Thursday, June 14, 2007

My Brother Rick

Yours Truly is number 4 out of 5 Widman brothers. That means I am the second youngest. The Widman brothers are, from the oldest to the youngest, Ted, Jack, Bob, Bill, and Rick. When Rick died, I became the youngest living Widman brother.

On December 30, 1984, I got a phone call from my brother Bob, telling me my brother Rick has died. I will remember that phone call the rest of my life. Soon afterward I was driving to Washington, DC with tears in my eyes.

The whole family was in shock. Rick was the last person anyone had thought would be the first to die in the family. He was the youngest and the healthiest of all of us. My parents were still living then, and it was at their apartment in Forestville, MD, where I met with my brothers, two of which had wives and children. It's amazing how many people could fit in my parent's apartment.

It was December 31, 1984, the next day after the death, but we all seemed to forget it was New Year's Eve. We didn't celebrate it that year. We all seemed to be occupying ourselves with trying to accept the death of brother Rick. I know I was.
We still didn't know why he died.
The body was at the state coroners office in Baltimore to be autopsied.
I was actually considering going there to see it. My family members did not seem to approve of that, so I waited impatiently for the day of the viewing.

I found myself having a strong need to see the body. Perhaps it was like Thomas, who had to see the crucifixion inflicted wounds on Jesus to believe he was alive, I had to see the body of my brother to believe he was dead.
I am reminded that most normal people have an aversion to dead bodies.

My Mom did most of the talking, as my brother Bob would fill in.
On the night of December 29, Rick was at my parents place having dinner. He was his usual sweet cheerful self, happily chopping veggies to make a salad. He had brought his tool box along to do a little plumbing repair before helping with dinner.
Rick has been living in an apartment in the same complex as my parents since he married Cindy. They were married for one year. It was walking distance between them. Cindy was out of town visiting relatives for the holidays, leaving Rick to have the apartment to himself.
Cindy was the next family member we were expecting to show up.
After dinner, Mom says, Rick had asked her for my address, which she had written down for him. Then Rick told my parents (who never did drive or own a car) that he would come and take them to church in the morning. (the next day was Sunday) Then he picked up his toolbox and went home.

It was not usual for Rick to be late, and if he ever was, he would surely call. Mom called his number and got no answer. Then she called her church friends to come and take her and my Dad to church. They went by Rick's apartment and saw his car and his motorcycle still parked in front. They went on to church. On the ride back the vehicles were still there. When they got home they called again. No answer. They knew something was wrong. My parents decide it's time to get the key Rick gave them and go over there.

My poor parents. They were already crazy enough. Why did they have to be the first to discover what was found?
Mom continues the story. When they opened the door the radio was playing. The tool box was by the door. The piece of paper with my address written on it was on a table. Rick was found laying on the floor of the bedroom. He was fully dressed in the clothes they saw him in last. His shirt was neatly tucked in. He was clean and well groomed. He looked like nothing was wrong. But he was dead.
Brother Bob interjects, "Not a hair out of place."
After a screaming fit, Mom called Bob, who was living in Baltimore. He came right over. Bob was the third person to enter the apartment that day. The discovery wasn't easy for him either, but at least he had warning. Bob asked my parents when will the police get here.
"You mean you didn't call anyone but me?"
"We didn't know who else to call."
Bob takes charge of everything after that. He called the police to report the death. He called everyone in the family, including me. He talked to the police, trying to get them to not question my parents so much, as they were not in good shape to answer questions.

No one had a clue as for the cause of death. We could only wait for the autopsy report.

The day of the viewing comes. Ted's wife, Sandy, is a relative I made friends with as soon as I met her. She is the mother of my favorite niece, Julie, who was 3 years old then. It was Sandy who came in the morning to take us to the funeral home.

The funeral home staff were very courteous and professional. Cindy was the first to go in the room where the casket lay. I see her stroke his hair. I was right behind her.
I'm sorry if this sounds morbid, but I was relieved to see what was in the casket. Yes, that's him all right. Now my mind could accept the reality that my brother was dead. I too stroked his hair, touched his cheek, his hands.
This is taboo in some cultures, but I didn't care. To the Jewish, to touch a dead body made one ritually unclean. My family was Catholic.
Brother Ted comes up beside me. His mood is strangely playful. He points to Rick's hands and says to me, "Did you ever see his fingernails so clean?"
He pats the chest and says, "They really stuffed him good, didn't they?"
I look at my brother with a tear stained eye and say, "Your sense of humor never wanes."

