By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 10/21/2017
Occurred: 11/11/1958
Topics/Keywords: #Autobiography #WalterS.Cilwa
Milestone: #Death
Page Views: 673
At 7 years old, I experienced my second death-in-the-family.

As the days grew shorter and colder, Dad stayed home more. He wasn't feeling well. I was unaware of details and didn't know how long this had been going on. One day I asked how come he wasn't going to work.

"I quit," he said.

"Did you tell them?" I asked.

"They'll figure it out," he said.

We did return to New Jersey to spend Thanksgiving with Mom's father and her stepmother, Grampa and Gramma to us kids. Dad drove, but spent most of the visit sleeping. I developed (what I now know was) a migraine and also had to lie down during the dinner. Afterwards, Gramma gave me my first black olive ever. It seemed to settle my stomach, so she gave me another, and another. Within ten minutes the headache was completely gone and I was able to enjoy the meal that she had saved for me.

Mom had to drive back to Vermont. Dad stayed in bed upstairs. Mom instructed me not to "let" him go downstairs, because he couldn't keep his balance. I stood guard, and sure enough, he staggered into the hallway, wearing only a T-shirt, announcing he had to go to the bathroom. I told him I wasn't allowed to let him go. He swept me aside and promptly fell down the stairs.

So I thought it was my fault when my half-brother, Walter Joseph, came to take him to the hospital. Walter Joseph drove a station wagon and I was fascinated by the way a mattress could fit perfectly into the back of it, making a traveling bed. Walter had driven up with Tommy and the two of them carried the mattress with Dad on it, sliding it right into the vehicle.

I never saw him again.

My grandparents had arrived, and Mom went with Walter Joseph and Tommy to the hospital. I didn't know it then, but the hospital was in New Jersey. Gramma and Grampa explained that we were going to stay with them for awhile.

We kids weren't privy to the logistics that must have gone on behind our backs. Someone came to take the goat and calves for the winter; a friend in nearby Granby took Sniffy and Rover and someone else bought the ducks. It seemed to us like coincidence that Walter Joseph and Tommy had shown up at the same time as our grandparents.

It was some days later that Gramma solemnly brought us into her kitchen while Grampa stood soberly behind her. Their kitchen table was set against a wall and had just two chairs. Joan and Louise sat on one while I sat on the other.

"Do you remember Baby Dorothy?" she began, her voice breaking. Dorothy was our littlest sister who had died of SIDS a couple of years before. We nodded.

"Well, you know she's in Heaven, and she's happy there even though we can't see her. Well, your Daddy has had to go to Heaven, too."

Tears were pouring down her face, and Grampa looked as if he might cry, too; but the girls and I just sat solemnly. We really didn't understand what was happening.

"I know you don't know what a brain tumor is," she continued, probably under pressure to not just stand there. "But your Daddy had one. And the doctors tried to take it out, but it was too late and he died on the operating table."

By now the girls were crying, and Gramma hugged them, and then she hugged me. I felt so sorry for her. I knew it was my fault. If I hadn't let my Dad go down the stairs when he wasn't supposed to, I thought, he wouldn't have gotten this brain tumor and died.

When Grampa hugged me, he said, "You're the man of the family now. You'll have to take care of your mother and sisters."

It seemed only fair, since I had killed my father.

When Mom was dying in 2003, she confessed that she thought she had caused the brain tumor, by making Dad move to Vermont and commute back and forth to New Jersey. Louise, who is now a nurse, tried to explain that brain tumors don't just show up like that; they take years to grow and he might well have had it in incipient form, before he and Mom even got married. Mom had carried her guilt around for all those decades.

I was luckier. By fifth grade I had researched what a brain tumor was and learned you couldn't get one from a fall. It was another thirty years, though, before I realized I should never have been put in the position of being responsible for a grown man when I was seven, much less told that it was my job to be the adult.

And yet, and yet—the ensuing years, in which I did take seriously my position of "man of the family" had led directly to my being the man I am today. And I'm far from perfect, but I do like the man I am. So I have worked past the resentment, and come to understand that everyone—Mom, Dad, Gramma, Grampa—was simply doing the best they could with the information they had and the situations they had to deal with.

And when you do your best, there should be no guilt, and can be no blame.