(Story Shared by 35 year old male, Chicago)
On May 20, 2003, my father died suddenly from a massive heart failure. He was only 60 years old, but heart disease has been a stubborn member of his side of the family as far back as we can discern. What makes this recognizable tragedy unique is where he died. On the majestic floor of the great hall in Grand Central Terminal in New York City, near to the escalators that lead up to his longtime office in 200 Park Avenue. It was sometime before 9am, at the height of rush hour in one of the most consistently awe-inspiring seas of humanity that assembles anywhere in the world at the start of a workday. His sudden collapse must have been frightening, unsettling, confusing, and downright inconvenient for the thousands that surrounded him at that moment.
When I received the 6:30am phone call (I was living in California at the time) from my brother that to this day still makes me hate when the phone rings, I heard the news that my father had gone to work and collapsed and died before ever getting to his desk. It was a Tuesday. “He DIED,’ I remember my brother saying. How he said it, incredulously, the inflection so absolutely suited to our disbelief, I’ll never forget. We knew he needed to take better care of himself, and hell, we expected a heart problem some point in that decade, maybe it would be what woke dad up to his stress and bad eating habits — but DEAD? In one go? No cautionary brush with death for him. In one moment, it was over.
We were sick with grief, and we lingered over the fact that he died alone, without us. We are a very loving family, and my parents always had a good relationship, were great to us growing up. He died alone — our optimistic, friendly, kind, ambassador of a father, strong and always sturdy even in the most frustrating or scary moments, a magnet for people…alone on the floor of the building he loved, passed through every day for 20+ years, the life going out of him and floating up into those refurbished constellations as paramedics cut open his expensive suit from the tailors at Saks that knew him by name, worked to bring him back, people nearby disrupted and scared in that way that only comes with stumbling upon a public death in progress in a place that’s not supposed to house such things. My father would have hated the fact that he disrupted the flow of GCT during rush hour, even though he would have been the first man to the side of a fallen commuter, had it not been him.
Loosing someone you love is brutal in all the ways you might expect, but the part no one thinks about is all of the mind boggling logistics involved in properly memorializing, burying, and cleaning up the estate of someone who dies unexpectedly. It’s a real litany of responsibilities, and a lot of mundane paperwork and legal wrangling, especially at a time of great personal grief and confusion. Confusion, is a good way to put it. It felt like we lost a limb, and the family was trying to do so much immediately with one less appendage. We flailed at it for a while before we got a grip. It’s a hard way to learn the important lessons of estate planning.