On Grief Delayed

Jun 20, 2017

My father was a quiet man. He rarely asserted himself in a conversation. He was a quiet man, but he was a decisive one, who hardly ever consulted anyone else in making decisions. I remember as a child that every few years he would go out on a Saturday morning. When he came back he would toss a set of keys to my mother, his way of announcing to all of us that he had just bought a new car.

My father had a hard childhood, but he never complained about his lot. He was the youngest of seven, and when his father died of tuberculosis when he was eleven, he had to drop out of school and work selling newspapers to help support the family. He had no dental care as a child; consequently his teeth rotted and he had all of them pulled by the time he was forty.

He took a correspondence course in engineering and during the Depression managed to get a job with DuPont, where he worked until he retired in 1975. Because of his lack of formal education, he never rose higher than department supervisor. But he always said that his work was “just a job” and that his real life was his family and his workshop, where he loved to spend all his spare hours, fixing things and learning new skills.

My mother’s personality was completely opposite from my father’s. She had been a professional dancer and loved the spotlight. She was always making herself the center of attention and dominated every conversation, even at the family dinner table. My brother and I used to joke that it was not until she went to a National PTA Convention that we learned that our father could not only cook, but actually converse.

Far from resenting the attention given to my mother in social situations, my father was more than happy to let my mother take center stage and took vicarious satisfaction in her popularity. But he was a graceful ballroom dancer himself and - combined with his handyman talents, kind Paul-Newman-blue eyes, and gentle smile - made my mother the envy of her friends. They had, I believe, an exceptionally happy marriage.

Two years before he retired, he announced that he and my mom would be moving to the Cape, where I had moved several years before. No doubt he had made the decision by himself without talking it over with anyone. Once here, he enjoyed himself fixing up houses and selling them, helping me to finish my own house, and, surprisingly, taking up golf.

My father died suddenly at the age of seventy-six from an aortal aneurysm. My brother flew out from Wisconsin for a few days, but the bulk of dealing with the aftermath of his death – seeing my mother through her grief, serving as executor of his estate, sorting through his effects, burying his ashes, arranging for a memorial service  – fell to me. So busy was I with the business of his death that I was surprised to realize, several months later, that I had never openly grieved for him. Perhaps I felt it appropriate that I kept my feelings to myself, as he had done.

About a year later our cat Ernie died. He was fifteen years old and his systems had been failing for a while. I had never been particularly emotionally attached to him, or to cats in general, but it fell to me to take him to the vet to have him put down. I had never witnessed an animal being euthanized before, and I was struck, once the lethal injection had been administered, at how quickly and quietly he succumbed. I carried Ernie’s body out to the car wrapped in a small towel. I got in the car, placed the wrapped body in the seat beside me and reached for the keys. Suddenly, with no warning, I began to shake uncontrollably. I put down the keys, bowed my head, and wept like a child.