MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 76 – The Decision
Understandably, Gene had been distraught when the telegram arrived from Chuck stating that I had changed my mind about burying Billy in Griffin and my plans were to have both the funeral and burial in Atlanta. What I could not, and did not, know was that Ruth had decided Gene would have his way, regardless of how she had to achieve this, regardless what she had to do, what lies she had to tell, or whom she had to hurt.
It was Ruth’s telephone call to my aunt that began my own downward spiral, and Helen felt she had to relay the gist of the conversation to me, as soon as I awoke. Ruth declared to my aunt if I did not allow Gene to bury Billy in Griffin, then I would be responsible for Gene’s death since his heart simply could not take any more grief. Of course, I had never known Gene to have a heart condition, and in fact, I knew him as a hard working and healthy man, except for the narcolepsy, which had nothing whatsoever to do with his heart.
While my aunt talked, although I heard her words, I simply could not take it all in, so I decided that perhaps Gram or Papa could tell me if Gene was truly ill. Or, was Ruth lying in order to have the funeral and burial in Griffin. After attempting to work this news over in my own mind, I found it a non-functioning entity, so I picked up the phone and dialed Gram since surely his own parents would know if Gene had a heart condition so severe, he actually might die. Gram was kind and gentle as always as she told me if Gene did indeed have a heart condition they had not been told, and they honestly did not believe he did, rather this was a lie that Ruth made up to get her way, and they were already used to her lies. Then I asked them what they thought I should do, and of course, Gram said that whatever I did, it was my decision alone, and not to allow anyone else to make it for me, especially if I changed my plans based on a selfish woman’s tall tale. She closed our conversation by telling me to hug and kiss the children, and to take care of myself, that they needed me more than ever now.
Well, that answered one question – Gene did not have a heart condition, but I thought that perhaps Bubber and Pop could help me make the right decision since I had always counted on Pop’s wisdom. I also thought in spite of Billy’s feelings about his mother, if there was an extra grave in the Smith family plot, there might possibly be a compromise. Bubber answered the phone, and of course was both surprised and delighted to hear the children and I were safely at home. She said she could not wait to see Michael and the baby, but particularly Michael who, I guessed, would take Billy’s place in her heart. After all Michael was the closest she could get to having Billy back again, and as I was to find out, this is exactly what happened. Unfortunately, Bubber told me they only had a four grave plot and with Helen and Edwin, their son killed during WWII, buried in two of the graves, of course, the other two were reserved for Pop and for her. I then asked her what I should do, and again I was told it was my decision to make, and she too did not believe Gene had any kind of heart condition rather Ruth had used this as an excuse to get me to change to mind.
“But how can I possibly be responsible for his death,” I wailed, but to no use since no one was going to make the decision for me, but they had tried to help, and I realized that Billy’s grandparents were on ‘my side’. However, it was such a shame, at a time like this to have to choose ‘sides’.
At this point, my heart finally went into overload and my mind completely shut down. Alone in the basement I began to cry – not just cry, but also to sob uncontrollably, while I called for my mother. My aunt and uncle tired to calm me as best they could, but I could not stop as my sobs became hysteria, and finally my aunt called their doctor to come out to the house to give me something to calm me down. I was well aware I had finally lost my composure, but had no idea how to stop, I sobbed on, saying over, and over, “I just don’t know what to do.”
By the time the doctor arrived, I was completely out of control and close to unconsciousness, but soon the warming effect of the medication spread through my body and I was at once in a deep sleep. Somehow, I was aware when my mother arrived, and I was aware that someone, probably my mother sat by my bedside as my sobs continued to wrack my body even in my drug induced sleep. Unknown to me, my uncle immediately called my survivor’s assistance officer at Fort McPherson and relayed the message from Griffin, and informed him that I was now under a doctor’s care and unable to make any further decisions. With that news, the Army once again wrapped their long arms around me and took over.
The Survivor’s Assistance Officer called Griffin to let Ruth and/or Gene know I had become hysterical and was no longer able to make decisions, so as far as the Army was concerned my last would stand. The service would be at 4:00 pm on Saturday the 25th day of September, exactly one week after Billy’s death, and the burial would also, according to my last decision, take place at Arlington Memorial Park in Sandy Springs – period. He told them there was no need for further discussion with him, or with my family. I can only imagine the hatred Ruth felt for me, and the Army, but for once, even with a threat and a lie, she could not and did not get her way! Oh, I knew she would be a formidable foe, and I knew from the very first, even before they married, that someday Gene would rue the day he had ever met her, and eventually he did.
