Archive for April, 2010

dad and mom, june 1978 or thereabouts

who doesn’t remember where they were when the brick wall hit them?

this is the one, maybe, i’ve waited the longest to write.

i sit here on our most recent easter morning, waiting for the fam and the lamb, having just learned through the miracle of facebook that yet another friend has lost her dad. the same thing happened to a different friend no more than a couple of weeks ago.

all of which triggered in my feeble memory the events that transpired 29 years ago while i was away from home playing the role of smart-ass college junior in the adolescent production of “teflon kevin.”

death carries with it an enormity, a depth, a mind-numbing ferocity, a blackness, an immeasurable finality that screams with deafening tintinnabulation that this is the shit. and it is real.

there are two things: there is death; and there is everything else.

this was not something i was equipped to comprehend at 21 years of age, when a drunken driver — a good friend and former co-worker of my father — slammed his pickup truck head-on into the brown, rattle-trap pickup in which my parents were riding two sundays before easter in 1981.

april 5, 1981, to be exact. one of those family dates that are simultaneously never mentioned and never forgotten.

i think we all remember with little effort where we are and what is going on the very moment life takes its tennis racket and, with surprising and overpowering might, slams it flush into our collective face.

it was sunday, some time after 8 p.m. i was sitting on the floor in the apartment living room; angie dickenson’s “dressed to kill” was on hbo (it had to be hbo, because the shower scene had just finished and, well, that’s where my mind was spending a few extra minutes). the phone rang. it was an unrecognizable, serious male voice.

“is kevin mattison there?”

i thought it was a college friend, calling from campus, breaking my stones.

so i responded: “yes, he is.”

at one point in my life, i had the impression that i could be very funny. it was by saying things like “yes he is” that i chose to amplify this impression. it is not until we are no longer dumb-ass smart alecks that we realize this kind of funny is never funny.

“this is trooper so-and-so from the new york state police. may i speak with him please?”

the tone in his voice was effective. i forgot about the friends maybe playing a joke. i sat up straight and said, “this is kevin.”

“your parents have been in an accident. you need to call nurse harriet prior at columbia memorial hospital in hudson. i have a phone number; do you have a pen?”

and just that quickly, within a number of sentences i could count on one hand, recess was over.

upon calling nurse prior – who was more than a nurse, actually; she was a neighbor, family friend, school nurse (affectionately referred to as “band aid bonnie,” but never to her face) – i learned that mom’s injuries were not life-threatening. these were the first words out of nurse prior’s mouth. in fact, she was already home or on her way home. i only heard “home.”

then the conversation, and life, changed.

“what about my father?” i asked.

“he didn’t make it.”


“your father didn’t make it, kevin.”

my father’s dead; my father’s dead. i don’t remember how many times this mantra ran through my head, and how many of those times it was out loud or just on a silent loop, but it wasn’t sinking in. it still sounds weird.

i remember an overpowering feeling of nothing. shockingly so.

the rest of the evening is a blur. my then-wife and i started packing to drive to my parents’ house for an undetermined amount of time. i called my college adviser and told him i wouldn’t be at school for i don’t know how long. i called a friend on campus and asked if i could borrow some money so i could get home. my sister called to tell me she didn’t want me driving home until the next day. i told her ok, hung up the phone, and went back to packing. as if i had any interest in accepting advice.

i remember nothing about the drive home, which would normally take about two hours. i have to believe it took less that night. i do know mom’s living room was filled with relatives, neighbors and friends when we arrived. mom was sitting on the couch, all bruised and banged up from rattling around in the cab of that piece-of-shit pickup truck. true to form, though, she was acting all sad for me because dad was dead. not thinking about what  the past several hours of her life had done to her, or what she lost during it, but rather how sorry she was for my loss.

if surreal takes a seat in everyone’s life, for me it was that moment, on that night, in that living room.

when death’s boney finger hits the doorbell, people come from everywhere. no matter how much they like you or know you, how deep they are into whatever they’re doing, how near or how far – it’s human nature to drop everything and run when that bell rings. this is one of the things we get right.

in the subsequent years that i have been fortunate, privileged and honored to have lived and yet shamefully taken for granted, i never felt the weight of my father’s death until late summer 2008, when our next-door neighbor and all-time best friend learned on his 49th birthday that he had pancreatic cancer and little time left.

the emotions that can play havoc with tear ducts, smiles, attitudes, and that goddamn lump in the throat all came out to play in the one month during which dear brian’s life wound down. i made sure i spent several evenings each week, sitting with him and his wife, terry, helping when i could, bringing different conversation into a home that desperately needed it. i made sure they knew i was next door if they needed anything in the middle of the night.

but most importantly – for brian as well as for me – i made sure i told him goodbye. what kind of person he was, what he meant to all the people whose lives he touched – including mine – and how much he was going to be missed.

the love of my life, karen, had the bad fortune and the good fortune of being able to share similar moments with her mother – who, in october 2002, lost her battle with cancer. during these impossible, precious and irreplaceable moments, tears were not spared. they were encouraged to attend and welcomed with open arms. in fact, as we speak, they have returned to see what’s going on in here. making sure everybody’s ok. knowing we’re not, but we will be.

the two deaths – the one we sit and watch as it rips through the body of a loved one and the rolodex of our emotions; and the other that lands on us like a ton of bricks when our backs are turned – have unique personalities.

neither is easier to grasp than the other. they both totally blow.

they also remind us – or, at least, they should – that the bullshit with which we most often fill our lives is appropriately named and an immeasurable, incomprehensible and monumental waste of our brief, precious time.

whatever it is that you’re doing, arguing about, fretting over, sweating over – the thing keeping you late at the office or awake at night: it doesn’t mean shit.

there is death. and there is everything else.

one of these things we can do nothing about.

the other, we can.

and we really should.


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