My Father’s Anniversary: Reflecting on Early Death

My father died suddenly of a massive coronary event on October 21, 1959 — we are in the 58th year after his death. He’s been dead longer than he was alive; he was 49. Below is a pic of him as a young man, when all of life still seemed open to him.

Now that I’ve reached 72, surely a long life, I tend to think of early death in terms of what the person lost. My father never got to see his three daughters grow up. He didn’t get to know the joy and depth of long marriage to my mother; they were together a mere 19 years. He lost out on a wonderful new job. He’d long worked for DuPont in Kearny, and the company packed up and moved to a southern state, leaving employees in the lurch with no outplacement or severance. My father had a hard time finding a new job. He finally did, and it was a good one — right up his alley. He’d been a supervisor at the chemical plant, whatever that meant. But he was hired by a family owned tool and die company in Kearny to be their very first personnel manager, and to build out an HR department and function. He was on the job for six weeks when he died, ironically at a company dinner where he was tapped to be the master of ceremonies. He was sweating and slurring his words during the program; not yet knowing him well, some thought he might have had too much to drink. At the end he went out to the parking lot, bent over the back seat to put down his topcoat and table flowers for my mother, and died. He would have been good at the new job. I suppose they quickly hired someone else, needing the work done.

From my vantage point, life seems so, well, arbitrary. Some good people get short lives, with much of their promise unrealized. Some, who die as infants, hardly get any life at all. I have a framed picture of my sister Barbara, who died at nine months. We didn’t talk about her much — that Irish Catholic stiff upper lip silence thing. When my adult nephew was here he noticed the photograph, and asked who it might be. I paused for a moment before answering, not sure what to say. Finally I settled on who she was to him. “It’s your Aunt Barbara.” Barbara barely got to be the baby in the family, never mind being anyone’s aunt. Some perfectly miserable people go on and on, diminishing everything they touch. Their deaths evoke a collective sigh of relief, and very little mourning.

My father’s name was Wendell R. York. He was from Mark, Iowa, a place so small it’s barely a crossroads on a map. He was a star athlete, and played semi-pro ball as a pitcher in the 1930’s. He wanted to be a doctor, but could only muster enough money for two years of college. He came east, got married, had a family. He was honorable, decent, and kind. I wish he’d had more time. He was deserving of it.

6 thoughts on “My Father’s Anniversary: Reflecting on Early Death

  1. Bob’s father died at age 46. He and Bob’s mom had been married for 12 years. Bob was almost 11 when it happened and his brother was 5. Mom and relatives were good intentioned, but made many mistakes and Bob and his brother were not only profoundly affected by his early death, but by the repercussions of those mistakes.

  2. for Ada: There was very little help or support in those days for families who suffered an early death of a parent. Certainly no grieving mother sets out to harm her grieving children. And yet… the harm done is real and long lasting. I have a friend whose 46 year old son has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal lung cancer. He, his wife, and their three children are already in therapy to help them cope with what they are all going through, whether or not the young man dies. Very different.

  3. Beautifully said, Pam. The events of those days are burned into my brain forever! When I think of him, I always call him, Daddy.

  4. for Linda: Thank you. I think you, I and Wendy all refer to him as Daddy, which is interesting since we don’t call our late mother Mommy.

  5. for Nedra: Thank you — makes my heart smile. I certainly have his personality, that calm, Midwestern temperament.

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