Today is a day I dread all year.
I never know how the anniversary of my dad’s suicide will hit me.
It used to be a day I acknowledged silently, but thanks to this blog, this will be the third year in a row that I’ve observed this grim anniversary by sharing.
This year, I’m again taking a different approach.
In 2012, death touched our family twice within 45 days as my uncle Wally lost his battle with pancreatic cancer on June 22, and my grandmother, Bee, passed away on Aug. 9 from complications related to Alzheimer’s. I wrote about Wally and Bee on this blog last summer.
As I wrote this summer on this blog, the Riley side of my family has always been amazingly close with Bee & Papa (Vera & Clyde Riley) leading the way as the matriarch and patriarch of our clan. Steve Romig married their daughter Sandra, and Wally Cates married their daughter Pam. Between 1978 and 1984, four kids were born with each family alternating every two years. I came first, then my cousin Gina in 1980, my brother Bryan in 1982, and my cousin Abby in 1984.
We spent every holiday together, every birthday and lots and lots of Sunday lunches at Bee & Papa’s house in Blythewood, S.C., what we call “the country,” which is about 20 minutes from where the Romigs and the Cates lived in Northeast Columbia. The young families spent lots of additional time together through church, vacations and social activities. Steve and Wally were best friends and tennis buddies, and Pam and Sandra are still as close as sisters can be.
In the mid 2000s, Pam and Wally decided to build on to Bee & Papa’s house to move in and take care of them. At that point, the only one of the four adults in the house who was is declining health was Papa, who has had heart problems since the late 1980s.
But within a few years of building the addition to the house and moving in, that dynamic had changed. First, Bee started showing signs of Alzheimer’s, which by 2008 had taken its hold on her in a very apparent way. Then, Wally was diagnosed with his first bout of cancer.
Fast-forward to this past summer, and we had lost them both.
This backstory is the setup for how I decided to remember my dad on the 17th anniversary of the day in 1996 that is the fault line in my life.
I was very close with my grandmother, Bee. Until the Alzheimer’s really took hold, we would talk on the phone at least every week.
I inherited my storytelling and writing talents directly from her.
In 2001, after the 5th anniversary of dad’s death, I had an idea. I would give Bee a blank journal and ask her to fill it with stories about my dad.
It was Bee who met Steve Romig in an English class at Augusta College and brought him home to the family since he was on his own, putting himself through school. She and my dad were also very close, so she could tell stories of him from the moment they met through the moment he chose to leave us.
For my birthday in 2002, Bee gave me the journal. It is 65 full pages about my dad in her words – a mix of poetry, prose and Bible verses.
Last night, for the first time in more than a decade, I removed it from my safe and read it. As I read, it was the first time in more than five years that I was really able to hear her voice.
Today, to remember my dad, as well as Bee and Wally, I wanted to share eight of the entries she wrote in 2001-02 as she completed this priceless gift to me. Everything below is written as she wrote it, underlines and all.
Steve was a man of few words, but what he said you understood and remembered. When I think of Steve, I see smiles as colorful as the rainbow.
A son-in-law par excellence
Clyde was in the hospital and I was staying in the guest room with the Romigs. One night, we were in the kitchen after mealtime. Sandra and Steve had just bought a new microwave oven. I commented that I liked it. Further I mentioned that ours had gone out and couldn’t be repaired.
In the next sentence, Steve looked at Bryan and said, “Let’s go get Papa and Bee and new microwave oven like ours. Bryan didn’t change words with him and away they went to Best Buy.
Before Clyde got out of the hospital, Steve went to our house and had the oven installed and working when we returned home.
It’s just one of those things that were little to Steve, but might big to us!
Steve’s motto seemed to be: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Matthew 7:12
Wally and Steve …
Steve and Wally were not only friends, but fine tennis buddies.
Steve learned the methods, techniques and skills the country club way.
Wally taught himself and never took lessons but was stiff competition for Steve.
Steve never mentioned who won after their games, but Wally could beat him.
Wally usually announced that he had beat Steve – and with a big joyful sound!
Steve smiled more than he verbalized his innermost feelings. I never knew him when he was without a smile. It always spoke – giving worlds of information.
Steve was self sufficient. He always had his own ideas. His theory was that he could do it himself. Whatever he had at a given time was sufficient.
He never asked us for anything.
He never borrowed.
He never whined or complained.
He never lost his temper in my presence.
He never asked for advice.
He never grumbled.
He never spoke harshly about his job.
I never heard him put his family down.
He never swore or used bad language.
But as I remember Steve, I see him always smiling.
My perception at Steve’s death
I am devastated, but not destroyed.
Disillusioned but not dysfunctional.
I understand better how an airplane can soar through the skies with such dignity and beauty, crash and be in total disarray within a few blinks of the eye.
Steve was that way.
He humbly soared to the heights of his profession with all the acclaim due him, but in the twinkle, he was dead at the age of 47.
The pre-funeral visitation for Steve was held at Dunbar’s Funeral Home on Divine Street.
For almost three hours, we stood in line as his friends and colleagues filed by as a gesture of paying their tribute and respect to the person of Steven William Romig and all for which he stood. The funeral director said they had never seen anything like it. The people just kept coming. It was affirming to his family.
My feet got so tired that I had to take off my shoes. I doubt that anyone noticed or cared. The focal point was elsewhere. It was on Steve.
Legal Memorial Service
On June 6, 1996 at noon, the Richland County Bar Association held a memorial for Steve. Clyde and I attended with Sandra. The Hon. Costa M. Pleicones presided.
He endeared people.
He is remembered and revered.
He walked with the mighty and the meek.
He was a gentle influence in an ungentle society.
He never learned to be mean or how to tear down or destroy.
He was the epitome of a gentleman.
He was known as the best bankruptcy lawyer in the state.
He handled at least three pro bono cases a year – all free.
He designed software specifically for law offices.
Steve loved his wife Sandra and boys Jeffrey and Bryan.
The bar has lost a great friend and capable practitioner.
My dad, along with Bee and Wally were incredibly loved and are incredibly missed.
I share today, and will continue to do so, to keep their memories alive so their legacies will endure.