How I learned about Loss

I am scared of the phone…

There are fewer things that can scare you than waking up to a phone call in the middle of the night, only this time it was 10 a.m. and I still lost my mind for a few minutes.  Everything had been great just the night before, today was January 1st 1988 and everything was supposed to be possible.  Over the next couple of weeks I learned that sometimes those possibilities were harsh and unforgiving, life altering and long-lasting in their ability to color my perception.  It all began with a phone call, much like the way it would end.

It’s a simple story written by hundreds over the course of a thousand years.  Boy meets girl, boy chances girl, surprisingly girl chances boy back, and finally they hold on to each other.  I was fifteen when I met Patre sitting behind me in History II, otherwise known as U.S. History post-Civil War [relegating Vietnam to a taboo subject by my teacher’s choice!]  We did the normal teenage dance around one another looking for obvious signs this might not work, but finding more that made it fun, exciting.  She was able to convince me to drag myself to school dances that used to follow football games and we would sit in the corner talking while our friends jumped around like lunatics.  The slow stuff was out time, her 5 foot 2 inch frame trying to hold onto my 6 foot 4 inch height.

It all came to head the evening of October 12, 1987 – finally admitting to one another that we should make this official and “go out”, or whatever term we used to define ourselves.  I woke up the next morning having a “girlfriend”!  Life was good.

Over the next couple of months we did all of the normal rituals.  Friday nights out with friends, Saturday nights she and I would watch a movie and have some dinner.  Usually at one of our parent’s places just so that the need for transport was limited.  I look back at it now and realize that it was the same pattern I modelled my last relationship with.  One night out and about, one night home just the two of us.

There was the time Patre was able to get me to see Dirty Dancing, a movie I have never seen since.  She would come to basketball tryouts and make loud fun of my shorts.  Begging me to never wear them in public again.  I ran home and washed them just to tease her the next day before putting on different shorts.  It was fun, it was comfortable, and for the first time in my life I was understanding what it meant to be in a relationship.  Sharing silly moments, followed by serious work [at least school work in this case], and trying to make different schedules work.  Holidays spent with both families, an oddity for kids, but my parents really liked her and her parents seemed to tolerate me being around their daughter. Good life lessons.

Then we get to that early morning phone call.  The Sunday was nice, the sun was out and it was actually pleasant for that time of year.  But by midafternoon I was sitting in the I.C.U. waiting to visit.  Trying to understand the mix of emotions swirling about my mind.  What the hell was going on with her and with me?  She was tired the night before, but not enough to think she would end up here!

The setting simple, hospital gurney, tubes coming out of her arms, rhythmic beeping from the machines monitoring her every something.  All I could do was walk in and give her a kiss.  That’s when they broke the news to me, Toxic Shock.  Something was in her blood stream and attacking her.  All we talked about that afternoon was the first thing she wanted to do after getting out of the hospital was to get her driver’s license.  She had put it off long enough and with her 17th birthday approaching [yes she was a year older!] wanted to be able to go and do things without needing others help.  We talked about how she wished she had been more fun at the party the night before, not sleeping on the couch.  I didn’t know what to say, I was just happy to spend any time with her.

After an hour or so my parents pulled me out and we let her mother go back to doing those things only mothers seem to do.  It was a tough ride home, a lot of confusion on my part; how long was she going to be in there?  No sooner had dinner finished than the phone was ringing.  Patre was alone now and wanted to talk.  Her voice was so faint, like she was trying desperately to focus enough energy to keep me company.  Two hours on the phone, which now seem like a flash in my mind, went by too quickly.  Patre couldn’t fight it anymore, she needed to sleep.

It was the last time I ever heard her voice.

The next day her mother called me while I was in school to tell me about them having to put her in a medically induced coma.  I had no idea what she was talking about, I know what a coma is; but why would you chose to do something like that.  The breathing tube was the answer I was given, she would fight it the entire time.  Gasping for air when it was being pumping into her.  It was a long night, sitting there watching her, hoping that the spikes on the Heart Rate Monitor meant that she could understand what I was telling her.  That holding her hand in some way comforted her while she was like this.

