We’re nearing a sad anniversary for me. Typically, most people find Valentine’s Day something to anticipate and enjoy. I don’t hate it, but I definitely don’t love or celebrate it either. Since 2014, it commemorates the start of the worst 18 months of my life.
I lost a very dear friend and mentor on February 14, 2014. I had no idea that his death would mark the beginning of a year and a half of profound loss. I had plans that night. A fancy dinner at my house for six. Dennis had received news that his cancer had metastasized, and we knew the end was near. I decided to use my best china, crystal and silver, and I decorated my dining room in pink. It was festive, I had taken off work early and was mopping the floor when my phone rang. It was my friend, Ron, who was also a guest. I assumed he was calling to get the specific time I wanted them to show up. Instead, Ron quietly asked me how quickly I could get to the hospital with the medical power-of-attorney papers. As I was obviously struggling with the quick change of gears, he let me know we were dealing with an end of life event.
Dennis died later that evening, with all the dinner guests by his side. Following his last breath, I kissed him on the forehead and left. The dinner party was a bust. We headed to his home immediately, only to find Valentine candy boxes stacked neatly on the counter and Valentine cards addressed to Valerie and me. He was prepared, but I was not. Little did I know that would be a recurring theme for awhile.
As co-executor of his estate, it was a long year of tying up loose ends. His brother decided to have the memorial in July around his birthday so that his family could attend. It was followed by his interment at Fort Logan. In early November, his house finally sold. I had to sign the papers early, as I was heading back east to attend Victoria’s volleyball championship tournament in Hoboken. It was a relief, but bittersweet as well. Settling on his house represented the closing of a chapter in my life that had been very special and memorable.
Unfortunately, I knew the weekend ahead of me was going to be even more sobering and awful. My brother had been in a coma after his heart surgery, and my parents decided that they would pull him off life support on Sunday. They decided to wait for Val and me to arrive from New Jersey so that I could say goodbye. We missed our train and he died shortly after we boarded our train. It’s a bittersweet memory, as Vic’s team had won and were heading to Newport News the following weekend. Val and I were sitting across from a woman and her adult daughter. They could tell what had happened based on hearing my side of the phone call. I hung up and sat there in complete shock. The older woman put her hands on my thighs and leaned toward me and said, very kindly, “I’m so very sorry.” She meant it.
Rather than fly home and fly back for the tournament, I decided that Val and I would stay. The next day, I went with my parents to the funeral home to help them make decisions. I had done this for Dennis with his brother and brother’s wife earlier in the year, so the memory was very fresh. This time, the grief started settling in a whole lot faster. Chris was my only brother. Their only son.
As with Dennis, my parents decided to wait until after Thanksgiving to have his funeral so that family could attend. We buried him on December 13, 2014. When it came time to ring in 2015, I was absolutely certain it was going to be a much better year. Nope. Not a chance.
I had a handle on losing my dear friend and my brother, or at least I thought I had done more grief work than I really had done. It was now April, and I had plans for my birthday. My birthday was early in the week, so the plans were set for Friday evening. It was opening day for baseball, I was wearing my Rockies jersey, and Ron was taking me out to dinner to a nice Hibachi restaurant. I was at work and had finished a cup of coffee when my phone rang. It was my dad, and he sounded awful. Stressed out crazy, actually. As a former cop, my dad was usually calm and not easily excited. I discovered through personal experience that his calm flies out the window when it concerns people he loves.
My dear aunt–my mother’s only sister–was coming home from the hospital after surgery. Mom was her ride home, as my cousin was driving his father to a nursing home so she could recuperate before a bigger surgery down the road. She, too, had cancer. Dad relayed to me that as they were walking in her building from the garage, Aunt Mary Jane told Mom she needed to sit down. Before Mom could reply, my aunt slid to the ground and died instantly. Mom performed CPR on her sister until the paramedics arrived. They were able to revive her a few times, but their attempts were not successful, and we suddenly lost the matriarch of our family.
I planned on canceling my birthday dinner, but Mom intervened and told me that Aunt Mary Jane would have wanted me to go. She instructed me to have a cocktail and toast in her honor. (Aunt Mary Jane was a firm believer in the therapeutic benefits of happy hour.) The downside? Ron had to put up with me being a lousy dinner partner.
