." It was my little piece of revenge--making a Bulls fan root for the Knicks.

"All right!" Lewie exclaimed. "I really think they're going to win."

Neither the Knicks nor Lewie could have persuaded me, but soon my younger son picked up his uncle's refrain. "Dad, you've got to go with us," he said. "Please, dad." He was rooting hard for the Knicks too. Too hard. After they dropped game two I told the boys I'd go, win or lose.

Then I began to wonder. Was Lewie using the children against me? No, he's not a schemer. So I gnashed my teeth and rationalized: I've spent 15 years in Chicago wishing I could get out. The city is particularly insufferable over the Fourth of July. It's a privilege to have a place in the country.

I thought back a year and a half, to a bleak winter period when Grace suddenly acquired an astonishing energy after radiation to tumors in her head and neck. She'd harangued her father--who was in the last stages of cancer himself and thinking of selling the cottage--about how much the place meant to her.

"We don't have a lot of money, dad," she'd told him. "We can't afford expensive vacations. The lake is our Disney World, our Sanibel, our Riviera." Then she'd vowed, "I'm taking my children to the lake this summer."

Four days later she was back in the hospital, and the doctors were giving her two weeks. The energy that had flared up in her became a raging fire, frightening and out of control. She was placed in the hospice unit, unable to talk because the radiation had scorched her throat and whacked-out from the combination of psychoactive drugs, sleep deprivation, and what the doctors said was the return of the tumor in her brain.

"If the tumor is growing that fast," one doctor told me, "it will eventually run out of room." Interesting prognosis: her head was going to explode.

I told the boys the doctors were giving their mother two weeks. "Please let her be alive for my birthday," our older son prayed.

After a few days Grace got better. She was able to sleep. Her voice returned. She scheduled appointments with the radiologist to take care of a tumor in her breast. She said she wanted to go home.

I took her home. Then I talked to the radiologist. "Why," I asked him, "if the oncologist is saying she has two weeks to live, are you scheduling Grace for three weeks of radiation?"

The radiologist was shocked. "That's what the oncologist said?" The oncologist, we learned, had based his diagnosis on a CAT scan. "An MRI gives a much better picture," the radiologist confided, "but it's more expensive." Managed care had struck again.

The radiologist ordered an MRI and called with the results. "The lesion is smaller," he said. "There is no impending doom." There might have been some bleeding in her brain, he said, and that could have caused her manic spell.

Grace was alive for both boys' birthdays, and that summer we went to the lake.

I called Lewie and told him we'd all go up on the Fourth of July weekend.

"Fine," he replied. "I'm not goin'." He'd had some kind of argument with his brother.

"You're going," I told him.

"I'm not goin'."

"I will hunt you down and run you down if I have to. You're going."

"I think I've got to work," he grumbled.

"Work, schmerk," I said. "I'll pick you up at 11 on Saturday."

Every day is an ordeal when you're newly widowed--and newly can last a long time--but holidays are supposed to be particularly hard. Valentine's Day was our wedding anniversary. I took the boys to the cemetery. I didn't feel any worse than any other day. Mother's Day came and went--the buildup was more difficult than the event. Independence Day hadn't had any special meaning in our lives together. We hadn't been at the lake for the Fourth in several years. It had no curse of memory.

The mail came early--meaning before noon--on Saturday, July 3. I looked through it. A letter seeking funds to help defray Bill Clinton's legal expenses. Hah. A bill from Ameritech. A large package from Teresa, the cleaning lady.

During the second year of Grace's illness I was having a difficult time caring for her and keeping up with the kids and, occasionally, working. My days started at 6:30 AM and ended about 1 AM, and the house was still a mess. My mother and my aunt put their purses together and sent money to hire cleaning help. A friend recommended Teresa, a writer who appreciated being paid in cash. She was around for the last few months of Grace's life and for some time after. Then she'd got a job out of town, teaching reading to children.

The package from Teresa bore a return address in Michigan and was jam-packed with fireworks. I'm no great fan of fireworks. I hate firecrackers, M-80s--any explosion without a visual payoff. Bottle rockets worry me. Stationary spark-shooting fireworks are OK, but I won't put a finger and a match together near them.

Sparklers are fine. There were sparklers in the package and something called Golden Flowers and pop-pops. But there were no firecrackers, so Teresa's gift was OK by me.

I beeped Lewie with our phone number followed by 200. Eleven was long gone. I'd pick him up at 2:00.

Was I putting off the trip? Absolutely.

I tossed the package in the trunk along with our other weekend stuff, wondering if the fireworks would explode in the heat. But I figured that if they'd made it through the mail from Michigan, they'd probably make it back in the car. I loaded up the kids and drove to Lewie's.

Lewie's doorbell doesn't work, but he lives on the first floor. I knocked on the window. No answer. Knocked again. No answer. Knocked really hard, then banged on the window just short of breaking it. He appeared at the door. He'd been asleep.

We drove to the lake, taking the little-used Chicago Skyway. It's well worth the $2.80 in tolls for what it saves in mileage and aggravation. I drove fast. We were making great time. Lewie started singing, to the tune of "Jimmy Crack Corn and I Don't Care": "I know a song that'll drive ya nuts, I know a song that'll drive ya nuts, I know a song that'll drive ya nuts--and this is how it goes! I know a song that'll drive ya nuts..."

Thankfully, the kids didn't join in.