The nurses told me that she seemed to respond to me, so they suggested making tapes about what went on during the day.  So those times when others couldn’t be around, she still had a connection to the outside world.  Busy work for the kid, or might they know something.  Didn’t matter, it gave me a purpose.  Running around between classes, getting others to just say anything into my tape recorder; it filled the days.

For two weeks I watched this go on.  12 days to be exact and there are twelve of the longest days I can remember.  The first time I ever was on the receiving end of those phone calls we all dread was January 12th, 1988.  It was a Tuesday and the weather outside was getting to be nasty.  They were calling for big snow that night, so I had to get to the hospital sooner rather than later.

That’s when they told me she had a stroke and was brain-dead.  The doctors and nurse, our combined parents had never lied to me about what was going on.  When she started to have organ failure, they told me what it all led to.  When she had the stroke, they walked me through how it happened and answered the limited questions I could muster.  They were preparing me the best they knew how for what would happen next.

It was the last time I would see her before her funeral.

I was home alone.  The snow had cancelled school and I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I wanted to be at the hospital, but because of how far it was in the weather it just wasn’t possible.  My father was travelling for work, my mother has somehow made it to her own office, my little brother off with friends.  Then the phone rings.  1:30 p.m. on a snowy Wednesday afternoon.  “Patre had to be taken off life support, we’re so sorry Lary.  We wanted you to be there, but we knew we just couldn’t wait any longer.”  Those words are some of the most meaningful in my life.

Deep panic set in.  I didn’t know how to process what I had just heard.  I even called her mother back to ask her to repeat what she had just told me.  Shock has started to take hold.  I called my father on his trip, tried to get them to page him.  Track him down.  I must have called my mother’s office a dozen times, but only got her voicemail.  I asked her to call me as soon as she was free.  Twenty minutes later the garage goes up, she must have gotten her own call from Kathy.

That night I went to a school thing for my brother, or should I say a parent meeting for my brother.  Lots of adult who knew me but didn’t know what they would read in the paper the next morning.  It probably filled them in on why I was there in the first place.  The rest of my night was spent calling those few people who I desperately didn’t want to learn of her passing in the news.  Wanted them to have a chance to deal with things before entering school the next day.  Full blown adult mode was achieved that evening.

Those next days were just a mess.  Calling friends who might be willing to be pallbearers at the service.  Having to explain what was needed from them and would they be there.  Friday night spent in my basement playing Jeopardy with a dear friend who nominated herself to be my designated shoulder.  She knew she couldn’t be there for the service, but knew she could be there for me that night.  Thanks Jill!

This was the first time I had actively participated in a funeral service.  Relatives had died before, but someone else was there to take care of the daily grind.  This time I was standing there receiving condolences like any other member of her family.  As many people walking up and asking if I’m alright as those asking her parents and younger brother.

They had left a section for the friends to sit and stare into the distance.  I recall one guy who just couldn’t stop crying.  So much crying that I needed to take him outside and ask him to walk for a minute.  His grief was so palpable that I could feel its grips clawing into me.  The service I don’t remember.  I’m sure it was just like any Catholic funeral anyone has ever attended.  I just kept watching the casket.

When we drove out to the cemetery it was sunny and warm.  I remember just wearing my suit and no overcoat.  I can see the hill where we are driving up as clearly as the hill in my own back yard.  The homes in the distance that make you wonder why someone would choose to live across the street.  The sound of all those friends just holding onto each other as we carried the casket to the gravesite.  Every step a little harder than the last.  Making sure that I hold onto her with every last ounce of strength I could manage.

When I was 15 I lost someone a cared about.  It haunted me for years.  Knowing that she made me think about my place in the world, not only through her death but also how she wanted to live.  Every January 13th I light a candle for a short time to remember her.

I have only ever felt that panic twice since – the phone call I received saying Whitney was in the hospital having her appendix out [ ] and the day I was told my daughter had died.  But it all stems back to this time in my life, the helplessness of being 15 trying to understand love, loss, growing up without being able to grow old.  I’ve lost friends, family over the years; none as painful as these losses.

We are all a collection of memories, some much better than others.  I just wish I didn’t have these.


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