Twelve Days in October
Thursday, October 12
We’re all standing around, talking, eating, mindlessly eating and drinking coffee. The day is blustery October: glimpses of blue sky between furious clouds, breezy, chilly.
When the balloons come—twenty-four of them, red, white, and blue—my mother calls everyone together: friends, relatives, us. We go outside to the front yard, a vast green space. The ground is, thankfully, not wet. The air is crisp. The wind grabs at our clothes, stings our cheeks.
We each take a balloon. I’m worried that someone will let go too soon, but nobody does. We stand in a big circle, twenty-four of us. My mother instructs us. “One, two, three,” she says, and we all whistle, two tones, and release our balloons. They go up quick, then dance around for a moment, as if unsure of where to go. Then the wind catches them, and all twenty-four go off together in the same direction, toward town, up and away. We watch as they recede.
Sunday, October 1
Ever since I got the call on Thursday, I’ve been thinking about what today will be like. I’m driving home to Ogdensburg to help my father write his obituary. What a strange assignment. What a difficult assignment. I’m driving alone—I wanted this chance to be alone with him, at least a little while. Next week all the siblings will come—this is my chance to have him to myself, one last time.
The drive, three hours, is unmemorable. My mind is not on the road. Then I am home. My brother Brian is still there; he and my father are working on the transceiver. The transceiver is this kit radio my dad has been working on pretty much ever since he found out his cancer’d come back, back in the spring. It’s finished now. It’s a miracle he finished it, not so much because of the cancer but just because it’s this tiny unit with tiny parts, really small, and he had to solder hundreds of little pieces into hundreds of tiny spots. As a surgeon, he has always had a steady hand, a good eye. But now his eyes are not as good and his hands much less steady. Still, he’s kept at it. Since he can’t make it up to the attic anymore to work on it, Brian has brought it down to the breakfast table in the den, along with the necessary testing equipment. They sit together and test it for quite some time. I watch from my spot on the loveseat, talking to my mom, who is in the kitchen across from me. This is the main gathering place for family, in this house of many gathering places. When Brian declares that the unit “tests out,” he gets ready to leave, and I get ready to take over.
Daddy tells me that he’s printed out something he calls his “CV.” While he takes a nap in his recliner in the living room, I go upstairs to look for it. I find it lying on the desk in the bedroom. Right now he’s still sleeping nights up here, despite the struggle to climb the stairs. I sit down at the bedroom computer, which is on a classy old oak desk. For comfort, I pull open the drawer and set the keyboard on it. Then I go to work.
The “ceevee,” as he spells it, is essentially an outline of his life, in paragraph form, starting at the beginning and working forward. It’s not very detailed, but more detailed than anything I’ve ever read about him before, or heard from him. Oh, I’ve heard stories, but I never got the real facts, you know? I look for the file on the computer and, when I find it, I discover that it was last updated ten years ago, 1996—around the time he first got prostate cancer. Not much has changed since then, except the addition of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. So I get down to work.
The hardest thing is to figure out how to say the first line. How to say he “died,” when he is still alive downstairs and is going to read this when I have a draft ready. I play with a few options, not committing any of them to paper. In the end I choose “passed into the next life.” I don’t believe in the afterlife—I’m not a religious person that way—but I do like to believe that when someone or something dies, its spirit, or life essence, or something like that, remains in the universe. Isn’t there a law of physics along those lines? About matter being constant? I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. I do know that at the moment a child is conceived, something begins to exist that never existed before—something that I hope continues to exist beyond death. But as the child before conception does not exist, so too, perhaps, after death. We have no way of knowing. In any case, those are the words I choose.
The story writes itself easily. I rearrange the elements of his life into topics, as is traditional with obituaries: a paragraph of survivors and “nonsurvivors” tells the reader about his family life; five paragraphs cover his education and career and hobbies. A final paragraph tries to show what he meant to different people:
Known as “Hugh” to Jackie, as “Doc” to his ham radio friends, as “Bud” to his sisters, as “Daddy” to his children….
When I have a draft, I take it downstairs. Daddy is still in his chair. His cat, Betty, is on his lap. She is definitely his cat—she barely lets anyone else touch her. Some people, like Brian, can’t approach without her arching and hissing. Sometimes I can pet her a few times before she hisses at me. So be it. She’s made her commitment to Daddy.
