Life does not stop when your father dies. Even though you want it to, because it feels like it should. Just long enough so you can find your breath and assimilate the phone call from a stranger—acting as nicely as they can—who tells you your father passed and that they are very sorry. You thank the person you’ve never met, hang up the phone and cry. Cry until you make yourself stop so you can call your sisters, your brother, your mother, and your children.
No one answers their phone, not that it would make any difference because you might not hear them; inside your ears there is pounding and throbbing. Like a beating heart working overtime.
And really, how do you tell them? How do you tell them what you know? How do you tell them so they won’t hurt, like you are now?
You dial. Hit end. Hit redial. Hit end. Dial. Hit end. Redial. Pace. Dial again. Five minutes pass. Ten. Fifteen. Pounding in the ears. Busy signals. Voice mail messages. Pounding.
Then everything around you speeds up, and finally your youngest daughter answers her cell and the crying starts all over again and your words are inaudible, but she gets it. She gets it; she gets how much you want to take your granddaughter to school (it is your day to do so), but you can’t, even though you want to. So life will feel the same. Like nothing has changed.
Yet, with one phone call from a stranger, everything has changed.
You go into survival mode, drop your uneaten toast into the garbage, sip your cold coffee, spit it out, dial another number. Dial. Hit end. Redial. Hit end. Busy signals. Voice mail messages. Pounding, pounding, pounding.
You decide to try your brother-in-law’s cell and it rings and rings, and when you are about to give up, he says “Hello.” After you tell him the news, there is silence and your ear throbs, throbs, throbs, and, “Yes,” he will find your sister, who is at school having an important conference with one of your nieces.
Life does not stop when a parent dies.
Now you try to reach your brother, your other sister, your daughter, who is expecting a baby—a great-grandchild who your father will not be around to see born, though he dreamed of the moment, as he dreamed of living long enough to hold a book in print, written by you.
Within the hour, your brother (in between flights) calls you. And you tell him, and it feels as if you have yanked away the ground beneath him and you are too far away to lift him to safety. That same unstable ground shakes beneath your feet, and you keep trying to reach the others, and soon, you do. All except your mother, because she made a promise the night before to visit your father early that morning, and when you call someone to look out the window to see if her car is still in the parking lot, the person notices her driving away.
She is on her way to visit your father not knowing he has died.
Quickly, so quickly, you and your siblings convene over the phone. Who can stop her? Who can we reach on a moment’s notice to intercept our mother? One sister calls the minister, who says, “Yes, I am on the way,” and gets off the phone, so she can hurry, hurry, hurry.
And then you wait. You wait for fifteen minutes, hoping and praying the minister will get to the assisted living in time. Twenty minutes pass, then thirty, and your body is shaking because you do not know what is happening in North Carolina.
Finally, your sister calls to tell you that the minister arrived just as your mom was parking the car, and that she will stay with her for however long she needs.
You can breathe, you can breathe, you can breathe . . . until your cell phone rings. The caller ID shows: Dad calling. You see your father’s picture, and for a second, maybe two, you wonder if this is some nightmare, so you answer the phone “Hello?” and all you hear is sobbing.
The sound of your mother sobbing breaks your heart and you want to take all the pain away, but you can’t, and that knowledge fills you with helplessness. Such helplessness.
Life does not stop for the death of a loved one.
Survival mode kicks in and you focus on making a list: How many people are coming? How many cars are needed? How many hotel rooms? Flights are booked. Calls begin again as you exchange itineraries for the first wave of arrivals: the four siblings. With luck, all four will arrive within thirty minutes of one another, coming from all parts of the country. Just after midnight.
Yet, it is not soon enough, because your mother is alone. She is alone with the news, and she is brave, so brave. When she calls again, you are pulling your closet apart to find a black dress and there is no black dress, so you lean back against the pile of clothes on your bed to listen to your mother, because she needs you to, and all you can think about is how far away you are. How far away all of the family is, and that nothing, nothing can get anyone there sooner. Not even a prayer.
The crack in your heart widens, and you wonder how and if it can ever be healed.
It becomes too difficult for your mother to talk, so you begin to pack, reminding yourself to bring a Mickey Mouse with you, because your father loved Mickey Mouse and Judy Collins and collecting miniature circus trains and his children and grandchildren and great-grandchild. And your mother.
