|"Your Dad Is Dead!"
||[Nov. 1st, 2003|11:00 am]
November 1st. The Day of the Dead.|
It seems somehow appropriate to reminisce.
I had just turned 10 that cold February evening. The converted van of a school-bus had delivered my younger brother and I home from school without incident. We had crunched our way up the long, steep driveway to our home, a small house my father and great uncle Ray had built on my mother's ancestral land.
The house was well-heated with a primitive, oil-burning stove, but lacked much in the way of other modern amenities; we melted snow or drew water through a six-foot deep hole chopped in the ice at the lake at the bottom of the drive - drinking water came sometimes from a spring a quarter-mile down the road or from a tap at my grandparents' house further along down the driveway. From there, my father had also strung a series of extension cords, well-taped together, which provided us with enough electricity to power a couple of light-bulbs and an ancient, black and white, floor-model television that took longer to warm up than a 486 struggling to run Windows 95 does to boot.
Mum was in her room, Tom and I were watching television, a movie of the week about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jack Kennedy was discussing the situation with some of his aides, the actor portraying him as a strong, virile, leader, handsome and athletic, with the good of all mankind his only concern.
The drama was interrupted by the sound of boots pounding on the stoop outside our front door. As I turned towards it, the door swung hard inwards and my grandmother rushed inside. Her long coat was not done up, she was sobbing, and spittle clung between her lips as she opened her mouth and screamed, "Your Dad is dead!"
I was instantly on my feet, and just as quickly, crying with panicked grief, joined by Tom as my mother rushed into the room.
* * *
My mother's parents had built their house two or three years before, using it as a summer place until Grandpa retired and they left a suburb of Detroit to enjoy their retirement in the wilds of Northern Ontario. We had lived in their place for several months while our own house was being built.
Among other things, my grandfather was a hypnotist, an escape artist and a magician. He had been a friend and colleague of Blackstone, apparently the world's greatest magician of his time, after Houdini. Show-business had never made Grandpa rich, however, and he had gone into business, living and suffering the American Dream. By the time he retired, he was a dapper, erect older man with a neatly-trimmed moustache and a fiery temper; family lore has it he was bitter than he had never managed to make a million dollars, all his other accomplishments meaningless to him.
One of my first memories of him was when I was 5 or 6, around the time of one of the Apollo moon-landings. I was fascinated by all things space and an astronaut doll (I don't believe the term, "action figure", had yet polluted the English language) with which I loved to play. You can imagine the thrill I had when Grandpa showed me one of his tricks, pulling a second astronaut from a blanket - I spent a couple of days looking for the original. I don't know when it was I realized that Grandpa's magic was, in fact, only a trick.
By the time my grandmother barged, drooling, into our home, I was starting to think of myself as a magician's apprentice. Grandpa had been showing me some tricks, had given me some simple apparatus upon which to practice what I sometimes thought might become my trade (he irritated me, though, by refusing to hypnotize me, because I was stil a kid).
* * *
Three of us were hysterical as my mother came into our living-room. Grandma was sobbing and Tom and I were screaming, "Daddy! Daddy!"
Somehow, my mother managed to find out what had happened.
"I tried to wake him up," Grandma said. "I shook him and I called his name ... but he's dead! He's dead!" I gradually realized it wasn't my dad who was dead, but my mother's.
My mother stayed cool. She got us into our boots and coats and soon all four of us were trudging single-file along the hard-beaten path on the centre of what - in summer - was our drive-way.
I trailed behind, listening to the sound of our boots punching the snow, and - strangely to me, even then - counting my footsteps in my head: left (one), right (two), left (three), right (four), a habit that to this day I sometimes find myself following.
Tom and I stayed in the living-room/kitchen of my grandparents' house while my mother went in to confirm her mother's report. She came out soon and went for the telephone, calling an ambulance, though he had, in fact, been dead for some time.
* * *
I didn't go to the funeral. Tom and I spent that time at the library. Right or wrong, my parents had decided we didn't need to go through the experience.
Perhaps we should have gone. For a long time after, Tom and I would greet any unexpected or prolonged silence behind a closed door with a whisper, "Maybe he's dead..." the words accompanied - in my case at least - by a tension in the belly our joke was not able to tame.
That my grandfather had, only the day before his death, been to the hospital complaining of chest pains, meant that his memory continued to haunt our family in a way it would not otherwise have done.
At that time, the mid-1970s, Sudbury was notorious as a place in which it was a very good idea to get sick in. The Sudbury General Hospital's new wing, which opened right around the time we moved there from Quebec, for instance had been in the news because (I work from memory here, so forgive me if my figures in not quite accurate) some 23 patients had died on the operating table before someone figured out that gas lines had been mislabeled when they'd been installed.
In my grandfather's case, he had gone in to the Emergency Department and then sent home. "It's just gas," he was told. He did as he was bid, went to bed and never woke up.
Our family was not satisfied with the treatment he received, but satisfaction was not forthcoming. Sudbury's Chief Coroner told my grandmother to "Go to hell!" when she pressed for an investigation into the treatment her late husband had received.
This made for a good headline in True North, my parents' fledgling newspaper ("'God to Hell!' Coroner Puduti Tells Grieving Widow"), but did not exactly help bring what we would now call "closure" for my Grandmother, who nevertheless managed to outlive her husband by more than 20 years.
But her death - and life - is a story for another day.