I was 21 years old and had finished a summer internship at a large newspaper. I had spent this last weekend at home with my family before the start of what was supposed to be my final semester at the university.
Things had seemed normal, but not. Nothing was the way it used to be, but we thought it was going the way it was supposed to be. Until Monday morning.
As usual, my dad had gotten up earlier than everyone else to get ready and leave for work. His habit was to get up about 6:30 a.m., smoke and drink his coffee, then get himself dressed and ready to leave about 7:15 so he'd be at work at 7:30. Just the same, every morning of my life. Normally the rest of us stayed out of his way -- truth is, the sound of him closing the door was our cue to rise.
And so this Monday started like every other day that I had been in this household. But I was changing -- this had become less and less my home over the past three years since I went to school 120 miles away. The daily rituals weren't mine so much, any more. Over the summer I had made my first "real" money during my internship.
My schedule wasn't like my dad's, though. All summer I had worked nights, starting at 3 p.m. and getting off at midnight. Then there was the 20-mile drive back to my college town, where I was still living with my roommates.
So this Monday morning was a bittersweet shadow to remind me of 21 years of habit, about to end for a lifetime of something different.
My mom and I got up after we heard the screen door shut. It was late August, and like always the front and back doors was open to circulate the little bit of cool breeze through the house. We didn't worry about closing the doors at night, much less locking them. Back then there was nothing to worry about unless a stray cat managed to slip through after fanagaling the screen open.
After we got ourselves dressed, Mom and I went downtown to the bank, ready to get the money I'd need for my last semester's living expenses. Scholarships had paid all of my school expenses throughout my time at the university -- otherwise I don't think I would have been able to go. In any case, it was time to get the travelers checks I used for my "allowance," so to speak. We got them in $20 denominations to help space out my spending. One check a week was what I could have for incidentals.
Mom and I were joking with each other. "Oh, if you don't have any extra money you're using, I'll take it off your hands." That kind of stuff. My grandmother had recently died and my mom and her sister had coped by joking about grandma's estate in much the same way. The bank officer who was helping us didn't quite know what to make of our comments until we explained we were only teasing. Her expression would come back to haunt us later that day.
I think my brother must have stayed home that morning, because I don't remember him being with us when mom and I pulled up in the driveway in the Datsun. A car was parked at the curb and two men in suits were standing at the door. I don't know if Bob had answered the door or if they had just walked up as Mom and I were pulling in.
In any event, when they saw our car they turned towards us and waited for us to reach the porch.
They introduced themselves and asked to come in. It was at that moment I realized how tiny our living room was. There wasn't room for these strange men -- they didn't belong here and they shouldn't be in our house. There wasn't room for them.
"Mrs. Smith, I'm sorry, I have some very bad news. Bill died of a heart attack this morning at work, right after his coffee break. I want you to know that even if a doctor had been right there next to him, there was nothing that could have been done that would have saved him, he was gone that fast," one of the suits said.
Mom fell to the couch -- Dad's couch. I had never seen her like that and even now, 30 years later, I can't adequately describe her reaction. I had never seen her like that.
Bob, as I recall, said "No!" Then he started mulling the information over in his mind. One big tear rolled down his cheek as he looked from the men to my mom, then back to the men again. His face turned red and he started sobbing.
I felt my own face flush as the tears rushed to my eyes. Though they teetered on the brink of spilling over, I managed not to cry as I tried to listen to every detail the men had to report about what had happened.
Apparently, about the same time mom and I were joking at the bank, dad and his co-workers finished up their Monday-morning coffee break and were heading back to the machines when my dad went down.
"What's happening with Smith?" someone said. Someone else realized he was in trouble and called for the company doctor, who was in an adjacent building. He responded immediately and pronounced him dead.
I started making phone calls to tell neighbors, former neighbors and other friends. I might as well have saved my time because the news had already made it through the community grapevine. It was my first time to realize that gossip is an effective way to transmit information. Our old next-door neighbor was already sobbing when she picked up her phone.
Later that day or the next day I had to go back to the bank to do the inventory on the accounts and the safe deposit box so Mom would have access to everything. The same bank officer who had heard my mom and I joking was the one who did the inventory with me. I don't think I've ever seen a more sober face. I can't imagine what she must have been thinking.
Today it's hard to believe that was 30 years ago. I'm only four years younger now than my dad was that morning he died. My life is so much different than it was then, and miles different than I thought it was going to be.
Everyone who lived in that tiny house with me is gone now. Dad first; later my brother and finally my mom.
There's no room for any of us there any more.