The phone does not stop ringing, and after taking your grandchild to school, your youngest daughter comes to hold you, and then make you go to a restaurant so you can eat some food. Otherwise, she knows you won’t eat. For her, you nibble on a few bites of egg and bring the rest home to your husband.
You arrive at the airport to learn that your flight is delayed for over an hour and there is little chance of making your connection at Dulles Airport: a flight on which your sister is also booked.
“Tomorrow, we can get you on a flight tomorrow,” someone tells you.
“No,” you say. “I need to be with my family tonight. Please, my father died this morning.” You can see in a person’s eyes when they want to help you, but they can’t. You decide to take a chance with the original flight. Perhaps your sister will ask them to hold the plane.
Perhaps is not a promise.
Your plane pulls into gate A 6 at 10:12; your connection leaves at 10:20 at gate D 18. You stand in the back of the plane, luggage ready. The flight attendant has given you directions to the D terminal ahead of time, but you are unsure. Other passengers have offered different directions. At 10:17, you are on the jet way. You begin to run, pushing one suitcase in front, pulling one suitcase behind you. There is an escalator ahead, and as soon as you get on, the suitcase behind you twists and you try to grab it and you fall. There is no one around to help. The escalator levels out and you look for a sign for D terminal and see that the arrows point you to a down escalator. You think about the bags and falling again, and you run for the elevator. And you wait and wait and wait and then the doors open. A person slips beside you. They ask if you are okay, because you are clearly out of breath.
And then they tell you that you’ve gone the wrong way.
It is 10:21 pm. Has the plane taken off? Will you find D 18, only to learn you’ve been left behind? You don’t think about this, you follow the new directions, go up an escalator (more carefully this time), down an escalator. Find a United employee, ask them to please, please call gate D 18 to tell them you are coming.
“That plane has left,” they say.
No, you think, it has to be there, my father has died and I need to see my sister. I need to be with my sister. Determination sets in and you run in clogs towards an elevator after you find an employee pushing a wheelchair and she can barely speak English, but she tells you to follow her. She is heading for C 16 and from there you can reach the D terminal.
Your phone rings: an automated message from United that you have been rebooked to take a flight out the following day at 9:45 am.
You think no, no, no, and look at the clock on your cell: 10:28 pm. It is the last time you check the time because it just makes your stomach hurt. And really, if the plane has left, what is there for you to do and where can you go?
At terminal C, you thank the woman and sprint. You wish you weren’t wearing clogs, but it’s too late. Your calves cramp, your arms are sore, and you feel like you are running in slow motion. You pass gate after gate, until you see D 1. You see hope. Perhaps, you think.
Perhaps is not a promise, but can suggest possibility.
Your mouth gapes open and you breathe so loudly, sucking in air to keep moving, even when your body can no longer be pushed. You hear, over the loud-speaker, someone calling for assistance at D 18, and at the same time, you see a plane to your left, lifting up towards the sky. You know your sister is on the plane, now in the air, and you worry about how distressed she must be. Or did she stay behind, and is that why assistance is needed? You begin to worry about her and the fact that she just had surgery the week before.
Gate D 10. . . D 11 . . . D 12 . . . Why do you keep going? You keep going for your sister, and because maybe, just maybe, the plane you just witnessed wasn’t the United flight that should have left seventeen minutes ago.
Gate D 14 . . . Gate D 15 . . . Your chest is tight, your body slows down, and you are so close and you gasp in air to keep breathing and . . .
You see her. Your sister is running towards you, her arms open wide. She grabs a suitcase and tells you to hurry.
The kindness of strangers is a powerful thing.
That night, a single man, against the opinions of all others, would not let the United flight leave without me. Because of him, our four siblings were able to meet up after midnight at the RDU Airport where we wrapped our arms together to form a circle of grief, while around us life went on.
When your father dies, life does not stop; planes are not delayed for the benefit of one passenger.
Though, on this day, a plane was held, because the kindness of a stranger prevailed.
The pilot was able to make up most of the lost time–all but six minutes.
Not a single passenger complained as I made my way to the back of the aircraft. You remain strangers to me, but I thank you. I thank you for your understanding nods. Your patience.
On September 22, 2011, our family lost a precious gift: Edward H. Devany.
I love you, Dad, forever and always.
P. S. I’m okay, Dad. I’m okay.