He takes a look at the draft. He points out a few things. He doesn’t like being a “junior,” even though he was named after his father—he wants that cut, just “Hugh A. Inness-Brown, MD,” please. His first-born son, my half-brother, likes to be called Allen, even though his name is Hugh Alwyn, like my father’s, making him a III.
“Actually,” Daddy says, pointing to the part about his education and smiling, “I never graduated from high school.”
“Really?” I say. “Your CV says you got a diploma….”
“Yes,” he says. “When I joined the service, the army made them give me a diploma. But I never actually graduated.”
He seems kind of proud of this. I notice, from the date he gives for enlisting in the service, that he was twenty years old then. “Why did you join up?” I say. “Because of the war?” It was 1942.
“Yes,” he says, nodding. “That was just what everyone did, then.”
I watch him as he reads the rest of the draft. He proclaims that I did a good job. I try to feel gratified by this, but I know how hard it must be for him. He doesn’t want to die. He really enjoys life, even now. But then I guess the hardest thing must be knowing your time is short, while not really being able to enjoy it much. He can’t eat. He doesn’t sleep well. There’s quite a lot of pain.
Over the next twenty-four hours, I make revisions, showing it to my sister, my mother, my niece and nephew—everyone who comes over. At their suggestion, I add a few things. Daddy looks at it again, and he approves it. Then I go home. I have to teach the next day. “Goodbye, Daddy,” I say. “Duty calls.” He gives me a smile, and we exchange a hug and kiss and say I love you.
Friday, October 6
This morning my plan was to spend the morning urethaning the new windows we just installed upstairs; I wanted to rehang the curtains in my eight-year-old’s room and the bathroom. Then I was going to pack, and this afternoon, after Michael’s school let out, we would drive to my parents’ house. That all changes when my mother calls, around eight, and tells me to come right over. “I don’t know how much longer he’ll last…,” she says.
I call my husband, who’s working in his office over the garage, and tell him the change of plans. Then I run around the house, getting together clothes and things for the trip. I leave behind my “funeral clothes”; I leave behind my work. Do I do that on purpose? I don’t think so. It’s just hard to know what to think, what to do—I’m in a hurry.
Again, the drive is unmemorable. The main difference this time is that I have Keith and Michael in the car with me. Keith drives, which leaves me free to cry at will. I try not to cry too much in front of Michael; I know it upsets him.
I’d told Michael about Daddy—Grampa—the night I got the call that they were not going to do the procedure, the kidney stent that might have kept him alive for another month or more. The doctor had advised him not to, saying that it would be very painful and he would have to be kept heavily medicated—not much quality of life. But it was my father’s decision. As a doctor, my father knew what the future held, and he decided to face it directly. When my mother called to tell me the news, I couldn’t help but cry; then Daddy got on the phone, and the two of us were crying so hard that few words got exchanged. I’ll come help you write your obituary, I said, and he said, I would appreciate that. That was all.
We had just hung up when Michael came into the room and saw me crying. “What happened?” he said, and I could see the alarm in his little face. I put my arms out for him and hugged him. “Nothing,” I said, and then I told him that Grampa was dying. I told him a little about why; then I shifted the topic to Grampa when he was younger. “Did you know Grampa used to race cars and motorcycles?” His eyes got wide. “He did?” And I told him a little about that.
Since then we haven’t really talked about it, but he knows this trip is to go see Grampa before he dies.
When we arrive, it’s quite a scene. My parents live in the country, and their well has just failed. A new one is being dug, right next to the house, right off the corner of the living room. Huge machinery, very loud, lots of steam and dust and mud. A rhythmic thumping sound as the drill digs down.
