YOU ARE ASLEEP AT 4 A.M. when the call comes from your brother. Your parents are dead, killed in a freak fire at their home in New York. You had planned to call them tomorrow.
Your sick mother took a turn for the worse yesterday in Minnesota, but you have stayed in Washington one ore day, waiting for your only dark suit to return from the cleaners. The doctor said there would be time. The call comes as you step out of the morning shower.
You are at work when you hear your name mentioned down the hall . . . a phone call, something about a heart attack. By the time you get to Rockville, your father -- trim, fit and healthy -- is dead.
CHILDREN EXPECT THEIR parents to live forever. They don't, and it is a shock that often transforms lives: Careers are changed, lives upset, family and faith rediscovered, mortality and adulthood and freedom faced for the first time. It has always been so, although the confusion and crisis that often accompany the death of one's parents is an oddly iggeoning research into how people grieve the deaths of those they love pays scant attention to adult children.
Yet next year the parents of the largest generation in history will begin dying in increasing numbers, as parents reach their sixties and children reach their forties. The number of parental deaths will peak in 1995. That is when the baby boomers, the first generation to reach adulthood with their parents' generation predominantly alive and healthy, will for the first time be truly on their own. A generation self-indulgent and self-absorbed may find those deaths particularly painful.
"No matter how much people tell you they are ready for it, they never are," says Jerry Swanson, the man who waited an extra day for his only dark suit to return from the cleaners. "I've noticed that my friends aren't ready for this. They have no -- zero, zilch -- experience dealing with death. My friends dealt with my emotions as if I had lost my job or an eye in an accident. Mine was pure, unmitigated pain, a blinding sadness, hot tears streaming down my face. Death is like cancer: A lot of people get it, but few of us have experience dealing with it."
After Swanson's mother died, he found himself at a party months later, curled into a ball on the floor, screaming. He is 36. His consuming grief is not rare. Madeline Lowery, the woman who was at work when her father died, didn't cry for six months after his funeral. Then she couldn't stop crying -- at home, at work, driving to the supermarket. She is 24. Sean Venable's mother died, and he quit his career writing computer manuals, abandoned his friends and rediscovered God. He is 40.
A comment heard again and again captures the childlike fear and loneliness adults feel when their ents die: "I am an orphan."
"A lot of children don't give their parents the time they wish they had before they died," says author Katherine Fair Donnelly, who is writing a book about how adults cope with the deaths of their parents. "When a parent dies, they are completely stunned."
Moving to distant cities for independence or careers often causes terrible guilt in adult children after a parent dies, Donnelly says. The most devastating grief, however, is felt by children who have "unfinished business" with their parents -- childhood anger never released, resentments never resolved, affection never fully expressed. Your mother or father dies unexpectedly, and it is too late. But even knowing that death is imminent, even having the best of friendships, can't assuage the staggering pain of the death. On the other hand, some people feel close to their parents only after they are dead, although a certain emptiness never goes away.
"It's like a hole in the air," says Holly Shulman, 41, whose parents died in the fire eight years ago. "It was air and you couldn't sew it up."
HE PROMISED his mother he would never put her in a nursing home, but Sean Casey Venable had no choice after her operation in 1981. Though alert and seemingly healthy at 75, his mother required constant care.
Three weeks in the home and she was dead.
"She just gave up the spirit," says Venable. "It was devastating. She died five days before Christmas, five days after her birthday -- Dec. 20, 1981."
Venable fell apart. His father had died 20 years earlier and he remembered being sad, but thinking then that he always had his mother. He missed three weeks of work. He broke out in tears several times a week for months. He went for grief counseling at Washington's St. Francis Center. He ate and drank too much. Without explanation, he stopped seeing his closest friends. He made a will, named an executor and set his own funeral arrangements.
"It hits you," he says. "They're not joking: There is this thing called death." And always, he seemed to think of his mother. He talked about her, pulled her photo from his wallet for friends or even strangers. He believed she was watching him. It frightened him that he could not go to her for a loan, though he hadn't borrowed money from her in years.
Looking back, Venable knows what was happening to him: He was terrified of growing up. "I suddenly realized I was absolutely alone: 'You're in charge here!' It's an incredible feeling of loss, anger, abandonment. It's the last big step of growing up -- having to really stand on your own two feet."
Venable ached for his mother -- he felt a physical emptiness, a hollowness in the stomach, as if he hadn't eaten for days and knew he would not eat again for days. His was a need that had to be satisfied but which could never be satisfied again.
"The sheer missing of that person is mind-staggering," he says.
But over the next three years, Venable made a recovery. It strikes him as odd that his mother had to die for him to grow up. "Who am I as a person?" he began asking himself. He made lists of the qualities he liked about himself (usually warm and caring) and the qualities he disliked (sometimes obnoxious and selfish). He quit his high-pressure job writing computer manuals, and took a $10,000-a-year pay cut to become the office manager at St. Francis Center, where he had gone for help. He returned to his religion and may become a minister someday. He enjoys life more today than he ever did.
