Monday, December 20, 2010

A Sudden Death in the Family

The death notice might read “suddenly” or one knows it was by inference from the decedent’s age. The story behind the tragedy is often never told because of the enormity of the event. This is my experience of losing a loved one with absolutely no warning.

It started at approximately 2:45 p.m. on March 29, 1973, when I was summoned from break for a phone call. Almost immediately, I sensed trouble, since the voice on the other end was Allan Clapp, the plant manager at my father’s company, Mills-American Envelope Company. My father and his partner sold American Envelope Company to a small conglomerate three years before, and the combination of a recession, the merger with Mills, a move to a larger production facility and the loss of all government contracts due to the sale had hurt the business. Clapp was hired by the new owners and may or may not have been helping their efforts to break my father’s contract and hire a lower-paid bookkeeper in his place. He figured he had weathered the storm after somebody inadvertently read a letter to him from one of the executives basically stating they’d given up on that. Although my father was only 55 and in good health as far as we knew, he was still extremely stressed.

Mom and Dad at our wedding, Jan. 1973

Clapp, at times stumbling for words, told me my father had been rushed by ambulance (back then basically a Cadillac hearse) to St. Anne’s Hospital at Division Street and Cicero Avenue, not far from the offices at 4400 W. Ohio Street. I never heard of that hospital – several victims from the tragic Our Lady of the Angels fire were treated there – and, knowing he would have gone to Northwestern Memorial if possible, sensed the worst. Clapp informed me that John Weil, his partner’s son, accompanied him to the hospital and I should get there as soon as possible. He couldn’t reach my mother, who was out with friends, or my brother, who I knew was in class at the University of Chicago Law School.

I was working at a small publishing company near Touhy Avenue and the Edens Expressway in Skokie.  Cicero Avenue was a short distance to the east; I could have taken the Edens partway but simply got on Cicero at Touhy and drove approximately eight miles south through heavy traffic. The near freezing rain conditions didn’t help matters. Many things raced through my mind, mainly being what would I say to him, knowing I may have very little time. A relative who knew my father and grandfather told me both played their emotions close to the vest and I was no exception. I would have to say things that I’d always felt but never expressed.

Some 45 minutes later, I arrived at the parking lot across the street from the emergency room and sprinted across Cicero Avenue. John met me virtually at the door with a rather surprised expression.  He’d obviously seen me running. John ushered me into a small, windowless room and got right to the point. “Your father has passed away,” he said, followed I’m sure by words of consolation. He thought I’d been told of the death.  I’m glad he was there, so I wouldn’t have faced the ordeal alone.

Shortly thereafter, John handed me an envelope with my father’s personal belongings. I probably should have taken a few deep breaths, composed myself or even put it aside for the time being, but I proceeded to empty it immediately. I knew I should have waited after seeing the “oh, oh, too late” look on John’s face as the contents hit the table. It started innocently enough: some change, his wallet and glasses, which he wore virtually all of the time. The full brunt hit when his ring rolled on to the table and kept rolling until I slammed my hand down to stop it. He never took that ring off, so this symbolized the end had indeed come. It was the proverbial ton of bricks and a shocking dose of reality.

My father's confirmation ring, 1932

Dad did not wear a wedding band (I never asked why), only the ring he received after confirmation from South Shore Temple in 1932. The silver ring, which he wore on his right hand, features gold hand-cut initials and a small diamond from a stickpin given to my grandfather for service to their previous temple, South Side Hebrew Congregation. I placed it on my left little finger (it was too small to fit on my ring finger) and later had it sized. Just like him, I didn’t have a wedding band – I’d only been married two months and could have changed my mind – and to this day I’ve worn it on my left hand. Although he and I weren’t particularly religious, I appreciate the transcendent nature of this single piece of jewelry. It’s the most valuable object I own.

Obviously, nobody planned for this, in addition to other complicating factors. Janet was a day-to-day substitute in the Chicago Public Schools, hoping to get a permanent assignment in the fall. She wasn’t working that day and was home alone. Before leaving the office, I told her I was going to a hospital on the West Side and why, but not much else. My mother still hadn’t been found after I reached St. Anne’s, so I lied and said it was serious and the doctors wouldn’t know the outcome. Janet took a seven-mile cab ride through her newly adopted city, still holding out hope. My uncle (my mother’s only sibling) worked for an advertising agency in the John Hancock Building, so he was sent to wait for my mother in the lobby of her building. Arriving shortly thereafter, she thought he was there about either their father or mother. I can only imagine the shock, for she was only 49 at the time. Clapp reached my brother later in the afternoon but wouldn’t tell him directly until Frank basically told him to give it to him straight, which he finally did.

Word got out I was at the hospital alone. John’s father, Les, a friend and fraternity brother from the late 1930s, drove down from Lake Forest and took charge. By then, everybody had been notified. Turning the corner to leave, I saw another Phi Ep brother, Gus Friesem, standing at the information desk. He said, “I heard Marv died and nobody was here so I came over.” The word “fraternity” really meant something that day. John drove us to my parents’ apartment (they’d moved back to the city three years earlier) in our Chevelle. He provided a bit of needed levity, noting he’d totaled every kind of Chevrolet except this model, which he’d lost in a recent divorce.

The funeral was hastily put together the next day, a Friday, rather than waiting until Sunday. We had left our suburban temple, and a relative arranged for Rabbi Permutter of KAM Isaiah Israel to give the eulogy. Nobody else spoke. The funeral home was packed, as friends, relatives, employees and business associates came to offer their condolences. My mother said his wishes were to be cremated. Looking back I wouldn’t have done this but given the suddenness of it all, I don’t blame her. When visiting the First Roumanian Congregation cemetery at Jewish Waldheim, where my grandparents and great-grandparents (and now my cousin Jim) are buried, I feel his presence.

Two post-scripts. John Weil lost a valiant battle with colon cancer at age 57 in 2005. He and my father are forever linked from that day, and there are times I can’t think about one without the other.

The second happened 16 years later in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. As I wrote in my “Machines That Make Machines: Giddings & Lewis,” I was completing a plant tour at the company with PR Manager Lindsay Ramsak and Ralph Winter, the Dow Jones manufacturing reporter based in the Cleveland bureau, when Winter asked what was behind a particular door. “It’s just the loading dock,” Lindsay said, to which he said jokingly, “Maybe I’d like to see the loading dock.” I chimed in, “I’ve worked on loading docks.” When asked what kind of company, I replied an envelope company. Lindsay said, “My father worked at an envelope company in Chicago; which one?” Right then I sensed something strange was coming. “American Envelope Company,” I replied, to which Lindsay said, “When you talk to your father, tell him you met Alan Clapp’s daughter.” I couldn’t say anything, for we still had to finish the tour and address certain account matters. Finally, after about 30 minutes, with a sense of drama I asked her, “Do you remember your father coming home from work some time ago and saying a man had died in the office?” Lindsay was only about 7 at the time, so she vaguely remembered. I told her I never faulted him for not telling me straightaway, for as a virtual stranger he’d been placed in a very difficult situation.

After John Weil passed away, I wrote his wife that he had the dubious distinction of spending the worst hour of my life with me. The second worst was the drive from Skokie to Chicago, trying to think of what to say; neither my mother nor brother faced this dilemma. I still don’t believe in closure for such instances (subject of a very early post), so I suppose I should finally write what I would have told him. I’m going to pass on that, at least for now, because everybody knows I wear my love for my father on my sleeve . . . and on my third finger, left hand.

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