I Would Not Wish This On My Worst Enemy

Those were the first words his mom said to me as I hugged her not knowing how to ease her pain.

I stood out in the bitter cold for 45 minutes. The line just to get inside the funeral home snaked its way around the building even now in the 4th hour of the visitation. The line never got shorter until the doors closed 5 hours later. Hundreds and hundreds of people who loved him, loved his family came to say they were sorry and to ask “Why?”.

Scottie was 17. Smart, athletic, funny. Dozens of good friends, dated regularly. Two older brothers who were friends as well as siblings. Two loving and attentive parents. Lots of close family. Seemed to be happy.

And then came Monday night. He seemed tired and went to bed early. His parents went to bed a little later. At 4:30 the police were at their door telling them that their son was dead.

The details are sketchy. At some point he drove from his house, parked the car on an overpass above an expressway and left the car with the motor running. Somewhere around one he was lying on the expressway when he was hit by a car. The assumption is that this kid, who was seemingly happy and loved life, and according to his father “afraid of roller coasters”, jumped off the height of the overpass with the intent to die. The injuries sustained from being hit by the car make it impossible to know for sure that he jumped. Questions of why was the car motor left running and did he jump or go down to the highway by foot would be interesting mystery clues if this were a made for TV movie. Instead it is all too real life.

The bigger and much, much harder to answer question is  WHY. No note. No signs of depression or despair. Had been talking to parents and friends about making various plans for the future. Why?

The sad thing is that we will probably never know. Actually the tragically sad thing is that Scottie is dead. Not knowing why just adds to the pain. Could something have been done? Should someone have noticed something more? We will never know. What I do know that for the past two days I have been witnessing the toll of this tragedy on his parents, brothers, grandfather and uncle. All have been a part of my life for a long time, 3 of them for most of my life. Let me share some moments from the visitation day on Friday and the funeral service on Saturday.

Just one word can describe Friday. People. Hundreds of people. They just kept coming and coming. They waited in line in the cold for an hour and then inside for another hour until you finally got to the family and the casket. The visitation was scheduled from 3-9 but lasted until 11 because people just kept coming.

Maybe there are three more words, love, sorrow and hugs. Love could be seen on the numerous poster boards with pictures remembering and celebrating Scott’s life. In so many of the picture he had that great big smile that he was so well-known for just beaming. Only one of the poster boards had been prepared by the family. The others were spontaneous gestures by friends and extended family, all who loved this kid.Because the love was so strong the sorrow went so deep. So deep for so many people. All of whom were asking why.As Scott’s grandfather said, this is the worst day of my life.

The hugs. When there are no words to be said, nothing that can provide any comfort, there are hugs. There was more hugging done in these two days than I can ever remember being a part of. A hug, a squeeze, a rub on the shoulder provided some measure of comfort to all of us who mourned.

Saturday was the church service and the cemetery. What I noticed the most about the church service was when a family member  would be heart-broken and sobbing another would be strong for the moment and provide loving support. Then sometime later, often moments later, the strong would become the weak and someone else would provide comfort and strength. During one of those moments Scott’s father broke down and his eldest on just put his arm around his dad as if to say yes, this is horror but I am here by your side and I will be strong for you now.

Scott’s uncle is one of my oldest and closest friends. His grandfather and my mother lived together for almost thirty years until her death. My goal was to be strong for them. Instead as I approached them during the service I broke down and sobbed. Loudly. Not the comfort I had been planning to provide but we all understood.

The deacon led a beautiful service and many good memories of Scot were shared. His eldest brother delivered a powerful speech. He made the point that as the youngest of three boys Scott wanted to grow up fast. He always wanted what his brothers had, wanted to do what they did and hang around with their friends. We were told that to honor Scott’s life we should each live our life as we want it to be lived. No compromises and no excuses. That is what a grown up does.