"A lot of this has to do with being born after World War II," he says. "Our Depression parents thought they had to give us everything they never had. Kids are dependent on their parents for a long, long time into adulthood. For us there has been a drive toward independence -- living in a high-rise, knowing no one, less dependence on church and religion. The number of single people hasn't helped either." When a person's parents die today, he is often literally alone.
Venable still cries occasionally when he thinks about his mother. But he threw out the flower he saved from her coffin. "You come to accept the fact: Yes, mom and dad are dead," Venable says. Then he recalls this story:
"Was it hard for you to get over your mother's death?" Venable asked his elderly Aunt Helena soon after his mother had died.
"Yes," his aunt replied. "I didn't go out of the house for three months."
"How did you get over it?" Venable asked.
"You don't get over it," his aunt answered. "You just get used to it."
HIS PARENTS wanted him to move back to Minnesota, but Jerry Swanson couldn't. He had spent his life getting out of Minnesota -- Willmar, Minn., population 15,895. His father, outgoing and healthy, and his mother, wheelchair-bound with multiple sclerosis, suggested Minneapolis. But Swanson, an only child, couldn't do it. His job and friends, his life, were in Washington, where he had lived since he was 24.
Swanson was headed out the door for Bethany Beach two summers ago when the phone rang: his father, only 58, was dead of a heart attack. Swanson felt he should go live with his mother, but he couldn't.
"It sounds ghastly, but I decided my life was more important than hers," he says. "She understood." His mother, who required 24-hour care, went into a home in Minnesota, where Swanson spent his vacations. At Christmas they sat in her room, exchanged gifts and played Swedish Christmas carols.
When the call came that his mother had died, it was as if Jerry Swanson were mourning the death of not only his mother, but his father, too. His parents' deaths flushed out so many incendiary emotions. Swanson feared he might die young: "When they are gone, you know you're the next generation to bite the bullet." (After his father's death, Swanson took his pulse constantly, began exercising and stopped smoking.) He feared having no one to turn to for a quick loan: "If the American Express bill comes in too high, it's between me and the bank." He felt anger at God: "What have I done! Why at the age of 33 did I have the loss of my parents?" But most of all, he felt guilty that he had so often thought of himself first, guilty that he felt a certain relief at his mother's death, guilty that he had waited one more day for his dark suit -- guilty that he hadn't moved back home.
"My parents up and died so quickly it really brought out the selfishness of the decision," he says. And his parents had been so selfless. When he was in college demonstrating against the Vietnam war, his mother offered to move with him to Canada to beat the draft. His father always kept his son's gas tank full, and even in his thirties Swanson called his father for advice about money.
He felt intensely alone. "Getting a birthday card from a friend is nice," Swanson says, "but it's not like getting one from your mother. To realize I'll never see them again. I don't think that sadness will ever leave. I wish I'd told my father I loved him.
"You feel old. There's a sense of the loss of youth and innocence. Life isn't quite as joyful. It's not fun. Life isn't a party. Finals are a bitch, but now you realize, 'Yes, I can get cancer.' 'Yes, I can have a maiming car accident.' Some of the immediate fears leave, but the new knowledge never goes away. My best friend could die tomorrow. These are the things our generation must discover for ourselves."
DAUGHTER AND FATHER had not talked for years. He once wrote and told her it would be better if they didn't see each other before she left on a fellowship out of the country. He called her a parasite before she knew what a parasite was. He wouldn't help pay for college. He was arrogant and demanding, dominating his wife and children even as he ignored them. Her brother got an 800 on the math SAT: Her father would have been surprised at anything less. He was a genius, a psychologist, an intellectual who loved music and literature, who seemed to know everything.
Two years ago, he died alone in his apartment in Reno.
"I was hysterical," says the 31-year- old Northwest Washington woman. "Horrible guilt that it hadn't been different -- that I hadn't made it different."
Then they found his journals and the letters -- to her and her mother, to her brother, even to his dead father. The journals dated back to his high school days and revealed that he was a depressive, that he'd considered killing himself as a teen. A common theme ran through his life: "My life's all wrong, everything is wrong." In a letter to his children, written only a week before he died, he confessed that he loved them. Though he owned little, they found a will: To his wife, he left the memory of a favorite Bach composition; to his daughter he left his favorite Renoir reproductions.
"He was a very sick person, but I never knew it," says his daughter. "The letter made it all seem so much more tragic and made me suffer all the more. I couldn't see him as an evil force. I could see him as a weak and suffering person and that made everything fall into place. He hadn't been deliberately evil, but overwhelmingly tragic."
Today, the woman believes she and her father are finally in touch. "It made me feel that death doesn't exist," she says. "It's like he's still alive. I sense spiritual existence for the first time. I understand him and for the first time I know he understands me, too. It's made me understand how people become a part of other people and how I'm shaping people. He gave me his values -- we were always surrounded by books and music and paintings. That's a great gift.
