The Day My World Changed
I was twelve. It was May 12, 1966, a Thursday. We had moved into this house eight months ago on my twelfth birthday.
I walked the three quarters of a mile to the railroad station to meet my dad at around 6 p.m. so I could have some time with him as we walked back home together. When I saw him, I lit up, and could not keep myself from running at him, throwing my arms around him and giving him a good, strong hug. I always lit up when I saw him. He let me carry his briefcase which had his initials on the light brown leather.
After we came home, he took a few minutes to clean up and we had dinner, my dad, mom, and I. My brother, five years older, was at college, about an hour away. After dinner I helped clean up and we watched Hollywood Squares, (Paul Lindt was always a hoot), and All In The Family. I remember my dad had brought home a new Louis Prima album that was laying on the old barely functional HiFi.
We went upstairs to move some furniture. There was a new desk that had to be moved from the extra bedroom into my bedroom. He and I moved it and we had a couple of other things to move around and rearrange. I used my new desk to finish my homework, while he went downstairs to listen to Louis Prima and dance with Mom for a few songs.
I joined them downstairs for desert and I watched T.V. for a little while and then I went up to bed.
During the week, each day my dad’s wind up BenRus alarm clock went off around five A.M. He would usually hit it quickly so as not to wake my mom too much, shave and shower and get dressed, except for his tie, which he would put on after eating. He would go downstairs for breakfast. Mom usually didn’t get up until a little later. I would get up and have breakfast with him, still in my pajamas.
Just toast and jam, and juice, and he had toast and jam and coffee. He held the toast with two fingers, and rarely got jam on his hand. His hands were bigger than mine, but I tried to hold my toast like he did.
When we were done eating, I kissed him goodbye and hugged him, and I went back to bed until I had to get up for school, and he put his tie on and left for work. If the weather was nice or it was just a light drizzle, he would walk, otherwise my mom got up and dropped him off.
This morning when his alarm went off at five, he did not shut it off right away, and it kept ringing until it ran down. He did not shut it. From my room, across the upstairs hall, I heard her say, “Harvey, get up.” I could hear her and in my mind I could see her touching his shoulder like she did when on some mornings he was really tired and slow to get up, which was not often.
“Harvey, get up…Harvey…Harvey? …HARVEY”, each time a little louder and a little more frantic. I sensed something very wrong and got up out of bed and stood in my doorway looking into their bedroom through their open door. Their bed was on the far wall, and I could clearly see from where I stood. From where I was he was on the right, but lying in the bed, he was on the left side. I had a clear line of sight.
He was not moving. He was lying there, but someone had taken him out of his body. I just knew it.
I moved a little closer. My mom grabbed the phone, which was on his side of the bed, and somehow managed to call the fire department. I don’t know how she managed to keep it together to tell them our address, because I was not even sure I knew my name at that moment. I felt like I could not move from where I was, and I couldn’t speak. My mom hung up the phone, half hysterical and half sobbing.
I didn’t know what to do. In addition to my legs which didn’t seem to know what to do any longer, my stomach had a sick and growing tightness and I had a feeling of goosebumps starting at my head and continuing down my spine to my legs which still couldn’t make up their mind whether they were advancing forward or retreating backwards.
They wanted to run to her and help her and run to him to shake him, to hug him, to kiss him, but they also wanted to run and get the heck out of there because something came into our house during the night and hurt him, hurt him bad, maybe killed him. I didn’t know yet.
Someone or something was in the house during the night, I could feel it, and it took his soul out of his body, and I wasn’t sure it had left the house yet, and I didn’t know if it wanted to take me too. I wanted to run to my dad for protection, and I wanted to get the hell out of there because maybe I was next. I was frozen.
My mom was half hysterical, putting some clothes on, pale as all hell, and half sobbing , half wimpering and muttering.
I think I managed to get my legs to peddle backwards and she might have said get dressed or I just heard it in my head. I threw on some clothes, and then ran down to let in the ambulance people and showed them the way up to the bedroom. They started working on him, and I went downstairs to wait.