Inside the house are my four siblings from California, from my father’s first marriage. Tauri, obese yet beautiful, with her glowing face and long, streaming, wavy, gray-streaked hair; Lee, also very large, dark-haired, like a fatter version of my father when young; Ginny, petite, with long, straight red hair—she must take after her mother; and Allen, the oldest, still pretty handsome, still apparently in pretty fair shape, although the rough life he’s led shows in the lines in his face. Allen looks most like Daddy. He’s sixty-two, ten years older than I. Brian, my half-brother, the baby, out of Daddy’s third marriage, is also there, having come from Saratoga yesterday for a job interview this morning. My sister Resy—petite, dark-haired, pretty—is there too, doing the cooking and cleaning that my stepmother no longer has time or thought for. So seven of the eight siblings have gathered in vigil over my father. The only one missing is my brother John, a lawyer, who lives in Colorado; he’s juggling a lot of work right now, and is trying to time his visit just right, so that he can see Daddy before the end but also stay through the funeral.
Daddy is in the downstairs bedroom now. He can’t move much. He’s in a lot of pain. It’s amazing how fast he’s gone downhill. I guess what they say is true: Once your kidneys go, you go. The cancer that had begun to impinge on his kidney function last week has pretty much marched on without abatement. The doctor had predicted two or three weeks; it’s only been one. Every time I see Daddy, every time I talk to him, I cry. I think I’m the worst about this. I can’t stop. I know it hurts him to see me cry, but I can’t stop. This is the hardest thing. The hardest thing in life, and certainly in my life so far: watching someone die. Watching my father die in such pain, and so reluctantly.
He spends most of his time in bed. In this little room, where my mother’s mother spent her final years, the bed is next to the window. This is good, because sometimes my father is hot and we need to open the window and let in some fresh air. We talk about what a nice day it is, outside, and how lucky he is not to be in the living room today, where the noise from the well-drilling makes ordinary conversation almost impossible.
People take turns coming in to be with him, but this is made awkward by the room itself; we bring in chairs, but if you sit, you can’t get close to the bed, so you’re not so much with him as you are watching him. I don’t do much of that. Instead, I spend my time with the siblings from California.
Tauri has been coming east to see us regularly for about ten years. At first, we resented her—we couldn’t figure out why, after so many years without my father, she wanted him in her life again. Also, she seemed pretty flaky, full of all kinds of New Age ideas about nutrition, paranoid about the government, stuff like that. Now, of course, that all seems pretty standard to me, she’s been right about a lot of it, and I like her, although I still find her manner of asking you to repeat yourself all the time a little irritating. And of course, now I understand why she wanted Daddy back in her life—and in her children’s, and her grandchild’s.
So Tauri and I catch up, here and there, talking. Then I spend a long time, in the living room, on the couch, with the well-drilling going on in the background, with Ginny. Ginny’s the only one I’ve never met before. She’s about 60, I guess, or 61—second oldest. Her long hair is red without a bit of gray; it looks natural, but there’s no way it can be. Or is there? She’s supposedly something of a magician with herbal remedies, New Age medicine. Maybe she’s found a way to keep her hair young while her face ages.
She’s pale, gamine-like. Later on, after they’ve left, my aunt will call her “needy.” I don’t see much need in her. Rather, she seems extremely in-turned, introverted, like someone listening to voices only she can hear. As we talk, she holds a pillow to her belly and looks at me intently with those clear, bright-blue eyes that always seem on the verge of tears. She tells me how she survived cervical cancer in her twenties by seeking alternative treatments and making dietary changes, and how she is studying to become a naturopath. I’ve been hearing about this “studying” from Tauri for years; Tauri seems to worship Ginny’s magical powers, although she doesn’t seem to apply them to her own health.
I ask Ginny what she does, meaning for a job. She looks perplexed for a moment, and then tells me that for the past few years she’s been taking care of an aging aunt, who’s just died this past summer. “I’m still living in her apartment,” she says. “Dealing with her things….” That explains the voices, I think. Her own voice trails off a lot. I gather that the aunt had children of her own, and that they are interested in the “things” too. It sounds like a sticky situation. And vague, and weird, like most accounts of my California siblings’ lives.
Later on, Ginny retreats to her room. At first we assume she’s just catching up on sleep; they took a night flight over and arrived around midnight, spent the night in a hotel in Syracuse and drove two hours to get here by noon. Later it becomes apparent that she’s not coming out of her room. I ask Tauri if she’s all right. “She’s meditating for Dad,” Tauri says. I’ve always hated the way she calls him Dad—the correct term is Daddy. “Oh,” I say, as if that explains everything.
