There must be a first step after loss—that moment where you get back up and say, “I guess I’m going to work.” Then there are the dishes, the laundry and the garbage to be hauled. The leaves to rake, the window to be fixed, the child to wrangle. Every motion is dragged from your body like an unwilling slug making its way across glass strewn pavement. One gets used to the sound of their tiny, anguished screams.*
I am an automaton clanking through my day with the occasional grace note of pain as thoughts pass by. “I should call him…oh…” “Dad will laugh at this comic strip…” and finally, I slip into past tense as I buy a Bigby’s pomegranate green tea: “Dad would have grumbled at the expense.” Days spent wondering when he would be gone are now chased by the ghost of that moment.
In photos, I can revisit the man I somewhat, but not quite, knew. He would smile upon command, but caught unawares, usually was bowed with thought, twisting a strand of his hair so it stood up, Alfalfa-like, a shrubby cockscomb on the back of his head. The pictures are faded, pink or yellowed, erasing the certainty of who he was and leaving me with an afterimage I stare at and wonder, “Is that really him?” And then I will see a hint of that smile. The ear-to-ear, sh*t-eating grin with his eyes closed in pleasure at his own cleverness. The smile I sometimes wear whenever I feel the same.
I will shake this fugue state, I know. It is a sadly familiar road I travel. I plod the path where death greets me like an old friend. “Oh, it’s you again! Has it really been that long? Where does the time go? Shall we go past the park or down to the river this time?”** As I walk, I am cocooned by sorrow. It is like putting on a heavy cloak that I wear to winter the pain. Eventually, the sun peeks out from behind the clouds and I can take it off, basking in the surprise of warmth half-remembered. For now, I await the thaw.
I spent the day after he died digging a ton of rocks out of the wedge of dirt alongside the house. I planted enough bulbs—seasoned with cayenne pepper to deter hungry rodents—to choke a bouquet. When the sun does finally reappear after a winter that is decidedly too long, I will count the daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths and measure my grief in petals.
“He loved me.”
“I loved him too.”
“He loved me.”
“I love him still.”
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnote:
*Warning, my metaphors are squishy (like worms after a rain) and make little sense (ditto); it is a common side effect of grief.
**Death is overly chatty and loves to reminisce. The bastard.
[Update: Carl Krueger, born 07-01-1929, died 10-13-2015]
A Memorial to a Man Who is Not Quite Dead Yet
(Warning: inappropriate humor follows. And tears. But mostly badly expressed grief.)
Writing an obituary is a soul-grinding task. Trying to boil a person down to facts and enumerate their import after they are gone is doomed from the start. It is impossible to purely reflect an image—even with the most highly polished mirror. Call it the Hubble effect, if you will. You can use all the technological expertise teams of scientists can provide to accurately reflect the way the universe looks, but a measuring error will leave you with a fuzzy, indistinct picture. Keep this in mind when you read about my father—the reflection comes from an inexact mirror. It turns out, writing this while he is still living isn’t any easier.
In our phone conversations from his deathbed in a hospice house out of state, I have come to realize my father is already leaving me. He tires past the first two sentences. There are long pauses and moments of silence where I am unsure whether he has fallen asleep or died mid-sentence. It is funny, in a macabre sort of way, to find oneself saying, “Dad? Did you die on me?” And then wait for a reply. When it comes, haggard and incoherent, I am overcome by a mishmash of emotions: relief that he is still here and anguish that he is already gone.
I’ve been trying to make the most of our final conversations—to ask the big questions. “What do you want the world to know before you are gone?” Unfortunately, I should have been asking these questions before he started slipping away. And that is the painful reality of the nearly-dead. They are on their way out and what mattered to them while they were alive no longer holds significance. Today’s conversation, for example, primarily revolved around the passage of a blue bird past his window. (Apparently they are not just birds of happiness—they arrive at all kinds of emotional crossroads.)
Me: “Dad, I wanted to know, what is the most important thing you learned in life?”
Dad: “A blue bird just flew past, from left to right outside the window.”
Me: “Oh, well, winter is coming. Maybe it is flying south for the winter?” And then I catch myself, “but, Blue Jays stay up North for the winter. So the birds down south must be different?”
Dad: [Garbled, indistinct speech including the word ‘bird’ at random spots.]
The conversation, when it is clear, drifts from how he is feeling, to whether or not he is in pain. There is a bizarre moment when a doctor comes in and dad mistakes him for the pastor. It is a surreal thing to overhear. My dad finds energy to exchange a few words. For a moment, I recognize the man I used to know. But then, he misses the joke the doctor makes about hunting up his bible for the next time he visits. The doctor is kind when he explains he was kidding—but dad has lost the train of thought and drifts away from what he was saying.
Our conversation ends shortly after this moment—talking wears him out.
Dad: “I’m feeling tired. I think I’ll say goodbye now.”
Me: “That’s okay, Dad. You rest. I love you.”
Dad: “I love you too sweetheart. You know, you are my favorite daughter.”
It’s a glimmer of our past, this old joke. (I am his only daughter.) I hang up, crying. I know one of these times is going to be the last. And all we can manage is small talk.
But that is how people talk in real life. We don’t bring up the weighty conversations about the meaning of life and what was our greatest achievement. We talk about birds and the price of gas or some other commonplace topic. It is only when we realize we are running out of time that it occurs to us there are questions left unanswered. But, by then, it is often too late.
I am putting together a photo logue to help me compile his life legacy.* I am posting the few that spoke to me here. This will be my memorial to my Dad. It is my way of coping with losing him before he is really gone and acknowledging that knowing him isn’t a collection of facts and dates, but recognizing his spirit whenever I trip over something that reminds me of who he was to me.
My father requests that we not hold a funeral for him or even to publish an obituary; he failed, however, to stipulate that parody songs not be written. This is an astonishing oversight on his part and, as a former lawyer, he should be ashamed of his lack of vision. Please enjoy my tribute to a man who taught me everything I know about being cheap and that what really matters can’t be bought for any price. This is his anthem, his fight song, if you will—feel free to sing along:
But buying Hallmark Cards is a waste and a pain.**
I’ll squeeze a thin dime ‘til my own fingers ache.
There’s nothing that can’t be fixed with enough duct tape.
I will dance, I will sing, I will drink Stewball’s wine.
With vast quaffs of Squirt, wine highballs are fine.
I will ask you to find a particular song for me
But I will give you no lyrics, composer’s name, or symphony.
Oh, I’ve taught the importance of turning off lights
Of searching the ads to find prices just right.
If you buy me bananas, I’ll bake muffins galore
Just make sure you get them at the second-hand store.
I’m a man of my word—and words I have plenty.
For each word of yours, you know I’ve got twenty.
I can argue convictions all the day long—
A palavering opera—a most contentious song.
So maybe you’ll miss me, and maybe you won’t.
I’ll not have a funeral, nor monument of stone.
Just scatter my ashes along the creek where I roamed.
For the woods are my temple, my refuge, my home.
Good-bye, Daddy. I love you.
Asterisk Bedazzled Macabre Footnotes:
*Obituary is such a bleak word—when I die please refer to it as “Her Glorious Death Rattle—At Last, She Gets the Final Say.”
**My father took great pleasure in being outraged at the cost of greeting cards. I would send them as a joke to him, goading him into exaggerated offense. Feel free to send them when he dies. He’d be both mortified by the expense and secretly thrill to feel superior to you in every way. In return, I will use duct tape to stick them up In Memorium.