Full military honors, as I requested, would be the order of the day, and the pallbearers would be coming from Ft. Benning, again at my request. All of them had known Billy personally, either worked with or for him, including an officer who had been in his platoon at the O.C.S. school. I did not know it then, but this officer was Kris, the candidate who had saved me from scandal and at any other time, I would have been delighted to see him, just not now, not under these circumstances.
In the meantime, I remember very little, but I do think my aunt took me to the beauty parlor and I do remember the stylist donated her services, and this was the first of many kindnesses. Sometime, also that day, we went to Weinstock’s Florist on Roswell Road, not far from my aunt’s home, and while we could have perhaps found a less expensive establishment, that is where I insisted on having the special flowers made from the family.
Weinstock’s had always been one of my few favorite memories of my childhood as each Christmas they set up a display of a winter wonderland with a Santa train and other lighted decorations, and each Christmas it became a tradition to visit on Christmas Eve while visions of dolls, carriages, baby beds, and velvet dresses danced in my head. Yes, I knew the flowers had to come from Weinstocks.
I was wearing my silver Ranger charm on a chain around my neck and I asked the floral designer to design flowers in the familiar black and gold. She explained that she would have to spray or dye them black, but it was of no matter to me, I just wanted everyone who passed Billy’s grave to know he was a Ranger. I then ordered the 25th Division’s patch in gold and red since Billy had been so proud to serve in this prestigious division, and my aunt ordered flowers in the shape of the American flag. There would be no doubt his was a soldier’s grave, and Billy had been most proud to be a soldier, almost as much as he was to be a father.
The decision not to take the children to the funeral home or to the service had been mine alone, and I knew I certainly would be in no condition to take care of them, and I did not want the rest of the family to feel burdened either. Besides, they were just too young. I also did not want this to be Michael’s last memory of his father, rather I wanted him to cherish the memories of all the fun things we did as a family. I wanted him to once again sing the loud silly songs in the car, and remember the drives in the tiny convertible around the island, and of course, I wanted him to remember how his father would walk in the door, pick him up as he ran towards him, and toss him high into the air. Yes, this is what I wanted him to remember, if he remembered anything, and of course Margie’s memories would have to come from photos and stories.
Once again, just as in Hawaii, my aunt’s home rapidly filled with food and visitors, and for the day of the funeral, a kind neighbor had asked if she could cook a full Thanksgiving supper for the mourners following the burial. Friends of my aunt and uncle, my grandmother, my parents, and relatives from all over Georgia were on the way, and that did not include the hundreds of friends of the Smith and the McConnell families, Billy’s and my friends who also would be arriving in droves. There was simply no way to know how many would be coming back to the house, but Ida was going to make sure no one would go home hungry.
Still I was not able to eat, and even my new clothes began to hang on me as I lost another 10 pounds. Between the news of Billy’s death and the funeral that totaled 40 pounds, but my grandmother took a tuck here and moved a button there so I would look presentable in the outfits Mother selected for me in Hawaii.
Friday night was the formal ‘viewing’, and naturally, all of my family would be at the funeral home, but I was frightened – frightened by what I would see. After all, Billy had crashed his car into a tree head on. Would he be horribly broken and bruised? Could I reach out and touch him one last time? Would I want to crawl into the casket with him? I simply did not and could not know how drastically the sight of my beloved would affect me since the nightmares that lasted for months following Helen’s viewing, but now I was the ‘star’ and all eyes would be on me. Could I handle it with the grace and dignity of Jackie Kennedy – I certainly hoped at least I could come close, not cause another scene, and become hysterical.
After supper, we left the children at the house as intended, and my aunt, uncle, Cousin Doug and I climbed into my uncle’s LTD for the too short drive to the funeral home. My uncle drove past the Brookwood train station where my grandmother had met me when I would ride the train to visit during the summer – past the motel where on that awful day so long ago, Billy and I had destroyed our baby so that he could finish school, and for what? Now it seemed so useless. As we passed the small Memorial Park where I played as a child and where I suspected that Billy had buried our son. I wondered if, even after all this time, if I tried to find the remains and bury them with his father, what would become of me, but that momentary insane thought was completely impossible because of the promise. If I was in jail, then one of our parents might get custody of our children, so I had to let bygones be bygones, although I knew that day, the searing pain both physical and mental would haunt me the rest of my life. I also knew that I would never even entertain the thought again, I had done it for Billy and for our lives, and our marriage had worked out because of this event. I also knew that Billy would have never have asked me, or wanted me to go through the horror of that day again.