I don’t talk to Lee and Allen that much, but I do sit in on a number of conversations they have with other people. Allen has done well-drilling for a living, so periodically he goes outside to check on the driller’s progress. Lee, affable as always, moves about the rooms in a way that is both hulking and gentle, silent. We all move about from room to room as if floating, or swimming, like fish in a bowl. Trapped there but without much to do.
At some point, does Jo come over? I can’t remember. I think so. Jo is an old friend from high school, who, back in May when she joined us for dinner one night and saw my father’s death looming ahead, volunteered to be my surrogate—a surrogate daughter to my parents—to visit them once a week and talk to them about death and dying and preparations therefor. She’d been through it all with her mother, who died of cancer when Jo was about thirty. She knows the ropes. And she knew that, as an outsider, she could broach topics the rest of us couldn’t. Over the last six months, she has become a real friend to my parents, especially to my mother, and a real part of our family.
After dinner, it becomes known that Daddy wants to join us in the living room. This turns out to be more difficult than it might seem, because of course he can’t come under his own power, but neither can anyone lift him. Finally Brian goes up to the attic and brings down Daddy’s office chair, which has wheels, and they manage to get him into it and roll him into the living room, and transfer him to his recliner. “Daddy’s chair.”
I don’t remember much of what happens that evening—just that we are all there, all the siblings, and by then we’re joined by Brian’s wife and kids, and Resy’s three kids and their siblings and children and girlfriends…all there, all together. At some point, Keith, Michael, and I leave—we are spending the night at a motel, the house being overfull. At eight, Michael finds staying in a motel a treat; he finds anything new a treat. This motel’s not much, as motels go, but it has the virtue of being cheap, and in the morning when we wake up, a thick fog will have risen up from the nearby river, making it seem as if we have been sleeping in a cloud.
Saturday, October 7
We go out for breakfast—I’m not sure why, maybe to keep from adding to the burden at the house. Throughout all of this, my mother has been absorbed by my father, unable to sleep or eat, focused completely on him. Yet she has not come unhinged. This amazes me—that this woman, for whom an overcooked piece of meat can be a tragedy, can be so strong under circumstances such as these.
When we get back to the house, things have changed. We learn that they were unable to get Daddy back into bed the night before. They got him into the office chair, and rolled him to the bedroom, but once there, it was all they could do to transfer him to another chair; they could not get him into bed. So now hospice is bringing a hospital bed: it will go into the living room, which is already prepared, the furniture rearranged so that his bed is right next to the window outside of which stands the well-digging equipment. (Luckily it’s Saturday and the well-drillers don’t work on weekends; in fact, because Monday is Columbus Day, they won’t be back till Tuesday.)
I can’t recall now how or when the bed actually came, or how Daddy got transferred to it—were we gone, had we gone shopping or something?—it’s possible; I think I took Michael to the store at one point. In any case, all that happened. And then he is there.
The side of the house facing the new well has been draped with a blue tarp to protect it from the mud. The tarp covers the two windows near the bed; this gives the scene an appropriately respectful feeling, an eerie blueness.
Now we are all able to sit next to him, to hold his hand. From that moment onward I don’t think there is one moment he does not have someone beside him. Whenever I hold his hand, it is warm and his grip is strong. Even when his eyes are closed, he can hear what you say and respond, although he can no longer really speak.
I remember now…yesterday, just yesterday, at some point…in the little bedroom…we were helping him, and I was reaching across him to open or close the window, and he said to me, “I’m dying, aren’t I?” and taken by surprise, I didn’t lie. “We think so,” I said. “But not today.”
I am upstairs when the minister arrives.
By the time I come down, he has already begun to sing. A stocky black man in a sports shirt, looking very un-ministerlike, holding my father’s hand in both of his, and singing the Lord’s Prayer in the most beautiful, deep voice I’ve ever been in a room with. He sings it very, very slowly, drawing out every syllable. He may be making the tune up as he goes. Daddy is lying there with his eyes closed, and seems to have become very calm and peaceful. I’m thinking this might be the moment he dies, but it isn’t. When the prayer is over, the minister says, “I’m going let you go now, bro,” and lays down Daddy’s hand. Then he turns to us. “I see a lot of sad faces in this room,” he says. “But I want you to know, up there in Heaven, there’s a party going on. There’s a party going on, because they know this good man is coming up to join them. So don’t be sad for him now. Let him go. Let him go up to Lord Jesus….”