After the cemetery there was a lunch. At least 200 people came. It was the Catholic version of a Shiva. People and food together help the family to momentarily ease the pain and to recognize that while it will forever be different, life will go on. I was glad to hear the beginning of some normalcy in the conversation. Somethings other than more words about a life ended and how sad it all is. There was even a discussion of the best pizza in town. Why do I find that to be worth mentioning? Because I know from experience that the sorrow ebbs and flows and will be strong for quite some time and that talk of pizza takes nothing away from the respect that Scott’s memory deserves but it does mean there is life for others after his death.

After the lunch my wife and I could do nothing more than collapse at home. I have no idea how the family could physically and emotionally endure the past few days. I was exhausted and my body hurt as if I had taken a beating.

The last point I want to share takes some set up. Through my mother and their father our families became family. At several gatherings over the past couple of years, Scott’s dad had challenged my wife, an avid tennis player, to a game of doubles, he and Scott versus my wife and son.

One of the last things Scott’s dad said to my wife yesterday was;

“I guess we will never have that doubles match”.

I Watched A Man Die Today

Wars, natural disasters, murder, old age, cancer. People die every day. Thousands of them. Every day. The difference today is that I was there.

It did not make a difference to Dave. He was not even aware that I was there. By the time I saw him he could not see me.

I have known Dave for at least 20 years. We were not close though I knew him well enough to know that he was a really good guy and a good man. We are not connected so much by work, though his death  started in our office just feet from where I sit, but through other connections. A million years ago he dated a woman I worked with that was a friend. Later he married my close friend’s sister. I have known her since we were little kids. It is often strange the web of connections that binds two people.

It still feels like a dream or a sad movie. It can’t be real. He was just here. He just turned 50. Five years younger than me. On Sunday he watched his eldest child, a son, graduate from high school. Monday morning he went to his youngest child’s rehearsal for graduation from middle school. Because he had missed part of the morning he came to our office instead of the one at which he normally works. Our office is closer to his home than his real office 20 miles away. He walked in and waved to people he knew as he went to the guest office. He never made it in.

I heard the thud from my desk. I heard someone ask him if he was OK. I heard that question again a moment later and I ran out to see what was happening. Dave had fallen to his knees. A cubical wall kept him from falling forward. I saw his face.

The look on his faced is etched forever in my memory. Eyes wide open. Glassy stare. Lips apart. Still breathing but labored. Not responding to our voices. Nothingness.

Call 911! Get the Security people up here now! She called immediately. And again. Where were they?

Trying to figure out what to do. Someone slipped his briefcase off his shoulder. We got him lying down. He still was breathing but did not respond to our voices. His face was turning red. None of us knew what to do. I felt so helpless.

Fortunately people came who seemed to know what to do until the paramedics arrived. They gave CPR and used a defibrillator. Finally after what was probably only a few more minutes but seemed like a lifetime the paramedics arrived. They worked on him for 40 minutes or more. We were asked to stay back so I could not tell how he was doing.  I alternated between not wanted to watch and needing to get a clue as to how he was doing. All of this nightmare would go away if he just came out of this OK. He had to. But he didn’t.

While waiting we looked at each other. Dave’s wife had been called. We agreed on who would follow the ambulance to the hospital. I would stay behind with the team. About 15 of my people were there when it was happening. Someone needed to tend to them as well.

They were still doing CPR when they took him away which I took as a bad sign. Over the next hours I only had hope because I had not heard otherwise. Then the call I did not want to answer came.

I did not and still do not know what to feel…or more accurately how I feel. I learned from my mom’s death that death is strange. It only is the end for the one who dies. The rest of us need to go on. Her death was the only other one I had witnessed but in her case she had been ill for quite some time and we knew it was coming.

So I am sad, numb and feeling very mortal. Sad for losing a guy I knew and liked. Sad for his wife who I have known and liked forever. Sad for his children. Sad for all who loved him and called him friend. Sad for Dave. He will not be here to witness all of the future events of his three children.  Numb. I have started to cry at least a dozen times. Started but have not yet bawled. Why is that? Am I not sad enough? Am I not sensitive enough? Shouldn’t I be crying? Isn’t that what we are SUPPOSED TO DO when someone dies. Crazy the thoughts in your head at times like these. Crazier what people say.

