A: Again…and again…and again…and again…until after the funeral. After that you never mention it again ever, ever, ever.The morning after the crash I was up early. I had not quite wrapped my mind around what had happened. Tom was gone…I hadn’t dreamed it. I sent a text to Paula asking what time she was going to Dad’s so we could be together to tell him. She had spent most of the evening before with Ann and Casey. Given Ann’s illness it would be best not to leave her alone for very long. She would need a lot of support to get through this terrible turn of events. Fortunately her brothers had arrived to relieve Paula and spend the night with her. Tom’s life and exuberance had given life to that house. It must feel so empty without him. Paula said if we didn’t hear from Hillary by 9:00 AM we should probably head over to Dad’s. I agreed.
I dressed as if it were any other Sunday visit, Jeans and a t-shirt. I wondered how Dad would handle the news. Dad has always been so stoic. I had never actually seen him cry…not when Mom died or when Jenny died. How would he take Tom’s death and would the Alzheimer’s end up compounding his grief or actually relieving it? My fear for him was that it could trigger a downward spiral. Time would tell.
I kissed Mike goodbye and told him where I was going.
“Do you need me to go with you?” he offered.
“No, you stay here and look after the girls”, I said after some consideration. “I may call you and ask you to come over later.”
“Okay, Just let me know”, he said hugging me tightly, “Narboza”.
“Narboza”, I replied and left.
I got there and Paula was already there. We hugged each other and quietly discussed how we should approach Dad. Should we all be there or have one of us tell him privately and then the others could come in for support? We agreed all of us should be with him when we broke the news.
We went in and greeted Dad with hugs and kisses. He was happy to see us both. I put on a movie to distract him while we busied ourselves with cleaning. Dad would probably have visitors all week and perhaps even overnight guests from out of town, best to get the house in order. Soon we were joined by Bradley, his wife and daughter.
An hour went by and Hillary had not yet left her house. Still overwhelmed, she was not up to coming over. It would fall on me and Paula to tell Dad. We both sat down on chairs in front of him.
“Dad, something has happened that we need to tell you about.” Paula began, “Tom was flying his plane yesterday…..” she paused, “There was an accident….his plane crashed…and Tom died in the crash.” As she said this I reached over and held his arm gently.
I could see the comprehension slowly drain his face. “Wait”, he said, not sure if he heard correctly, “Say that again, who died?”
“Tom. He crashed his plane.” Dad appeared to deflate in front of us.
“This is my fault”, he said regretfully.
“NO, it wasn’t your fault at all, Dad!” I said, “Tom was a sportsman, he was an experienced pilot and nothing could have kept him from flying”.
“It’s my fault”, he muttered again. “Do they know what went wrong?”
“No, Dad, it’s under investigation. Not sure if it was a mechanical failure or if something else went wrong. He was a good pilot…kind of doubting it was pilot error”, Paula explained, “They won’t release the body until tomorrow.”
“Was there a fire”, Dad asked.
“No fire. He just pancaked the plane”, she said, “I’m so sorry, Dad.”
“I just want to be alone”, he told us.
He looked completely desolate. It was his “block out the world” look that I had seen a handful of times in my life. Dad looked so much older in that moment.
“Dad, we’re going to be here all day”, I told him, “We have to get the house ready”.
Paula and I both hugged him and got up. We went to the kitchen. “Why don’t I make him some lunch and see if he’ll eat?” I asked her.
“That sounds like a good idea. I’m going to call and see if someone is still with Ann and Casey. We also need to go through photo albums for a memorial slideshow”, she added.
I made dad a sandwich and a plate of sliced fruit and brought it to him. He didn’t see terribly interested. Then Mike and Allison arrived and Dad brightened up.
“Hey! How’s it going?” Dad asked.
“We’re fine…you doing okay?” Mike asked.
“I’m wonderful!” Dad said smiling. He was not being sarcastic. His smile betrayed what had happened. Alzheimer’s had wiped away the past hour already.
After chatting with Mike a bit and asking who Allison was, where she went to school, etc., they joined the rest preparing the house. Dad called me over and asked, “Why is everyone here?” thinking, I imagine, that it must be a party.
I called Paula over and we explained about the crash again.
“Why didn’t anyone tell me?” Dad asked angrily.
“We did tell you”, Paula said, “but for some reason the Alzheimer’s isn’t allowing your brain to file it properly”.
It was news that would be broken to him over and over with the same questions, the same guilt, the same dejection. This was going to be a very long week. We would not be able to keep from talking about it around him until after the funeral.
Shortly after that second revelation everyone left to run errands: Mike went to the hardware store for a gardening tool, Bradley went to gather more pictures from his home, Paula went the the grocery store for sandwiches and food to feed the army of family that would be in and out for the next few days. I stayed with Dad.
After about a half hour the phone rang. Likely we would start getting calls now that all immediate family had been informed and Tom’s name was finally released to the public.
