“Grief relief,” I said, pulling a small bottle of Jack Daniels from the left inside pocket of my black denim Levi jacket. I expected my sister to look at me with her usual, “Okay, little brother, you’re getting yourself into trouble again?” look on her face, the one I’d become accustomed to, but she just gave a straight faced smile and slowly released a muted laughed. She understood. Our dad, lying curled up in the bed he’d been confined to for the last week, was gone.
That’s not what I said. I don’t remember exactly what I said. I just remember it was funny and it made me feel proud of my comedic (and possibly even my social quentionable) skills during an unpleasant situation. Good one liner! I even found myself repeating the line in my head days, weeks, and months afterwards. Maybe I could be a stand up comedian. My dad was dead and one of the first things to come out of my mouth was a joke. I also knew I didn’t have nearly enough alcohol to last the night as the local redneck (and only) liquor store closed over two hours ago at 6pm.
That’s how you know you’re an alcoholic, right?
The room shimmered with energy and conversation. For the first time in years I coexisted in the same space with my siblings: my seven year old half sister, biological daughter of my father who my mom immediately fell in love with when my parent’s courted so many years ago, and my younger brother of two years, who along with me, was born while my parents were teaching in Australia in the late 60’s and early 70’s. In my dad’s blue velvet chair sat one of his best friends, Mr. R., his head down low, his wife sitting nearby (he did several months later, possibly in part from the stress of seeing one of his best friends die). My mom, everywhere, nowhere, despondent. My brother in law, now in his late sixties or early seventies, skipped from room to room, conversation to conversation, like an overstimulated puppy: that has always been his “normal” and in a strange way normal is what we all needed.
I don’t recall how many others were there.
But what the fuck was “normal” under these circumstances anyway? I’ve held pets in my arms as they crossed the rainbow bridge. I’ve hugged animals to my chest and released streams of tears after they’d returned frozen in time from the vet. Was this any different? I stared at the back of my dad’s familiar bald head. His skin, more pale than usual, had sunk into his bones in the same way I’d experienced with all the four legged animals I’d loved and lost over my forty-seven years. And yet the cacophony of human beings bouncing from the living room to the kitchen and back betrayed the solemnity I held for similar life events. Was there something wrong with them or with me? I’d recently come to ask myself if I’d always been a little “on the spectrum” and that provided some comfort. Human beings have always seems a little alien to me. This was just another day we’d (or [hopefully] most of us had already planned for). Did it need to be weird?
I poured the contents of J.D. into a Portland Trailblazer’s glass, one of a complete collection my mother had purchased over multiple visits to the local Dairy Queen in the early 90’s, and considered skipping the social niceties for a much needed cigar on the front porch where at least I could observe events through the bay window at a distance and without guilt—it’s not like my dad was going anywhere and her certainly wasn’t about to rip into my ass for being antisocial. Instead I slammed a generous swig and found myself hostage to my brother K. who launched into a political diatribe about something so far from our clear and present reality that I found myself clutching the rocking chair to keep myself grounded.
I’d only learned of my father’s passing fifteen or twenty minutes earlier. I was driving (or more accurately, my Telsa was driving) up the hill between Madras and Prineville, you know, the one on 26 where you can’t quite see the city yet. I had my iPhone where I could see it and sure enough, as I dreaded, a message lit up the dark interior. It was from my brother. Our father had passed away about fifteen minutes before, while I was likely driving through the ugly concrete hell that is Madras, Oregon. Without skipping a beat I sent a message to my wife. And I let off the “gas” pedal.
You see, sometimes I have “feelings”. Intuitions most people would call them. This time around they hit in Madras. I’d explain the feeling as an intense unexplainable sense of urgency. After turning left off 97 and getting back onto 26 I floored it; the Tesla was only too happy to comply. Why had I stopped to top off the battery at the Super Chargers in Sandy? I didn’t really need to. Exactly a week before I’d similarly had my workday interrupted by anxious phone calls and Facebook messages from my mother which prompted me to immediately alert my colleagues, hurriedly pack my travel bags, and hit the road. My companions had been old Art Bell episodes, Swisher Sweet cigarillos (I never smoke in the car anymore), and Diazepam—I didn’t want to revisit that unscheduled trip! So part of the decision to “gas up” was self care: stopping meant putting the breaks on my rumbling anxiety levels. Stopping also meant I could take advantage of Fred Meyer’s rest room. I should have known something was up when I made the unintended purchase of a bouquet of sunflowers for my mom (I didn’t realize these are her favorite). Fifteen minutes had been the difference between seeing my dad alive again.
