Two years ago today I had my last conversation with my middle son. It seems like a moment ago and like an eternity ago. The future seems like that, too. In a moment, we will be with him in heaven, but it seems like an eternity before I’ll see him again.
The last time we saw him alive was such a fun day. He was happy, joyful even. It was a beautiful autumn day; sunny and about 55 degrees. It was windy, but we live in Kansas – we’re the “people of the south wind”; we know about wind. He rode his motorcycle out to our house around 2 o’clock in the afternoon, knowing that we were going to a block party across the street at 3. Somehow I’d talked him into going to that block party with us. Probably the more honest way to say that would be that he was my only child who would let me talk him into doing things like going to a block party with us. Beth, our only child still living with us, had refused to go until I told her Israel, her brother, was coming out and was going to go with us. Except for Beth, Israel was our most laid-back and compliant child. When they were all in their teens, all lined up on the couch watching TV, and I said I needed something out of the freezer in the basement, they’d all look at each other, then Izzy would get up and go get it. He was that kind of kid. So, when I asked him to go to the block party with us I heard some moaning, groaning and complaining, but in the end he agreed. He had said he wanted to come out and see us that Sunday anyway, so the invitation to accompany us to the block party wasn’t too terribly outlandish.
The moment he walked into the house through the kitchen door is one I’ve tried to emblazon on my memory. It was the last time he came through that door, draped his arm over my shoulders and said, “Hi, Mom”, in his soft, sweet voice. I can still hear it. I hope I will always remember it. He moseyed around the kitchen with me, checking out the baked beans and potato salad I was making to take with us to the block party. I’d made a chocolate dessert the day before with him in mind. I pulled it out of the refrigerator to show him and he got out a spoon and took a bite. He liked it, as I knew he would. He then wandered around looking for his dad, found him and visited with him while I finished cooking.
We loaded up tables, lawn chairs and the food into the trunk of my car. We were all a little apprehensive about this, since we hadn’t met most of the neighbors we were going to have dinner with that evening. We live on an acre in the middle of 340 farmed acres, across the street from a small cul-de-sac of houses. The neighbors we would be meeting and picnicking with lived in this cul-de-sac of houses. We drove the car the short distance across the street, and I remember hearing Izzy groan a couple of times as we got out of the car and started unloading it, but he was good-natured about it. He had on one of his Navy T-shirts. I don’t know how many different Navy shirts that kid had, as he almost always had one on.
We carried the tables and food over to the gathering of neighbors and began helping them set up, then got out our chairs and sat down across from the host of the party and his wife. Soon after we sat down an older couple that live in the house closest to us joined the party. The older gentleman was a retired New York City police officer and was quite loquacious; a very likeable man. He was sitting closest to Izzy and noticed his shirt and asked him about his time in the Navy. Izzy, in his humble, unassuming way told him about his time in Japan, aboard the USS George Washington. More neighbors joined us and more food arrived as introductions were made and conversation ebbed and flowed. It was an enjoyable time sitting with our youngest daughter and middle son, visiting with the neighbors we were meeting for the first time, on a warm, sunny and windy Sunday afternoon, just like any other Sunday afternoon in autumn in Kansas.
We were sitting in a semi-circle facing the tables of food, with me on the end, my husband, Dan on my right, then Beth, then Izzy on her right, which gave me a very clear view of Izzy and a somewhat clear view of Beth. There’s almost nothing I enjoy more than watching my kids and grandkids living life, and that day was no exception. I was courteous and chatted with the neighbors when they directed their conversation toward me. But if the conversation lagged, my attention went to watching and listening to my son interact with the older gentleman who showed interest in my son’s Navy career, and enjoyed sharing stories of his own life.
After 20 or 30 minutes of small talk I noticed Izzy looking at his phone, which is not at all unusual. But then he jumped up out of his chair and said he had to go help his brother, Joe, fix his girlfriend’s car. That was a bit unusual. He had this funny slight grin on his face, but I didn’t think much of it; adult kids with their parents are funny sometimes. We asked him what had to be fixed on Joe’s girlfriend’s car, to which he mumbled some vague response; we questioned him further and got a ridiculous and even more vague response. So we dropped it, assuming he and Joe knew what they were doing.
Just like my memory of our walk down the hallway to the room Izzy was in at the hospital the day he died, my memory of this next moment slows to a crawl. But, unlike the memory of the first glimpse of his body in the hospital bed, the slowness is not from shock and disbelief. This is a deliberate slowing, hoping to savor every second of it again and again. He walked toward us in the way only he walked, bent over and hugged his dad, then approached me, bent over and hugged me. I’m never satisfied with one hug from my kids, and I always have a list of “do’s” for them as they head out the door. “Be careful. Drive safely. I love you. Come see us again soon. We miss you.” And, of course, the hug has to be the last thing, so I hug them, give them my list, then hug them again. With Izzy, having been without him for four years while he was in the Navy, I needed even more hugs. And, since he was the “motorcycle man”, I had more parting instructions for him than for the other ones. I remember adding to my list, “Don’t go fast and rev your motor when you leave. There are older people here and it will scare them.” He told me he wouldn’t, then hugged me again and turned to walk across the street to our house. I turned around and watched him for a second. Then, when I heard his motorcycle, tried to see him again, but couldn’t. I heard him, though, and so did those elderly neighbors. I remember seeing the eldest of them wince at the noise.
For many months after our son died, I had a hard time forgiving myself for not standing up to hug Izzy that day. We sat in our lawn chairs, let him lean down and hug us, listen to our parting words while we sat there, lean down to hug me again, say goodbye, then leave. Why didn’t we stand up and give him a proper hug? Why did we give him a casual side hug and let him walk off without us standing and turning around and watching him walk away? I know now that I hugged him casually because I had no idea it would be the last time I’d get to hug him. If I’d known what would happen the next morning I would still be hugging him today, because I would never have let him go. No parent expects to hug their child for the last time.
I often have my children text me when they get to wherever they are going so I know they arrived safely. I didn’t request that of our middle son that last day. But I did realize, later that evening, what had transpired between our son who was sitting at the block party with us that afternoon, and our oldest son. My confusion about Joe’s girlfriend needing her car fixed finally cleared in my mind. She didn’t need her car fixed. Izzy needed an excuse to get out of sitting at the block party with us. So I texted him and asked him if he’d texted his brother and had him call him to get him out of sitting there with his boring parents and their elderly neighbors. His reply was, “What? Of course not.” Ha! I loved his sense of humor, and his ingenuity. He, and all his siblings, kept me on my toes.
After that answer, I told him he’d forgotten to take some of the dessert I’d prepared for him, to which he replied that he knew. Then I said, “You also forgot not to go racing as fast as you could down our road. The oldest looking lady winced at the noise.” His response, and the last communication I had with him was, “I didn’t go fast”.
Yes. Yes, you did go fast. And, soon. Much, much sooner than I ever expected.
“At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.’” Job 1:20-21