The day goes by. People come and go. The guy from hospice, John, who is so kind and has such sad eyes, comes and cleans my father up, and there is talk of different kinds of “Depends” to be had, to make changing him easier… they keep talking about this, it seems endlessly, in the living room, with my father right there—and all I can think is how embarrassed he must be, and how they shouldn’t assume he can’t hear them. But maybe he can hear them and he doesn’t care anymore, or maybe he’s not listening. Hospice brought my mother a little book that described the stages a dying person goes through. I can’t recall them now, but I do remember that one stage has to do with withdrawing. I wonder if he has done that. He seems to still be with us.
It’s sometime today that my sister Resy, who herself used to be a hospice nurse, goes to his side and says, “Let’s wet your whistle, shall we?” He has started breathing through his mouth, his mouth open wide, like a yawn, not like I’ve ever seen any person breathe. It’s as if it takes too much energy to keep his mouth closed, as if his chin is heavy and pulling his mouth open. Resy takes one of these little blue sponges on a stick, dips it into cool water, and puts it into his mouth, and when she takes it out, he whistles! He whistles like he does whenever he’s been out and comes home, and wants to let my mother know he’s back—two tones: one high, the other lower.
He’s still here. He’s not gone yet.
Around six, Daddy’s youngest sister, Connie, arrives. Last weekend, my mother asked me to contact all the sisters and Louise, Daddy’s step-aunt. When he found out he was going to die, my father sent them all an email, something to the effect that he “didn’t think he’d make it to his next birthday.” Which would be in February, four months from now. Mom wanted me to let them know how close his death really was, so I did. In the email, I made it as clear as I could. I was blunt, in fact.
In response, Aunt Ginny called from Maine and talked to me, letting me know that she “couldn’t come now”—something to do with appointments and schedules. She said she was planning to come at the end of the month. I knew she knew, from my email, that he wouldn’t be with us that long, and I wondered how she could not drop everything and come? Her own brother? Her only brother?
Aunt Page responded by email, saying she couldn’t come either. But I hadn’t expected her to, because she herself is quite old and alone and lives farther away, in South Carolina. It would be too long and difficult a trip for her.
Aunt Louise I called, not having her email address, and she said that she and “the boys”—her sons—were planning to come to the funeral. But I hadn’t heard from Aunt Connie. “I think she’ll just come,” my mother said, and indeed, here she is, a day earlier than even she expected to arrive.
She walks into the room and, at the sight of my father, stops, her hand over her mouth and tears in her eyes. From then on, she is either by his side, or somewhere cooking.
That evening, I decide to show everyone the ice-fishing video. When my father turned 75, in 1997, I had just finished writing a novel, which was (in part) about ice-fishing, so for a birthday present I took him ice-fishing. I’d never been before, nor had he, although he was an avid fisherman who had done all kinds of other fishing. So he drove over to Vermont and we put on lots of warm clothes and off we went. For $35 up in Alburgh, just north of where I live, you get tip-ups, bait, firewood, and a free trip in a pick-up truck out to your own shanty, complete with a little woodstove and the holes already drilled for you.
Well, this had to be the most boring fishing experience either of us had ever had, and yet at the same time it was wonderful, sitting out there together in the cold, on the ice, in the strange silence that dampens every sound. The ice crunching under your boots. The ice twenty or more inches thick.
It was Daddy who brought the video camera. Parts of the film he filmed, and then he let me take over for a while. I’d never operated a video camera before. So there’s this little span of time when the film turns sideways, as if we’re suddenly on our sides, “walking up walls,” so to speak. Because I didn’t know how to hold the camera. Trust me, it’s hysterical. There are long segments where my father is sleeping on the little bench, nothing is happening with the fish, I’m narrating sotto voce like a golf commentator, and everything is sideways.
So there we all are—twenty or more of us—gathered in the living room, perched everywhere, watching this silly little film of me and Daddy fishing and sitting and sleeping, and laughing hysterically as Daddy is dying. I wonder if he knows why we’re laughing. I wonder if he’s listening.
