“Ed is dead,” Donna said. And we burst out laughing. Donna and I were on her deck drinking Red Rose tea. My favorites are Lady Grey and English Breakfast, but Donna, my older sister, insists Red Rose is the best.
Ed, our brother, died early that morning in the hospital. His wife was stretched out next to him when he passed. His wife talks like that. Passed. Donna and I don’t. We call dead—dead. And Ed was dead. We kept repeating it to each other. Neither of us could believe he was dead. We still couldn’t believe our parents were. They died when we were kids.
In the middle of the night our mother was hit by a car. She had run in front of it. Earlier that evening she’d been admitted to the hospital and just after midnight ran out. Ed, Donna and I had different theories as to why she had been admitted. Our brother, David, never came up with one. A newspaper report said our mother, according to the nurse on duty, was extremely agitated. Our mother died ten days before Christmas. The article was placed next to a picture of Santa Claus, a child sitting on his knee. I remember that picture of Santa Claus next to my mother’s death story. Even though I was only five years old I was able to read. I wouldn’t have been able to make out all the words. I wouldn’t have known extremely or agitated, but I would have been familiar with: mother, hit by car, dead, and four children. And I would have recognized my name and the names of my siblings: Donna, David and Ed.
The nurse had left my mother alone in her room while she phoned the on-call doctor for a medication order. That’s when our mother grabbed her fur coat and ran. The hospital she ran out of was the same hospital Ed had just died in. Kingston General.
When we were kids, Kingston was a dirty ugly prison town. A couple of years after our mother died, we moved to Montreal. I didn’t expect anyone from our family to ever move back to Kingston, but Ed moved back when he retired. Now it’s a pretty tourist town.
Our mother grabbed her fur coat, but she didn’t put anything on her feet. Barefoot, she ran out of the hospital. For years, I believed the car hit her right in front of the hospital. But Ed set me straight. She had run a full block. And it was a long block. Her feet must have been freezing. A witness, who was walking her dog, described her as wild-looking. Because it was snowing, the driver didn’t see her. The witness said even if the driver had seen her he wouldn’t have had time to stop. She died before the ambulance arrived. Or she died before the ambulance made it back to the hospital. If Ed were still alive he could have told us. Donna and I could never remember. Donna and I never cared much about facts. Ed did. And he hated when we got them wrong.
David, our other brother, the one who was still alive—Boy, can he get facts wrong! One night the four of us were together at a restaurant. We hadn’t been together since we were twenty something. That night we were forty something. We all knew we wouldn’t be together again until one of us was dying. Ed predicted he would die first. And he did. Death is my sister’s favorite topic. David calls her the Grief Meister. That night when we finished talking about our mother’s death, we moved on to our father’s. His death wasn’t as abrupt. But almost. One weekend he said he couldn’t move his leg. Two days later he couldn’t move the other one. Two weeks later he was dead. When our mother died, we were on thin ice; when our father died, the ice cracked and we fell through. But because we were kids, we didn’t know this. We did find it unusual that both our parents were dead. Over the years, we had met a kid or two who had one dead parent, but we’d never met anyone else who had lost both. In spite of our peculiar situation, we were smart and confident. We figured we’d manage just fine.
It was that same night–the night in the restaurant–that we learned David was Hungarian. He not only thought he was Hungarian: he’d told his children they were too. That was the fact he got wrong. None of us could stop laughing. Ever since, we all called him our Hungarian brother. We did have a Hungarian uncle by marriage. But we were Romanian, Irish and French. Ed, if he were still alive, could tell the precise percentage. Donna and I knew we were mostly Romanian.
That night we couldn’t stop laughing. My brothers were both extremely funny, and when my sister is not bossing everyone—funny in its own right—she acts like Gracie Allen. We all said we’d get together soon. But we all knew we wouldn’t. And we didn’t.
