What is Death?
The nurses came in and quietly started packing my father away, pulling out plugs, undoing tubes, and marking times on papers. I had this one last morbid thought of them coming in and taking vital signs again one last time like some clown troop trying to make death fun.
I started walking down the halls to head to the cafeteria where my mother had taken Kora. The halls were filled with a plethora of oxymoronic life and death memorabilia. Here was some ‘outside’ food being brought into someone who was never leaving again. There were the kids of a woman who was feeling much better now. Here were some balloons for the new mother and her healthy new baby. There were some flowers for the terminally ill and nearly dead. Ironically they would be buying more flowers when their loved one dies since, for whatever reason that always escaped me, hospital flowers are not compatible with cemetery flowers.
It was nearing the end of visitation so the cafeteria was basically empty except for some nurses, an older couple who from their conversation were there for their granddaughter, and mom and Kora. I looked at mother and shook my head lightly back and forth with a forlorn face, the international sign that means, ‘He is gone now.’ You don’t have to be taught that sign, it is inherently ingrained in us. My mom gave a barely imperceptible shake of the head back to me and then lowered it down for a moment as Kora came running over to me.
“MOMMA!” She had obviously been crying at some point but was not now.
“Hey baby. You hungry? Want something to eat?”
I picked out a selection of foods thinking I should be hungry but ended up just picking at it. Kora ate her weight in it, the poor thing hadn’t had anything since breakfast. We just ate in silence for a little while and Kora colored in some overpriced book my mom had picked up in the gift shop. It was even little Kora who eventually broke the long silence.
“Gramma said Grampa is in heaven now, is that true mommy?”
I choked on my bite, “Sure honey.”
“I’m gonna miss him,” to which she started to cry again.
I was silent to this but my mother jumped in, “I am too, sweetie. We all will, but he will be with us in our hearts if we ever need him we can remember him and talk to him. He is our own personal angel God has assigned to take care of us.”
“Did he have to interview for the job?” Kids have a way of getting right to the point without even realizing it.
“Oh yes,” mom didn’t miss a beat. “He interviewed for a very long time and did very well.”
“He’ll be a great angel, won’t he gramma.”
“Yes honey, he will.”
I felt like I was getting sick. I pushed my food away from me.
“Do you have any plans?” as it finally dawned on me we lost him but mom was alone.
“I have some money saved up I may travel a little or sell the house and get a small apartment.”
The idea of my mother traveling alone wasn’t sitting well but I knew why she would. My dad always talked about retiring and buying an RV and just going across America for a year. My mom HATED the idea of living in an RV so they butted heads about it. I honestly can’t tell you if he really WANTED to do it or if it was a passing notion that he kept bringing up to bug his wife, which I wouldn’t put past him.
“You could come stay with us if you wanted.”
“OH YEAH! Gramma you COULD come up with us. And I could take you to MY church just like you used to take me to YOUR church when I was a baby. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
She chuckled through the mask of pain; or did she mask the pain with a chuckle, the lines between the two were getting thin. “Oh yes dear that WOULD be fun. But for now I need to stay around here.” She turned to me, “I have thought about moving up there, though not necessarily living WITH you two it was actually something even your father had brought up a few times.”
“Oh yes. He missed you two and as the last few years past by he felt that he hadn’t gotten to be there for you as much as he should have been.”
I let this information pile on top of what my father had just told me. He and I had always had a loving but distanced relationship. He would pick on me, then laugh and say, ‘ah you know I love ya.’ And I would yell at him and rarely said the same but then when you are growing up you believe the being picked on more than the words that follow.
It was silent again for a little while until my mom decided to interject a surprising topic to the day. “Did you hear about Danny?”
My heart stopped beating for a minute considering all the things that could follow this sentence. I certainly hadn’t heard about Danny. Did he get hit by a car? Or maybe he was in some freak shaving accident? Oh no I know, he had his heart ripped out by a bear as he had done me. But instead I asked, “No, what about him?”