Late, late tonight, the California siblings are going home, so Keith and Michael and I can stay at the house. We find beds. We sleep. I don’t remember where.
Sunday, October 8
When we wake up, the house is quieter. The California siblings are gone. Aunt Connie has occupied the little downstairs bedroom where Daddy used to be, and she’s sleeping. The question of the day is: Will I stay or will I go? After lunch Michael and Keith are going home, because Michael has school tomorrow. I can stay, I’m told; someone will get me home later. But I decide to go, if for no other reason than to get my work and clothes and come back tomorrow.
We leave after lunch.
I don’t know what I was thinking. More than anything else, I regret leaving. I should have known not to. I don’t know why I didn’t. It just seemed impossible that my father would die while I was gone.
We get back to Vermont around three. Michael wants to go to AppleFest, an annual event in our little town that will end at four. It’s a bright, blue, beautiful day. The crowd moves in waves up and down South Street. We do our usual routine of stopping at every flea market vendor and buying little. I get my traditional three potholders from the potholder lady, although she herself isn’t there today; I gather from eavesdropping on her husband that she’s sick. When I see people I know, I try to smile and not say My father’s dying! I try to have a good time with Michael. These are the things memories are made of. When we get back in the car, he says, “We missed AppleFest!” I say, “What are you talking about—we were just at AppleFest!” “But we missed most of it!” he says, and I know what he means. I explain that AppleFest happens every year, and next year we won’t miss it. What I don’t explain is that, next year, my father is not going to be dying.
Monday, October 9
Monday morning, around eight, I call home.
Brian answers. He tells me that Daddy’s having a hard time breathing—he calls it “the death rattle.” I cringe at this, but then he tells me that he asked Daddy if he wanted hospice to bring something out to suction out the fluid and make it easier for him to breathe, and Daddy nodded, and Brian’s already called them, and they are on the way. I tell him I’ll be leaving shortly to come back. We hang up.
I’ve just begun rushing around the house to pull my things together when the phone rings again. It’s Brian.
“Daddy just died.”
I do that thing that people do—gasp and put my hand over my mouth. Tears spring to my eyes. “Just now?” I say. “Just this minute?”
Then Brian says, “But listen, Giz.” (He still calls me Giz after all these years. My childhood name.) “It was a beautiful thing. I know that sounds weird, but it was….” And he tells me the story that I will hear later from Mom and from him, too, over and over.
Their forty-first anniversary was to be October 16th. My sister Resy had been after Mom to read Daddy her anniversary card, but Mom had been delaying. Sunday night, Resy called and told Brian to remind her again, and Mom said, “I’ll do it in the morning.”
In the morning, just before eight, she shooed everyone out—Aunt Connie, I think, and the night nurse and Mom’s friend Pat Campanella, who had spent the night helping— so she could be alone with Daddy. Then she took her card down from the mantle and read it to him:
It’s been years
since we started our voyage
Years of learning, discovering,
compromising and loving.
The smooth sailing has been wonderful,
and the storms we’ve weathered
have drawn us closer.
I love you even more today
than I did all those years ago,
and I’m so glad that I decided
to take the journey of a lifetime
Then they exchanged a kiss. This is a very important detail: they exchanged a kiss. He was alert enough, there enough, that he could still kiss her. His eyes were open.
She said, “I’ll always love you, Hugh,” and was kissing him a second time, on the forehead, when he inhaled sharp and deep, just once. She cried out for Brian, who rushed in from the next room and took Daddy’s hand, and whispered to him, “I love you, Daddy.” Then the breath came out, and he was gone.
After the call, I cry as I tell Keith, as I get my things together, as I drive back to my parents’ house, alone again this time. By the time I get there, his body is gone, and they are telling another story, this one about the cat.
Daddy was the one she liked, and his was the lap she always sought out. He couldn’t sit for long before she’d jump up, and as he got older and moved around less, their times together got longer too.
The last few days of his life, it was too much for him, having Betty on his lap. So he’d begun to tell her “no, Betty,” and she’d learned that she had to stay away. But she was never far. When they moved him into the living room, she began to sleep on the coffee table. My mother, uncharacteristically, let her. Such niceties as “cats off tables” didn’t seem to matter any more.