Besides the addition of the telephone the cottage hadn't changed. From my first visit in 1984 to this day practically everything has stayed the same. Stuffed birds above the doorways. Broken-down billiard table. Wall plaques reading "Ve are too soon oldt and too late schmart" and "Be happy: For every minute you are angry you lose one minute of happiness."

The weekend crowd included two widows--my mother-in-law and a family friend who was 29 when her husband died four years ago. Yet I was the only widower. I was the only one with young children. I was alone in my grief--and wallowing in it. I was 41 and the best time of my life was over. Everything after Grace could only be second-best at best.

Walking through the rooms was nearly unbearable. Here was the porch where we watched the lightning storm. Here was the kitchen where Grace cooked for everyone. Here was the bed where we lay together. I couldn't breathe. I fell on the bed and passed out in the afternoon heat.

Later we blew off the fireworks in a field on the other side of the road fronting the cottage. The field was alive with thousands of fireflies blinking on and off in the dark grass, as brilliant and meaningless as the lights in Vegas. When Lewie lit the Golden Flowers and spinners, the lightning bugs cleared out deeper into the field, blinking red and orange and, improbably, green.

The next morning the boys fished off the pier in the heat. A flotilla of pontoon boats decorated for the Fourth passed, horns blaring, occupants waving. The boys waved their poles. They were happy.

I sat on the enclosed porch with my mother-in-law. We looked at the lake outside the wall of windows. We talked about the dead--her husband, my wife. Sometimes we get angry at them for leaving us. Other times we forget they're gone. Often we're confused. Our wounds are as big as our hearts. She reminded me of a stanza in a poem I'd written about Grace a couple of months earlier:

What was it you said to me?

Mostly, "Honey, see? We're family,"

and

"I'm so happy."

That was what was beautiful about you and Grace, my mother-in-law said. You were family.

We were. Had been. And now?

I stood up. I'm going for a walk, I said.

Next to the lake, on a cul-de-sac at the end of a short dirt road, was a small grocery store that sold a wide variety of candy and not much else. The owners also maintained a book-trading operation, a couple of shelves devoted to used paperbacks vacationers leave for the next reader to borrow or keep. Among the action thrillers, ghost stories, and romances, one title stood out: Widow, a mass-market paperback from 1974. I took it.

The book told me that statistics show more women are widowed at younger ages than in the past. "Our society is set up so that most women lose their identities when their husbands die," Lynn Caine wrote. "Men have it better."

I've been lost for months, I thought resentfully. I guess that makes me a woman.

But she's right. Widowers do have it better. There are fewer of us, for one thing, and a man raising two young children alone will find more helpers than a woman in the same position. Yet other than this, I realized after talking to several widows, we share a great deal. The lack of energy, purpose, direction. The craziness, the pain, the useless anger. I read that FloJo's husband slept on the floor next to their bed after she died. I understood how he felt. Grace had died in our bed. I'd had to force myself to go back there. But we live in a cramped Victorian with tiny bedrooms and no floor space. And what was I going to do, buy another bed?

Several months after Grace died I joined a bereavement group. One common complaint in the group was the disappearance of so many people who'd been part of our set when the person we'd lost was alive. The grief counselor who led the group said this is because Americans don't "do" death. He said we have to teach the people around us.

Avoidance of death is a factor, but I believe the main reason old friends stop calling is simple: It's a chore to be around a grieving person. I understand this completely. I'm prickly. People can't relax--they might say or do the wrong thing. On a Web site called Widownet one URL is devoted to stupid comments people make to grieving widows. And anyone who's read Ann Landers knows that one tactless remark is worth at least 40 lashes with a wet noodle. People feel they can't complain to me about any of their losses because no matter how bad they're feeling, I'm feeling worse. I'm center stage in this tragedy, and there isn't much room for anyone else.

So I understand why the people who don't call don't call. Doesn't mean I forgive them. Doesn't mean I'll make it easy for them by calling them first. Because I'm not such a nice guy. My attitude is don't call us and we won't call you. One more reason not to pick up the phone.

Still, there are people who do call, though why I can't say. And there are people whose generosity is astounding. The boys have been going to Christopher House, a social services agency, since they were three--first for day care, then for an after-school program. When things at home went from bad to horrible, the social worker offered counseling for us. On the night before Grace died I used our session to tell the boys that the end was coming, really coming this time.

On the way home they began to talk. "I'm so irregular," the older one wailed. "I'm the only kid whose mom is dying."

You're not the only one, I told him. We'll find a group of kids who've lost a parent. But I learned there isn't a single group like that on the north side of Chicago. The closest is in Northbrook, a 45-minute drive from our home. We haven't made it there yet.

The sky was just turning dark as we pulled away from the lake. We reached exit 56 and turned onto I-94. Fourth of July fireworks celebrations were just beginning in the little towns along the highway, and as we breezed down the interstate we saw lights sparkling in the near distance all the way through Michigan and into Indiana.

After an hour we reached the entrance to the Skyway. As we drove along the section that's elevated well above the mill towns of industrial Indiana, all the fireworks shows began crescendoing in unison in the reddened darkness. Off to the east side of the highway a ball of light hung suspended over a steel mill, topping its smokestack with a ring of flame that made it look like a giant candle. To the west a battery of small rockets exploded just above the road, sending a bed of stars floating gently down toward the dark bungalows and grimy stores below. Farther in the distance bursts of fire glittered like exclamation points above the dim glow of the city.

Our timing was perfect. "We couldn't have planned it better if we'd tried," Lewie remarked. The boys stopped squabbling, awed into silence by the show.

Maybe, I thought, Grace had wanted us to go to the lake.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Russ Ando.

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