Owed More Than A Day

Boyleing Points

My father died when I was eleven years old. It happened in October.  Eight months earlier in February, twins, a brother and a sister, died soon after birth. Some time in between February and October the family dog died, too. Some year, huh?

It was my father dying that was far and away the most traumatic, life-changing event of my life. Divorce was uncommon in those days; a dying parent even more uncommon.  As a kid, you felt incredibly different than other kids. 

Of course, you felt the loss of the guy who took you to Yankee games and let other kids on the block jump in the station wagon for a trip to the beach or Valley Stream State Park. But you also felt stigmatized. Back then, you were the only kid you knew who didn’t have a father.  Somebody making simple conversation about your dad’s occupation, “What’s your father do?” would make you physically unable to speak.  You’d change the subject, act like you didn’t hear, or walk away hoping someone nearby would fill the person in, that your father was dead.  

All of the heartache is still as much a part of me as my hands and legs. But only with years comes a perspective that is not so self-centered.

When my father died the world came apart but it seemed like it was coming apart for everyone else as well.  The war in Vietnam was in full swing; crime in New York City was quadrupling. Murders topped 2,000 a year. Neighborhoods were burning down. Son of Sam. Blackouts. Gas shortages. Drunk driving was a regular thing.

I say it all the time.  People my age? The only reason we’re here is because of luck.  But a big chunk of my luck was having a mother steer us through those catastrophic times.

My father’s death was so painful I couldn’t see, let alone, appreciate the job my mother had before her.

I mentioned twins dying.  Those were my mother’s babies. They died in February, Sharon and Neil.  The pain that must’ve meant for my mother must’ve been extreme but she had little time to grieve.  More was waiting for her.  Just a few weeks later my father went in for an operation for what they thought was an ulcer.

The doctor came out of the operating room and said, “He’s got two weeks to two months.”  No bedside manner just a broadside. It wasn’t an ulcer, it was stomach cancer.

So the twins had just died, and now her husband was dying.  Did I mention there were six other kids at home?  The oldest was just a sophomore in high school.

And the single mother with six kids had nothing in the bank.  Social security checks and a part time secretarial job would have to do.

We make jokes now.  But at the time it wasn’t all that funny going to public health places where we were guinea pigs for dentists in training.  We got five-pound chunks of US Government issued cheese given out of the backs of trucks.  We couldn’t go on class trips sometimes because we just didn’t have the money.  It didn’t really sink in with the kids.  We were pretty poor but didn’t realize it.  My mother never told us.  The most she’d say is, we can’t afford it. 

We were not the easiest brood to manage.  We were her children but we were also children of those crazy times.  We were five boys and one girl and no one ever accused of us being a choir. Oh, and the family grew – don’t ask why or how – she allowed us to get a Great Dane.  Who turned out to be, by far, the best behaved of the group.

There was no how-to manual and there’s no diary to hint at how she managed.  I know she went to church every day so that must’ve helped. And we went to school every day. More or less.  So that must’ve helped.

But I still shake my head.

When things fell apart she was a single mother with six kids and a Great Dane.  And now?  Well, she still goes to church and her grandchildren have graduated from or are going to great colleges including Harvard.

She’s still what draws us all together. And what she’s meant hasn’t been lost on her grandchildren who are already talking about buying a big house somewhere so the wide, extended family can continue to come together.

The Great Dane has long since gone but those six kids never confused with a choir sing her praises now.  Although a newspaper column can’t cover a family history if we jump to the chapter named May 2016 you’ll know we look in awe upon my mother, Helen, on this Mother’s Day.

And Ma’, I think I can speak for us all: We love you.

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