A Shattering Silence

Closed sign

On that warm, sunny seventh day of August 1949, everything seemed the same outside the house.  The paved path from the sidewalk still curved gently uphill in a right-leaning arc, flanked on either side by a row of colorful rose bushes. At 10, four and eight years of age, respectively, Judy, Dave and I, along with visiting cousin, Ginger, who was my age, bounded up the five brick steps to our front porch and dashed towards the front door, returning from an outing to a nearby park.  Mom might have been carrying one-year-old Cathy as we all made our way towards the front door. Dad had not been with us that day.  He had announced that morning that he wasn’t feeling good; he was very tired.  “Why don’t you take the kids to the park without me,” he had suggested to Mom.  “I’ll stay home and rest.”

Although nothing appeared unchanged to me outside the house, subtle changes were apparent, once we were inside.  As our eyes adjusted from the bright, outdoor sunlight to the more muted light inside the house, the master bedroom seemed particularly dark and quiet as we all entered the room.  We children were ready to pounce on our Dad, eager to relate the adventures of the day.  We ran into the bedroom, but instead of embracing us, bouncing us about on the bed, and peppering us with questions about our day at the park as we had expected, he lay all too still.

Everything moved into fast-forward mode after we saw Dad’s inert body lying on the bed; he did not respond to our voices or touch.  Mom might have shrieked or cried; I’m not sure.  I remember only that she urgently instructed Judy and me to run up one block to summon her good friend, Gretchen.  Within mere minutes of our return, our house began to fill with people. Firemen, friends, and neighbors arrived — the firemen noisily dragging their resuscitation equipment; the others speaking solicitously in whispers.

We children were ready to pounce on our Dad, eager to relate the adventures of the day.  

Adults congregated around my siblings, cousin, and me in the living room, trying to shield us from the traumatic events that were unfolding in the bedroom, just a few yards across the hall.  I sat numbly on the couch, staring vacantly out of one of the two tall, east-facing windows.  Everything looked blurry and off-kilter, as my eyes scanned the large fire truck idling on the street in front of our house, with its flashing red lights filtering through our Hawthorn trees. Fifteen or twenty minutes might have gone by. People were talking to me, trying to comfort me; I was only vaguely aware of their words.  The firemen left the house and drove away.  Our father had died, we were told; he had suffered a massive heart attack at the age of 46.

Did we eat dinner that night?  Was my father’s body removed from the house sometime between the departure of the firemen and the time I went to bed?  I remember nothing of events between the time I learned that my father had died and later, when I lay in my bed, desolate and crying, trying to make sense out of a world that was so suddenly and unexpectedly devoid of my father.

For many weeks afterwards, Dave asked when Daddy was coming back home, while Cathy continued to run through the house, looking for her Daddy in all the usual spots where he had hidden when playing “Hide and Seek” with her.  Judy and I realized the finality of our loss.  Life had gone out of the vibrant, loving, extroverted man we had known as our father for such a brief time.  He was gone.  He would never be coming back to us and our lives were to be changed forever.

As I lay in my bed that first night after my father’s death, memories flooded back — scenes of times I would never again share with him.  Every recollection I have of my father includes images of a man who loved life and the people in his life, whether intimate family members, friends, or acquaintances.  He was a highly intelligent, warm, caring, fun-loving individual around whom others revolved; people naturally gravitated to him.

He had owned a real estate office on one of the two main business streets in our home town.  Situated about 18 miles south of San Francisco, Burlingame was home to about 24,000 residents at the time.  One afternoon, when I was about five years old, Dad had taken me to his office, Rogers Realty.  He had promised to buy a new pair of shoes for me at a store about five blocks up the street.  I held his hand as we started out on our quest .  Within minutes, I thought: “ Daddy must know almost everyone in this town!”  We would walk a few steps, then stop as our path intersected with that of someone my father knew.  To each, Dad gave his complete attention, conversing animatedly, inquiring about their family or work.  I hopped from one foot to the other, fidgeting and feeling impatient.  “What about me and my new shoes?” I wondered silently.  About two hours later (or, did it just seem that long to a child my age?), we arrived at the shoe store, only to be greeted by the “Closed” sign in the window.  I was disappointed, but don’t remember being terribly upset with my father.  Although our trip had been interrupted numerous times by people I didn’t know, and the shoe purchase had to be delayed, that day was still special to me.  On that afternoon, I did not have to share my father with a sibling; it was just the two of us, walking hand in hand.

“ Daddy must know almost everyone in this town!”  We would walk a few steps, then stop as our path intersected with that of someone my father knew.  To each, Dad gave his complete attention, conversing animatedly, inquiring about their family or work.

How I missed my father’s piano playing!  Although he had never been taught to sight-read music, he had the ability to play “by ear,” accurately fingering the chords to any piece he had heard.  I could listen for hours, whether sitting beside him on the piano bench, or peeking through the bannister railing from the upstairs hallway to watch and listen as he and my mother entertained their many friends.  Their guests often gathered around the piano to accompany Dad in song.  Our house had been filled with music, laughter, lively conversation.  

As that summer in 1949 waned, music and laughter were replaced by a more somber mood.  The house seemed all too quiet, and sometimes I felt alone and afraid. Trapped in a maze of shock, grief, and fear, my 35-year-old widowed mother was no longer able to be a stay-at-home parent. She had to find babysitters, learn to drive, and find work outside the house to support herself and her four young children. When she was home, she was sad and distracted. We had all lost our equilibrium and missed our father terribly. What a sad irony it was that my father, who had almost always been surrounded by family and friends, died alone in an empty house.

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4 thoughts on “A Shattering Silence”

  1. Elizabeth Coplan

    Helen writes of the loss of her father at such a young age with such elegance and simplicity that the imagery of that horrible day is hard to shake. My heart goes out to the little girl of so very long ago. Well-done Helen.

    1. Helen Haladyna

      Thank you so much, Elizabeth, for your encouraging words, and for giving me a platform for my story.

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