It was about a half an hour before they took him out and I don’t remember if they pronounced him dead then or after taking him out to the hospital or if they even bothered with the hospital and just took him to the medical examiner’s. I just knew whoever came during the night and took him was probably gone by now but I still was not 100 per cent convinced. I WAS convinced, and certain beyond doubt, they did not let him say goodbye and I was extremely mad about that.
I did not get to have breakfast with him. I didn’t get to kiss and hug him goodbye. And I still was not convinced that “IT” was completely gone out of the house yet.
But, I knew “IT” had come into my world and changed everything. I was alone.
My world was turned upside down. One morning breakfast with my dad, then the next morning taken away by “IT”. I should have stopped that gurney in the house, I should have gone into the bedroom before they took him out, pushed them out of the way, and hugged him and kissed him goodbye and told him I never loved anyone or anything as much as I did him. I hadn’t realized that or ever really thought about that.
And, I did not know that was the end, the final scene in the play, the finale, I did not understand the whole play and if I did I would have clung to him and had a hard time letting go, and they would have had to pull me off him and they might have needed more than one of them.
I was afraid of “IT” and “IT” robbed me. It robbed my family. But I did not know then what I know now. I was twelve. How was I supposed to know?
I do not plan on dying, nope. I will just vibrate on to another frequency and see all of them, again. And, no one, not even Death itself, will ever rob me of a final hug. Ever again.
I did not believe it. Not yet. I was dreaming, I knew I would wake up.
In the meantime, two of my dad’s coworkers drove to my brother’s college to inform him. I wondered what that was like for him. “Hi Alan, we are sorry to tell you….” Maybe they just should have hit him hard in the gut with a two by four.
The car finally pulled into the driveway. I wanted to run outside and hug him, but I held back and waited. When he came in the house, I wanted to hug him, but he went to mom, and he was absorbed in his own moment with her.
He had lots of tears but he was not sobbing. I wanted to hold him and be held by him, but he just couldn’t be with mom AND with me, and then he HAD to go outside for a walk. I wanted to go WITH him, but he wanted to be alone, at first. Maybe he didn’t want to sob in front of others, I don’t know, he didn’t say much, but his eyes were bloodshot.
I was starting to feel numb, like I couldn’t feel my body, which was a surprise to me. I felt like my body was going to take a walk, and leave my head behind. Mom is in her pain, Alan is in his pain. I don’t think anyone would have noticed if my body had started walking around without my head.
Mom’s youngest sister arrived the next morning. I like my uncle, her husband. He was funny. He told jokes and made funny noises like my dad. He was the only one I was able to run to, to sob in his arms. Someone behind me, I don’t know who, asked “Why is he crying.” Adults can be incredibly stupid.
Like the one who said later that day, “Oh, he doesn’t really understand.”
I felt my blood heating up inside me, verrrrry close to boiling over, and my heart was racing, temples thumping and the top of my head and my forehead beaded up with sweat. I very much wanted to punch him, a distant relative. I wanted to mash his face, and I imagined how good I would feel. NO, I WOULDN’T. Yes, I would. I wanted to mash his head face down into the floor.
I then noticed I had at least two voices inside my head, one said, “It just feels sooooo good THINKING about doing it imagine how good it would feel actually DOING it.” Another voice was saying, “That is NOT very nice, I’m a GOOD boy.”
A third voice chimed in, “Well, he is an asshole… stupid, cruel thing to say. I don’t like him.”
I felt like I was watching everything through a haze, from outside myself. I didn’t know if that was possible. I was still wondering when I was going to wake up from the dream, was it all just a dream?
Sometime in the next few days we went to the funeral home to pick a casket. A tisket, a tasket, a fancy wooden casket. I was still dreaming. What kind of wood? Did it matter? I wanted it nice for the funeral, but wasn’t it all going to fall apart anyway? The thought of being in a box and buried in the ground made me antsy, very fidgety, and sweaty. Damn, it got hot in there fast and I found a place to sit down.