As the motel slid by the window we soon were turning down Spring Street by Peachtree Christian Church where I had gone to nursery school and kindergarten, and next door was Retail Credit where I had worked that summer following my high school graduation, and my swift exit from my parent’s house. It seemed as if it had been so long ago, another lifetime, when I would walk to work with a carefree bounce to my step since I was finely free of my parents and the nightmare of all the drinking. In actually it had only been just over 5 years since I had first begun to take care of myself, and now, once again, I would not only have to care for myself but two, no three children. I had not told any of the family that I was pregnant since I knew that it would just add to their distress. However, I thought in the letter that I had written to my mother the day before Billy’s accident that I had told her, but perhaps not, or perhaps the letter had not arrived since she had not mentioned it to me.
As we pulled in front of the handsome old building that housed the main offices, the chapel, and the viewing rooms where famous and infamous, magnate and pauper, had been on display for anyone who entered, I remembered the first time that I had ever been inside, and my traumatic meeting with the corpse in the bed. From that Sunday afternoon, I had a dreadful fear of the dead. The several times that I had been placed in the situation when I had to confront this fear, especially when Helen died, had traumatized me even further, and I did not know if I could bear seeing the one person that I loved more than anyone in the world lying in a casket, still and cold.
The funeral director met us at the door and indicated that the room where Billy as lying in state was at the top of the stairs – a large room since he knew that several families would be present, and he wanted everyone to be comfortable. He assured me though that if I were not satisfied with the upstairs room, he would be more than ready to make sure that my preferences superseded all others. . When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I found that I could not lift my legs – I was absolutely terrified by what I might see, so I asked my aunt if she would go up first and come back down to tell me if I should look at my beloved Billy. While my uncle and the funeral director stayed by my side, my aunt slowly went up the steps, and within a few minutes she was on her way back down. Her eyes were red and tears were running down her face as she reached the bottom of the stairs, and I asked her “Should I look at him? Does he look O.K.? Is he all bruised and cut?”
My aunt took my hand and said, “I cannot tell you what to do. You have to make this decision yourself, because if I tell you not to look, then in the years to come, you might regret the decision and blame it on me. But I can tell you that he is not cut or bruised, but he does not look like Billy because that spark of life that was so obvious in him is gone – he is gone – this is just his shell left, so you need to decide yourself what you want to do.”
With my uncle holding onto my arm, and with my other hand on the rich mahogany stair railing, I slowly made my way up the thickly carpeted stairs. I do not think that I took a breath from the moment that I walked into the room and saw the gray steel casket standing at the far end of the room, the American flag draped over the lower half. Russ, in full uniform, was standing beside it. The room was filled with family, Smith, McConnell, Stark, Stanfield, and other more distance relatives. There was a host of friends from Atlanta and Griffin, most of whom I would not have known anyway.
Despite all the people gathered there, I only saw the casket as I slowly approached with my uncle still firmly holding onto my arm, ready to catch me if I should faint. The murmur in the room had ceased from the moment I entered, and I knew that all eyes were on me, the young widow. I had taken my medications before leaving the house, and that perhaps was the very best thing that I could have done, because to this day I do not remember what I saw in that cold gray coffin. I do remember that there was a pane of glass over the top half of the casket so that the remains could not be touched, and probably because Billy had been dead almost a week. All I remember was that my aunt was right – this was not my Billy, and with that thought alone, I said to my uncle and the funeral director who had discreetly followed us upstairs, “That’s not my Billy! Close it and don’t ever open it again!” Instantly my request honored, Russ and the funeral director softly closed the lid then straightened the American flag so that it would cover the length of the steel gray box.
Now I honored the second request that Billy had asked of me when his mother died, the first being an autopsy, and now strangers would no longer be able to gawk at my handsome soldier, just as he had not wanted mere acquaintances gawking at his mother. I could do nothing more for him except be the best mother possible for our children, and to keep his memory alive for them so that they would know about the kind and loving man who was their father. I doubted if either would remember him at all, although perhaps Michael might remember some things, like the silly songs and flights into the air, but his cherished daughter would never know the wonderful man who loved us all more than life itself.
