Through the Storm: A Memoir

July 23, 2008
By Shannon Billings, Gardner, MA

The happy voices and conversation of my friends and family suddenly shifted into a bone-rattling siren. “Beep! Beep! Beep!” they screamed in unison. I opened my eyes and realized my alarm clock was going off. I quickly silenced it and turned towards my window, lifting the blinds as I usually did upon waking. I was greeted by threatening clouds above and a gray world around. My heart was heavy with anticipation and excitement for the license test I had scheduled for later in the day, but I was filled with dread as I looked upon the ominous weather outside.
I struggled to focus during shop, trying to assure myself the rain would stop soon enough. However, it progressively grew worse as the hands on the clock moved closer and closer towards my three o’clock test appointment. The dark gray sky was suddenly illuminated with lightening and we all jumped as thunder’s roars boomed through the school. My shop instructors warned us to stay away from the windows as we anxiously watched nature’s tantrum, feeling the clock tick closer to our inevitable venture into the storm. After fifteen minutes of pacing back and forth in the cold health occupations class, I finally decided to call the driver's ed teacher. I knew I couldn’t possibly take a driving test under such assault. As the 2:40 bell rang, I dashed towards my bus and thanked God the Massachusetts RMV happened to agree. Settling in my usual seat at the back, I watched the weather calm a bit as we headed into Gardner. However, even with my test rescheduled, I realized things still didn’t feel quite right. Ignoring the relentless twinge of anxiety, I decided to blame it on the dreary weather.
I had no idea how right I was to dread that terrible spring day.

Safely inside a half-hour later, I stared at the answering machine, unable to believe what I had just heard. Could this man have said what I believed he did? Did he mention something about an estate? Wasn’t estate the word they used when people were dead? I hit repeat, hoping I heard it wrong. As I listened to the message the second time, pieces fell together in my mind. All those unknowns became known, all the blanks, filled. I hadn’t spoke to my father in over two months. I knew something was wrong, and I knew something had been wrong for a very long time.
As I listened to the message a second time, my doubt and panic transformed into despairing shock. I stood in my dim living room, not knowing how to feel. I didn’t want to believe it, but I knew I had to. I knew reality was what it was, and I couldn’t comfort myself with denial.
“Mom!” I yelled, my shaking voice echoing throughout the house, “Mom, come here!” When she made her way down the stairs a few minutes later, I played her the message. The cold and indifferent voice of my father’s attorney spoke to my mother, informing us the call was concerning Dennis Billings’ estate and she should contact his office to discuss the matter. When the message stopped, we both stood unmoving in silence. Finally, she asked the same questions I had, wondering what was going on and why we hadn’t been informed sooner. She picked up the phone and dialed the number the attorney had left her.
Not knowing what else to do with myself, I retreated to my room. I collapsed onto my bed and clutched my worn baby blanket. A million thoughts raced through my mind, flashing one after another like lightening bolts in my mind. I was shocked, heartbroken, but more than anything… lonely. My mom and dad had been divorced since I was three. His death, although sad, did not impact her the way it impacted me. My oldest sister had a different father and my other sister no longer lived in the area. I listened to the rain and realized the grief I felt could not be shared with the people around me.

I remembered the last time I saw my father. Ironically, it had been at his dad’s funeral three months prior. The memorial had been a small service held at the veteran’s cemetery. I arrived there before my father, and sat in the front of the one room building. I looked around at all the empty seats and couldn’t help but realize how lonely a life my grandfather had led.
When my dad walked in and sat beside me, I nearly didn’t recognize him. His hair had grayed and thinned, and his body seemed shorter and rounder. It was hard to imagine this old man as the dad who had taken me hiking and camping when I was younger. I felt guilty as the service began, knowing I hadn’t put much effort into taking the time to visit my dad and grandfather.
It occurred to me that the aged man seated at my side was leading as lonely a life as his dad had. Tears streamed down my face not so much for my grandfather, who finally laid in peace, but for my own father whose life continued on in almost complete solitude.

I shook with grief as I waited for my mom to confirm what I already knew. My heart was filled with guilt as I realized my dad had been alone, that I was all he had, and I hadn’t been there for him.
My mother entered my room and informed me she had contacted the man who left the message, my father’s lawyer. Apparently, he had passed away months before, but the lawyer could offer no more information. Anger built inside of me on top of everything else. Where was he? What had happened? Why was I not contacted? My heart felt as if it would explode.
My mom headed back downstairs to make some phone calls and hopefully collect more answers. I stared out the window next to my bed, remembering an ominous incident that had occurred a month prior while I was in shop.