First, you should know that I have a high tolerance for any and all reactions when people are sick or have died. No one knows how to act. There is no etiquette. We all grieve in our own way. There is no right or wrong. So the things I am about to share are not meant as a critique but just the craziness of dealing with tragedy.

Let’s start the “what stupid things people say in these times” with me. At some point while he was still on the ground with the paramedics I turned to the next guy and said something to the effect of “I could have gone my whole life without seeing something like this.” Wow. How selfish and thoughtless. Here he was fighting for his life and I was thinking about how it impacted me.  As the saying goes, “It is not about you”, meaning me. Again the craziness of the moment. Because in some sense it was not about him. The dead need no sympathy. They no longer care what you think or say. It was however, about his wife, his children, his close extended family and a long list of people before it was about me.

But what can you say. As we were waiting for the news from the hospital many people asked me if I was OK.  Of course I understand they are only trying to be empathetic and anyways what else could you ask. But am I OK? AM I OK? Hell no I am not OK. I am anything but OK. And yet I thank them for there concern and tell them I am fine because that is what you do.

One colleague came rushing in. He had been by before when the event was first unfolding and now it was between the time they took Dave to the hospital and THE CALL. He sincerely asked that I inform him when we know what happened…and then he reminded me that we will need to get together soon to discuss some client thing. Really. You had to throw that in. Now? But as I said I believe we should be tolerant of any reaction in these circumstances and I mean it.

How should we feel? What should we say? What should we do?

I gathered my work people together after they took him to the hospital and told them that however they need to deal with what happened they should. Most of my people did not know him well if at all but they had been there. I told them to work if staying busy helped or to take a moment, an hour or a day. Most people stayed. I stayed to watch over them.

So now I have shared on a miniscule scale what people in war, first responders and doctors in hospitals see every day. Death is not pretty. It is not what you see in movies and on TV. This was not made up, it was real life. Real Death.

I said I felt mortal. Dave had recently had an echo cardiogram. One of the more sophisticated tests to check your heart and arteries. He was told he was fine. I had one six months ago and was told I am fine. But the docs really don’t know do they? One paternal uncle died of a massive heart attack in his early 60s. I am about to be 55. Another uncle has survived 3 heart attacks. What me worry? (This part is all about me.)

Tomorrow we go on and sort out what this means. One of my bosses mentioned how this puts things in perspective. But what is that perspective? Do we do anything differently tomorrow? Do I? One person at work already resigned from her management role because she decided it was not worth the stress. I tend to be a one foot in front of the other kind of guy. I will go on. Do I change my life?

I have already been exercising more and trying to lose the extra pounds. I will continue though not because of today.

I will try to enjoy my life more and stress out less but change is hard. Maybe I take a year off and go climb a mountain. Maybe.

I am still working out what life means after watching a man die.

A Funeral Day

It was just as in a movie. Overcast skies. The light a dull grey. A bit of chill in the air. Snow in piles still on the grass.

When I arrived I saw the hearse, a line of cars, a grieving widow and three people in military dress uniforms. Navy.

And Fred. Fred was the reason I was there. I did not know his older brother Gilbert. Older by only two years at age 85. I racked my brain to figure out if I had even met him. I must have. At Bobby’s (Fred’s older son and my friend for 46 years) wedding? At Fred’s or my Mom’s birthday party? I could not remember.

Fred is not one to talk much so I had not heard stories about his brother. I did not know until the funeral day that Gil had been in the Navy. Stormed the beach at Normandy. Was direct in his speech, hard on the outside but always willing to help anyone who needed it.

This was the first funeral for me with a military tribute. I have heard Taps on TV and in the movies. It is a different in person experience. Haunting, sorrowful, moving. An American flag was draped over the coffin. With military precision it was folded, ever so slowly and exactly and then handed from one officer to the next until it was presented to the widow. She was thanked on behalf of the President of the United States for the service of her husband.

