I had just finished teaching my morning class and was checking for mail when the dean's secretary mentioned that my sister in Chicago had called. "Did Jane say what she wanted?" "Ahhh . . . she said her name was Becky."
This puzzled me: Jane called occasionally; Becky never called. It also concerned me: Jane lived with her family; Becky lived with Dad, or rather, he lived with her after Mom died. Becky spoke between sobs: Dad got up that morning, went to the bathroom, had a heart attack. Becky came downstairs; he was on the floor, "sort of mooning the world." She chuckled at this last part.
Mooning the world?
Dad loved jokes, but. . . . Sensing my confusion at the mix of humor and grief, Becky added, "I am sure Dad didn't mean it, but he would have gotten a chuckle out of it." Indeed he would have. Nor was it the only chuckle he would have enjoyed, if he could only have stayed a few days to watch.
Early next morning I landed at O'Hare airport. By 10 o'clock, my two sisters and I were sobbing and hugging one another in Dad's kitchen.
It is typical in times of grief for midwestern families to gather in the kitchen. Yet, while sobbing and hugging, Becky kept mentioning a neighbor lady I barely remembered. Then she said, "Mrs. Zanzowsky called, and we don't know what to do."
I thought, Did she lose her father, too?
Moving from Missouri 25 years earlier, our family had settled on Allen Avenue. Becky and Dad still lived there, though a few doors up. Back then there had been Smallmans, Nicolofs, Zanzowskys and others -- all raising kids in frame houses on a quiet street. I remembered John and Henrietta Zanzowsky and their son, Sammy, as just another neighborhood family.
Then it hit me: Dad had been seeing Mrs. Zanzowsky! Not bad for a 73-year-old man who had high cholesterol and high blood pressure, was overweight, blind in one eye with tunnel vision in the other, never exercised and only occasionally took his medications.
"Has Dad been dating Mrs. Zanzowsky?"
"Only a little bit."
"What's her number?"
On the phone Mrs. Zanzowsky began a circuitous ramble about a relationship she was reluctant to name. Interrupting as gently as I could, I said, "Mrs. Zanzowsky, we three kids are here in the kitchen grieving Dad's passing. Could you come up and join us?"
Silence. . . . Then in a rush: Well yes, she might; yes, she could; yes, yes, she would; she'd be there right away; oh, but she didn't want to intrude at such a time; she could only stay a minute; are you sure it's all right?
Soon a short, elderly lady was with us in the kitchen. Then there were four sobbing voices and four pairs of teary eyes.
Although it was only 10:30, I found Dad's bottle of Jim Beam and asked Mrs. Zanzowsky if she would have a drink with us. Well, she hardly ever . . . but no, she didn't mind if she did. . . . Yes, she believed she would . . . just this one time. But only a little one.
Using water glasses from the cupboard I poured four straight whiskeys, two fingers each. We drank them down. I poured four more.
I was feeling better, as was Mrs. Zanzowsky. She started telling how Jay, my dad, had promised the day before to drive her shopping in his white convertible. (I thought, and this was a man who was nearly blind.) Then, in the morning, when he didn't show up, she began to worry. He was never late.
I refilled four empty glasses.
Mrs. Zanzowsky continued: "My John had died. And then, too, his Fay" -- my mom -- "was gone. . . . There were just the two of us. We were so lonely and Jay was so gentle and kind. . . . He was such a good man. I didn't know how you kids would feel about it. We played cards . . . the other night . . . before he left. . . . He was such a good man. He said he would drive me shopping. I just knew something was wrong."
Contrary to what you may have heard from the Temperance League about the evils of drink, there are times when morning whiskey -- taken in moderation -- can be most beneficial. By noon, Mrs. Zanzowsky had thoroughly unburdened her heart and, in doing so, had lightened ours. We reassured her we were pleased that Dad had such a loving companion. And we meant it.
Mrs. Zanzowsky trundled down Allen Avenue toward home. My sisters remembered things they had to do, and the overstuffed couch in the living room pleaded with me to join its soft cushions.
Before drifting off, I realized how relieved I felt. I had long worried about Dad being lonely after Mom died, and I am sure he was, but apparently not as lonely as I had feared. Perhaps there is hope for us all in our old age.
The writer, recently retired, is a former professor of mathematics at Marymount University.