Death with Father

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A dream. The guests mill around noiselessly as I scan the room for my father. I’m peering through gauze. This must be a party, because Dad’s wearing a tuxedo. He’s only worn one a few times, and I’m tempted to go up and ask him when the canapés are being served. Now doesn’t seem the time for joking, though. Dad’s busy floating from person to person. He keeps glancing at his watch.

“If he hadn’t given me this sick sense of humor, I’m not sure I could handle this,” says my older sister, Rachael. She and I linger in front of Dad’s open casket; he’s handsome like Ned Beatty at last call.

We search for appropriate words, but all we manage is mimicking an old Bill Cosby routine, where a dead man has a tape recorder in his coffin. As friends file by, the tape plays, “Why, hello, Bob. How’s the wife and kids? You’re looking well. Don’t I look well?” We giggle quietly, not wanting to alarm the guests. If Dad weren’t indisposed, he’d be playing right along with us.

Down the hall in the mortuary’s lounge, my relatives chain-smoke. Puff, ash, mourn. Puff, ash, mourn. They could etch their initials in the dusky air. I don’t point out that Dad’s passion for cigarettes is precisely what earned him this sudden, permanent vacation in Flavor Country. No one would grasp the irony.

Dad finishes speaking with everyone and tells me he has to go. His face is expressionless. “Wait, I’ll go with you,” I offer. He looks at me. “You can’t, you’re too young. I have to go by myself.” I cajole him like I’m 16 again and want the car. “Come on, Dad. It’ll be okay.” He watches me for a moment and then leaves the party. I follow.

The viewing room is stuffed with people I’m told I know. “Come on, you remember Mr. Nameless Pinstripe Suit! He worked with your father at the old office.” Oh yeah, him. I was just 4 when Dad worked there, but I’m still embarrassed at my ignorance. My only shot at being the thoughtful daughter of the deceased father, and I’m totally blowing it.

“You’re so young to lose your father,” a heavyset woman says to console me. I’ll buy that. I’m 22 and already the mother of a toddler, but there’s nothing like burying Daddy to make you want to drag the Dr. Denton’s out of mothballs. Were we normal, my siblings and I would mourn openly, sopping up the flood of sympathy like grief-wracked sponges. Instead, we work the room.

“Dad always said he wanted to go to Hell,” I joke to his old receptionist, “because all his friends would be there.” She smiles at me nervously, not sure how to respond. As she shifts from foot to foot, I decide against regaling her with one of his best vasectomy jokes.

Dad’s driving fast, but I keep up in the car behind him. I’ve never met this dry road, but it knows me. It grips my tires as I navigate the turns. Dad, I think, where the hell are we going? No matter which direction we drive, the sun always lies behind us. It sinks as Dad continues without his headlights. It’s night.

“I’ll be one of the pallbearers,” I tell Uncle Doug at the burial site. I’ve never been one for symbolic gestures, but I feel obligated to carry Dad. How many times has he carried me?

In high school, I had to dissect a cat that looked a lot like my own. “It’s just cells, it’s not a cat,” I’d chant to myself with each cut. Now, clutching the casket’s brass rail, a cold weight shifts inside. “It’s just cells, it’s not a dad.” It doesn’t help.

We carry Dad up a small ridge and rest him on the Astroturf surrounding his new grave. He always preferred playing on natural grass, but this may not be the time to say so. A white-and-green striped awning canopies the audience. If I squint my eyes, this is a party. Maybe I’m deaf, because I can’t hear the comforting words oozing from the minister, three feet away.

Dad must think it’s a shame that all this prime golf course acreage is being squandered on dead people. Were it not for this previous engagement, he’d be teeing off right now. Five days ago, I teased him that golf’s not even a real sport. If I jam my tongue into the roof of my mouth any harder, I’ll choke.

Everyone gets up from ringside, and it’s done. Dad’s sister lights a Pall Mall 100 and smokes to better days. Now it’s time to say goodbye to Jed and all his kin. We head to our cars, pretending there won’t be an empty seat.

Dad reaches the top of a wide, sloping hill, and parks. He gets out and walks steadily to the edge of a freshly dug grave. I try to run to him, stop him, but my legs are marshmallows. The air smells of electrified earth. Dad glances back, “I told you I had to go alone.” I grab for his hand, convinced that I’m strong enough to keep him here. “Dad, please,” I say, my voice raspy and small, “you don’t understand. If you go, you’re never coming back.” He looks at me gently. “No, honey, you don’t understand. I’m already gone.”

 

*A version of this piece appeared in Virgin Territory: Stories from the Road to Womanhood by Cathy Alter.

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Watching Your Mother Die

 

You push your metal chair way back in the cramped hospital room. You’re still only two feet from her bed, but you need space to breathe—even though she barely can.

You watch her 59-year-old mouth gape like a dying carp’s and thank god and the morphine that she’s unconscious. You ignore the fact that you’ve been sweating the cancer-ward smell—latex, alcohol, flat Sprite—out of your skin for weeks.

You also ignore the truth: that time and tumors can’t fill the chasm between you and the woman lying there. You feel the old hurt mix with the new hurt so savagely your bones ache.

You wait for someone to race out of the writers’ room to hand you the revised script—the one that spares you and your siblings this low-rent death scene.

When no one comes, you look up at her blood pressure on the monitor. Just as it hits zero over zero, you pat her foot and say loudly, “Everything’s going to be okay, Mom. It’s all going to be okay.”

Then you cram the reality that nothing ever was—or ever will be—okay back down your throat.

A decade later, you wonder when you’ll start missing her.

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