“Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever.” – Tom Stopppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
More than fifty years ago, two grandparents died on the same day. It was the last day of summer, and the first time anyone close to me had died.
A dragon lives forever but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.
One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more
And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar. – Leonard Lipton / Peter Yarrow
I remember those first thoughts about dying. It was the spring of 1963 and I was nine years old. Grandma and Grandpa Morris lived in a large, white, country home west of Enumclaw on McHugh Street. The radio played in the background. The number one song was “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul & Mary. It’s a children’s song wrapped in fabled lyrics released during the height of the folk era. I’d heard it before, but never fully absorbed this line: “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.” My tenth birthday would be in a month or so.
Grandma (Nina Marie Morris) was in the early stages of dementia which even a boy could recognize. She was easily confused. One day, Billy Hawthorne (the son of Grandma’s part-time caregiver) and I played a cruel trick on her by hiding in the closet. We watched her search for us in vain. After frantic calls we reappeared, only to see a vacant look of despair on her bewildered face. Mom explained she had hardening of the arteries, causing blood to flow slowly to her brain, meaning she couldn’t think as clearly as before. She was ill and wouldn’t get better. I felt bad about our trick.
The song ended but a feeling lingered – I wouldn’t be a little boy much longer. Just like Jackie Paper, my imaginary dragons and toy soldiers would soon be gone. Those wistful feelings of melancholy floated in the wind like the down of a dandelion.
One evening that summer, I lay in bed. It was a Friday or Saturday night. Next to my bed was a cheap AM radio. Late at night, I spun the dial picking up a distant station in Salt Lake City and listened to the final innings of a baseball game. It ended and the nightly news was read – “At 12:01 a.m., a convicted murderer on death row will be executed by firing squad. Growing tired I turned off the radio and saw a blindfolded prisoner led to a brick courtyard. The moment passed but the memory remained – a boy, the radio, a distant broadcast, the bleakness of death.
In the 14th year of my life, the grim reaper appeared. It was 1967. Music defined my world and I delighted in its sounds. Newspapers called it the “summer of love.” For me it was a summer of friends, family, fun . . . and Sgt. Pepper. Each morning brought new sounds and adventures. The sun shone day after rainless day, for so long it set a record – 67 days without rain. The bluest skies you’d ever seen were in Seattle.
That September, I entered the final year of junior high as a 9th grader. Three weeks later that cozy world was disquieted by the death of two grandparents: Grandma Morris and Papa Kombol. On the same day, my father lost his father, and my mother lost her mother. In a way, this double death was a tonic for both parents. They told us kids of feeling like orphans, leaning on each other – weathering funerals and wakes, one after the other. September 21st was the last day of summer . . . and the autumn of my youth.
Both grandparents were elderly: 82 and 77, yet important fixtures in life. Papa (Tony Kombol) babysat me when I was four and five. Mom dropped me off at their home near Elk Coal where I’d follow Papa doing chores, fixing lunch, then put me down for a nap. Legally blind from a 1925 coal mining accident, he stayed home while Grandma Lulu taught school in nearby Selleck. Needing to be near Enumclaw’s medical facilities, Papa stayed at our home the last few weeks of his life.
Grandma Morris was the first person I remember reading to me. We flipped through “Two Little Miners” so many times I could picture each page. I boarded an airplane for the first time in late June 1962, a Boeing 707, when she and Grandpa took me to San Francisco. We braved chilly Candlestick Park and watched my first major league baseball game. The Giants won the pennant that season.
We dined in the Starlight Room of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, celebrating great-aunt Ruth’s 75th birthday . . . and my 9th. I still have the menu dated July 3, 1962. Two weeks earlier, Tony Bennett released the song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
In later years Grandma Morris was confined to the Bethesda Manor nursing home not far from our home, falling deeper into the darkness of dementia. Mom visited her daily, sometimes twice. I’d go on occasion, but in time she no longer knew me.
Over the coming weeks, I began to imagine life without parents. It was the year Mom stopped tucking me in and saying nighttime prayers together. Alone in bed, save for a pink teddy bear won at the Puyallup Fair, I thought of the future. One day Mom and Dad will surely die, just like Grandma and Papa. A profound sense of sorrow consumed me. Visualizing their deaths, I cried myself to sleep each night. I tried to figure a way out – what if they never died? Maybe I’d die first and be spared the heartache? Whatever scenario I concocted, the end was always the same – falling asleep to tears. The end of their lives and my childhood hung in the balance. But I knew not how or when.
