The Last of a Generation

My Uncle Dick died on Sunday. I cannot claim to have known him well. I visited his house at least once in recent years. He showed up at the occasional reunion that my mother’s side of the family put together. Uncle Dick lived to age 84, which is about average for my mother’s side of the family. For someone of his age, his body endured a lot of abuse. He smoked and drank freely. He was arrested at least once for driving intoxicated. As a result, he lost his driving license. According to my mother, he was a lot of fun to have as a younger brother. Like his older brothers, he was a big man on the high school football team. Like many Michiganders, he spent his time in the auto assembly line. He also drove the Tasty-Rite potato chip truck. To me the most amazing thing about the man was how much he looked like my grandfather. The last time I met him, I could not tell him apart from a photo of my dziadek circa 1960 or so. He spent almost his entire life in Bay City, Michigan and married a woman named Grace, who survived him. Together they raised four children and loved six grandchildren.

Perhaps you have read the book (or have seen the movie) Cheaper by the Dozen. My mother lived it: there were an even dozen in her family, including the parents. (This compares to the more modest ten in my family.) However, unlike the Gilbreths their financial situation was far dicier, and often dire. Starting with my grandparent’s first child Edith who was born in 1908 and ending with Betty in 1933, their ten children arrived over a remarkable 25-year period. Edith was born when her mother was 22. Betty arrived when my grandmother was 47.

My grandmother, who I never met, had the unfortunate experience of having three of her children die before her. The first was Don, who was shot down over occupied Europe in 1944 during the Second World War. A year later, it was Albert’s turn to meet an untimely end. Ironically, he also died in an aircraft. In his case, he was a private pilot and his plane malfunctioned. Albert was next in the queue, dying of severe stomach ulcers in 1951. The following year my grandmother died. Her husband survived her for 15 years.

The rest of the Zielinskis were blessed to live full lives and die of the complications of old age. Essie went at age 83 in 1996. Ernie followed her a few years later at age 84. Somewhere around the same time the eldest child, Edith, died. She (so far) proved to be the most long lived and died at age 93. My mother followed Edith last year. She died at age 85.

Now there are just two left. Gee is in assisted living in Jackson, Michigan. She appears to be dying of the same disease that killed my mother: Progressive Supranuclear Palsy. If she can hold on until February she will see her 80th birthday, but the odds are against her making to her 81st. When Gee passes, that will leave only Betty.

I once wished I had been the last child in the family, rather than one of many in the middle. I figured I would get the special attention from Mom and Dad I likely did not get as a middle child. (I am the fifth of eight.) Now, I am glad to be a middle child. While the timing of our deaths is unknown, the odds are that the later children in a family will help bury those siblings who were born before them. With each progressive year, ever more of the times, people and the friends they knew disappear from their lives forever.

I am just starting the process with my mother’s death last year. Fortunately my father is still alive and in good health. Logically he should be the next of us to go. Since my siblings are all in good health, after our parents are gone I expect we will have many happy decades ahead of us to enjoy each other’s company. Yet time will eventually take its toll on us too. Invariably some of us will pass before others. We too are in a death queue. We are just ignorant of where we are in the queue. Right now, it is difficult for us to see, but we felt its cold presence when our mother died last year. It is better and it is easier right now for now to put this later phase of our lives out of mind.

Within a few years, Betty (whom we call Aunt Penny) will likely be the last of her dozen alive. She will have no sisters or brothers to visit or call on the phone. Fortunately, she has three terrific sons, one daughter and hopefully a devoted husband who, I am sure, will be there for her in her last years. In addition, I am hopeful that she will have the good fortune of her sister Edith, and live into her 90s. For Aunt Penny is a spunky woman, quirky and irreverent, but warm and down to earth nonetheless. For most of my siblings, she is our favorite aunt.

How strange and odd an experience it must be to be the last sibling alive in a large family. I imagine it must feel sobering and melancholy at the same time. Particularly if your spouse precedes you, your final years are likely to be ones where the past seems to be on the tip of your tongue and yet has receded from everyone else’s views. Meanwhile, a new and different world swirls around you. This world is both familiar yet alien. My mother felt this way in her last years. She did not understand computers and this Internet thing. In some respects for people of a certain advanced age, death may be a relief. For the Earth you see is not quite the one you knew: it becomes something like living on another planet.

Being a middle child, when my time comes to meet my maker, I will likely have siblings around to help me on my dark passage. For this, I feel fortunate. As death becomes less an abstraction and more of a near term reality, I will likely feel differently.

I do make this promise though to my younger siblings who may some day be sitting around my hospital bed as life utterly drains out of me. It is this: if there is a next life, then after I die I will be there at the gate to welcome them home.

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