When the deacon came to say last rites over my father’s body, everyone gathered around the bed: Mom, Brian, Resy, Aunt Connie, Pat. And Betty the cat. Betty showed up too. At first she sat on the floor next to Aunt Connie. Then she rose up and put her paws up on the bed, and looked into my father’s face. Then she jumped up—the deacon is praying, try to imagine it, no one says a word to Betty—and walked up my father’s body, touched her nose to his chin, and lay down on his chest. Where she remained till the funeral home came to take him away.
These two stories will be told over and over the next few days as we prepare for Daddy’s funeral. We tell them to the priest who will be performing the church service. We tell them to the people who come bringing food and condolences. We tell them to each other, over and over. We find solace in the stories, such solace as there is to be had.
Wednesday, October 11
Brian and Resy have done most of the work of preparing for the funeral. By Monday night, the basics were in place. There will be a viewing tonight at the funeral home, and the service Thursday afternoon at the Episcopal Church. Daddy didn’t want a wake or a long service, and we are doing our best to respect his wishes. On the other hand, we are also doing our best to pay proper homage to him—it’s something we need to do for ourselves.
I spend a lot of time at the computer, writing remarks to give at the funeral. I’m the only person who thinks she can hold it together to do it. Emphasize thinks.
My brother John arrived yesterday from Colorado. He tries to be his usual, jokey self, but I can tell he’s as sad as we all are, and on top of that feeling sorry, and maybe guilty, that he didn’t come earlier.
My friend Jo, Mom’s friend Pat, and my nephew’s girlfriend are the only non-family members going to the viewing. Jo rides in the car with me. The thing I like about Jo is that, as she puts it, she wears her heart on her sleeve. Her emotionality can be off-putting sometimes, even to those who love her, but the nice thing about it is that she feels what you feel—and shows it. You never feel alone in your sorrow or joy if you are with Jo.
In the foyer of the funeral home, I find myself very reluctant to go into the room where Daddy is lying. I realize, suddenly, that aside from the funerals of my stepmother’s parents, I’ve never been in the same room with a dead person, and at neither of those events did I go near the bodies. This is going to be different, I can tell. I’ve avoided thinking about it till now, but now there is no avoiding it.
The air in the funeral home smells peculiarly disinfected, especially after coming in from outside, where it is a wild October night, the wind knocking leaves and fruit from trees. You might expect there to be the smell of flowers, because there are many flowers, but they seem to be the sort that don’t have much of a scent, and the scent they do have is clean and dry.
Next to the book where we sign in is a bowl of peppermints. I take one. My mouth, which had been dry, fills with saliva around the sweet, minty taste. I take a second one to put in my father’s pocket, along with the little folded-up note I keep touching in the pocket of my purse. Mom suggested that we all bring a little something to give him, that we all write him a little note. My note says that he should listen to the speech I’m going to give at the service tomorrow, the speech I’ve been working on over the last two days. And the note says I love him and will miss him. That’s all I could fit onto the little slip of yellow paper, which I have folded up tight.
Finally Jo and I go into the viewing room. As soon as we enter, Patty, the funeral-home employee who has been helping Resy and Brian with the arrangements, rushes up and takes my arm and pulls me toward the casket. “Say a prayer for him,” she says. Tears come to my eyes and slide down my face. We’ve all been crying a lot, but even so I still feel as if I am crying the most. I can’t seem to stop. Jo starts crying too. I feel so fond of her now, so thankful for all she has done for me, for them, for him.
I reach the casket and kneel down on the riser they’ve provided at the head of it. He looks good. He looks like himself, more like himself than he did the last few days of his life. He’s wearing his glasses over closed eyes. He’s wearing a white dress shirt, a sweater, a nice tie—I remember seeing these clothes on Mom’s bed upstairs, but it didn’t register why till now. I hope he’s wearing the shoes I gave him for his last birthday, but I can’t see his legs or feet—they’re hidden at the bottom of the casket, where the top is closed and buried under red and white flowers. Roses.
I take the little note and the peppermint and slide them into his sweater pocket. I’m thinking how calm he looks, how prepared my mother must have been to have chosen these clothes for him. I look at his face. I notice that his lips are sealed together—there’s a dark, thin line between his lips, it must be some kind of glue. Of course, they’d have to do that. They couldn’t leave his mouth open, the way it was when he died.
