The Third Death
By Carol L. Bowman
The creaky, wooden kitchen chairs arranged around the Franklin stove, awaited the ‘reading of the will.’ My insides harbored sparks of secret excitement mixed with twitches of disappointment. The December snowfall worsened the foreboding gloom, bringing the miserable dreariness inside the room. I hated snow. Every Pennsylvania winter while growing up on the farm, it meant trudging through drifts, no electricity for days and huddling around the fire for warmth. It meant my father struggling to plow the mile-long lane in the cold, blowing wind.
Mother had summoned my three sisters and me to the house on this mournful Sunday. It was the first time we all gathered together since my father’s funeral, taken at age 60, ravaged by a cancerous brain tumor. He never had a chance. I stared at mom as she paced back and forth, tapping the sealed envelope in her hand, looking like a lost teenager, wishing someone would sign her dance card. In contrast, her sunken eyes and turned down mouth, her hair now grey with routine coloring forgotten and her sluggish movements had turned my 58-year-old mother into a scared, elderly woman.
Always dependent on my father, she was afraid of being alone, afraid that no one would plow the lane, afraid of showing relief that the stink of illness had left her house. Seeing my mother, a frightened child and a sad, aged widow wrapped into one, made me squirm. I drifted from this unbearable scene back to the agonizing environment of Massachusetts General Hospital a month earlier.
I visited my father there prior to his brain surgery. Months of life-depleting chemotherapy and fruitless, cruel radiation left surgical removal of the tumor as the last, slimmest hope. Days before the operation, I asked him, “Daddy, what would be the greatest gift I could give you right now?” ‘A cigarette,’ this life-long smoker begged through tearful eyes.
My husband retrieved an ashtray from our room at the Sheraton Hotel; I bought a pack of Lucky Strikes, ordered my sisters and mother to the hospital snack bar, cleared the room of the oxygen tank and closed the door. My father and I had our last laugh together, as he coughed and choked on his old friend. I smiled at this memory as we took seats around the stove.
Reflections of sitting in the hospital corridor after the surgery and hearing the ‘code blue’ over the intercom flashed through my mind. Nurses careened down the hall, pushing the crash cart, running, running. This scene, which I witnessed often at the hospital where I worked, resonated in my soul. The doctor had neglected to order the DNR- Do Not Resuscitate- which my family had requested. They brought him back to life- for what. He died once, was revived, then after the order was written, he died again. He never had a chance.
My mother’s tremulous voice brought me back to the present. “Your father wrote his will in long-hand the day before his surgery. Two nurses witnessed it and gave it to me after he died. It’s the only copy and I haven’t opened it yet. I thought we should all hear it together,” she said, anxiety flowing from her eyes as she glared at the envelope.
My dad knew every penny they had. He knew where it was, how much was there, the value of the house, the car, the truck and the farm equipment, everything. By design, my mother knew nothing.
The yellow-lined legal size papers fell from the wrapping. The words looked squiggled with jittery edges as the tumor had robbed my father of his familiar pen strokes. The struggle he must have had to write pages and pages in long-hand pained me.
As she read aloud the contents, my mom’s voice faltered and fear spilled from her entire being as his wishes unfolded. He outlined how much money each daughter was to receive and with great care, reassured her that the remainder would keep her comfortable and not wanting. She stared into space. The papers rustled as his instructions shook in her hands.
Without a word and with a striking swiftness in her step, my mother bolted from her chair, clutched the handle of the Franklin stove and threw my father’s last will and testament into the roaring fire. My sisters and I gasped, competing with the sound of crackling wood igniting a promise. Mom staggered back and in a nervous rant, shouted, “Your Daddy was not thinking straight. I can’t possibly live on the money he left me. I can’t give you a cent. You girls must understand.” She fell into her chair, reduced to an impulsive, terrified child, afraid of life, afraid of her future.
The hot coals seized the pages, a flare of light exploded as the entire packet became engulfed in flames. My father’s final words, his last conscious thoughts and effort turned to ashes as the fire sprinted through every line, erasing his desires forever. For me, it was as if he were dying again, dying a third death. She never recanted. He never had a chance.