They say grief comes in waves.
That’s a lie.
What I have experienced since that cold brisk November day in 1970 are not waves of grief.
To be honest, instead of feeling waves of grief that come every now and then, I personally have felt grief every single day. No waves, just one consistent shade of grey that washes over me.
It is something that is part of me.
It isn’t something that I chose to have in my life and I work hard at hiding it, but it is always there. It is as close to me as breathing. It has been my life-long companion and it is as normal in my life as putting my clothes on in the morning. To be honest, I don’t even think about it that much anymore. In order to go about my day, I have to put clothes on. I can never consider another option without striking fear and disgust from those who would see me naked and exposed. That is what grief is like to me. Like the clothes I have to wear, it is something that I put on every day. I don’t have a choice. I wish I could but I can’t wash it off in the shower. I push it down as far as I can, but it’s always lurking and hiding somewhere just under the surface. It is a grey filter that clouds my world and I have carried this dark passenger with me since I was nine.
What blindsides me is not grief.
I have never shared this with anyone. It is something that I have struggled with since that horrible day. Guilt comes to me in these huge sucker-punch hits that I never see coming. They hit me so hard that it rams into my very soul. It feels as if someone has hit you so hard in the stomach that it sucks out everything you have – your heart, your oxygen, your whole being. It hits me out of nowhere. I cannot predict when or where it will show up. I cannot control it. The pangs of guilt hit me when I am doing some of the most mundane, common things in life. Like when they hit when I am driving in my car to work, or when I am listening to music or when I am working in my garage. They hit me when I walk into a room and see the pictures of my wife, my children and grandchildren hanging on the wall.
There have been times when they have hit me when I shop at the grocery store. Of course, no one else knows it. I remain still and stoic. I smile at the person I pass on the same aisle and I continue to fill my cart with milk and bread. But it’s there, spasms of guilt, flooding my heart and soul. A sucker-punch of the worst kind. No one is the wiser and I carry on with life. Never knowing when I will run into it next.
I sort of live in fear of that.
If you considered my world in 1970, you would have found that other than the 6:30 news bringing the horrors of the Vietnam War, the Manson Murders, the Kent State shootings and the occasional blurb about the civil unrest on the college campuses across America into our living room every night, I had always been protected from the outside world. The bad news that was projected on our black and white television was often tempered by shows like Gilligan’s Island, Mayberry RFD and the Beverly Hillbillies. This was long before reality TV. Almost all the programs on our television at the time were based upon some type of non-reality life. The premise of a hillbilly living in Hollywood with a cement pond, or the plausible reality of a group of people, on a three-hour tour, to be forever stranded on a deserted island was all the reality we needed.
In early October 1970, I had some medical issues that required surgery. I was being admitted into Magruder Hospital in Port Clinton, Ohio. I was going to have surgery and I would be absent for two-weeks from Mrs. Gulau’s classroom at R.C. Water’s Elementary School.
Mrs. Gulau was my 4th grade teacher. While there is no doubt that she was a wonderful teacher, she seemed ancient to me. She seemed out of touch even by Oak Harbor standards. Mrs. Gulau was old school before old school was a thing. She was a strict teacher. She allowed no excuses for missing homework assignments and ran her classroom like a well-oiled machine. No deviation from the schedule was permitted. I struggled with her being my teacher and I will admit it wasn’t her fault.
It was mine.
At the young age of nine, I had figured out that the best way to get through school was to not make waves. At all costs, I would try to not to get noticed and for the love of all things pure and holy, I never raised my hand to answer a question. I was always smarter than I ever let on, but I wasn’t willing to try to talk in front of people for fear of my stuttering and making myself look foolish in front of people. I was content to fade into the background. I was easy to not remember. I am sure if you asked a few of my classmates from that school year, they would struggle to ever remember me.
Just someone they used to know.
After a few days in the hospital, I was discharged. I was home bound for a week before I was permitted to go back to school. After I started going back to class, Mrs. Gulau had made arraignments with my mother to have me stay after school for a few weeks to catch up on my studies. I would stay until 3:45 PM, about an hour after school let out for the rest of the students.
Then November 5th 1970 happened.