What we’re all good at is maintaining distance, and David, the Hungarian brother, he’s the star. The next time he saw Ed was many years later. David showed up at a wedding. Ed’s daughter was getting married and the reception was at Ed’s house. When David arrived, Ed shook David’s hand and said, “Hi, my name is Ed. I’m the father of the bride.” Ed wasn’t joking. David said, “I know who you are. I’m your brother.” Strange that Ed didn’t recognize his own brother especially since they looked so much alike. In fact, their appearance was so similar that many of Ed’s friends, at that wedding, thought David was Ed.
Donna doesn’t care about facts, but she is a superstitious nut when it comes to numbers. Fifteen is Donna’s thirteen. Our mother died on the 15th of December, our father died on the 15th of May, and Donna married on the 15th of June. That marriage, needless to say, was a disaster. Donna expected Ed to die on the 15th. And he almost did. But he didn’t. He was a few hours late. He died on the 16th.
On the deck that afternoon, the day Ed died, Donna and I drank Red Rose tea and ate lemon cake. Donna had baked it a few weeks earlier and pulled it out of the freezer that morning. Her plan was to serve it to her grandkids. They were coming over after school and Donna had promised them cake. After we finished our first piece, Donna offered me a second. I said, “What if we eat it all and there’s nothing left for the grandkids?” Donna burst out laughing and so did I. Then she screamed, “Oh my God! I wet my pants.” Now we were hysterical.
Ed had died that morning and neither of us had cried. A couple of days earlier his wife had told us she didn’t want an emotional service—no crying at the funeral. Donna and I didn’t say a word. We waited until she left the room. “Is she crazy? How controlling can one get? No crying at the funeral?”
On the way to the funeral, Donna and I couldn’t stop repeating: “Ed is dead” and “No crying at the funeral.” David, our Hungarian brother, met us at the church. During the service, he stood between us. David didn’t know we weren’t allowed to cry. And he didn’t. He didn’t cry. But we did. I can’t remember if Donna broke first. Or if I did. What I do remember is that David held us. And we sobbed. The three of us were still standing.
Who could resist a story that has lines like “We did find it unusual that both our parents were dead.” and “A couple of days earlier his wife had told us she didn’t want an emotional service—no crying at the funeral.” A unique voice I’d love to hear more of.
Great story. Loved it.
To all who responded: Thank you so much for your support. I am grateful and deeply honored.
Ann St James
I love this piece. It’s because the writer begins with and includes laughter and hilarity throughout that in the end she communicates the extreme bond of pain surrounding Ed’s death that erupted during the funeral.
If I were in a darkened movie theater watching this story in a dramatic form, I would be rolling in the aisles. I know these people, and I wanted the story to continue forever. Imagine these sisters as old ladies; imagine their grandchildren listening to their conversations in wonder – terrific.
I adored this piece – absolute flat hilarity, wild and wonderful. My twin and I had to go to wakes early, and at my Aunt Esther’s coffin, we were seized with giggles. I love the uproaring humor with sisters. Great piece
Love the non-glazed look of attitudes, humor, and death. I am part of that family. I would hope we can all laugh! It is succinct and says so much. I love the conversations but the narration is right on the spot and I don’t remember how it all told…so it is awesome writing! n
The title grabbed me, of course, but what I most liked was the precision of voice. I trust this honest, dry, flat-out tell it like it is voice. I’d like to hear a lot more from this voice, travel long distances and go deeper with it, into life.
What a hilarious meditation on death. Did I really write that? Yep! That’s what struck me about this essay. With the lightest touch in a brief engaging way, you take us through many vagaries of death: from “Because we were kids; we didn’t know yet” to superstitions to the hugely varied response within a family. Terrific writing.
You grabbed me right from the start, of course, saying Ed is dead and then laughing. Thank you for a touching and funny story about your totally peculiar yet strangely familiar family. All families have a ‘Hungarian brother’, and we’re lucky when we have a sister to share with, be it tea or tears.