This was followed by a talk by a rabbi. I had noticed the rabbi earlier. A perfect example of not judging a book by its cover. On the exterior he was disheveled. Older coat hanging poorly on his frame open to a sweater that was rolled in bunches. Yet when he spoke…Great voice and beautiful words.

Soon it was over. I walked the 25 steps to my mother’s gravesite to pay my respects. I had not been there often. My brother has. I keep wondering what if anything that says about me. I have been supremely sad since she died and I still talk to her. I think I need to go visit her more often.

I also need to pay more attention to the living. While he outwardly shows little emotion it has to make one feel one’s mortality when your sibling, only two year’s older dies. I do not spend enough time with Fred. That too will change.

 As we all got in our cars and headed home, I took one more look at the day. Definitely a funeral day.

Drive. Nothing Else. Nothing.

I get crazywhen people drive and talk on the phone, clearly being more engaged in the call than the traffic. Or eating with two hands on the food and maybe a knee on the wheel. Or texting. Or reading. Or looking for something in the back seat. Or applying make-up.

Or doing their nails.

Driving plus almost anything is an accident waiting to happen.

Or doing their nails.

As reported in the Chicago Tribune;

The Lake County State’s Attorney’s office says it’s looking into criminal charges against a woman who allegedly was painting her fingernails while driving and fatally struck a stopped motorcyclist over the weekend.

Authorities say Anita Zaffke, of the 1500 block of Eddy Lane in Lake Zurich, stopped at the intersection of Route 12 and Old McHenry Road at around 5:45 p.m. Saturday as the traffic light turned from green to yellow.

The driver of a Chevrolet Impala behind Zaffke, Lora Hunt, 48, of Morris, told police “she was painting her nails as she drove and did not see [the motorcycle] until contact was already made,” according to a Lake County Sheriff’s Department incident report.

SHE DID NOT SEE IT! OF COURSE NOT. SHE WAS DOING HER FRIGGIN’ NAILS.

I do not care how much time you save doing other things in the car. Stop it.

It kills. Maybe not today, but it kills. This woman died leaving a husband and young son behind because somene was painting their nails. Its not right.

zaffke

The Bad, The Ugly And The Good

 

Three stories from the front section of today’s Chicago Tribune.

The Bad

Rampage leaves India reeling

Siege of Mumbai ends, and the reckoning begins

The Ugly

Mother dead, dad accused of murder-for-hire: ‘Over the years love and hate can get mixed up’

The Good

For world’s sick, ‘help is just an e-mail away’

 

Too many bad and ugly stories overall. Not enough good.

The Process Of Death

In the modern world too few processes are uncomplicated. For the living, not even dying comes easy.

I refer to all the things that need to be done for the dying/dead by the living.  The details seem endless and the prep should begin early, perhaps shortly after birth.

First get a grip on the finances. Make sure you know where the paperwork and accounts are and that someone trusted can sign besides the one that no longer can.

Know what is in the will and do not try to make last minute changes–especially if the lawyer plans to go for an extended vacation just when he is needed.

Hope that burial plots have been bought because this is close to impossible to do at the last minute.

Find a funeral home to work with. Is there a prepaid burial set up? Can you find the paperwork? If not how do you choose? Nothing like trying to price compare when you are grieving even though the difference can be many thousands of dollars. We found Irwin through a cousin. He came to us, made everything easy and was price competitive. My family found him to be “genuine”. I liked him well enough and everything went smoothly but I still saw a bit of the salesman come out when we met with him. Realistically I may be hypersensitive at the moment. Oh by the way, unless you absolutely cannot afford it, hire the limo to take the family around for the day of the funeral. You need it and deserve it.

Find a place for the service and appropriate clergy. We belong to a wonderful congregation. We were able to use our temple for free and our rabbi and cantor made the services there, at the grave site and later that night at our home beautiful and meaningful. All this even though they had just prepared for the Rosh Hashannah holiday the two days before. I wrote about the JRC before and cannot say enough about the place now.

