In tragedy, family finds soul and grace
The following is from Hyman Weisbord, Saint Hippolyte, QC
When the car crashed and rolled at 100 k/hr, Bill, 94, and Ida, 91, were holding hands in the back seat enjoying the autumnal prairie views on a Saturday afternoon.
Their good friends, the Callaghans, had offered them the gift of a daytime road trip and they had obliged by hopping on board.
Ida had baked a pumpkin pie and left it on the counter to cool to thank the Callaghans when they returned.
Before heading out, Bill had edged his best scotch towards the front of his modest bar to serve it up to additionally thank his friends
Bill and Ida had been married for 69 years.
They died in the hospital within two days of each other a week later after the crash.
The driver, Bill’s good friend, and his wife, were unharmed and walked away from the accident
Just prior to the pandemic, Ida had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and was not expected to survive past the spring. Her death was to have been the slower death of a cancer victim, not of a car-crash victim.
Meantime, though slowing down, she was still able to drive to the drugstore, send care packages off to daughters from the post office, and bake pumpkin pies for folks like the Callaghans. More recent test results had encouraged her.
“I’m well past my due date,” she would tell her daughters.
Bill, too, was a resilient survivor. He had had his cancerous bladder removed at the age of 88 and was still playing golf and curling at 90. He had slowed down substantially by 94 and was sleeping for two to three hours in his chair in front of the tv morning and afternoon.
These folks were my partner’s parents and when I spent a week with her and them last month they were diminished yet, relatively pain free, fulfilled, dying slowly like, I suppose, we all are.
So here I am, helping to pack up their home.
No spring chicken myself, my mortality stares me down.
I am attempting to find meaning from the shocking crash and specifically from the lives lived by the parents of my partner.
Their house is packed with a 69-year history of memories and acquisitions, and, recently, with the arrival of pharmaceuticals, walkers, canes, bandages and skin creams that go with old age. With four of their five daughters present, we are packing up the house, depersonalizing it for sale.
Almost everything movable has a piece of masking tape stuck on its underside or on its back with the name of the heir written in black magic marker; a daughter, a grandchild, even a son-in-law like me.
Ida has been doing this for the last five years, heading off inheritance disputes by consulting with her heirs and leaving them stuff they actually wanted. The furniture, her art work (she was a water colourist for over 70 years) the Wearever aluminium baker/roaster, the Royal Doulton… all marked, all ready to ship out to a new home.
Their other assets are all liquid, easily divisible by five as stipulated in their will.
Their funerals, have been prearranged, the obituaries and appropriate announcements pre-drafted, rewritten and approved by their currently shell-shocked daughters who thought their parents would die slowly and so they would have time to adapt to their status as orphans.
Within 36 hours of the crash, two of the five sisters have visited the driver of the car and his wife to help head off any “survivor’s guilt.” They have reiterated the love their parents have had for this couple, and shared the confidential information on their medical conditions, confirming that their parent’s demise would have otherwise been slow and unpleasant, one with terminal cancer, the other destined for 24/7 care.
When I meet the driver a week after the crash at the 5-7 that the daughters have organized at the house for friends and neighbours, Mr.Callaghan tells me: “They have saved my life. They are angels.”
I ask myself about the legacy Bill and Ida have left behind.
I try to learn lessons from the crash and their lives lived.
My sister is an award-winning writer of creative non-fiction. Her books, she has told me, will be her legacy.
My friend Martin has been frugal all his life and has accumulated a triplex in the heart of Montreal and a house on a beautiful lake. He has money in the bank. That, he has told me, will be the legacy he will leave to his two adult children.
I have friends who are rich, very rich. Their legacy to their children will be money.
”My kids,” they tell me, "will be set for life.”
I have built modest buildings, I will have some money to leave behind for my kids and grandkids. There is stuff in the house for them if they want it. I can even ask them what they want and put their names on masking tape and stick it on the things they choose. That’s what Ida did.
But I have a new goal now and I better understand the legacy left by Bill and Ida to their five daughters.
For those of us with blessed with children, family, good friends, it becomes clearer to me that what we leave behind essentially and enduringly is, the culture, the “gestalt”, the sum, the soul of who we were, how we lived, navigated our lives, treated others, were comfortable with ourselves.
How else can one explain the exceptional five daughters left behind by Bill and Ida; each accomplished, independent, charitable, resilient, collaborative and gritty throughout their lives and especially in the aftermath of their parent’s death?
They are now aged between 60 and 69, flung out across Canada, one in Australia (virtually present at this writing thanks to Zoom).
They came together within hours of the accident and have coalesced on the care, the dying, the grieving and the logistics of putting their parents to rest.
The division of their Mom’s modest jewelry collection serves as a case in point. Three sisters sit around the dining table of their parent’s house, one connecting from British Columbia, one from Australia, the jewelry spread out on the dining table. They draw lots to establish an order for choosing a piece. They agree that all pieces are of equal value and they agree that any previous allocation by their Mom to a specific daughter be respected. They collaborate with each other. They tell anecdotes about the jewelry. They drink wine, they cry, they laugh, and sisters give up their place “in line” to accommodate each other. The job gets done, no one leaves the session disappointed.
Yet they are in shock.
They have been bedside in the trauma ward for eight days and they have a long road to go before they can work through their grief.
What shines through in the subsequent weeks, what they now all own, is the legacy left to them by their parents. A legacy of human decency.
I’m working on it, give me time.