“He is in the restaurant business now. He is the manager of that steak place down on Main Street. You know the one with all the peanut shells all over the floor that your father said they should sweep up and not keep such a dirty place.”
I wanted to laugh at the image but it would have been a dark and depressing laugh besides the point that she was talking about my ex and saying he is doing WELL! Why would I want to know that? Why did SHE know that? “I had not heard about this,” I choked back a little sarcasm that was forcing its way out my throat as I said, “Well, good for him.”
“You should stop by and see him.”
“Just stop in, see how he’s doing.”
“Where is this coming from mother? You HATED Danny. Don’t you remember what he did to…” I looked over at Kora who was looking down at her coloring book not paying us any attention, which could only mean she was taking in every word ready to strike with crazy unexpected questions and comments at whatever keywords she had set in her mind at the time. She knew a man named Danny was her dad and was the cause of her burns but I did my best not to bring attention to it when not required. I looked back and nodded towards Kora but continued, “to me???”
“Well of course I do, I’m not THAT old. I think he may like to talk to,” she nodded towards Kora but continued, “you.”
“NO! Absolutely not and what would even give you this idea?”
She looked down and around and then back, “Well,” the well had a squeak in it as though the mouth didn’t want to say what the brain knew it had to, “he told me.”
“Oh that’s just great. And you’re ok with this? You’re ok with the idea that he would want to talk to,” more nodding, “me? After all that has happened to ‘me’?”
“We’ll talk about it later dear.”
“No no, you brought it up, let’s talk about it now. What is the big thing I’m missing here?”
My mother hunched back in her seat and tears came to her eyes as though everything that had happened before I came into the cafeteria had been delayed and she looked at once like a defeated woman, tired and ready to give up trying to keep strings together that only wanted to pull in different directions.
“You know, when you were growing up I thought about leaving your father?” The look on my face must have asked the obvious question because she answered it, “Oh yes. He was angry all the time and always drinking and, well you know. He was him.”
“Yeah it was a big ball of crap so why didn’t you?”
“Oh I almost did one time. He came home and I had bags packed and you were over at one of your friend’s houses doing something for school. I don’t even remember what though I do remember you were excited about it. He had just gotten off of work yet had already had a beer because I could smell it on him. He often got a beer on the way home saying he needed to be relaxed before he got into the chaos. Just one of the many things that had piled up on me let alone just keeping you and him from ripping each other’s heads off.” She sighed and kind of chuckled at her own twisted pass.
“Well, he asked about the bags and I let him have it, 15 years of frustration, anger, stress, and all he’d put on my shoulders just came out. I told him how his drinking was the real chaos in the house and his anger was out of control and yes I knew you were tough to deal with at the best of times but he certainly wasn’t making it any better. I guess I caught him off guard because he didn’t even try to be defensive about it. He broke down in tears and talked about his struggles that he had in the family. We talked for a couple of hours each expressing things that were making lives difficult.
“As it turned out, I had as many flaws and problems in dealing with relationship problems as he did. We made a vow, a NEW vow to really talk to each other when we had problems and to work on one thing at a time.”
“But nothing seemed to change until after Kora was born.”
“I do make everything better,” She chimed in, still coloring in her book.”
“Yes dear, you do. Look honey,” Mom turned back to me, “I hate to break it to you but you can be selfish at the best of times. Your father started trying to rectify his mistakes with you first, before anything else but you were so stubborn, just like him, that you wouldn’t listen to him but rather start yelling. You were always so nice and sweet to everyone else but our house was just a festering boil of anger on all of us. He even started to cut down on drinking and within a few months had quit completely.”
“Ok no, now I KNOW there was always beer in the fridge.”
Mom chuckled a tired laugh, “Yes, he was so proud of those. The night he decided to finally quit he had one of his friends who showed him a raggedy half pack of cigarettes he’d been carrying around for over 4 years. His friend said, ‘you know you won’t pick it up again if you can carry it around with you and not be tempted.’ So your father said, ‘I can do that.’ And he did.”