"When big events happen -- going to Europe or a new job -- I believe he knows. I wanted him to be proud of me when he was alive, but it wasn't possible. But now he can know, and there is no danger or pain. The essence has been distilled."
BRUCE PAYNE HEARD the voice come out of the darkness in a dream: "Your father is going to die." A month later, Payne's 60-year-old father was dead.
"For six months I just said, 'My dad died.' It was like it didn't bother me," says Payne, 37. "I'd reflect on it at night -- as if I knew I wasn't dealing with it. When it came to my feelings with my father, there was this wall." He was surprised that he never cried.
Payne didn't see his father's body before it was cremated, and he returned home to Baltimore after the funeral in California and found himself talking about his father constantly. "I'd go on for hours," he says. "I was afraid I was boring people." He talked about the times he and his father went out on the motorcycle together -- the father always driving, the son always riding. About how his father would run into something and ask him not to tell his mother. About how they were ticketed on the Chesapeake Bay for water-skiing with only one person in the boat (the dog was trained to bark when the skier fell, he laughs). About how they would sit up late drinking screwdrivers and watching TV -- "The Twilight Zone" was their favorite show. About how they were best friends.
"I thought I was handling it so well," Payne says.
Then his wife's grandfather died and at the wake, Payne was overcome with a tremendous urge to kiss his forehead in the coffin, to say goodbye as he had been unable to do with his father. He waited for everyone to leave the room. "I watched myself doing it and felt morbid," he says. "It was like touching ivory with my lips."
Payne's obsession with his father's death continued for two years. "I'd be sawing a board and I'd think about it -- about him and death. I'd be sitting around watching TV and all of a sudden just start thinking about death. I'd fade off into a cosmic realm about its inevitability and whether the death of an ant means any more than the death of a man. I'd have strange feelings, like I was being watched by my father." He found that others had the same sense of his father's presence. "My nephew out of the blue one day said, 'Look, there's Granddad floating above the car.' years, Payne never cried.
Then one night as he sat watching a movie on TV, some character reminded him of his father. He began to sob uncontrollably. Payne cannot recall the character or the movie, only that he could not stop crying.
Three years after his father's death, Payne still feels his father's presence occasionally, though not as strongly as before. Says Payne, "I would say I'm on the recovery side."
MADELINE LOWERY could not imagine how she would get along without her father after he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at 58.
"He was the last person you'd expect to die," says Lowery. "At the hospital, I said, 'I'm an orphan.'
"I didn't think of myself as an adult whose father had died, but as a child whose father had died. I thought, 'Why couldn't he be alive so I could say goodbye?'
"You've heard of a Jewish grandmother?" she asked. "My dad was a Jewish grandmother."
The father's energy, enthusiasm and ambition for his daughter had dominated her. He forged working papers for her when she was a teen- ager so she could get a part-time job. He taxied her everywhere. He fussed over her weight and health. It was he who decided she should be a nurse. He was an engineer and he helped her husband plan his own engineering eduan IRA. Down deep, she expected him to help with a down payment on a house.
"With my dad gone, it's tempting to take it easy," Lowery says. "He was so demanding. Now we have to find it within ourselves. His death is pushing us. We want to have a house, but instead of going to my father, we went to the library and got books and took notes and made lists of questions. We're just having to muddle through.
"If we can buy a house by ourselves, my dad will be really proud." SHIRLEY KEYES was determined to be with her mother when she died.
Keyes was gone on a trip when her husband died suddenly in 1973. She was on a job interview when her father died in 1977 and she was off somewhere when her sister died in 1981. When her 84-year-old mother became increasingly frail, however, Keyes was determined she would do it right this time. She moved her mother from her home in New Jersey into a Rockville nursing home, visited her often, and talked about matters once taboo.
"The time gave us the opportunity to clear some things up," Keyes says.
Keyes told her mother that she was always remote, that she never really paid attention to her daughter's problems when she was a girl.
"Whenever I asked how you were, you said, 'Fine,'sponded. "How was I supposed to know these things if you never told me?" It was a good answer, the daughter thought.
It went on like this for two years. "It was the best time we ever had -- ever, ever, ever," Keyes says. "Even as a child." Then her mother started talking about "going home," and her daughter knew she didn't mean New Jersey.
When Keyes got to the nursing home that last night, her mother was in a coma but still alive. "I am convinced she was aware of my presence," Keyes says. "I was alone with her. I held her hand, stroked her, kissed her. I saw her going, the urinary output stop, saw her turn blue and get colder. I now know why they do death masks. Everything seemed to recompose itself -- all the wrinkles on her face went away.
"I can't really differentiate this death from all the others. It didn't really change me or the other deaths. Grieving is always going to be a theme in my life. I'm just grateful I could foresee it, and that I didn't deny it. I was really in the presence of a miracle to be with her when she died. I still mourn and grieve, but I appreciate that time, including the actual moment my mother died. It's a mystical moment. The passage is truly extraordinary, a new order. Timeless. As she turned toward dying, I was able to go with her.
"I was there. I took care of her. I was a good daughter."