A death in the family

Posted: Mar 14, 2003 12:00 AM

A death in the family is always hard to take, even when it is the death of someone who has lived a long and full life, and was not expected to survive much longer. But it is especially hard when it is the sudden and unexpected death of someone younger, such as the recent death of my niece, whom I will call Margaret, out of respect for the privacy of her children.

Only about a month ago, we were relieved to learn that Margaret did not have cancer, as doctors had thought. But she died of a heart attack. It was a reminder of how tenuous a hold we all have on life and how it can end at any moment for any reason.

Margaret would have been 60 years old this November. But hers would not have been a full life, even if she had lived longer. She was a conscientious woman and a devoted mother but she made some mistakes early in life that had lasting effects on her health, her self-confidence, and her morale.

We all make mistakes -- usually too many to keep track of -- but some of us get second, third, and fourth chances. Margaret did not. That was the difference.

Once, when she was blaming herself for not having made more of her opportunities, she said: "I went to the same school you went to, Uncle Tommy!"

But I had to remind her that it was not the same school. It was the same building but the school had declined, like so many other schools. She never received the same education that I had.

Neither would her children. Once I examined the math textbook that they were using in the 11th grade -- and realized that they were being taught what I was taught in the 9th grade. Sadly -- tragically -- that is the story of all too many other black youngsters growing up in ghettos around the country.

For an all too brief time, Margaret came out of her withdrawal from the world and showed what she was capable of. She took a job at a university and quickly found fulfillment and the appreciation and respect of those around her.

Then her teenage daughter was suddenly struck with cancer and Margaret had to take her across the country to a medical facility specializing in the treatment of that kind of cancer. After a grueling experience for both of them, they returned to New York.

But now Margaret's job was gone -- and the way it was done left her feeling betrayed by those she had trusted. So she withdrew into herself once more, with failing health adding to her problems. She had more undeserved troubles than anyone else that I know.

Recently, as things were getting better for her, she told me that she was feeling guilty for her good fortune.

"You have nothing to feel guilty about," I told her. "If you were to win the lottery tomorrow, you would just be catching up."

She didn't win the lottery and she never caught up. But at least she will suffer no more.

By all the indicators that the "experts" use, Margaret was more fortunate than I was. She was raised in a two-parent family and they had things that I didn't have when I was growing up, such as a telephone and a television set when that was still a novelty. But the reality was that she was never as fortunate in the things that matter in life.

Once she confessed that she had felt resentful when her father and I reminisced about the fun times we had together in the old days, when he took me with him to places around New York. He never took her or her brother to those places or did those fun things.

When I was a kid, he and my sister were a young, carefree couple with no children of their own, and had time and money to spend on me. But, by the time Margaret came along, her father was exhausted from working overtime to feed four people on one salary and her mother was burdened with health problems of her own and a baby who died. Her parents were no longer the same people, any more than the school was the same school.

Many years later, Margaret would say, with some bitterness, that her father "treated you better than he treated his own son."

When I thought about it, I realized that she was right. I was lucky enough to come along at the right time and she and her brother came along when life was a struggle.

But at least now she will suffer no more.