After we all had our turn at the casket, I stood facing my Dad. Then I wrapped my arms around him and cried. It was the only time I ever cried in public as an adult. I was not at all embarrassed about it. I felt I had a perfect right to do so. When I was finished, I asked, "When was the last time I cried on your shoulder, Dad?" To my surprise, he remembered. I was a little boy then, and I remembered too when he gave a brief description of the event.
It amazes me that Dad couldn't remember what he had for lunch yesterday, but he could remember that.

After the viewing there is a memorial service in the chapel, which fills up to standing room only. It made me feel good to see so many people show up. I volunteered for pallbearer duty, and participated in common eulogy. The eulogy was started by the priest. Then Cindy, then me, then a lot of other people came up to offer some words. I always knew Rick was a great guy, but it still was nice to hear other people say so. It did my heart a lot of good to hear all the wonderful praise for my dear little brother. I still think often of such beautiful testimonies I have heard.

The day of the funeral arrived. We rode in an Airstream hearse. I didn't know they made a hearse like that. There were enough seats for the pallbearers and family members. The casket rode in a compartment inside the body of the vehicle, underneath where we sat. Cindy would not stop crying. She was on crutches since she came back from her trip. It was explained that when Cindy was called to inform her about Rick's death, she ran out the door and fell down the steps, injuring her ankle.
The hearse parked in front of the church. The funeral home attendants open the compartment and slide out the casket. The pallbearers on my side politely offered me the front position, which I accepted.
Lord, the thing was heavy. Even with all the help carrying the casket, my forearm muscles ached from the weight. I will always remember the procession down the aisle of the church.

I have renounced the Catholic faith long ago, but I still appreciate the beauty of a Catholic church. They were singing "Morning has Broken," by Cat Stevens. (I learned later that he was not the actual author.) I appreciated that song a lot more than I would have any Catholic hymn. As we slowly progressed down that long aisle, all the people were standing and singing, and facing us. I made eye contact with all the faces I went by. I could read sympathy in every pair of eyes.

Prior to that time, I had made plans to legally change my name to Wildman. I was going to add a letter "L." I decided that if that's what everyone wanted to call me, then I would make it official. It was then and there that I canceled that plan. The name "Widman" had new meaning to me. It was the name I shared with my brother Rick, and I was proud of it.
I was also proud that we looked so much alike. People I didn't know seemed to recognize me as a brother of the deceased. That pleased me.

Maryland state law requires a death certificate for a burial. The death certificate required a line filled in under "cause of death." The certificate arrived to us saying, "cause of death -- pending." We would have to wait for the lab results to come back for that information, but at least we were ready for the burial.

Another arm aching tote from the hearse to the grave, and the casket is placed on the nylon web that lowers the casket down into the vault. The priest gave the final prayers, then it started to drizzle.
There was a long ritual of hand shakes and introductions. I thought it was partly because of my face that everyone wanted to shake my hand. There was a pride I never felt before when I'd say "Bill Widman" as I extended my hand. Then we went back to the parking area of the cemetery, in time to get out of the rain.
Why does it always rain at funerals?

This time we go to Sandy's car instead of the hearse. Before getting in the car, we notice Ted is not with us. Sandy went back to get him. She found Ted trying to open the casket, saying "I gotta get him out!"
Back at the funeral home, I'm sitting with Ted in the smoker's lounge, worried about him. His eyes had that vacant and far away look. He lit a cigarette but just held it. I took it from his hand when it burned all the way down. Sandy was with me. We kept talking to him, trying to bring him back. It took a while.
When Ted was ready to talk again, he told us that the impact did not hit him until he saw everyone walking away from the grave site, leaving the casket there. He was not accepting what had happened. He wanted to deny it. When he could no longer do that, he lost it.

Sandy and I had a long conversation about how different people respond differently to the same thing, especially when it's the death of a loved one. I have seen examples of that already, and I would see a lot more later. It became a subject of study for me.

to be continued...


Anonymous said...

I really found your story of your brother's passing to be a well written account of how a family reacts to the sudden death of a dear one. There is really no way to prepare oneself for such events but I do find it helpful to read about other people's experiences.

I was just fifteen when I experienced my mother's sudden death.

yvonne said...

Awe Bill what a sad but lovely way you expressed the death of your young brother.Just reading it I can see that you had a deep bond with him.As Anon said--people reactions are so different,some can't stop crying, other withdraw,and others seem to be the strong ones that can handle everything---but only to break down later. Thanks for the story of peter cottontail So sweet! yvonne