29 October 2013

My father, 1928-2013



Dad was in a cooler.
Saturday afternoon, Mom said, “I need to see him again.”
They were keeping him over the weekend. He’d wanted nothing. No chemicals. No box. No ceremony. Ashes to ashes. And fast.
But he died on a Friday afternoon. So he did get no chemicals. He did get no box. He was going to get no ceremony. But paperwork had to come before ashes, paperwork that had to be processed by offices that weren't open on weekends in that semi-rural Texas town two thousand miles from where he’d grown up.  
“He’s in there all alone. And he’s so cold.” Mom said.
I'd flown back -- just two weeks after I'd helped them move there. “I know, Mom, but it’s good he’s cold. It’s like a blanket for him now.”
“I suppose…” And then a few minutes later. “But he’s in there all alone. I can’t stand to think of him in there all alone.”
She had no choice but to leave him in there all alone all weekend. She’d asked my brother, the one who lived there, to make sure that, when she went in to sign all the papers, that Dad would be out where she could see him again. One last time.

There was only one funeral home in Brazos county that would cremate a body. Only one. You couldn’t be born yet again if your entire body wasn’t in the ground. No seed, no body, no resurrection. Resurrection required nostrils, there, ready to breathe in the breath of the Divine even if those nostrils would soon be dust by time and life feeding on itself. Cremation was for heathens.
To get to that one funeral home, we took turn after turn through ramshackle residential streets. Low yellow brick houses, one with plywood over a window, a dog barking, another with a car on blocks, most with high green grass fed by the heavy wet air. I thought we were going through this area to another. But we weren’t. At a low red brick building, my brother turned in to what I thought was just a wide open graveled dirt lot with one big tree in the middle and standing pits of water too large to be called puddles. I looked for a funeral home like the ones back east. I looked for the too perfect former house of every funeral home I’d ever seen and, when I didn’t see it, I thought my brother was stopping here to tell us all something, to leave one of the cars for some reason, to change directions. But he turned off his car and my brothers got out.
“I guess we’re here,” I said to Mom.
“Where?”
“There, I guess.”
In front of us was a worn house that had once been painted white with dark green trim. It was attached to the back of the brick building. There was a small sign over a bent screen door, a sign like motels have, that said “office.” 
When I opened the car door, a humid mass of unbreathable air flopped like gelatin inside the once-air-conditioned car. I stood up and went around to the passenger door to help my mother out. Kevin, who'd flown in to be with me, followed behind. She took my arm and we picked our way slowly around muddy pits of water and loose piles of scree.
At the office door, there were no stairs, just a step up off the dirt over discontinuous slats of worn white wood, one with a wide wedge rotted and gone.
From the look of it, there weren’t enough heathens in Brazos County, Texas, to support even this one funeral home. 
We stepped up into an office as bad off as the outside of the building. The mat by the door meant to clean dirt off muddy shoes had all the dirt and mud it could take and the carpet it was supposed to protect needed none: it was threadbare and worn.  Floor boards sagged in places and office equipment sat on top of old metal file cabinets with their thick wires running to large, completely filled multiplugs. Worse, when we walked in, no one was there. The five of us, my mother, husband, two brothers and I, stood, listening for any sign that it was worth calling out for someone.
I wanted to scream at my brother, what were you thinking taking our east coast surgeon Dad here? Were you thinking at all? How could you do this to Dad, to Mom, to us?
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it without making things worse for Mom, without making things worse for all of us. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t saying it, wasn’t reacting to any of it, when an only slightly subpar upscale hotel could make her reel.
She was standing like she was underwater, a current flowing through her seaweed hair.
But no one said anything. Not one of us. For the first time in our lives, the scene wasn’t written by Albee or Williams or O’Neill. No, we stood there, kind – or, rather, not inflicting on the others what we thought their “kind” should sound like, look like, be.

