This is a huge change from my normal work. I have felt the compulsion to explain how my father’s death tore apart my family for a while. Names have been changed, locations obscured, but for the most part this is my life as I remember it. Rough draft. And this is not finished. I have 10 more years of content to write.
It all started the day Dad left. I wish I could simply say that he’d walked out, disappearing into the ether that all estranged parents did. Sometimes I would catch myself scanning the crowds at the mall looking for his familiar face to chase back the loneliness swallowing up every inch of my being. And for a while I would see him, that warm smile pulling his beard in a funny direction, the way he always did when he saw me.
The truth, however, wasn’t as warming.
Mom was the one to tell me. The call came while I was over at a friend’s house. I remember the ride home being unusually tense. Mom’s hands stayed perfectly still on the steering wheel, like she were struggling to control a wild team of horses, not her beaten-up ’81 Firebird. The entire time I wracked my brain, trying to figure out which lie she’d caught me in. There were a lot of those. I was far from the perfect daughter.
The car eased into the carport. Mom turned off the engine, but didn’t make a move to get out. Panic hit me like a ton of bricks, I wanted out of the car, but the tension holding my mother gripped me as well. There was no escaping the conversation to come. I thought we were going to fight as usual. I wish I’d been right.
“Your dad passed away.”
Words held power. Being a wanna-be poet I knew it as well as I knew the curves, caverns, and booby traps within my own soul. Those four words, they held the power to destroy. Not only my life, but that of my mother and sister as well.
“When?” God, my voice was so small. I repeated the question to make sure she heard me.
“They found him this morning.”
My mind, damn it for the intensity of the visions it fed me, popped up an image of my father in that cramped hovel he called an apartment. When he showed me the place, I wept for him. He was a big man and needed a lot of space to move in. That apartment was no bigger than a coffin.
The vision was capped off by the sight of his lifeless body lying on the bed. I wasn’t sure what he looked like then, before he died. After he gave me the tour of the apartment I refused to visit. It was too heartbreaking. My father deserved better, but he’d squandered everything away. All for a woman in Ohio that he’d met on the Internet. Half of my inheritance is still there, somewhere. I didn’t have any way to contact the siren that stole my father for a year to get the stuff back.
“How?” It was a stupid question, in the end. We all knew Dad would die soon. His laundry list of health problems kept getting longer and longer. Every time I turned around he was being whisked to the hospital for a surgery or two, or three. So long as I can remember, my father was never healthy.
His declining health through my life gave me a fear of hospitals, diabetes, and the potential of ending up in a wheelchair for the rest of my days on this earth.
“They think it was a heart attack.” Mom kept saying “they”, as though the term would put distance between the events taking place and the pain leeching the sanity from my skull.
“Oh. Of course.” I had to ask the next part, I couldn’t move on until I did. “Was he asleep?”
“Yes.” The one word was a relief, but it was a small drop in a pail of pain.
We sat there for a while. I listened to the clicking of the car’s engine cooling and absorbed the fact that I would never see my father again. When he and I were simply having a disagreement over his living conditions, I knew that I could always go see him. Sure it would break my heart, but he was there. An hours drive up into the mountains and I could see him. That luxury wasn’t available to me any more. I’d been robbed of the chance to reconnect with my father. Death, that bastard, took him to a place where I could not follow.
I couldn’t make sure he was safe and taken care of.
I couldn’t apologize for being an ungrateful daughter.
Mom turned to look at my finally. My eyes didn’t follow suit. Looking at her pain would make mine more solid. Sure, they’d been divorced for about four years, but he was still the man she’d loved enough to marry and have two children with. Mom left to save us from Dad’s mental and physical health issues. Some days I think she was wrong. Others I know she was right.
“You need to decide what to do.” When my silence answered, she spoke again. “He didn’t leave a will. Everything is up to you.”
How unfair, I thought. I was minutes outside of hearing the worse news my sixteen-year-old brain could comprehend and she was demanding I make decisions so big they would be affecting us all. Not just me, her and my sister, but the rest of our family as well. Along with all of Dad’s friends. The pressure was painful, an elephant sitting on my chest and using its great, big trunk to squash my brain.
“He didn’t want to be buried.” Dad had always insisted on being cremated. I remember his insistence grew after Grandma’s funeral. She’d been cremated too. Part of me thinks he was afraid of being trapped in the ground. I know I am.
“Anything else?” Mom was picking her words carefully. She seemed afraid to tip me over into the world of heart-wrenching sobs. For a while I was lucid and in control while I planned my father’s funeral in the Firebird.
“Pastor Bill should do the service. But I don’t know what place to use.” I started to lose it. There was so much I didn’t know how to do. Dad wouldn’t be honored properly because I was too young and too stupid to figure out how to put together and fund a memorial service.