I did not like standing around at the funeral home, greeting all the friends and family as they repeatedly said they were sorry.
Not as sorry as I was. And, not as confused either. One of my voices said, “All you people think he is gone, but I know better. Just you wait and see.” It didn’t even really look like him, that body in the open coffin. Gave the goose bumps, and that was supposed to be my father. They weren’t going to fool me. That body looked like something from the Munsters or the Addams Family. Creeped me out. And he was cold. My dad was anything but cold.
I started to feel a panic that this was not a dream as the minutes and hours went ticking by. I cried during the service, but I’m not sure why I was crying. I was supposed to cry, right? Everyone else was crying. They would have thought something was wrong with me if I didn’t cry. I was an actor in a play. I should have sung a song. MOON RIVER. HE would have smiled. MY BIGGEST FAN. He absolutely loved when I played guitar and sang. He beamed. He would give me suggestions, hold a note here, cut it shorter there, a little softer or louder, he liked being my coach and then he would have that look on his face, “Just like that, that was soooo good.” He was so proud. MY BIGGEST FAN.
At the cemetery, the Rabbi gave his graveside talk and prayer, we said the Hebrew prayer for mourners, KADDISH, which I didn’t have memorized YET and used the little booklet they gave out at the cemetery. After that each person took a turn throwing a shovel-full of dirt onto the casket which had already been lowered into the grave.
When it was my turn, somewhere in my head I heard, “WE got this,” and one loud voice I heard over all the others, “I can do this, I don’t need anyone of you to throw the dirt on him, I will do this MYSELF.”
After about the tenth shovel-full, Alan touched my back gently, and said SOFTLY, “NEAL,” and I was reluctant to give up the shovel but I let go as he took it out of my hands. I could have done more without those dress clothes on. He was MY DAD. I did not want to share.
We sat Shiva in our house. We sat on hard chairs for seven days after the funeral. The mirrors were covered with sheets so we couldn’t see ourselves. We didn’t go anywhere, we stayed put and let the world come to us.
Five in the morning I got up to say Kaddish with Alan and a friend of my father’s, and I was getting quieter and quieter.
I am not that religious. Neither was dad. He went to services in the Synagogue on the Holy Days. Mom was the observant one. A Conservative Jew. Dad was more Reform. Then one of my voices said, “I am not being a GOOD SON or a GOOD JEW,” so I told that voice, “Hey, BACK OFF.” It quieted a little.
The evening service was held at our house that first week. I started wondering if my Hebrew education prepared me for this. I know I didn’t prepare so well. I played hookie some days. Who wanted to go to MORE SCHOOL after a regular day in public school?
I heard one of my voices, “I’M A BAD JEW.” I’m sorry. But, THEY did not prepare me for this.
I did not EVEN KNOW that KADDISH was supposed to be said at least once a day after the first week, for an entire year in our Synagogue. Reform is only a few months. I was sure mom would go, GUILT would force me to go with her. Mom was so used to using GUILT she didn’t even know she was using it. Or did she?
Week one was stay in the house. People constantly from the afternoon till evening. There was abundant food. People came to talk, remember, and eat…and eat.
Some of my classmates visited. Awkward. What were we supposed to talk about? I didn’t really know them, except for one or two.
My hot neighbor who was in my grade came by and I got a hug from her, which might have sparked enough fantasies for a whole year, and would have been longer if I liked her.
I wanted to go run a cross country mile or two or three. I had this pent-up energy, and it was circulating in my muscles making my whole body cranky and twitchy. The short walk at the end of that week that signaled the end of Shiva, was not enough.
I was getting more and more antsy and wanted to run that three miles, or punch something really hard (I found out punching my bed helped sometimes and I didn’t hurt my hand), OR… I wanted to forget about all that stuff and play doctor with my neighbor for a long, long time.
I went for a long run and let the wind dry the tears as I ran. I started to hear the voice that said, softly at first, “I MAY NOT BE DREAMING.” Now what?