It was a cool day, about 45 degrees and a little windy as I remember it. I had a pretty good day at school and I was finally feeling like I was getting back into the routine of Mrs. Gulau’s classroom. The school day ended and I completed my hour of tutoring with my teacher. I was now waiting by the west side door, that the teachers used. Normally, I always came in and left through the front door of the school. I always rode the bus that would take me and the kids from my neighborhood to the High School on Church Street. From there, we would meander the two blocks or so to get home in time to watch Gilligan’s Island that came on at 4:00 PM every day after school.
But the last few days were different. There wasn’t a late bus to take me home and I was too young to walk all that way back home before it got dark at 5:30 PM. So I stood there in silence as Mrs. Gulau looked impatiently out the door to see if my ride was there yet. My cousin, Larry was picking me up and he obviously was running a little late.
I always heard Larry’s car before I could ever see it. Not because his car ran bad or had a loud exhaust system, but rather Larry always played his music loud. I mean really loud. As predicted, Larry’s music was blaring from his car as he pulled up to the side door to pick me up.
Larry turned down the music and the passenger side door flew open as he stopped the car. I mumbled, “Goodbye,” to Mrs. Gulau and I saw the look on her face as she pushed the school door open as I started out to get into the car. I wasn’t sure if it was because of the loud music or because he was late to pick me up. Either way, it was clearly a look of displeasure that she was giving.
Larry said, “What’s her problem?” as I slid into the front passenger seat of his Chevy Corvair. I responded, “I have no idea.” and then I hear my brother Bobby and his best friend, Buster laughing from the back seat. They were always laughing when they were together. I never really knew what they laughed about all the time but here they were laughing about something and they were the only ones that knew why.
I slam the car door closed and Larry cranks the music even louder than before just to see if he can get another reaction from the teacher. She disappears into the darkened hallway, shaking her head with displeasure, and we pull out onto Ottawa Street to head back to our home on Walnut Street.
I settle into my seat and I notice that my brother had his dog with him.
“What are you guys doing?” I ask.
“Wouldn’t you like to know!!” my brother said in sarcasm, as only brothers can. It was as if he knew I was going to ask that question. Buster and Bobby mumble something to each other and they burst out laughing again.
Larry, seeing that my feelings were going to get hurt by the banter that happens organically between brothers, put his cigarette down and said, “I‘m dropping them off so they can check their traps on Mylander’s farm.”
“Can I go with you?” I asked inquisitively.
“Dude, your mom told me to bring you straight home. You’re going to have to ask her. But you’re going to have to ask fast because I have to get to work soon.” Larry explained.
I nodded in silence and I distinctly remember the song, Lola by the Kinks was blaring on the radio and as my brother and Buster were laughing and playing with the dog in the backseat. I was right where I loved to be. I always rode around town with Larry whenever I could. I loved it because Larry would play the music really loud and he would tell me stuff about why this song was great and why he felt that song wasn’t good. I always felt accepted and thought he enjoyed having me around.
Besides the occasional outburst of laughter that came from my brother and Buster from the back seat, we road back to our house in silence. Only the sounds of the Kink’s reverberating throughout the car.
We pull into the driveway and I see my mom waiting by the kitchen screen door. She obviously was wondering where we were because we were getting back a little later than normal. Larry turned down the radio and as the car comes to a stop. I push the car door open and step up on the seat of the car and pull myself up to look over the roof.
“Hey Ma, can I ride with Larry to drop Bobby off?” I asked.
“No, Larry is running late and dinner will be ready soon” she responded.
“Come on Ma! Larry said he would drop me back off” I yelled.
“I said NO!!” she pushed back. “Come in the house so Larry can get to work.”
I started to respond but the back rest of the car seat flew forward and my brother started to climb out from the back seat. As he pushes me away from the car he says, “Come on Larry, let’s go before it gets too dark”.
I am so angry that my mom would not let me go. I had been working so hard after school to get caught up on my schoolwork, that I could not believe that she wouldn’t let me do this one thing. I mean, I hadn’t been able to ride around with Larry for a long time and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to me. I trudged over to the front door and my mom opened the door a little wider to let me in. I stormed past her, bumping her with my shoulder. I hit her hard enough that I was certain that she was going to grab my arm and make me settle down, but she didn’t.
