I was in the middle of writing another post today, which I’ll have to finish tomorrow. It’s been a week since I turned in my final project for a Fall Quarter class so I’ve been sleeping off the longer-term effects of the energy drinks and just itching to write about the Republican party.
The phone rang around 4:30. It was my sister. Tearfully she told me that our dad had passed away. She had been caring for him out West in a retirement home. He was admitted to intensive care in the morning, and she was sitting in the room with him. It had been 2 hours. He was 83. We talked about how he died. Having inherited most of his respiratory issues, I asked how his breathing had been and whether he had been in pain. My sister told me he hadn’t been peeing regularly. I said kidney failure was a painless way to go, all things considered. His timing was amazing. He went right before Thanksgiving.
I asked her if there would be funeral arrangements or whether he wanted to be cremated. Dad was an atheist. I reminded her of our grandmother on our mom’s side, who chose cremation. One of my aunts, the sculptor/painter, travelled to different states holding 3 memorials for various collections of family, exhibiting Gram’s ashes like paintings of the old masters on tour. In my family, we don’t really do funerals. It’s too expensive to fly across country and usually no one can free up time on such short notice. Plus, not very many people die in my family. Death is pretty rare, which offsets the fact that we’re not such a tight-knit group to begin with.
The last traditional funeral we had was my paternal grandfather. It was the mid-1990s and I wasn’t invited due to a disclosure letter I had sent around to members of the family. I had a troubled childhood, which I took steps to deal with like a responsible adult in my mid-20s, and it ruffled some feathers, so I was the only member of my immediate family who wasn’t told about Grandpa’s death until several days after the funeral. My dad attempted to make it up to me by taking me to a family reunion several months afterwards.
My sister told me it could take up to 4 years to sort out the issue of Dad’s mortal remains. I suggested that if she was going to have him cremated and separate his ashes into different vials for each sibling, it would probably be in poor taste to send them through the mail. She agreed, saying that Dad had wanted to donate his body to science. “How German of him,” I said. She agreed. We laughed. I asked her if a university would be displaying Dad’s skeleton in their science department. “Oh, wait!” I said. “He probably donated his organs.” Then I realized it had been two hours. “No,” said my sister, “nobody seems to be rushing in to harvest anything.” “That’s right,” I said, “probably nothing is worth saving on an 84 year old man.” “He’s 83.” “Oh yes, that’s right. I forgot,” I said.
We both cried a little bit at one point. She was much closer to our dad than I had ever been. I wanted to know which of the siblings my sister had contacted first. Dad had remarried so there was a younger brother and sister by his second wife. My sister had called our half-brother first and had left a message. I thought how amazing it was that I thought to answer the phone when it was an unfamiliar area code. I was the second one she called. I told her our father would have wanted it that way, since our half brother never called him, not on birthdays or on Father’s Day. I was the next one who had to work hard to remember to call my dad. He had been in a retirement home for 8 years, and I averaged a call to him 2-3 times a year, and a visit now and then.
I was the firstborn in my family, one of the last to remember the dark ages of American parenting, when corporal punishment was the rule NOT the exception. My sister actually had a car seat with a primitive padded bar that served as a restraint. Five years before that, I remember making interstate trips having the run of the entire backseat. We drove an old Checker, with a backseat big enough that my parents took the walls off my playpen and stretched the floor between the edge of the backseat and the back of the front seat to level out the rear area of the car for me. We lived in a tiny town. I was routinely left to wait in the car while Mom went into a grocery store. One night they left me sleeping in the car outside the house. When I woke up, I went up to the front door, let myself in and put myself to bed. After this adventurous upbringing, who would have thought it would have taken such effort for me to travel on a plane by myself as an adult when the younger kids went zooming around. Dad helped them all out with college and trips to Europe. For me, it was an extreme effort to have a relationship with any of them. Even though neither his second wife nor my younger sister wanted me around, I made it a point to live with my dad for the last 2 years of high school so I could get to know him better. He never talked to me about my future. I had to work it all out for myself, and there were times I was sure he was annoyed that I had survived childhood. For years I would have scary nightmares of my dad chasing me up the stairs at our old house to spank me for something I had done that made him very VERY angry. There were levels to the spankings. Being switched was premeditated for about 6 hours at least and hurt worse than being hit with the hand. Returning to the old house at age 15 in some ways was the worst of all. At that point my stepmother would beat me, but my father never touched me. He barely interacted with me at all. As an adult, I tried to sleep in my old room one night in that house. Dad’s second wife had left him and moved way up North. My old room had long since become my half-sister’s room, and inexplicably, I cried so hard throughout the whole night I actually got no sleep at all. I got up the next morning feeling worn out and miserable.
Years later when I lived outside the country, Dad and I spoke regularly on the phone. He was like a different person. We talked and talked. I would call him 2-3 times per week when I had insomnia, and he was 6 hours behind. When I returned from Germany after 2 years, married to an American soldier, he met me in Milwaukee. “Well, you’ve done all these things in your life,” he said. “I can’t imagine what advice I could give you now.” To date, I’m the only one in my family who’s attempted marriage (tried and failed multiple times, but tried nonetheless) and who’s borne a child.
Three years ago was the last time I saw my dad. It was on Thanksgiving. When I was seven years old, I wanted to ask some of my friends from an old school where I had attended first grade if they had really liked me. My dad had told me, “what if they say No?” But on our way to the restaurant, he broke his rule and asked me if he had been a good father. “Dad,” I said, “you were a real bastard.” He seemed hurt. “Well, you didn’t want me to lie, did you?” I said, smiling. Certainly he knew what kind of father he had been. “But I’m still going to have Thanksgiving dinner with you; you’re still my dad.” Gallows humor is in my DNA, I guess. My half sister was there. She made it a point not to have turkey and she regretted having meat loaf instead. My six year old daughter snuck food off my dad’s plate. He wasn’t eating it anyway. After dinner, he asked me if I was going to take him back to the nursing home and I joked that I was going to let him walk. He didn’t laugh. But it was a fun visit. It was my hometown. I took my dad and my daughter and my half-sister on a tour of all the places I lived when my mom and dad were getting divorced. I showed them the schools I had attended, about half of which were closed. I showed them my old house. We listened to Regina Spektor, one of my half-brother’s favorite artists and sang all the words to her songs together. It was like fragments of a family reunion, the very best unplanned moments of one where we could collide and like each other for just one day, by accident.
Well, goodbye Dad. At my sister’s urging, I talked to you on the phone last year on Father’s Day, and you told me you loved me. I can feel the Earth thawing out for me now in remote places now that you’re gone. I’m a middle aged woman now, but in some ways my life has just begun. Rest in peace, your soul has left this mortal life and your influence is fading over mine.
Soon you’ll be a skeleton in someone else’s closet.
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