Dolores and her husband, whom I call "Uncle Freddy", have been friends with my parents since forever. At the very latest, they all became friends as teenagers, and I think my dad knew Uncle Freddy even before that. Now they're all in their 60s, so you can imagine how close their friendships are. They're more like brother and sister to my parents than friends, I think.
This is a hard loss to bear, on several levels. It hurts to lose such a good person as Dolores. Even if I hadn't known her myself, to know how good she was firsthand, just the fact that my parents set such store by her would have been enough to convince me of it. My parents could never be such close friends for so many years with anyone who was cruel or dishonest.
It also hurts to see my parents, particularly my mom, grieving. My mom is beyond devastated, and she can't always quite keep it from showing, even though she puts up a strong front. So does my dad, and although he's a little bit better at hiding his pain than my mom is, I can tell just by the sound of their voices that they're hurting. Sunday morning, when my dad called to tell me the sad news, I could tell before he'd uttered three words that something was seriously wrong, and I braced myself. I wasn't sure WHAT I was preparing myself to hear, but I knew it was going to be bad news and I was right.
This has also sent my inner five-year-old reeling. In that part of my mind that holds childhood memories, Uncle Freddy and Dolores Were Always There, and they were Always Going to Be There. Period, end of sentence. I remember them when I was tiny. I remember them at my birthday parties when I was in grade school. I remember going to THEIR three kids' birthday parties, including Bonnie who's my age and is my dad's goddaughter, from the time that all four of our ages were in single digits. I remember being 11 years old and being at their house watching the Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Buffalo Sabres, because Uncle Freddy and Dolores had cable TV and we didn't. I remember them celebrating Bonnie's and my high school graduation with my parents and me (Bonnie and I were in the same HS and graduated in the same class). Bonnie was Valedictorian and I got the English Award, and I remember that a few weeks later, Uncle Freddy gave me a picture he'd taken with his 35mm camera with a zoom lens: it was me on the stage at Convention Hall, receiving the English Award from Cardinal Krol. I remember Dolores at my bridal shower. I remember them both at my wedding. I remember them at every important juncture in my life. Because Uncle Freddy and Dolores Were Always There, and in my child's mind it felt like they would Always Be There.
Just like my parents, who are the same age.
Last night at the viewing, and today at the Mass and the funeral, was a bittersweet gathering of some friends of my dad's and Uncle Freddy's who I am CERTAIN have known one another since they were all in grade school. They're all so lucky to have reaped the benefits of long, LONG friendships. (I think my parents have passed that trait on to me, as I can count friendships that have lasted since the fourth grade, fifth grade, seventh grade, and ninth grade among people whom I still feel close to now.) Now they were together because of the death of someone who'd been a friend for decades. And the first thing they started planning to do was to make sure to get Uncle Freddy out of the house as soon as things start to settle down. "I'll call him to come over one night", one of them told my parents, "and then I'll call you to come over, too".
Today, after the Mass but before the cars left for the cemetery, another of the mourners was catching up with my dad. His hair was all white and he looked like he was about 10 years older than my father. When the funeral director started trying to get people to go to their cars so the funeral procession could begin, the man ended the conversation with, "Take care, Joey". Never, in my entire nearly-40-years of life, have I EVER heard anyone address my dad as "Joey" until that moment; everyone in my experience has always called him "Joe". I couldn't help but grin and wonder how young they both were when they first knew each other. They must have both been boys.
At the cemetery, just as I placed my flower on the casket, my dad's oldest friend, whom he's known since they were about 3 or 4, set down his flower, also. I was close enough to hear him tell Dolores quietly, "God bless you. Take care", and then he kissed his fingertips and placed them where the flowers were. I had to move aside quickly before he noticed my reaction: thinking about what close friends they've all been for so long, and now they're saying goodbye to one of their own, started my eyes welling up quickly. Only my deep-rooted internal barrier against crying in front of other people, something which I have willed myself to do since I was very small, kept me from bursting into cascades of tears on the spot. Those tears will eventually happen; I can guarantee that. They're just going to wait until there's no one else around before they start to fall.
At the luncheon that followed the funeral, my parents and I sat with the rest of the Group of Oldest Friends. There were some other people at our table, too, and when one of the courses of the meal arrived, the waiter miscounted by one and left one of the ladies without a dish of gnocchi. Then he forgot we still needed one more serving at our table, and started to serve guests at other tables. The lady raised her hand, then waved it, to no avail; he was focused on what he was doing and wasn't looking our way. I quipped, "Let's all sing. Then EVERYONE will look toward our table".
As I made the joke, and everyone laughed, a tune ran through the back of my mind, as if that was the one we should sing. Just the tune, though, no lyrics, so at first I wasn't sure just which song I was remembering. As I ate, I mentally followed through the tune for a few more lines, trying to remember what the title of the song was. And then it hit me. It was Heart of my Heart, and it probably crossed my mind because it reminded me of my dad and all his childhood friends, including Uncle Freddy:
"Heart of my heart"
I love that melody.
"Heart of my heart"
Brings back a memory.
When we were kids
On the corner of the street,
We were rough and ready guys,
But oh, how we could harmonize!
"Heart of my heart"
Meant friends were dearer then.
Too bad we had to part.
I know a tear would glisten
If once more I could listen
To that gang that sang
"Heart of my heart."
The events of this week mark the end of an era in my family's life, in my parents' lives and in my life, too. Along with feeling sadness for Dolores and her family, I'm having to let go of one more childhood presumption that Things Will Always Be Just as they Are. Things won't stay the same forever, whether I accept that fact or not.
But I do know one thing. My dad's friend was right: God bless you, Dolores. Thank you. We love you and we'll all miss you.