“When Jesus wept,
the falling tear in mercy flowed beyond all bound;
when Jesus groaned, a trembling fear seized all the guilty world around.”
-18th century canon by William Billings
Life used to be so simple. Every season had its wonders, and we were never left without hope for something happier to come along. In spring we waited for school to end so we could have summer. In summer we swam and had picnics and didn’t care about anything at all. When the leaves began crisping and turning gold and orange and brown, we played in them and begrudgingly went back to school, waiting for Halloween, so we could pretend to be super-heroes and get lots of candy. When the season changed again, we played in the snow and prayed for school cancellations.
The cycle continued that way until I was ten. I began to realize things, things that didn’t fit into my carefree world. People leave, and although some aren’t gone forever, some of them don’t come back. And it is true, you never know how much you love someone until they’re gone.
Rosemary Elder Hoffman died in a car crash on December 21, 1992. The convertible went under a Mac truck, whose driver was asleep at the wheel. She died instantaneously. Her husband, Dr. Ellis Hoffman, suffered from a fractured skull and severe brain damage, and was taken immediately to the hospital.
My parents were at a party in Pittsburgh when the police came to find them. They were given a police escort to the hospital, where they were told of Rosemary’s death and Ellis’ condition.
I’m not sure how long they waited to tell me, but I do know that at first, I didn’t believe it. People don’t die when you’re that young, you just don’t have the mental capacity to handle the idea. This was my first real reality shock – The people I love will not be here forever, and nothing can change that.
It felt like a dream. It seemed it was just yesterday that my brother was born, and I spent the night at Ellis and Rosemary’s house, barely sleeping in anticipation of a new family member. We had spent a few weeks of every summer in their cottages on Conneaut Lake and Lake Chautauqua. They had always been there for my parents, my brother and me, and suddenly one of them was gone.
I visited the cemetery every day. I talked to Rosemary as though she could still hear me, hoping that she could. I wanted her to know how I was turning out as a person, since she would never get to know. I was naïve and sad, but I believed that she was still there for me, watching me from amongst the quiet underground world of the dead.
Ellis spent five months in a rehabilitation center, where he regained his memory and motor skills. When he first arrived, when asked who he was, he announced that he was the head doctor, there to fix all the patients. Eventually he grew stronger and continued to live his life, obviously grateful for the reprieve from death he had been granted. He remarried a few years later, and always seemed to be one of the most jovial men alive, despite the horror he had been through.
Eventually the pain became less and less. I visited Rosemary's grave every week, then every month, until I left for college and could only visit on vacations. I hadn’t visited for almost a year when I received the worst shock of my life, greater even than her death.
Dr. Ellis Hoffman, who had for all of my life been like an uncle or a second father, died of cancer on July 25, 2002, 10 years after Rosemary’s death.
My mother told me he was sick two weeks before he died. She did not, however, tell me how sick. I wanted to see him. My mother asked me several times if I was sure, and I bravely said yes each time.
Sometimes I wish I hadn’t.
He was strapped to a hospital bed, asleep, his eyes sunken into his head, wide open. His mouth gaped and hung crooked like a mummy’s. His skin was a pale yellow and looked as thin as parchment. His bed had been moved into the living room, because he had been waking up at night and falling down the steps. Every breath he took seemed to use every part of his body, his lungs making a railing noise as his body struggled to finish the breath without shattering. I don’t think I breathed for a whole minute.
My mother and Leanna, whom he married a few years after Rosemary’s death, a wonderful, strong woman, saw my horror, and started talking to me to ease the shock and take my mind from the man I once knew who now lay broken in the middle of the room. I talked amiably, but could not stop my eyes from wandering to look at him, then at the picture of him taken a few years before, back to him, into my lap, avoiding looking anyone in the eyes.
That image haunted me for days. I couldn’t sleep at night. Every time I closed my eyes I saw the mummy Ellis, arms clinging to the bed, eyes staring straight ahead but seeing nothing, mouth wide open swallowing air, and me.
He died a week later. I was eating a piece of bread when my mother called.
“He’s gone,” she said. I could barely hear her.
“What? How is he?” I think I was in disbelief.
“He’s gone, Rachel. He died.”
“When?” I grabbed the back of a chair for support.
“About half an hour ago. You said you wanted to know when it happened, so I called.”
I nodded, but she couldn’t see that. I didn’t know what else to say. I told her I’d go to the house to give my regards. I looked at the piece of fluffy bread crumbled in my hand. I knew my face was as white as the bread. I couldn’t even think of finishing it, although I hadn’t eaten all day. I threw it out, disgusted at myself for doing something so mundane when Ellis was dead.
I arrived just as the people from the funeral home did, in time for me to see him, dead, his lifeless body exactly as it had been the week before, only his skin was no longer yellow, but the color of storm clouds, ashen and frightening. I tried not to look but was morbidly compelled to anyway. I could barely stand to be there. I was still in shock. Everyone around me was tearful, sad, but already moving on. I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t think. I was horrified. I felt as though part of me was dead, too. The part that knew how to be strong. Ten years had passed and I had just barely begun to cope with the fact that Rosemary was dead, and now Ellis was dead, too.
I broke the next night, when, for the first time in 19 years, I saw my father cry. He read his eulogy to my mother and me, his voice breaking every third sentence, a sound I will never forget for as long as I live. My father had always been the strongest man in my life, as invincible as Superman. But now I saw that he, too, was vulnerable, fragile, and I knew I would never be able to see him the same way ever again.
I visited Rosemary alone one last time, after the funeral, before they put Ellis’ body in the grave beside her. It hurt to look at the contraption towering over the graves, blasphemizing the only place I had ever considered to be holy.
As we left the cemetery, I remembered playing there as a child, riding our bikes around the headstones, trying our best to scare one another. We didn’t know what life was like then; we were innocent, ignorant, happy. I looked once more at Ellis’ new home, the freshly dug earth next to Rosemary, and finally began to weep.
I knew then that I could never go back.