Mack Williams column: The half-century mark
At 65, I’m past the half-century mark; so this week’s column concerns something other than my “lastingness.”
It is a memorial marking of my father’s (Bernard Williams) passing five decades ago. His death of Saturday, Nov. 5, 1966, reached the “half-century mark” on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, (yesterday, as you read on 11/6/16). 1966’s calendar has repeated several times since then, and does so again this year.
But my father’s “dead years” don’t yet exceed the number of his years alive (60). A friend of my late wife and me, passing away in 1978 at the age of 30, has now been dead for 8 years longer than her lifespan, to me, an especially sad comment on her death. But non-existence eventually has the upper numbers anyway over biological life (though not the Heavenly variety) since we were basically “dead” before being here (sorry Edgar Cayce and Shirley MacLaine).
“Sad firsts” are just as easily remembered as “happy firsts” (despite what psychologists may say), especially when the one experiencing them is a teenager.
My father’s earliest inkling of “personal pathology” was in September of 1966, when he came into the kitchen saying his right side was hard to the touch (not cirrhosis, because not a drinker, due to ulcers; but instead, that variety of “fast” liver cancer which also claimed actor Michael Landon).
To this day, I have a “knee-jerk” reflex concerning my right side. When experiencing random pain there, I check for “hardness” below my ribs, knowing if I find such, I am surely gone.
In the minutes following my father’s death, I imagined his ghost ascending from one of Rowan Memorial’s gravel-covered roofs visible through a nearby window on the same floor of his room. (For the control of my emotions that morning, I found that particular “survival strategy” to be of great help.)
My mother and I then rode with my brother Joe and sister-in-law Sheila down Mocksville Avenue back to our Old Concord Road home. A chilly wind blew brown leaves across our path, and on West Cemetery Street we passed Pope & Arey grocery, where my mother often bought “John Cope’s” frozen corn (tasting fresh out of the field).
Worried about our dogs “Suzie” (so named by my father) and “Taffy” before coming to the hospital the evening before, my mother had shut them up in my room. When we arrived home, they were chomping at the bit (horse terminology applied to dogs) for freedom.
Several potted plants of sympathy delivered to us were chrysanthemums, one plant’s flowers being more brown than beige. They weren’t dead, just brown-color flowers (like black tulips), as if that variety had been developed just for autumn. I thought it also seemed appropriate for the expressing of sympathy at a death.
That first major death in one’s younger years (especially a parent) becomes “death’s definition,” later ones becoming a list of “synonyms.”
In my father’s last photograph, he was dressed in a suit at Joe and Sheila’s wedding at Haven Lutheran Church. When I last saw him, he was dressed in a suit at the funeral home.
One of the embalmer’s most difficult tasks is that of fixing the lips of the dead as they were in life. My mother (Lorraine Williams), sweet soul she was (and is, in Heaven) looked at my father’s lips, so pursed, and said: “They remind me of him in life, when he was having an asthma attack and couldn’t get his breath.” (A later voice teacher of mine had me purse my lips similarly in a breath control exercise.)
My mother made no complaint to the funeral home, as she tried to never see others’ faults. Those cast in the benevolence of her viewpoint always came out to the good.
Most likely, nothing remains of those lips after a half century; but when I close my eyes, I still see them, along with cheeks I kissed as a child, then scratchy with slight stubble as my father left for his third-shift work at Spencer yard.
We hear often of the “revived” describing a “long tunnel with bright light at the end.” I like to think that when my time comes to travel “death’s road,” the path might resemble one I’ve traveled before.
It may be like riding down Mocksville Avenue and West Cemetery Street on a chilly, windy, fall day, brown leaves blown across my path.
Along the way, my journey-bound soul may be pleasantly surprised to see a vision of long-departed Pope & Arey!
And at the end, as in all other accounts, bright light.