Wednesday, April 20, 2011


In response to a writing prompt on
 Mama'a Losin' It blog:
"A Phone Call You Won't Forget"

This is a slightly fictionalized version of a true story. 

          “Oh, no. Oh, my gawd, no,” my mother gasped into the receiver.
Although I was only eleven, I knew that something was terribly wrong.
It was the Saturday between Christmas and New Years. When the phone rang, I thought it was my alarm clock. Reaching toward the nightstand to turn it off, I remembered that I had slept on the living room couch. My older sister Charlene had invited several friends for a slumber party the previous night. She and her friends had slept in her room and mine, upstairs. I didn’t know what time it was, but the sun hadn’t colored the eastern sky yet.
Still on the phone in the dining room, my mother moaned in response to the caller. Finally, she said, “I’m so sorry, Mid. Is there anything I can do?” After a long pause, she meekly said, “I’ll call Ruthy and Dorothy. We’ll be there as soon as we can.” I thought I heard her sob when she hung up.
It was my mother’s older sister calling. Her name was Mildred, but everyone called her Mid. She was the aunt who always instructed my mother on how she should raise us. “Charlene’s too young to be wearing nylons,” she would say. “Why do you let your girls pull their hair back into those tight pony tails. They’re going to go bald.” Meanwhile, her three sons rarely obeyed her.
What had upset my mother, I wondered. Perhaps something had happened to my Uncle Albert. He worked in a steel mill. Maybe he’d been in an accident at work.
Uncle Albert was a restrained and unemotional Englishman. His fatherly duties were fulfilled by the occasional purchase of comic books for his boys, but he wouldn’t allow his sons to touch the comics until he had finished reading them himself. When the older boys had become teenagers, Uncle Albert forbade them to drive the family car. So the boys had worked to pay for their own beat-up jalopies. Aunt Mid had signed for them against her husband’s wishes. 
My mother returned to my parents’ first-floor bedroom. I heard her talking to my father with some urgency. Soon, I smelled bread toasting. My parents continued speaking in hushed tones in the kitchen. While setting the dining room table for my sister’s friends, my mother said, “Don’t say anything to the girls. We’ll tell them after we take the other girls home.”
I had butterflies in my stomach, the kind I usually experienced only when I had to get up in front of the class at school. What could possibly be so upsetting to my parents and so private that our friends couldn’t be told? I heard my mother approaching the living room. I closed my eyes so she would think I was still sleeping. After checking on me, she tip-toed to the dining room and dialed the phone.
“Ruthy, it’s Ann.” After explaining that I was asleep on the couch, she continued talking to her sister in a half whisper, “I have bad news,” she confided. “Mid called to tell me Denny was in an accident.” She gasped for breath, as if she couldn’t take in enough oxygen. “He’s dead,” she blurted out with unusual abruptness.
I felt sick. 
Denny was my cousin. He was only seventeen. How could he be dead? 
Denny had movie-star good looks, that special captivating, yet brooding, James Dean appeal. He had earned enough money as a newsboy to buy himself an old car by charming his customers into giving him big tips. Yet, I knew, he had a wild and defiant streak, too. While my friends were emulating the wholesome Kingston Trio look, Denny dressed in white socks, black shoes, skin-tight jeans and a T-shirt with a pack of cigarettes up the sleeve. His hair was slicked back in a DA.
Kids aren’t supposed to die, I thought.
My mother continued on the phone. “Several other boys were hurt. Two’re in critical condition. It happened late last night, downtown. The police told Mid Denny was speeding and hit a patch of ice, side-swiped another car and ran into a telephone pole. Apparently he knew the boys in the other car. The police think they might have been drag racing.”
My heart felt as if it were idling too fast, like a car engine. I lay with my eyes wide open, in a fixed stare. Across the room, something sparkled. It was one of the Chirstmas ornaments catching light from the dining room. Gees, I thought, what a terrible time for someone to die.
After my mother called Aunt Dorothy with the same sad news, I dragged myself from the couch and aimed toward the bathroom, plodding as if I were being controlled by someone else. My mother intercepted me and hugged me much harder than usual. “Did you hear, Honey?” she whispered in my ear.
“Uh, huh,” I nodded.
“Don’t say anything to Charlene or the other girls, okay?”
I tried to act normal until my sister’s friends had gone home. It wasn’t difficult. I had temporarily switched off all feelings.

During my young life, my family had spent an inordinate amount of time at funeral homes. Most of the deceased had been my father’s relatives ---great-great aunts and uncles, people I didn’t know well ---so I didn’t mind much when they died. I thought death was for people who were so old that their passing was probably welcome. I couldn’t remember seeing anyone cry when those people had died.
But Denny’s funeral was different. When my family arrived at the funeral home, the place was mobbed with Denny’s high school friends. Girls sobbed loudly. A few shrieked uncontrollably. The teenagers hugged each other and wiped tears from swollen eyes. Baskets of huge mums and gladiolas spilled into the halls and adjoining reception rooms, down the staircase and into the lobby. The smell was so sweet I could hardly breathe.
Aunt Mid, usually gruff, was docile. She was the only family member who wept. Uncle Albert showed no more emotion than usual. Denny’s older brother Bert remained as unresponsive as his father. Bobby, the youngest boy, squirmed restlessly in his Sunday suit and played in the halls with younger male cousins. They didn’t seem to understand the finality of Denny’s death any more than I did.
My sister and I didn’t talk about our feelings. I didn’t cry. I felt as if none of it were real. My other aunts and uncles, my grandparents, and my parents remained stoic. In whispers, the adults speculated on the cause of the accident. They described Denny and his friends as irresponsible, foolish, and delinquent. My father, I knew, would make Denny’s life and death an issue in a moral lesson for my sister and me. I suspected I was going to hate hearing it.
I had held a secret crush on Denny. Sometimes he had ruthlessly teased me. I loved every second of the attention. I admired his rebellious streak. Anyone who could defy Aunt Mid’s harsh words was okay by me. Denny had given me my first puff on a forbidden cigarette behind the old chicken coop in his back yard. Looking back, it seems terribly irresponsible of him, but at the time, Denny had treated me as an equal and I had been thrilled.
The night before the funeral, I finally came to the realization that I would never see Denny again. Alone in my bed, tears rolled onto my pillow as I tried to muffle my sobs. No one heard me ---or at least no one arrived to console me.
It was the first time I experienced a feeling of tremendous loss at the death of a loved one. At age eleven, I learned I could die in a split second, just as Denny had. I understood mortality.
For weeks afterward I woke feeling fine, followed by that sinking sensation a few moments later when I remembered that my cousin was dead, that Denny would never grow up. Forever, he would be remembered as an appealing but irresponsible seventeen-year-old.
My grief was like the wind. Soon it came in gusts with periods of calm in between. And after a while, I rarely noticed the breeze. Denny would come to mind only if I caught a glimpse of someone who resembled him or when I heard a news story about another teenager who died when his car hit a utility pole. Like James Dean, they died too young and each became just one more departed rebel without a cause.