(Originally posted on old blog on Sunday, November 15, 2009)
At this very moment nine months ago, I was heading to the funeral home to attend my father’s wake. It seems no less surreal now than it did then. It feels as though a lifetime has passed, and yet I can recall the day like it just happened.
As an English teacher, I am aware of how clichéd that statement is; I know I have crossed it out countless times on my students’ college application essays, no doubt with a marginal note saying something to the effect of, “What would be lost from your essay if you took this out?” to convey the point that the sentiment adds noting to the piece and those precious words would be better spent developing the memory that student claims is so vivid.
But death is a cliché, really. The only unique elements are the details.
So here are the details:
I got a call at 3:15 in the morning on February 11th. It was an odd evening at my house. The phone did not wake us up, as my daughter Avery had woken up with a stomach ache about 20 minutes before – probably around the same time my father turned to my mother making a gasping, gurgling sound. I can still hear my mother imitate the noise, though I can’t let myself imagine my father making it.
I told my mother I’d be right there, and I stood in front of my closet saying I had no shoes. What should I put on my feet? I had no shoes.
That was just the beginning of the irrational thought processes that have plagued me for the past nine months.
Avery asked if Poppy – that’s what she and my son Owen call him – was dead. Children are more perceptive than we give them credit for.
After making the 2 mile drive to my parents’ house, I walked up the stairs to the second floor and peered into my parents’ bedroom. Through the doorway, I could see his feet. Oh, I thought, he must have fallen. Maybe hit his head. Yes, he got up to go to the bathroom, tripped over something, fell, and hit his head. He would be embarrassed, but fine – a bruised ego that would heal quite nicely, the only scars being the laughs we’d share with the stories that would begin, “Remember when Dad tripped over his own slipper?”
Wishful thinking. I recognized it even then. When I walked downstairs and saw my mom pacing the kitchen, I knew she thought he was dead but didn’t want to tell me…which was okay because I didn’t want to hear it.
I dialed my in-laws and told my father-in-law to get to my house quickly because my husband Brendan would need to be with me for this one. I called Brendan and told him to get ready. As if I had any say in the matter, I told him I was not ready to lose my dad – that I COULDN’T lose my dad right now. I was too young.
But when is death convenient? While talking to Brendan, I watched through the picture window as they put my father in the ambulance. They were still giving him CPR. I knew that was a bad sign.
Sitting in the Beverly Hospital ER waiting room, I had time to try on the new life that would soon be mine whether I wanted to buy it or not.
It didn’t fit.
My father was 59. No gray hair. Some extra pounds on him, but none that were too noticeable on his 6’2 frame. Aside from being a “good” diabetic, he was relatively healthy. I had always assumed his death would be preceded by a slow decline that would be painful to watch. Though he hadn’t had any major complications yet, with diabetes, you think kidney disease, blindness, maybe amputations. Mind you, this is not what I wanted, just what I assumed…not sitting in an ER at 30 years old without warning.
When the nurse, Diane, a petite woman with a dark birthmark above her right eyebrow, came out to update us, I still clung to the irrational belief that this ER visit would be nothing more than a wake-up call. Instead, she uttered that clichéd phrase heard all too often on hospital dramas: “I’m sorry; he didn’t make it.”
While Diane ushered my mother down the hall to see my dad, I had already walked in the opposite direction toward the windows. I have a friend who always reads the last few pages of a book before she starts it so that she knows the ending in case she doesn’t get to finish it. I remember feeling like I had flipped through the pages of my dad’s biography and was getting a glimpse of the last page, thinking, “So this is it? This is how it ends?” and wishing desperately that I could go back and write more chapters.