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In the Suburbs / Convergence of sad anniversaries

Published 7:24 am, Sunday, December 8, 2013
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Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, was the end of a very long week for our family. After several weeks of battling pneumonia and lung cancer, my mom had been admitted to a short-term hospice in Chicago that Monday and was resting comfortably.

My wife and daughters and my brothers and their families were preparing for the inevitable, and we were all wrapping ourselves around the end-of-life process.

On Tuesday of that week, my older daughter and I had our last real conversation with Mom on the phone, and we were both glad we'd spoken to her.

By Thursday, Dad told us that Mom was listening to our voices on the phone and smiling, but could no longer hold the phone and speak. That was a tough pill to swallow. Her life was ebbing away.

On that Friday, my older daughter and I both were substitute teaching at Fairfield Warde High School. At about 11 a.m., we agreed that I'd put in a quick call to my dad at Mom's room. My brother answered and told us that Dad had arrived in Mom's room about 8:30 that morning and discovered that she had died.

As I hung up the phone, I choked back tears and went out to the office area to tell my friend, Virginia, one of the secretaries. She gave me a hug, and I mentioned I needed to find my daughter Stacey.

Almost right at that moment, a teacher burst into the office with news of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

While my news was personally important, all hell was breaking loose in Newtown, and schools all around Newtown were in lock-down mode. News flashes kept updating numbers of children and teachers who had been killed. A nightmare that would continue to haunt us was just unfolding.

Virginia had gotten to Stacey and sent her to the science class where I was just taking attendance, so I asked the students' indulgence as we took a few minutes to hug and talk quietly about Mom's battle finally being over.

Then we reflected on irony that the Newtown tragedy had happened simultaneously to our own loss. I commented that, knowing Mom, she probably would have wanted to fly out and do what she could to support those families.

Meanwhile, we briefly shared our own memories of Mom and how giving she had been. And we talked about the plans for the funeral on the following Tuesday in Chicago, one Stacy would not be able to attend because she was stating a new job that week.

My wife and I were to leave that Sunday by car for Chicago, and I dedicated the weekend to calling other family and friends.

Along with expressing sympathies, everyone commented about the ironic balance of Mom living life to the fullest -- reaching age 90 -- while the 20 angelic lives were snuffed out at ages 6 and 7, along with the lives of adults trying to protect them.

Through the weekend as we headed for Chicago, the airwaves were flooded with individual reflections about the children, teachers, principal and social worker at Sandy Hook. And the images were just too bizarre and vivid to imagine.

On our trip west, we were in the mountains of Pennsylvania when we listened to the heartwarming speech by President Barack Obama and the candlelight service in Newtown. Once we arrived in Chicago, we met at my brother's home with the rabbi who would officiate at Mom's funeral and talked about Mom's life. My wife and I appreciated that the funeral would be in the early afternoon on Tuesday so we could rest up a little.

That evening I fiddled with notes about Mom that I had been keeping since the previous Thanksgiving, when Dad told my brothers and me about Mom's condition. I tried to turn my scribbles into something for the funeral.

Now, as this first anniversary approaches, I tried to remember my little eulogy. I told everyone that this was one event Mom couldn't plan even though she was always in charge. And I shared the beautiful parts of her life and what a wonderful mom she was. But more than anything I said that over their nearly 70 years together, she and my dad always found time to dance.

I'll always smile when I think of those special things and Mom. And I'll add a prayer that day, too, for the still grieving Sandy Hook families.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.