If I may be so bold, I’ve had a gut wrenching “feeling” that someone close to me would die in 2021, but I assumed it would be me. The reality of Post Lyme syndrome. The possibility of catching COVID while having a preexisting inflammatory disorder. A heart attack resulting from high cholesterol promoting genes my dad had bestowed upon me. There was certainty in this premonition so I’d rationalized, selfishly enough, that I’d be the one kicking the bucket, that way I wouldn’t have to live with the aftermath. That way my physical, emotional, and psychological struggles would be over. But these past few weeks, as I found myself covering hundreds of miles of forested highways back and forth between Portland and Central Oregon, I’d come to accept the reality, set Post Traumatic Stress born from a lifetime of verbal abuse aside, and jump through the hoops, the advice dad had so effectively drilled into me every time I encountered major life difficulties.
I did not weep for my father. I had no regrets. My last words to him were, “I love you.” So many people forget to say that but I have the gift of foresight. The previous Saturday, when my brother and kids were over visiting, I said it as I hugged him, even while he wasn’t listening because his mind was on his grandchildren. I knew it would be the last time I saw him alive when I walked out the door that day knowing it was the only things I could do. Back to work. C’est la vie.
I took another sip of whiskey. I engaged with family and friends. I puffed cigars while skimming through Facebook and messaging my wife. I did all the things you’re supposed to do and did all the things I’d normally do. In between I did nothing at all. I was different. I was the same. I was human.
I looked down at my dad who was lying curled up on his right side. Someone asked if I’d like to say goodbye but I said I already had. Besides, with all the social activity orbiting him I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the kind of privacy some part of me yearned for, something I always took for granted when pets passed away. Uninterrupted silence together. Nonchalantly I asked my mother if she wanted a lock of his hair. It was a ritual my wife had whenever one of her guinea pigs died, a way of holding onto more than memories. I suddenly felt vulnerable, having suggested something others might take the wrong way. They wouldn’t understand. To my relief and surprise my mom said yes, that it was something he’d asked her to do. I pulled a pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer, sat on the bed beside him, and twirled his hair between my fingers as if it were my own (I’m infamous for constantly twirling my own hair). Too short, it battled me for control. I asked my mom for a comb and a hair tie then carefully found a good lock, twisted it between my agile fingers until it was straight and smooth, placed the band around it, then cut a lock of silver from his head: another final ritualistic hair cut.
The doorbell rang. A tall, bearded man in his late forties or early fifties entered. This stranger was here to collect the body.
I hate that. I hate how we say, “the body”. They took my dad, for Christ’s sake. He was a person. He is a person. He may have passed away, but he’s not a corpse (yet). Sure, he wasn’t “home” anymore—I can agree to that inasmuch as any agnostic could—and frankly as an empath it was obvious on entering the room that evening that he simply wasn’t there anymore—but he wasn’t “the body”.
I’ve never had much respect for obfuscation.
I asked the interloper if I could help. I’d been raised on a farm, raised to take care of my own, and it was my responsibility. He politely declined while I turned away so he wouldn’t see me rolling my eyes. Maybe he’d accepted help in the past and it hadn’t gone so well. No matter. He carefully and with compassionate professionalism wrapped my father in the bed sheets, lifted him onto the gurney, then covered him with a quilt dotted with red, white, and blue American flag motifs, before everyone said their last goodbyes. My mom finally choked out, “He can see again.”
It was not the last time she would say it.
My responsibilities, it would appear, we’re done for the night. I finished off the Jack, enjoyed another cigarillo while on the phone with my wife, then returned to find my sister, brother, and mother sitting in the living room talking lively. Despite my social gas meter being on empty I suddenly felt full of energy again. We sat there, until the early hours of the morning, sharing memories and stories. I never knew how much I had in common with all of them.