Figure out the unwritten, unspoken “rules” of the official mourning process. First is who do you call to let know? Family, extended family, friends and co-workers want the opportunity to pay their respects and help in any way they can. If you are lucky the first set of people you call will volunteer to call others. But there are no rules. As you are grieving this is not the time to have to worry about someone being hurt if they did not find out. It should be all about you.

For me the most surreal aspect was telling my business associates.  I keep my work life and home life fairly separate. I am not close to anyone at the company I work for but I have opened up to a few of my clients. In the type of consulting I do, I am involved with very senior executives about very sensitive matters. What is the etiquette for telling clients? I had an out or town meeting the week we thought Mom might die, a phone conference two days after and a meeting with a potential client the day of the funeral. It is not that people are not understanding, they are. But it was a question of what words to use. Do you give detail? Do you give warning that your mother might die soon so contingency plans can be made? In the end I did what was easiest for me and I hope for no long run repercussions.

Someone needs to give a eulogy. The problem is that the people who know the dead person best are the ones most drowning in sorrow. Telling about the life of a loved one who just died without sobbing while in front of all the people who remind you of that person is not easy. OK, not easy is a gross understatement. In our case our rabbi, who did not know Mom, came to our house to meet with the family and get background. In his words, he was the back-up. It helped to know that one was in place. The other members of my family were too emotional to speak. And that’s OK, it is really all about what each of the Grieving need and it is more than OK just to mourn. I was able to speak for them and managed to say a few words without completely breaking down at that moment. I saved my complete breakdowns for before and after.

Jews do what is known as a Shiva. I am told by some friends that it is like a wake but with a focus on food rather than drink. It is supposed to be for seven days but many do it for 2-3. In our area this means the family picks a house at which to gather as friends and relatives come to pay their condolences. But there are processes to work out. Who takes care of providing food, plates, drinks, utensils, etc.? In our tradition, the grieving family is not supposed to deal or worry about that stuff. If you are lucky like we are, friends volunteer and magically all of these things happen. Even then, most people will ask if there is anything they can do. Unfortunately, even though they mean well, and I have done the same thing, there is a reality. The Grieving do not want to impose or ask for something beyond your means or time. These amorphous offers are not particularly helpful but again there is no handbook– that I know of. According to Rick’s Book of Manners, one should say, “I will bring _____”, is that OK or would you prefer that I _____?” (BTW, Rick’s Book of Manners is the shortest book of its kind. I am pretty easy going about most stuff and I HATE little rules on how to or not behave. Originally it was going to have just one line—Be a mench!— but I realized that a bit more direction is needed.)

There will be estate issues to resolve, thank you notes to write and getting on with life without someone you love. That last one is the most difficult process of all.

She’s Gone

The biggest disaster of the day happened 15 minutes before the markets closed but had nothing to do with the failed bailout or the stock market. My mom died today.

Mom, or Ma as I usually called her, fought the good fight against long odds. I was there to see her take her last breadth in this world.

It seems even more strange that she left the living just hours before the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Given that she held on for eight days after the doctor told us she only had 2-3 left I would have thought that she would usher in the new year. But she was always thinking of others, especially her children, before herself and she probably wanted us to be comforted by friends and congregation, praying without worrying any more about her condition.

She was warm and strong. She raised four kids, worked and dealt with a husband who contracted Alzheimer’s at 56 while she still had an autistic child in the house to care for. She made sure that at all times that child, my sister Sandy, had the best care possible. This woman who spent much of her early married life as a housewife had to learn to deal with state bureaucracy, find appropriate living facilities for her, raise funds, charm the staff/the many CEOs and even the occasional U.S. senator, and stay on top of everything to ensure that her daughter never fell through the cracks in the system and not only lived but thrived.

She always thought that whatever her kids did was great and whatever help we provided was above and beyond the call. Family was very important to her and this meant not just us but to her aunts and uncles and extended lists of cousins from each branch of the family tree. She loved and was loved.

She could annoy in only the ways that a parent could. She loved to give advice. Into my fifties she never failed to suggest that I needed to be wearing a coat any time that she was cold. But then we were always her kids, in the most loving way that those words can be taken.

I will miss her every day.