“But the beers were gone when I came home with Kora.”
“Well yeah, thanks to turkey.”
“Yes, your father, for whatever reason, decided one Thanksgiving that we needed to have the biggest turkey he could find. It barely fit in the oven let alone the left overs. You remember that Thanksgiving, the year before Kora was born and you and Danny came over. I guess Danny wasn’t having much fun and you guys left right after we ate but I gave you a big tub full of turkey to take with you. Well that wasn’t even half of it. We had to make room so your dad took the beer out and put them in his closet. They are still there, even.”
I took all of this in; my mother’s account of what made my father change was so different than the reality I had lived with. The account of a lot of home issues being my own attitude didn’t help much either.
“But wait a minute, what does any of this have to do with Danny?”
“Honey, I’ve learned a lot about life in the time I spent with your father and the most important is that people change whether they want to or not. You used to love going to church, or at least I had thought you did but life has knocked you down. But then, honey, some people make an active decision to change for the better and those are the ones who have truly learned something special in life.”
“So you think Danny is some saint now?”
“No one is a saint in the eyes of God. But I do believe he’s trying and it wouldn’t hurt if ‘you’,” she nodded towards Kora again, “had a chance to speak with him once in a while.”
Kora and I spent the night at mom’s house and the next day I took her riding around to show her the town I had grown up in, or at least the parts that I remembered. Everything had changed and moved on. The old grocery store was replaced by a big box store. Main Street was now 4 lanes wide and the old downtown area with all of its charm was replaced by shiny new buildings. The roads that dad had taught me to drive on were abandoned and most were torn up or removed. The tiny neighborhood I had grown up in on the edge of town was no longer near the edge and new houses were all around.
The town had grown up and moved on while my heart was stuck in the past.
Dad’s funeral was the day after that less than two full days after he had died. I was amazed at how efficient the process of death was. There were many people I didn’t know at the funeral and they all had the same thing to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ They also had food to provide us which I suppose is because everyone eats when they are depressed. I assume we are all that way because when someone dies we force their loved ones to eat a buffets worth of food.
The pastor performing the funeral was the same from when I was growing up. I didn’t preach a large number of services anymore, just a figurehead at this point from what mom explained, but he knew dad really well. Yet it was still the little things that he got wrong that made me angry. At one point he said what should have been a stirring memory of dad as he said, ‘you’d always see him with a Coors in his hand’ but I just got mad and wanted to yell out ‘he drank Budweiser get it right,’ but I just sat in tears that didn’t seem to want to flow as naturally as they should have been. I guess some would say I was still in shock.
But then the worst came when the service was almost over. I started looking around and really seeing all the items that were there. Flowers, cards, food, a picture of dad that for whatever reason was from 40 years ago, all there except for one thing.
I leaned over to my mother and tapped her on the shoulder, quietly into her ear I asked, “Where’s dad?” There was no casket to be found.
Casually, OH SO casually she said without any stutter, “Your father wanted to be cremated, he’s right there on the table.”
Now the tears came easily and I realized just how little I knew about everything that was going on. My father’s life and his very large stature was reduced to a relatively small silver container sitting on a table.
It was over and he was gone. If he died two days before, my heart just realized how real it was at his funeral.
Mom gave Kora and I a large amount of leftover death food to take home with us when we left. I wanted to drive straight out of town yet curiosity got the best of me. I went back down Main Street again that day but this time parked outside the steak house that mom said Danny was working. Sure enough he was in there and I was able to see him walking around talking to different customers. I barely recognized him as he looked so different in so many ways. He wasn’t bigger or smaller or anything physically other than his hair was trimmed nicer. He simply looked happy. He turned to stare outside and I saw the contemplative look on his face as he looked over downtown. He turned to look towards where I was and for a second our eyes connected. He started to smile when he realized it was me but I quickly drove away.
If I drove into town praying to God to let my dad last long enough for me to see him I left angry at God and felt that way most of the way home. Why did Danny get to be so happy in his life?