Thank god for Mom. She’d always had a touch of something extra that let her know the thoughts raging in my head. “Your grandfather called after he heard. He’s offering to take care of everything, you just need to tell him what to do.”
Grandpa, God, I’d forgotten about him. How was he handling this? He’d just lost his wife, and now his son. Yet there he was offering to bail me out of the hardship of planning everything. All I had to do was tell him the verbal will Dad left with me.
“Cremation. I want his ashes spread up in the mountains somewhere.” Dad had been happiest away from the city. The fresh air made him more alive. “I guess since I’m the oldest I get to deal with all of his stuff. But we can’t go get it.”
Mom looked at the Firebird and shook her head. “I’ll see if he can pick everything up. We’ll go through it later. Is there anything else?”
“Not that I can think of.” I was probably forgetting everything, but Grandpa would take care of it. He was a good man, always treated us right even though Mom left Dad. She always said that Grandpa disowned his son, but kept us. I thought it was out of pity and a sense of obligation to atone for his son’s wrongdoings. Only later would I learn that it was love that kept him by our sides. I was too stupid to see it then.
We sat in the car for a little while longer. The silence drove me insane. I needed something loud to drown out the screaming loss echoing in my head. I needed something more solid than fiberglass to hide the tears streaking my face. I needed to rewind the day, call my father, and apologize to him for dodging his calls for the last four months.
What I got was more silence.
“Does Elizabeth know yet?” My sister was such a sensitive soul. The news was going to kill her.
“No, not yet. I wanted you to know first.” Being the first-born had all the perks. None of which I wanted to be party to at that point.
“I need to go inside.” October was chilly that year. The warmth from the car’s heater had dissipated long before then.
Mom was the first to get her door open. A deep chill settled into my body and somehow I knew it wasn’t going to go away any time soon. It wasn’t a chill that any amount of sweaters, blankets, not even a fire could chase away. My soul was frozen with loss.
My body was stiff, like Mom had been on the way home. There was so much emotion being controlled as we walked into the house, I wanted to scream just to have a release. I was a steam pipe ready to burst, but my emergency release valve had been welded shut.
As the cold Autumn air hit my lungs I had an absurd thought, Dad was going to miss Halloween. Of all the holidays, special occasions, even random excuses to party, Halloween was his favorite. I never understood why, and frankly didn’t question it. Halloween was the one time of the year I really saw my father come alive. He was like a child during October with all the planning and building for the two small community haunted houses he helped out with.
Dad was everyone’s favorite boogeyman.
The realization was the crack in my internal steam pipe. I barely made it inside the house and past Mom’s adopted father, who loathed Dad, before the first real gut-wrenching sob caught a hold of me.
Dimly, through the haze of my grief, I heard a gruff voice ask, “What the hell is wrong with her?” He knew, he already knew. How cruel does a person have to be in order to even ask such a question?
“Just leave her alone.” Mom was so tired of refereeing fights between her father and I over Dad. I loved my father. All Grandpa C. saw was the mistakes the man made in his life. Sure, there were a lot of mistakes, but part of being a decent human being is looking past those to the person underneath.
My father was plagued by demons only a few can understand. His untreated emotional issues compounded by his physical handicaps were too much for him to cope with. I knew how hard it was for him to be so weakened by his ailments. I saw how embarrassed he was every time a home nurse came over to teach me how to treat the wound from his latest surgery. Very early on in my life the role of caretaker had been swapped. I didn’t care; I knew I was doing something good for him because he couldn’t do it for himself.
But Grandpa C. never understood that. He was a hard-ass from a long line of stubborn people. Sometimes I wondered how he had enough love in his heart to adopt my mother. All I ever saw from him was an old man that was too mean to die. How unfair it was for him to be there still, mocking me in my pain while my father who loved me was lying on some cold metal slab in the county morgue. I’d never hated my grandfather more than that moment.
I don’t know how long I lay under the blankets on my bed and wept. At some point my sister found out. Her grieving was louder then mine. My trusty personal CD player blocked out the sound of her crying. I could not cope with her loss as well as mine. I was still wracking my brain to see if I’d forgotten any of Dad’s final wishes. I was a selfish little girl in that moment and didn’t care. My grief superceded everyone else’s. I needed it to.
The days between the conversation in the Firebird and the memorial service were a blur. True to his word, Grandpa M. took care of everything. There were a few rough phone calls where he asked if I knew who would want to attend the service or if we should do an announcement in the newspaper. To this day I can’t remember if I said yes to the newspaper. I never look at the obituaries. Too depressing to witness so much death, most of which could have been prevented.
On the day of the service I was numb. Nothing felt real. Not the dress I was wearing. Not the shoes on my feet. Not even my sister’s hand clutched in mine felt solid. I walked in a Jell-o mold of misery with a few tissues tucked in my jacket pocket just in case the mold broke just as the pipe had.
