Thursday, May 12, 2011
Billie Bob, in a photograph taken circa 1946.
The phone call came on a Friday, two days before Elder Daughter’s seventh birthday: Billie Bob - SWMBO’s dad - had suffered a heart attack. The birthday festivities would continue, but without SWMBO, who got on the first available flight to Beaumont, Texas. There, she would sit vigil with the family at the hospital.
Over the course of the next two days, She Who Must Be Obeyed became familiar with the ebb and flow of life in the cardiac care unit. That’s where she learned about the Man in the Red Jacket. At odd intervals, a gentleman in a red blazer would show up and herd a random family into a special waiting room, a sort of sanctum sanctorum set off to the side of the regular waiting room. It didn’t take long to figure out that it was a place for the delivery of Bad News. That was where the doctor would come, saying things like “we did everything we could,” or “I’m sorry to tell you that your mother didn’t make it through surgery.”
It could not have been an easy job, to wear that red jacket: It served as both Awkward Fashion Statement and Warning. This business of preparing loved ones for life-changing tidings was an unenviable task, and the Man in the Red Jacket must have known that his appearance evoked a special sort of fear and loathing, even dread. But he had a job to do.
Elder Daughter’s birthday celebration was carried out dutifully that Sunday, albeit with muted jollity. And then, that evening, SWMBO called. She was worried, concerned about her dad’s prognosis. With talk of a possible transplant flying around, it was time for me to get out to Texas. My parents, in Atlanta for the birthday celebration, agreed to watch the girls while I booked myself on the first flight out Monday morning.
I made it in time to see Bill. He was frightened, breathless. Some sort of surgery would be required, but years of poorly-managed diabetes, coupled with cigarettes and an unenviable family history of heart problems, meant that there was not a whole lot to work with. Nevertheless, the doctors would do what they could.
They never got the chance.
That’s when I met the Man in the Red Jacket. It was our turn now. Our turn to hear the Bad News.
That was twenty-five years ago today.
Twenty-five years is a lot of time. Time enough for granddaughters to grow up, being graduated from high school and college. Time enough for children to get married and begin new families. But it’s not enough time for that sense of grief and desolation to ever go away completely.
Unto this day, the sight of a man - any man - in a red blazer causes SWMBO and me to break out into a cold sweat.
Bill’s yahrzeit - the anniversary of his passing according to the Jewish calendar - was last Saturday. Tradition dictates that on that day one lights a memorial candle and recites the Mourner’s Kaddish. But I will remember Bill this weekend yet again - in my own way.
I’ll be in Birmingham, Alabama, competing in a kosher barbecue cook-off. (Yes, there is such a thing, as my long-time Esteeemed Readers will attest.) And there, our team will prepare beef ribs and brisket, using secret recipes and techniques handed down to me by a master Smoker Stoker whose barbecue is unsurpassed unto this day... my late Daddy-in-Law, Billie Bob.