It was early morning but I was already exhausted as I tried focusing on completing my workbook. I decided to put my head down for a few minutes to rest my eyes and try to clear my mind. As I did so, I thought I felt someone touch my back. I quickly turned around to look but there was no one there. I was suddenly overcome with anxiety. I tried to calm myself down, not really understanding why I felt so worried. I began to hyperventilate and it quickly escalated into a full-blown panic attack.
“What’s wrong?” my best friend asked, noticing my obvious distress. Without even thinking I knew the answer.
“My dad,” I replied, “something’s wrong. I know it.” I had already shared with her my futile attempts in trying to contact him. I simply stopped hearing from him, which was very unusual because we usually spoke on the phone several times a week. I had been worried for quite some time. However, at that moment, something inside of me suddenly realized what I didn’t want to accept.
“Hey,” she replied, “calm down. You don’t know anything for sure. He’s probably fine.”
“No,” I answered, tears beginning to form in my eyes, “He’s dead. I know it.”
“You don’t know anything for sure. You can’t think so negatively.” I glanced at her, appreciating her attempts to make me feel better. However, her reassurances just magnified my doubt and I began crying even more. By now, a few of the girls in my shop were starting to look at me curiously. The shop instructor, came over to the table where we sat.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, her concern obvious. Lost in my despair and worry, I couldn’t form the words to answer. After a few moments my friend replied, “She’s worried about her dad.”
My teacher gave a questioning look. I took a few deep breaths and explained, “I haven’t heard from him in two months. He’s lives by himself and I think something horrible happened. I think…” My voice began to shake and I started to cry again, unable to finish.
My instructor did her best to try and calm me and finally inquired, “Has anyone tried to check on him?”
I managed to steady my voice and answer, “He lives in an old apartment building and unless the person knows you’re coming and buzzes you in, there’s no way to enter. I’ve tried calling him a million times but the phone just rings and rings.”
She thought for a second. “Well maybe you could try sending a registered letter, and see if it gets picked up or returned. Maybe he moved. If worse comes to worse, maybe you should call the police station and have them send over someone to check,” she suggested.
I was thankful for her advice, but somewhere inside I couldn’t quiet the unrelenting feeling that it didn’t matter what I did. I had known the devastating truth that day but I managed to hide it in a little corner of my heart, reassuring myself I was overreacting.

I opened my eyes to a dim room and realized I must have dozed off. My face was wet with tears and my heart felt much too heavy. There was a knock at the door and my oldest sister Tricia came in. She sat at the edge of the bed and informed me my mom had called the local police who gave her the number to the state’s medical examiner’s office. They had done an autopsy weeks before but the results weren’t back yet. After the procedure, they had sent my father’s body back to a local funeral home. A few more calls were made, and we learned my dad had been buried that very same morning. We were just hours too late.
The news was like a slap in the face. “Of course we were,” I thought to myself, “Why wouldn’t that happen?” I couldn’t believe God or Fate or whatever it was that had decided to be so horribly cruel. It wasn’t as if things were perfect before news of my dad’s death. My family had dealt with numerous and unbelievably difficult situations and problems. I felt like someone was playing a really bad joke on me. How could so many bad things happen? I was worn out, exhausted with the continuous stream of troubles.
During the few days following the news of my father’s death, I questioned how I would find the strength to keep going. I was exhausted to the soul and I couldn’t fathom a way to possibly handle it all. The rain continued for nearly six days that spring, and I hid in my room, listening to it fall outside my window.
I was sure that I would simply break underneath it all, crumble to pieces. The days dragged on and I slowly realized that time continued even if I did not. The moments were passing and the rain had to eventually stop. I suddenly became aware of the fact I hadn’t crumbled to pieces. I was still there. I recognized at last, my simple capability to move on.

The sad voices and conversation of my friends and family suddenly shifted into a warming melody. “You‘re not asleep anymore,” they gently sang in unison. I opened my eyes and realized I had been dreaming. I turned towards my window, lifting the blinds as I usually did upon waking. I was greeted by the early light of the rising sun. My heart was still heavy with grief and despair, but I was filled with an undeniable hope as I looked upon the glowing world outside. The puddles remained and everything still seemed damp and sad. However, the sun was slowly moving higher in the sky, promising to warm and heal the afflicted world. Finally, the storm had passed.

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This article has 1 comment.

heiwagirl said...
on Mar. 8 2011 at 11:26 pm
I loved your story it really touched me and really pulled me into your world and your emotions. I cried when you cried.I cared when you cared. I was angry when you were angry. It was all very well done :)

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