I answered the phone. It was my Uncle Henry. He was the oldest of Dad’s three younger brothers.
“Hi, who am I speaking to?” he began.
“I am Erin, who is this?” I asked.
“It’s Uncle Henry, your Dad’s brother”, he responded. I thought it was funny at the time that he felt the need to clarify but we hadn’t seen him since Mom died so I guess that wasn’t inappropriate to say.
“Erin…how are you and everyone? We just heard”, he said sympathetically.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet”, I answered as honestly as I could.
We chatted for a minute or two and then he asked, “How’s your father? Can I speak to him?”
“Dad is fine but the Alzheimer’s is making it difficult for him to process. I think this last time stuck though…hold on.” I set the phone down (it’s one of the few phones left in the world that isn’t cordless) and went to get Dad from the other room.
Dad looked up from his chair and asked, “Who is that?”
“It’s your brother Henry. He just heard about Tom’s plane crash. You’re probably going to get a lot of these condolence calls. Do you want to talk?”
“Yeah, I guess so”, he said. He didn’t question what I was talking about so perhaps our last retelling managed to sink in after all.
I walked back to the phone and Dad shuffled a few feet behind me.
I picked up the phone again, “Uncle Henry? Here’s Dad…” and handed it to Dad.
“Hello?…..Who?….Oh, Henry, hi!” Dad didn’t look at all sure who Henry was but he continued, “I’m fine….What? Wait, say that again….who was in a crash?” and looking at me in shock and anger asked, “Do you have any idea what he’s talking about?” holding the phone out to me.
Suddenly I realized in horror that from the chair to the phone Dad had again forgotten what had happened and thought that he was hearing all of this for the first time from Uncle Henry. I took the phone and quickly said, “Uncle Henry, I’m so sorry to do this but we need to get off the phone now. I’ll have Paula call you later. Thanks so much for calling!” and hung up on my poor, bewildered uncle. You see, none of Dad’s brothers had seen him since Mom’s death ten years ago. They had no idea the day to day reality of Dad’s condition.
Dad slumped in the chair by the phone and again demanded to know what had happened. Again, I explained as gently as possible about the crash. Again, “Why didn’t you tell me?” and, again, my explanation of what his illness was not doing with the information. It was like the most agonizing loop ever.
Eventually everyone came back and I related to Paula what had happened. By then Hillary had joined us. So much work to do. Paula received a call from one of Ann’s brothers. Ann and Casey were alone at their house. Paula was going to go over, but she had so many other things to do I offered to go instead and try to get Ann and Casey to join us for dinner.
As I drove I wondered what I would find. Would Ann be calm or distraught? Knowing Casey and how close she and Tom were I could not even imagine her pain at losing her dad to the pastime he loved most.
As I pulled up to the house I noticed a news van pull up behind me. I hung back to see what would happen. A tall, well dressed young woman got out and began walking to Tom’s front door. “Wow! That’s bold!” I thought and quickly caught up to her.
“Excuse me! Can I help you? ” I called after her.
She turned around, surprised. “Oh, we were just hoping to talk to the family. Do you know them?”
“I am the family. I doubt they are ready for interviews”, I stated.
“Well, we saw some of the posts made on Facebook, how respected he was. We were hoping to do a story on how he loved flying”, she pushed.
“Here’s the story: he loved flying”, I replied tensely.
“Well, we don’t have any pictures other than the one ran previously”, she pressed, “Do you think you could persuade anyone to give us a more personal picture, maybe with his family? “
I thought about it for a moment…If they had access to the posts on Facebook then they should have plenty of pictures. They were just trying to get in.
“I will make a deal with you”, I bargained. I will go in and speak to the widow. If she says no then you will respect her wishes and leave. Fair enough?”
“Okay, we can do that”, she agreed.
I motioned her to step away from the porch and with my hand on the doorknob to control how much it opened I rang the bell. The faint sounds of movement drifted through the door. Casey answered.
I pushed in quickly through the small opening and shut the door behind me.
“There is a reporter outside who planned on walking right up and knocking. Where’s your mom?” I asked.
“Oh my God!” Casey said covering her mouth in disbelief. “She’s on the couch. “
We strode into the living room. “Are you up for an invasion of privacy? ” I asked wryly. “There is a reporter outside requesting an interview. She said they would leave if you declined. “
“Whoa, that took a lot of nerve!” Ann exclaimed, “No, I don’t think so. Geez, I can’t believe they thought they could just come right over unannounced! “
“That’s what I thought you would say”, I agreed, “I’ll go take care of it.”
I went out through the narrowly opened door.
“His wife respectfully requests that you leave them alone”, I said politely…then closed the door. I watched through the curtain as the disappointed reporter made her way back to the van. It was a lucky coincidence that I arrived when I did. Ann and Casey didn’t need that. None of us did, but especially not them.
To be continued…