There were so many people there and I knew almost all of them. Their pain jabbed at me. The pitiful glances they stole my way aggravated the hurt even more. Being inside a strange building with so many people to say goodbye to my father felt wrong somehow. We should have been outside. We should have been up where Dad thrived to say our farewells, but in my grief I didn’t think of what would give me closure. I thought of what we could do to appease others. No one wanted to drive into the mountains for a funeral.
I perched on the hard wood bench of the church. Up front Grandpa had a picture of Dad from when he was younger. Though the picture wasn’t in color I knew his hair had been red then. So was the neatly trimmed beard that framed his trademark smile. I never saw Dad’s hair as its natural color. The stress of life leeched the color out long before I was aware of the world around me. To me he’d always had clear hair; never it’s brilliant red or even grey. It was as clear as the IV lines that lived in his arms more often than he liked, as clear as the vials of insulin he kept in the butter compartment of the fridge.
My sister sat next to me. She alternated between fidgeting and weeping. I had a sense that I was doing the same, but that too-familiar numbness made my actions that of a stranger. My mind wasn’t with my body. It floated up at the ceiling watching the entire scene like a patron in a movie theatre. Why anyone would want to watch a movie that depressing was beyond me, but there I was, watching myself weep silently as the pastor started the service.
Everyone was watching us.
Even as family and friends walked to the podium to speak kind words about Dad, their eyes were for us, measuring the depth of our grief. The emergency tissues in my pocket were used up before all was said and done. Mom spent the last few minutes handing off what extra tissues she’d packed in her purse.
The man I always considered Dad’s best friend walked up to speak. My heart hit my stomach because I knew it was going to be even more painful to listen to him talk. And I was right. D said all of the right things to topple my heart over, to shatter than numbness I lived in for so many days.
I remembered that Halloween was approaching again. We used D’s garage to set up the smaller of the two haunted houses. The highlight of the haunt was going up onto the porch to make a deal with the Devil… my father. I sat there in church and cried because there would be no devil that year, or any of the years after.
For me the world wasn’t complete unless I watched Dad scaring the masses, and then rewarding their bravery with huge fistfuls of candy and a deep laugh.
The rest of the service was a blur. My mind was wrapped tight around the idea that Dad would never get to play the Devil again. The numbness crept back in, blanketing me from the pitiful glances and hollow words of regret. I don’t remember anything that was said out in the church parking lot, I only remember that we were there. At some point Grandpa M. invited us to his house. The family was having a small get together, as close as we’d get to an Irish wake.
We were never much for adhering to our ancestry.
Sitting in Grandpa M.’s house was painful. All around us were memories of the grandmother we’d lost not that long before and the father we’d just sent into the incinerator. In the hall was the empty place where the portrait of Dad had been hanging before it was used for the memorial service. Funny, I thought on a trip to the bathroom, I never noticed that picture before. The blank spot where it had been haunted me the entire afternoon.
I don’t remember talking much on the day of Dad’s service. Mostly I clung to my sister or my mother. If someone asked me a question, I nodded mutely or shook my head. Was I hungry? Nod head. Was I okay? Nod head. I looked like one of those tiny Chihuahua bobble-head toys everyone had on their dashboards. They all understood, though. My grief stole my voice. When I did speak, it was a tiny, frail thing. As though I thought if I were too loud, the pain would swallow me whole again.
Grief had become the boogeyman I feared.
On Halloween I had a mission. As a last hurrah for my father, I was going to take his place at D’s haunted house. No, I wouldn’t be playing the Devil. It was never my intention to replace Dad, but honor him by filling a void his death left within the community. My sister was upset that I would be the one doling out handfuls of candy while she made like a corpse on the porch swing. We fought during the entire drive up to the mountains about it. I saw it as my duty as the oldest to see him honored. No one, not even my sister and best friend would deter me from my mission.
By the end of the first hour, I wished I’d let her do it.
Almost every single person that came up those steps missed my father and told me so as I filled their kid’s pillowcases with sweet treats. Old classmates jogged up to greet me, a strange look in their eyes while we talked about Dad. The pain that I’d been trying to ignore by diving head first into Halloween preparations surfaced again. At one point I had to call for a time out because I’d cried so much half of my makeup ran off.
The quick stories about Dad that everyone shared in passing touched my heart. They saw the goodness in him that was sometimes so buried in our home life. I wanted to believe that filling his shoes on Halloween night would give me some closure, some way to say goodbye to him. But despite the love for him that I felt from the community, my heart was still empty. No amount of funny stories could fill the gaping hole where he’d been. I was trying to cover it up with fake blood and plastic spiders. The real healing wouldn’t happen for a very long time.