In 1968, when I was eleven, I’d seen a movie - I don't remember which one - in which time and space stretched out for eons before and for eons after me, the me that I’d never considered in relation to time, to space, to stars, to planets, to rocks, to mountains, to grains of sand and the oceans that made them and I was in terror. I flew out of my bed and into Mom and Dad’s bedroom. My father was asleep, the acrostic book on his bedside table. Beyond him, the rise of my mother’s hip, her arm on top, the orange glow of a cigarette in the blue light from the television.
I ran around the king bed to her side and threw myself down on the floor. I knew better than to try to crawl in bed with her. As I whispered and cried my incomprehension, my fear, she took the cigarette she'd been smoking out of her mouth, stubbed it out in the large ashtray on her bedside table then, before she took another out of the pack with her mouth, she said, “Don’t be such a little fool.” She flipped her silver lighter open, spun the flint wheel, and leaned her cigarette down to the flame. A drag of air drew the fire towards her and, when the end glowed red, she snapped the lighter shut and put it back on top of the cellophane–wrapped pack on the table. “What happens after? Nothing. When it’s done, it’s done. That’s all. That’s it. And there’s really no point in thinking anything more about it. You're too old for this. Now stop your foolishness and go to bed.”
I did go back to bed - there was no place else to go - but my foolishness didn’t stop, not then, not ever, I just learned to hide it better. I learned that no one really knew what to say about death, that the ones who did were just making it up to anesthetize themselves or to make me shut up and go away. I learned that I was going to have to build my own structure to cope because Mom didn’t need any and she thought I was damaged if I did.
But I did need one. I was defective.  It's probably the seed of this entire project.

After waiting for too long in the funeral home office, my brother went to find someone but came back without results. Finally, a vague woman wandered in to the office. She seemed surprised to see us standing there, her eyes magnified by her large glasses. We said we had an appointment.
“Oh,” she said, then went away. When she came back, she said, “Ricky will be out as soon as he can.”
“Is there someplace more comfortable for my Mom to wait?”
“Oh, yes. Sorry. Right this way.” She walked up the short set of stairs and then disappeared into a room. When she realized we weren’t right behind her, my mother couldn’t move that fast, she came back out and stood at the top of the stairs and said, “You can wait in this room here. May I get you some water or something?”
I didn’t want anything but thought some caring action was better than nothing. “Yes, please. That would be nice.”
The room was an ochre cube. An oval conference table too large for the space was on the diagonal so people might be able to get to the plush chairs on wheels around it. There were only four chairs and soon to be six of us: my mother, my brothers, Kevin, the funeral director, and me. My older brother helped Mom sit down.
I said, “I don’t want to sit.”
No one else did either. 
The shelves along the wall advertised the funeral home’s services, casket upgrades, choices of headstones, keepsakes and special jewelry, urns for ashes, possible flower arrangements along with pamphlets offered by plastic holders, all in bright pinpoint spots.  “Helping Yourself Heal”, “When Your Parent Dies”, “Accepting a Loss”, how to deal with those who are only in the process of dying and another about how to help children understand what’s going on. Yeah? Some bullshit pamphlet was gonna do that? Help me understand what the fuck was going on? Help any one of us clueless panicked parents make sense for our children of what doesn’t make sense?
What was going on was Dad was dead, his unpreserved body in a cooler somewhere, rotting in this rotting place, and Mom wanted to get him out of the icebox to see him again, wanted us to go with her and what choice did we have but to wait in the ochre box that wrapped us in advertisements for what we should be buying if we really loved him, the “deceased”, my dad, the man who’d tickled me on the den floor until I couldn’t breathe, the man who’d held my hands so I could stand on his feet and walk as he walked, the man who’d made me Halloween costumes year after year until the Tin Man’s wrapping paper tube legs came without knee joints and I told him I wanted to be like everyone else with plastic princess masks from the five and dime, the man who'd made big garage clean-ups fun, the man who’d broken up the spin the bottle game at Doug’s because Doug was four years older, the man who’d taken us to the science museum and liked pushing the buttons as much as we did, the man who'd take me to the penny candy store to buy red hot dollars that weren’t hot, the man who’d bury us up to our necks in the cold wet sand and then walk with me on his shoulders into the waves, the man who'd bring boxes of donuts home with him when he had to see patients on the weekends.
You know, the deceased.
The vague woman was back with small warm bottles of purified water she put in a clump on the table. Behind her was Ricky, a squat middle-aged man wearing a yellow shirt and brown striped tie. He stood just outside the door jam until she left.
My brother who lived in Texas sat down next to Mom. He was in charge of this part.
Ricky sat down at the table with papers. He left to get more papers he’d forgotten. He explained. He spoke with a mouth with too much spit. He turned papers over. He pointed to lines to sign. He smoothed his shiny dark hair. He talked about faxing and state regulations and turn around time and office hours and how long “it” would take once all papers were signed and faxed and approved. He told us what day and time he thought we could return to pick up the cremains (i.e. Dad) and did Mom want a special box? Oh, and did she want to take his wedding ring now?
The air conditioner strained against the heat outside the small wooden building. My other brother leaned against one of the walls and looked over at me. I gripped my lips thin and saw him do the same, something I’d never noticed we had in common.
Mom nodded, her hands abandoned, palms up, on her lap.
Ricky stood and said, “Now, if you give me a moment to make sure the room is ready…” and backed out the door.
We listened to the building’s hum. The sound of a door. Some footsteps walking on carpeted sagging wood. A copier working.
“He never took off his ring,” Mom said. “Ever.”
She waited for an answer from someone.
I said, “I know, Mom.”
Too soon, Ricky was back. His hands in front of him as though that was more respectful. He stood back from the door and motioned for us to walk down the hall.
I had decided I wasn’t going in the room. I couldn't bear the thought of seeing my father like that. He hated viewings. He told us so. It was part of the reason he wanted to be cremated and as fast as possible. If he'd been there, he would have told me to forget about it, to not go in, to run, that he didn't want to be seen like that, that it meant nothing to him, that he was gone, done, dead, and what was left was "nothing but chemicals." He'd said that so many times at the dinner table. Nothing but chemicals. Complex chemicals breaking down into simpler ones. Order to disorder. Energy released. I knew he wanted to make sure no one ever saw the beginning of his personal breaking down from order to disorder. At eighty-six, a doctor with a bad heart he'd kept a secret, he'd made a choice to go suddenly instead of a visible slow decline in a hospital. He wanted his body gone the moment he died. And I thought my mother felt that way, too. 

