I’m four years old, in the back seat of our oversized station wagon. It’s 1967 and all the station wagons are big enough to swallow a child whole. Without a seatbelt, riding is more like rolling, swimming around in cool blue cushioned seats.
This day, I’m more carsick than usual. Windows rolled tight against the upstate New York cold, the smell of hair spray and cigarette smoke, mixed with whisps of black coffee, make every breath uncomfortable, and I teeter on the verge of gagging and vomiting most of the way there.
When we pull up to the red brick building, my sickness turns quickly to fear. I’m overwhelmed with panic and the primal urge to flee. Danger. I know we’re in terrible danger. And without the words to express it, I do what four year olds do. I wail. Hysterical, high pitched screams fill the car. “Don’t go in there! You won’t come out! P-L-E-A-S-E, Daddy, don’t go in there! Mommy, he won’t come home! He won’t! He Won’t!”
Husband and wife locked in a glance I remember to this day, they slowly turn to me, there on my back-seat ocean of blue cushions, and give words of comfort that shroud their dismay.
“It’s just an appointment honey. Don’t get so upset. He’ll be back in 15 minutes. Calm down, honey, calm down.”
My mother climbs in the back seat with tissues for me, and together we watch my father, 35 years old, pull his collar up against the wind and walk briskly toward the building.
As he walked he was dying.
But we didn’t know that.
It was my first day in “The School of the Dead.”