I grew up in a small town where many of the residents worked in the oil field or farmed and folks drove for miles to get to an urban area. Not on the cutting edge of danger, but fatal accidents weren’t uncommon. We didn’t get news via newspaper since the Live Oak County Herald only travelled to our mailboxes on Thursdays.
Most of our news about accidents and deaths came from Mother’s best friend Geraldine Ormand who had a small town equivalent of the President’s red phone. After getting a call, she crossed the alley and backyard and burst into our kitchen door with an exclaimed, “Dorothy!” There was something distinctive about Mrs. Ormand’s voice when a tragedy happened. As children, home during the summer, we raced into the living room to find out the news.
Sometimes it was one of the older women in the Altar Society who had passed away in their sleep; other times it was something more tragic. Myrtle Rosbrock’s husband, John, died in an oil field accident and left her a widow with 9 children at home. Our second grade teacher, Joyce Lindholm, lost a race with a freight train as she hurried home to fetch her sons from the babysitter’s house.
After Mrs. Ormand told the news, Mother poured her a cup of coffee, sat down at the kitchen table, and pronounced in her Voice of Doom, “Gerry, death comes like a thief in the night.” Then the two of them would say, “God, protect me from sudden and unprovided death!” It was a ritual that they completed before they moved to planning who was taking what to the bereaved family’s home.
I got news of my cousin Wayne’s death on Sunday. He was important to me as a fixture from my past. My oldest cousin on Mother’s side of the family. As kids, Georgie the First and I would spend a couple of weeks with Grandma. The visit always included a couple of afternoons with my cousins. Wayne was only a year or so older than Georgie but had the arrogant aloofness of royalty.
When I fell and cried over a scraped knee, his comfort consisted of “You should be more careful” and “Are you ever going to learn how to tie your shoelaces?” My greatest memory of him was of his signing my autograph book in purple with a flourish and the words, “I’m quite sure you’ll not have anyone else sign in purple.” In the cousin war of good and evil, he was evil. My sister was great and my cousin Paul was good.
Wayne lived in Delaware, worked as a chemist, and never married. He hadn’t been sick and was one of those folks who takes meticulous care of themselves. I heard Wayne stories from Mose and knew that dying was not on his agenda. I saw him at his dad’s funeral, at our shared aunt’s celebration of 60 years as a nun. I am more worried about Mose than grieving for my cousin. At 87 our aunt is fragile. She doesn’t fear or dread her own death, but she deeply mourns the loss of those younger than she. Jack’s death startled and hurt her.
I’m not sure why Wayne’s death perturbed me. He didn’t have any relevance to me as an adult, wasn’t even in my email contact list. That sounds unkind, but it’s the truth. My reaction to Wayne’s death comes back to me and my fears, my ego. It signals the reality of my mortality, the mortality of my sisters. I live with a white noise of grief in my life since Jack died, but some things heighten my awareness of it, increase its amplitude. A talent showcase last Friday at Savanna’s high school where so many of the boys cavorted and capered around like Jack stabbed my heart. The upcoming Easter holiday which we celebrate as a family, all together with games and hunts and crafts and great food. Always, always family celebrations point up who is missing. Who will forever and all ways be missing. My cousin’s death just raised the pitch.
Sudden and unprovided death. Damn thief of unfinished time!