There's a Buddhist practice - I think meant mostly for monks - of sitting in a crematorium until you truly accept how impermanent you are. And a story Swami Sarvadevananda told me about a Hindu abbot or head of a monastery who was throughly fed up with how distracted all of his monks were by a particularly beautiful woman so, when she got sick and died, he made his obsessed clerics sit and watch her body decompose so they understood how empty and meaningless their obsession had been. Gruesome to think about.
But here, in this country in 2013, we have almost no contact with death and as little as possible contact with the sick and dying, like it's an embarrassing and unseemly thing to do, best kept out of sight. Even here it wasn't always like this. But medicine has gotten so good at keeping us alive to an old age and then medicalizing our final decline, that most of us have precious little experience with death. My grandparents all died suddenly so my only experience of their deaths was a phone call. Two of them had no funeral and my parents kept us from the two funerals that did happen. The only funeral I attended as a child was that of a great-aunt I adored, my father's favorite aunt. Her body was on display with make-up she never wore looking like she never looked in life. It was horrific. My father thought so, too. 

I’d decided to walk Mom to the door and then wait for her outside. My younger brother helped her up and then she took my arm, looked up at me, and said:  “I want you to come in with me.”
My mother, who talked about open caskets like they were for ghouls and crazy people. My mother, who thought people who needed some belief structure to cope with death were weak. My mother, who hated maudlin emotional displays. My mother, who never went to funerals. This was the woman who said: "I want you to come in with me." 
“Uhm, okay, Mom.”
We walked around the corner and into a room only marginally less rundown than the rooms we’d been in before and there, at the far end, was my father’s body under a fake pieced quilt, the kind with the squares printed on them, the top edge folded back as though he was lying in a bed. But his face was gray, rigid. His cheeks, sunken. Aside from the blanket, the only other thing they’d done was to comb his baby-fine white hair. It had comb lines in it but it wasn’t the way he combed his hair. And it was straight down to the pillow and then it hung, shaggy, above the top edge of the pillow. There was no other attempt made to pretend he was anything other than dead. We hadn't paid for it.
        My brothers and husband were back by the door. Mom hadn’t given me that choice.
I felt embarrassed to look at him. He wouldn’t have wanted anyone to look at him like this, so helpless, so defenseless, so lost. So dead.
That wasn't my father lying there. But it was. But it wasn't. He, the him I knew, wasn't there. But what wasn't there? That was his body, his face, his hair, his neck with the scar he'd gotten in the Korean war when he'd stepped between two privates having a knife fight, but...
         I would have given anything for any shred of faith, for any story that I could believe, that would make it stop being this.  
When she got close to Dad, Mom let go of my arm to put her hands on his chest. She bent down to whisper, “You know how much I love you, don’t you? You knew, right?”
I felt like I was watching something I wasn’t supposed to see, a child walking into a tangle of bodies in the dark, something that shouldn’t have had any other eyes, any other witnesses, an act sacred because of its privacy. But I was standing there, listening, watching.
My mother said to my father’s body, “I’m really not ready for you to leave me. Not yet.” She kissed his cheek, softly patted his chest and said, “But I’ll see you soon.” Then she turned away and left me there.
I would have given anything to have a ritual other than this.
I looked at my Dad. I didn’t know what to do.
I touched his soft white hair. 
I don’t think he’d have minded that.