How an Eat'n Park staff served to heal a widow's grief

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She arrived at the hospital a wife. She came out a widow.

Sue McDade had married Jim 19 years before. They had been an inseparable couple, one that attracted attention wherever they went -- as couples will do when they dress alike and carry clown noses and kazoos in her purse and his pockets.

Jim had been a widower when he married this divorced mother of three in 1992, but his death from a stroke in December 2011 left her desperately alone. Again.

"I've had so much tragedy in my life people are afraid it's contagious and they walk away," Mrs. McDade, 64, said.

What happened after Jim's death may seem mundane to some. It meant everything to her.

Mrs. McDade drove down Interstate 79 toward her home in South Fayette that December afternoon and couldn't bear going home alone. It was nearly dinnertime, so she pulled off the ramp to go to the Eat'n Park on Washington Pike in Bridgeville.

That had been one of their haunts. They'd go toward the end of dinnertime, play cards, joke with the wait staff, strike up conversations all over the place. This time she attracted attention as always, but that was because of her tears and the conspicuous absence of the gray-bearded man with the crooked smile who'd always been on her arm.

"Oh my God, Sue, what happened and where's Jim?'' the hostess asked.

"I just looked at her and said, "He's gone,' " she said. "'He died.' And they all came running. Everybody. Management. Everybody. Because they all loved us. They all knew us. We clowned. We did magic.

"I don't even remember who all was on that day. I was in such pain and grief and shock.

"They said, 'Listen. We have your back. We loved you and Jim. It's going to be a big loss. You come here any time of the day or night. You don't have to order anything. We're here for you.' "

Mrs. McDade called me this past December, the day before the anniversary of her husband's death, to tell me about this -- and about rainbows. She and Jim used to chase them and jump in puddles, too. "If you see the sun and there are raindrops, there's going to be a rainbow."

I mention that because she told me there was a double rainbow over the Golden Triangle in Pittsburgh the afternoon Jim McDade died. Google it if you don't believe her. Video shows a glorious double arc over the city just before sunset on Dec. 21, 2011, "quite unusual for the last full day of the fall season," as WTAE.com put it.

The people who were so good to him and to her deserve something special, and Eat'n Park is pleased to host a little ceremony she has planned for her friends in Bridgeville this Friday morning.

She bought a certificate of achievement for the restaurant staff. It's for giving her courage. There will be a note that says something like "you were and are my lifesavers." She hadn't yet decided on the wording when we spoke Tuesday.

Andy Gulish, the restaurant's general manager, said, "They were just kind of like family. Nice people, both of them. Always joking around, never in a bad mood. It seems like she adopted us and we adopted her."

Jasmine Webb, 23, who has been a waitress there for 2 1/2 years, said this "warm and welcoming lady'' was there for her when she lost her best friend, her grandma, a couple of years ago. So they've helped ease each other's pain.

I visited Mrs. McDade in her home, the left half of a century-old duplex that's slowly sinking into an old coal mine. Money's tight and the place is cluttered, but there's a huge portrait of Jim in the living room.

I'd say his piercing blue eyes still dominate the room, but there are also elephants everywhere, countless little pachyderms taking up nearly every bit of shelf space and many more on the walls. A little elephant was Jim's first gift to her in their whirlwind courtship, and he never stopped presenting them.

Elephants never forget. Neither will she.

brianoneill

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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