The phone rang. It was around 9:30 at night. I was preparing to go to bed as usual as I am an early-to-rise and early-to-bed person. It’s a habit or rather a routine. I wasn’t expecting a call from anyone at that time. At my age phone calls are rare. I do not call anyone much either. I suppose as we age some of us socialize less. I am ok with that.
I pick up the phone. It was Vick on the other end. I definitely wasn’t expecting a call from him. After the initial hi and hello he gave me the news. Ann, Vick’s mom, passed away three days earlier.
I had known Ann for almost five decades although I did not see her much. Her husband Richard Thunberg was my advisor at the university. He was also my boss as he had offered me my first job when I was a graduate student. I needed that badly as I was barely making a living. On top of that, I had just gotten married to a woman from my hometown I had left behind in a faraway place and brought her to this land. I was impressed by Dr. Thunberg’s vibrant energy. He was relatively a big person in his early fifties, with a well-trimmed greyish beard. He was friendly and jovial and loved to talk. He walked so briskly that it was difficult for me to keep up with him. He was extremely enthusiastic about the project I was working on. It was an offshore project under a three-year contract. It is through him that I got to know Ann.
She was a strong, independent, and beautiful woman running the day-to-day operation of the office. They had two boys – Vick and Rick, both in high school at the time. Vick was the older one. So I got to know them as well. Vick was working at his dad’s company on the same project during the summer months and worked with me closely. We used to travel offshore often – occasionally with Vick. Most of the time Dr. Thunberg would come to our place in the wee hours of the morning, pick me up, and we would drive to a helicopter hub at a place near the intracoastal water in south Louisiana. We would get on a helicopter and fly off to one of three platforms where the project was being deployed.
It was in the early part of the second year of the project. Thunberg and I headed east as usual. After a few miles, he asked me to drive so he could take a nap in the back. I got behind the steering wheel and adjusted the seat and mirrors. It was a large vehicle, more like a van, compared to our small beat-up sedan. I was not used to driving such a large vehicle and I drove carefully. It was still dark, drizzling slightly with occasional spots of thick fog. After about an hour for some reason, the car began veering off the road to the right. Perhaps one of the tires was straddling the edge of the road. Suddenly the car skidded, started spinning around, rolled, and ended up in the other lane, on the westbound side of the highway. We hit something, and I was thrown out on the grass onto the median strip. I got up and screamed for help. A pickup truck stopped. A man jumped out and grabbed hold of me. He tried to calm me down. I kept calling, “Dr. Thunberg! Dr. Thunberg!” Another person from the pickup truck said, “He’s okay. He’s fine.” They took me to a nearby hospital in a rural small town where they must have sedated me with a shot and I went to sleep.
My wife was in the room when I woke up. Ann came to see me with their sons, Vick and Rick. I had no idea who had given them the news and how they got there. I was told that Dr. Thunberg was thrown out of the back of the car onto the concrete highway. He died instantly. The men who helped me out on the road had lied. Dr. Thunberg was gone forever. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was on the verge of a total breakdown. America, job, education, family—nothing mattered to me. I wanted to run away from life. But like the Old man River somehow life continued on.
I did not want to go back to work. I badly needed a break. Ann said to me, “We need you now more than ever. You are like a big brother to Vick and Rick.” She was consoling me instead of being consoled because of the death of her husband. She also explained that the company had a contractual obligation for another year and a half, after which she would try to sell the company. She wanted me to stay on as the technical manager since I was the only one who was knowledgeable about the entire project. She would continue to function as the administrative manager. I admired Ann for her strength and courage. I agreed to stay on. We brought things back to normal, as best as we could.
Towards the end of the contract period, I left the company. Ann managed to sell the company. So, in a way, I felt like I had severed myself from that ghastly episode although the incident remained etched forever in my brain. One day, years later, as I was mowing the yard, a pick-up truck drove up our driveway and out came Ann. It was a total surprise. She had remarried several years later to a family friend who was a retired professor. By then we had two children – one in an elementary school very close to our home, the other in a nearby middle school. Apparently, Rick got married and was living in Germany. Vick was single. She pulled out a stack of paper cuttings. “You know, I see you mowing the yard. I also keep up with your children and their accomplishments published in the community newspaper. I have been meaning to bring these to you”. So, Ann was in our neighborhood only a block away. We were reconnected. We visited her from time to time.
In time our children left home for college, found the love of their life, got married and had children. We became grandparents. We moved to a different subdivision several miles away. Our visits to see Ann were infrequent. Time takes its toll on all. Ann’s second husband passed away, but Ann stayed on in the same house. Vick moved in to take care of his mom. Arthritis got hold of her. The fingers curled up. Wrinkles showed up. The beautiful Ann was an old woman. Vick took her everywhere – to the doctor,dentist, and hairdresser. But her mind was alert and memory never faded. When we met she talked about how I had brought my wife to a strange land, as young as she was how she had cooked for Ann and Richard as I had invited them for dinner in our humble apartment and so on. She would show me some old pictures of Richard and others (including me). Finally, Ann was wheelchair-bound. She sat there and read books under the upright floor lamp. There was a side table where her reading glasses and medicines rested. After my retirement, when I ran for the local school board, I was surprised to see her at the polling location. Vick drove her there. I said to her –“Ann, you did not need to come”. “I wanted to” was her answer. Pushing the walker with wheels she went in and voted for me. That’s how much she loved me and thought of me. I lost the election. I truly wanted to do something for the children in poorer schools in the district as they were falling behind badly, especially those from poor neighborhoods, mostly black and Hispanic students. But I had no name recognition and knew nothing about partisan politics. No, it wasn’t all about children’s education. I came second out of five candidates. But as our older daughter always said, coming second is the first loser.
I knew Ann’s time was nearing, but did not know how soon. I am sure I am getting closer to the finish line too. So, when I got the call from Vick I was in shock. We talked for a long time. I could sense he was depressed, as if his purpose of being was gone. Taking care of his mom was all he knew. Slowly he gave me the details for the funeral –viewing/memorial, graveside ceremony, etc. I asked him where I could send some flowers. He said that instead of flowers, mom would appreciate it if you would contribute that money to her favorite animal society and gave me the name. That was our Ann. Slowly Vick said, “Lowe you are like an older brother to me that I never had. It will be an honor if you would be a pallbearer.” My eyes teared up. I said, “It would be an honor”.
I went for the memorial ceremony and passed by the coffin. The mortician did a great job. Ann was sleeping in peace. Her hair was as white as it could be. But the face told a story of a beautiful woman of yester era. I met Vick and Rick with his wife. Vick’s hair too was completely grey. They were seated at the front. Verses from the Bible were recited talking about life, death, and resurrection. At the end of the ceremony along with five others I as a pallbearer loaded the coffin into the hearse. Her grave site was next to her first love and husband Richard Thunberg. As the coffin was lowered, one by one, we dropped a long stem rose on the coffin as a final show of respect and a final goodbye.
In my pocket there was a small printed card that I had picked from the funeral home. I pulled out the card printed in her loving memory. It said, “I shall pass through this world but once. If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do, let me do it now: let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” – Etienne de Grellet