I touch his hand. It’s very cold, and surprisingly hard. I’ve never touched a dead person before. I cry harder. My face gets hot and my breath short.
I stand up. My family is all there, except my husband Keith, and Michael, and my nieces Ali and Kimber—we didn’t think the children should come. Everyone is in various states of mourning—crying, sad, silent; talking, smiling, even laughing. We hug a lot. We say a few words to each other. John makes a joke to me about what he’s going to do at the service tomorrow—something about singing Daddy’s favorite song instead of reading the psalm he’s been assigned. I ask Brian to hit him for me. They look at me strangely. Everything is disjointed, ragged. Nothing makes sense here. We are in the room with our dead father, saying goodbye to someone who is no longer here with us.
Brian’s wife, Heather, is having the hardest time. She won’t go near the body. She’s not crying, but her eyes have a distracted, shiny look. She won’t look at him. I talk to her for a while. I don’t know what I said, but it seems to console her a little. I feel closer to her than I ever have.
We’re there for about an hour. Mom lets it be known that she wants to leave last. Jo and I go back up to say goodbye to Daddy. I give him a kiss on his lips. They are cold and hard. It’s very hard not to cry—I don’t bother trying not to. Brian lets me know that Heather is going to go up after most everyone else has left. So we leave first, others close behind us. We’ll all meet back at the house, where multiple desserts, too sweet, await us.
Thursday, October 12
The morning of the funeral we spend preparing as if for a party. I’m sent downtown twice, once for food and later again for some little cocktail napkins. My mother is quite specific about the napkins: which store to buy them in, where they are in the store. I choose some that have a blue paisley design on them—Daddy liked paisley—and I buy all kinds of finger foods, sweet and not sweet, for people to eat after the service. We’re not having an open house, but people are invited, mostly my mother’s extended family.
Keith and Michael arrive, along with my best Vermont friends, Barbara and Larry. It seems strange to see them here, where they have never been before. My cousin Nell arrives from Maine, the only one representing Daddy’s family, aside from Aunt Connie. Then we are all assembled.
The men who are serving as pallbearers leave early, all of them nicely dressed in dark suits. A half hour later, we women and Michael are picked up by a limousine. Michael is thrilled to get to sit in front. Keith, Nell, Barbara, and Larry drive to the church in their cars.
First we hear the bagpipes. Daddy wanted bagpipes, and a single piper is playing on the sidewalk in front of the church, a deep, full, mournful sound. And loud. As if proclaiming to the whole neighborhood that a man is dead. People are standing in clusters out front. I see Resy’s ex-husband, Bob. The rest of the people blur together. I can’t tell who’s friend or family and who’s from the funeral home. It’s warm but overcast and breezy.
I don’t remember much from the funeral. I remember, set up in the vestibule, three easels displaying the pictures we chose, and pausing to look again at the picture of me kissing his cheek at my wedding.
I remember there were two Green Beret officers flanking the entry to the inner sanctum—I remember Brian being proud he managed it, he somehow got Daddy military honors.
I remember ten-year-old Allie in her white satin blouse and black velvet gauchos, burying her sobbing face into Heather’s body when it finally became clear to her that her beloved Grampa was inside that casket.
I remember looking out at the crowd from the pulpit as I read the little speech I’d been writing these last three days, telling everyone about my father’s appetite for food, for life, for love, telling them little stories about what made him the beloved citizen, doctor, father, man he was.
I remember that, at the end, I gave Daddy’s whistle. Two tones—high, then low.
I remember Mom whistling it back to me….
I remember the sound of taps being played, so clear and sad in that massive, open space, the notes flying up to the blue-domed ceiling. I remember the soldiers folding the flag and presenting it to my mother. I remember standing shivering in the cold foyer, shaking hands and hugging and thanking all the people who came.
I remember wishing that I believed in heaven, in God.
The day has turned cold while we were inside. In the front yard, the wind grabs at our clothes, stings our cheeks. We stand in a circle. My mother instructs us. “One, two, three,” she says, and we all whistle, two tones, and release our balloons. They dance around uncertainly, and then, as if responding to a call, speed off together into the sky. I stand and watch them as they recede. It’s over. It will never be over.