As soon as the coffin was closed, the family reunions resumed while everyone who had not seen others in the family since the last funeral or the last wedding, caught up with all that had occurred since their last meeting. As the evening went on and I stood in the corner by the casket with Russ at my side, one by one people I had never met or never known respectfully approached me with an introduction and a kind word about my darling Billy.
I thought to myself, “these people could not possibly know him like I do, and they could not possibly have cared as much as I do, and why don’t they just say ‘I’m sorry’ and go away”.
The noise in the room began to take on carnival aspect, as if by closing the lid to the coffin, one did not have to be quiet or respectful any longer. Eventually, highly perturbed, I turned to my uncle and said, “The only think lacking here is someone selling popcorn and peanuts.” Smiling at me, he kindly explained that a funeral was the time to catch up for most families, as if I had not guessed this already. I told him that out of respect for Billy, and for me that they should carry their reunions out into the hall and allow those of us who came here to grieve the atmosphere relative to our feelings. Slowly my uncle circulated throughout the room and kindly asked those who wanted to visit to please step outside in the foyer while those who wished to be alone with their thoughts or to speak softly, could remain in the room. I knew that everyone was quite aware that my uncle was speaking for me, and with some glares, and some looks of relief, the two groups of mourners split up and the room fell almost silent except for the occasional sob, although none were mine. By now, I had completely removed myself from the scene and no longer felt possessed of my body. This simply could not be me standing here in this room surrounded by all those who loved me, and this could not possibly be Billy stuck in that gray box, lifeless and silent. Things like this happened to other people, but never to me, never to Billy – we were too much in love to have to part in this despicable manner, and from that moment on, life became a series of chores I had to do, nice words I had to say, children to love, but all on automatic pilot.
I was no more alive than the remains in that box. I could not feel, I could not talk, I could not hate, I could not smile, I could not cry, but most of all I could not love. Surely, if I ever found love again, which was highly unlikely, I would be too afraid to love for fear that if I did allow myself this pleasure, I would lose it too. For now, I simply would feel nothing – absolutely nothing as the hard headed little girl inside of this young woman who had loved with all of her heart decided that above all I would never allow anyone, not anyone, to get close to me again. I had loved more than life itself, so what kind of emotion could possibly top that? None, I thought as I knew that my Billy would never die, at least not until my own heart ceased beating.
Finally as the crowd began to disperse since the time for the viewing hours were coming to an end, and the funeral director called my uncle aside where I could see them talking seriously about some matter. Finally they both approached me to tell me that some of the family was not happy with my decision to close the casket and to never open it again, although it was my decision to make. As kindly as possible, he asked if perhaps, they could open it upon request, and for a few moments before the service, so that those family members who wished could bid a final farewell. As I told the funeral director about the promises that I had made to my handsome husband after his own mother’s funeral, in an understanding way, he agreed that Billy’s wishes were most important, but what harm would it do if it were open for just a short time before the service.
“Because I want to be with him, alone,” I said, “and I do not want the casket open because that is not the last memory that I want to take with me for the rest of my life. I want to remember his laugh, his smile, and his beautiful blue eyes. I want to remember how it felt when he held in his arms, how he could comfort me when no one else could, and how he could calm my temper by making me laugh. I want to remember his kisses, the way he held me when we danced, and the look on his face when each of his children were born. These are the memories that I want, not one of him lying stone cold and stiff in his coffin.”
Unable to argue with me, with tears in his eyes, the director assured me that after everyone who wished to see him one last time had this opportunity, the room would be cleared, the casket closed for the very last time and I could go inside and be alone with him immediately before the service. Realizing that this was perhaps the kindest and the most workable plan, I reluctantly agreed as long as the casket would remain closed until right before the funeral. Since the funeral was the next afternoon, the director realized that I was giving in all I would or could, and he accepted my decision. After all, he truly had no option – it was my call, and I made it just as I knew Billy would want me to. Anyone else who came to gawk and stare could just think that perhaps he had been too banged up for viewing, but as long as his wish was honored, I did not care what anyone else thought – after all, I could not feel anything at all myself.
All I wanted to do was to go to my aunt’s home, crawl between the covers and sleep for the rest of my life, for in sleep I could imagine myself in Billy’s arms where I could be happy again. It never occurred to me then that for the rest of my life, I could and would fall asleep in his arms, and the last thought after a long day would always be of my precious Billy. I would not remember the Billy, stiff and dead in the steel gray casket, but the Billy who held me in his arms, made love to me in the moonlight, and most of all who loved me more than life itself.