The Day I Became an Orphan

September 6th, 1974.

It was a day like any other (if you call a day that began waking up in your neighbor’s house knowing your mother has six months to live like any other).

I was a week shy of my 17th birthday.

Mom had been in the hospital for several weeks now with what started out as a simple touch of this, which advanced to a stubborn case of that, and turned into an incurable form of the other thing with an unforgiving timeline.

I would say that I was in shock. But that would have taken far more introspection than this self-absorbed adolescent about to start his senior year in high school was ready to call upon. To be sure, I knew it was serious. And even though I wasn’t imagining a story line where, against all odds, she would pull through, I couldn’t quite imagine that there were only a few chapters remaining.

At the time, the biggest thing in my life was deciding between two fall sports. Should I close out a three-year career on the varsity soccer team in order to finally make it into the starting lineup? Or should I chuck it all and take a run at cross-country and join a team — and a coach — that offered me a sense of belonging forged in long runs, shared misery, and accomplishment.

Everything was leading up to “The Decision” (I was way ahead of LeBron) — and telling mom.

With my parents divorced, Big Brother One working in Syracuse, and Big Brother Two starting his second year at Lafayette, I was living at my neighbor’s house. No big deal as I practically lived there anyway. Plus, they always had more junk food than mom ever allowed.

School had just started. I was sitting in my first period class when the sound of my name over the PA broke through my deep thoughts on the meaning of life and the genius of halter tops.

“Will Dexter Braff please report to the Principal’s office.”

Yes! A get out of class free card.

On my way to the office, I saw one of my best friends standing in the hallway. Apparently, after he heard the announcement, he got up and left class hoping he’d intercept me.

My first thought was, “Hey man. And why aren’t you in class?”

I gave him a smile.

He returned a look of concern.

And then it hit me.

Mom?

Can’t be. We had gotten her six-month prognosis maybe a week ago.

But still.

I never get called to the office.

A queasiness began to work its way up suddenly wobbly legs toward my stomach.

I reach the office and the secretary immediately directs me to the principal.

The first person I saw was my neighbor’s dad. And with unmistakable reddened eyes, if any words were even said, they weren’t necessary.

One minute I’m nearing a final decision to run cross-country.

The next minute, mom was gone.

The unexpected, tearful, reality of it all crashed through any protective facade I may have built over the summer. After I gain some sort of composure, I ghost walk to my neighbor’s van for ride home.

I’m Jewish. And if there’s anything Jews are really, really, good at, it’s mobilizing ground forces after a loved one passes.

In what seemed like minutes after I returned to the house that I hadn’t lived in since mom entered the hospital, relatives and friends began to descend upon Anchor Drive in waves. Classmates cut school. And true to form, so did many from the cross-country team.

It wasn’t long before Big Brother One, who had gotten the news before me, made his way home.

I called my dad to let him know that mom had died. Bearing the remnants of love turned to anger and now perhaps the duo of regret and guilt, I can’t even imagine what was going through his mind. He calmly (perhaps numbly) asked about my brothers and mentioned something about living with him in another town — something I was completely unprepared to do.

Good thing all the people and emotions churning about crowded out this worry — a worry that we would soon learn would be for naught.

All that was missing was Big Brother Two. The family decided that given a long bus ride alone from Easton, PA to North Bellmore, NY, it would be best to tell Number Two that mom had taken a turn for the worse, and he should come home.

Despite all entreaties to come home first, Number Two insisted on going straight to mom’s hospital room.

So, we did what we had to do.

We sent an advance team of Number One, Number Three (me), and several other close relatives to guard each entrance to Oceanside Hospital to catch Number Two before he could see a bed that now laid empty.

Fortunately, we got him. Only to deliver the most terrible news to the son that was most like the yin to our mom’s yang.

Alas, the three boys were together.

By late afternoon, with funeral arrangements in hand, the last of our friends and relatives had left the house. The three brothers were settling in for the night, when Big Brother One got a call.

Then there were the screams.

Panic enveloped me like a blanket, but I was able to cry out a “What’s the matter? What’s the matter?”

“Dad died”

“Wha, wha, what?”

“That was Aunt S. Dad died this afternoon. He had a heart attack.”

Though to this day I can’t be sure, I think I laughed.

I was out of tears, and the absurdity of it all was, well, absurd.

The call went out to one of our relatives and many made their way back to the house for the worst sequel ever.

The next week was a blur.

Shuttling back and forth to funerals, religious ceremonies, and family.

With the help of running 10–15 miles a day on punishing hills, I logged just enough exhaustion to dull the senses and convince myself that I was OK. It was many months before the inevitable break down began to break through.

But that decision to run cross country?

Turned out to be a good call.

And although I’m not reverent enough to believe that our loved-ones-lost watch over us, for this I made an exception.

Mom knew.

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