Aunt Mary Jane’s death rocked my world. It was sudden and unexpected and nobody had the chance to say goodbye. It was a perfect way to die from her perspective, but it really, REALLY sucked for everyone else. Losing a loved one in this manner is grueling. It was the beginning of my realization that perhaps I hadn’t done enough grief work after all. It commenced a period in my life that found me on the couch in my family room, eating my grief. I mean that literally. By the end of 2015, I put on 50 lbs.
I wasn’t able to go to my aunt’s memorial because Val and I already had tickets home for the week of the 4th of July. Ironically, I booked that trip so I could spend some time with her and her husband. My cousin decided to hold on to her remains until his father passed away. We weren’t sure when that would happen, so that event was pushed out into the future.
Meanwhile, my godfather had been in a nursing home, debilitated by Alzheimers (such a cruel, cruel way to live and die). I always called him Uncle Robert, because it was a relationship of the heart and DNA be damned. His daughter, Mary Kay, and I are 6 months apart in age, and we lived next door to each other until I was 4. Our families were and are close. He passed away in early June. I was already numb, so piling another person on the grief pile seemed normal. I had hoped to get to his funeral and burial at Quantico, but it was scheduled the week after Val and I left DC. I lost sleep over that one. Plus, my family said it was an unforgettable experience: a complete shut down of I-95 from Arlington to Quantico. The route was stopped by people who saluted his hearse. My loved ones bawled, and I bawled when they told me about it.
In late June, Mary Kay’s husband, Scott, lost his mother. Her memorial was scheduled in Annapolis while Valerie and I were there, so I was able to go. As I met with my loved ones–who were sharing this same grief–a family friend suggested we become professional mourners. Why not get paid to cry like this?
My parents traveled to Scotland in August and returned home to find out that my father’s good friend had passed away while they were overseas. Mr. Rice and Dad joined the Metropolitan Police Department on the same day and retired the same day. They were really good friends, and we grew up knowing their family very well. His wife and Mom were girl scout leaders together, and their daughter, Sonya, was one of my sister’s best friends. Dad was in complete shock and really unhappy they had not been able to attend his funeral or burial at Quantico. I had seen Mr. and Mrs. Rice at Christmas mass the year before, and it seemed surreal that another person had left our close circle.
Over Labor Day weekend, Val and I traveled to Rhode Island to attend Vic’s first season volleyball tournament in Bristol. The weather was spectacular (autumn in New England can’t be beat), and I was enjoying the view when my phone rang. Caller ID indicated it was my parents. I answered, and Mom informed me that Uncle Jim had just passed away. He had not taken Aunt Mary Jane’s death well, and his health spiraled after she passed away. Even though he was 94, he died of a broken heart. This was the final death of the 18 month year from hell, and ironically, it was the only death where I felt relief. He had been miserable since April, and I felt God owed him that. My cousin had lost both his parents within 5 months, and that was not something to celebrate. Because he was to be buried at Arlington, I didn’t have another funeral to attend that year. Thank goodness, because I had decided Val and I flew back east every weekend to attend as many volleyball matches as we could since it was Vic’s senior year in college. We were able to attend all but 2, with the final in Grand Rapids at the Elite 8 (4th year in a row). Whew.
Vic graduated the following May. She was sad that Dennis–who was her godfather–was not there to celebrate with her. He was her biggest fan. Anyway, we got home from New York and then flew back to DC for Uncle Jim’s funeral and interment of their remains. The service was at the Old Post Chapel in Fort Myer, with a procession of a horse drawn carriage, through the gate and down the hill. It was a hot, muggy day. After the 21 gun salute, their remains were placed in the columbarium. It marked the end of our horrible year, and I wouldn’t wish it on my enemy. I still get teared up when I write about each one of these people, all of them in my inner circle. It was nothing short of devastating.
I took that photo when I was there in November with my cousin, Jay. It was good being with him, and we both teared up as we remembered that brutal year of loss.
What did I learn? For one, our holiday table has fewer chairs around it. The people who we lost are loved and missed. But they gave us a gift too. The gift is love, along with a reminder to cherish the time we still have with those gathered around us now. I don’t take it for granted, and I can say with assurance I never will. Better to have loved and lost than to not love at all. One day, I will be with them again. But not too soon, if I get my way.
I have lost more friends in the interim–each mourned individually. I try not to defer the grieving process because I don’t need to gain 50 more pounds. But hopefully I’ll never have another 18 months like that again. I pray you don’t have to experience it either. In the immortal words of Tiny Tim (through Charles Dickens), “God Bless Us, Every One!”