I stormed through the kitchen and down the hallway to the living room. All the while, mumbling under my breath about how unfair it was and how angry I was at my mom for not letting me go with them.
My sister, Linda was already in the living room watching TV and an episode of Gilligan’s Island had already started. I hear the radio from Larry’s car as he pulled out of the driveway and headed down to Benton Street. I sat myself down angrily on the couch and pulled the curtain back and watched that black Corvair disappear on its way down the street. I turned around and started to watch the TV.
It seemed like only a few seconds before I started to hear the shrill whine of the sirens. We lived a few blocks from the main siren in town and for some reason it seemed unusually loud and never-ending.
My mom walks in to the living room and doesn’t say a word, but just the look on her face tells me that something is wrong. No words are spoken and she makes her way down the hall and back into the kitchen. It is then the kitchen door busts open and I hear unfamiliar voices coming from the kitchen and in an instant, there is confusion in our house. I hear a voice above the noise, “There has been an accident and they think it’s the Lee boys!!”
I hear my mom talking but I can’t make out what she is saying and my sister and I are left alone in the living room just staring at each other trying to process the chaos that has just forced its way into our lives.
Next thing I know, Linda and I are shuttled upstairs into my parents’ bedroom and we were told that our mom was going to check on my brother. Nothing else was said to us and the door was closed to separate us from the rest of the house. We sat for hours, in silence, on the edge of my parent’s bed, knowing that something bad happened but we did not know what it was. We never considered that death was a possibility. Our family had only dealt with the death of a great-grandmother and none of us had ever considered that it would ever touch our family.
With my sister and I quietly sequestered upstairs in my parent’s bedroom. There wasn’t much need to check in on us. We could hear the commotion downstairs. The loudness, the overlapping voices, the sudden periods of extreme quietness. The constant opening and closing of our back door.
Finally, I had enough and I snuck out of my parent’s bedroom. I made my way quietly down the wooden steps of our home. The landing of the stairwell opened up into our living room and it was filled with people. People that I am sure were familiar to me but as I recollect they all seemed faceless, except for their eyes. It seemed to me that people looked through me as if I did not exist. People who did not know what to say or simply ignored the traumatized nine-year-old that was walking in their midst. I made my way down the dark hallway towards our kitchen.
As I got to the doorway that opens up into our kitchen, I heard my mom talking on the phone.
It was at that moment that I would learn the truth. “I need to get a message to Robert Lee” my mom pleaded. “I need him to call home as soon as possible because his son was killed today in a car accident.”
Some calls change your life forever.
Waves of grief? No.
As an adult, I get the reasons why things happened the way they did that day. No one did anything intentional. Everyone was in shock. No one ever spoke to me about it. In fairness, I never spoke a word about it either. No one sat down with me and helped me come to terms that it was just an accident. No one ever saw the guilt that was heaped onto my shoulders. No one saw that there was a nine-year-old boy who to this very day carries the weight for what happened.
Why did I have surgery that October? Why couldn’t it have waited until Christmas break? Why did I have to stay after school? Why did I ask to go with them? Why did I ask my mom in the first place? Surely my delay caused this to happen. Why didn’t I protest more about not being able to go with Larry? Maybe I should have taken more time and delayed them. The train would have passed before they got to the railroad crossing. Thirty seconds either way and the results would have been so different.
Somewhere deep inside of me is that young boy and he will never come to terms with the results of that day. The same could be said for my mom, my brother and sister too. I am sure that they have their own grief and have to deal with the guilt that comes from these kinds of tragedies.
We have never discussed this as a family.
Life has to be lived and you have to move forward.
However, it doesn’t lessen the pain of guilt that I experience. I feel guilt because I have been able to live a long life. I have been able to experience the wonderful things that this life has to offer. My brother and my cousin Larry never got to experience the joy of bringing a child into this world. They didn’t get to travel around the world or shake the hands of two US Presidents, like I did. They will never hear the joyous sound of a grandchild yelling, “Grandpa!!!” in excitement when you walk into a room and they see you.
Close to 50 years later, the pangs of guilt don’t come as often, but they still lurk in the dark places and appear at the most unexpected times.
I have been blessed by a mother who chose not to let me go on that fateful day.
I will continue to live life as best I can.
It is what Bobby and Larry would have wanted me to do.
Because some calls change your life forever.