Unbeknownst to me, the thoughts of that 14-year-old boy were long ago known by Stoic philosophers. The anticipation of hardship softens its eventual blow. A Stoic prepares for the future by focusing on the worst possible outcome, a Latin principle called premeditation of adversity. Seneca advised his followers to rehearse ruinous scenarios “in your mind – exile, torture, war, shipwreck,” thereby robbing the future of its awful bite.
By morning, I was awakened by Mom and skipped downstairs to find a hearty breakfast on the kitchen table. Jean and I walked to the Junior High, a three-story, brick building four blocks away. There I roamed halls, diagrammed sentences, and played with friends after school.
The male tear ducts shrink as boys become men. It becomes more difficult for men to cry. Evolutionary psychologists can no doubt tell you why. My tears were gone in time. Ninth grade led to new friendships and adventures. I turned out for basketball and made the team. I raised tropical fish in an aquarium. At semester’s end, I earned my first perfect report card, all A’s. As a special treat, Dad took me to the Four Seasons in downtown Enumclaw for Chinese food. I felt pride in the glow of my father’s love.
Twelve years later, I wrote a poem to read at his funeral. The lines recalled the mournful feelings of that earlier time in life:
The last day we expected was the morning that we feared feared the nights we cried so long ago have come to rest right here. And so we’ll cry these tears of pain from sorrow we must store the tears we have are tears we’ve cried a thousand times before.
In February 1968, Barry and I picked copper strands from piles of rocks and sticks at the Mine #11 wash plant in Black Diamond. The wire came from blasting caps used when dynamite dislodged coal at the Rogers #3 mine. Seven years later I’d work in that mine, learning just how those wires were used. Over several weekends we collected nearly a pickup load of coiled yellow wire, then burned off the plastic coating. Dad sold the copper for 40 cents a pound at the recycling yard. It was souvenir money for us four kids to use during our family’s forthcoming trip to Europe later that spring.
We missed the last few weeks of school. In Ireland, England, Wales, and the continent we saw historic sights, tasted new foods, and explored a world far removed from our own. We also visited the embodiment of death – Dachau, the Jewish concentration camp near Munich. The visitor’s center displayed black and white photos of emaciated bodies, showing all manner of depravity.
The guide told of Jewish children with tattooed numbers on bony arms – herded from rail cars, not knowing their fate. We walked through the barracks, gas chambers, and crematoriums where thousands died at the hands of their Nazi henchmen. We saw death on an unimaginable scale. I’ve never forgotten that visit or the sign on the entrance gate: Arbeit macht frei. “Work sets you free.” Mom read its translation from Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day,
Three weeks after coming home, I turned 15. Four days later a boy I’d grown up with died. John Sherwood attended our Presbyterian church. His parents, Earl and Isabelle Sherwood were our youth group leaders and taught us Sunday school. John was a troubled lad who’d just flunked 10th grade. On a warm summer evening in early July, John went to a party and guzzled 190-proof Everclear from a bottle. Mr. Sherwood found his son slumped over the front seat of their car just after midnight. The Enumclaw police never figured out who provided the bottle, though some teens in town surely knew.
He was the first contemporary I’d known who died. John was 16. The coroner’s jury attributed his death to “consuming excessive amounts of liquor furnished by a person or persons unknown.” The Courier-Herald ran articles linking his death to narcotic and alcohol abuse among local youth in 1968. Glue sniffing was a particular concern that year.
The following spring our Cascadian yearbook printed his photo in remembrance, followed by a short poem:
He is not dead, this friend not dead, But in the path we mortals tread Got some few, trifling steps ahead And nearer to the end; So that you too, once past the bend, Shall meet again, as face to face, this friend You fancy dead. – Robert Louis Stevenson
When you’re young, five years is practically forever. “Puff the Magic Dragon” was a distant memory. Heading to high school in September new adventures emerged. I started a job as the Saturday boy at Palmer’s mine office in Black Diamond. I joined the chess team and found a new sport calling. By summer, I’d have a driver’s license plus two more jobs to fill my days. Papa and Grandma were fading memories.
As boyhood drew to a close, a young man began to emerge. My horizons broadened. Ahead of me lay many deaths . . . relatives, classmates, and loved ones. Those first tastes of mortality would always be with me, but childhood fears were fading. A new set of adolescent anxieties gripped me soon enough. I was growing up and the world was growing bigger.