It hasn’t quite been 48 hours since my dad died. He passed away on December 21st, some time between 3 and 5 in the afternoon. He was at home by himself. No one is quite sure what happened, though I’ve heard the theory of a massive heart attack.
I had just got back from doing some shopping by myself. Cory and Troy were on their way over to pick me up so we could go to an event someone was hosting for Northglenn alumni down at the Silver Fox.
The phone rang. It was an Arvada cell phone number that I didn’t recognize so I didn’t pick it up. But I heard my mom upstairs answer and say “Hello?” Then the pitch of her voice raised and I could tell she was excited about something. “What? What?! Wait, let me get Bubba. Bubba!”
I picked up the phone to hear Kathy heaving and crying hysterically. “Bubba!” she sobbed. “Your dad just passed away.”
I believed it immediately, but stood frozen, paralyzed in the reality. Words jammed into each other and couldn’t get from my head to my mouth. What happened? When? What now? I handed the phone back to my mom who told Kathy that we’d be coming over. Then she hung up, looked at me and burst into tears. We hugged. I was in shock.
The phone rang again, this time it was Kim. My mom looked at the number, then at me, alarmed. I could tell she didn’t know whether or not we should answer it. I answered
“What’s going on? My phone is blowing up.”
“Dad just died.”
We told her we’d be at her house to pick her up as soon as I could figure out what to do with the girls.
The girls – yes. I looked down and there they were, looking up. The girls. Ava & Lily were around the entire time and knew something big was going on. I knelt down and told them “Grandpa died babies.”
Lily wears her emotions on her sleeve more than Ava does. She’ll burst into tears and talk about what’s bothering her. Ava, on the other hand, contorts. Tension becomes clear on her face and forehead and she runs to a place where she can hide, where we need to come get her and coax conversation. I grabbed her before that could happen and clenched my two daughters, not knowing what else to add.
I walked upstairs and outside. Cory and Troy had just arrived and were walking in the garage when I shocked them with the news, saying flatly “My Dad is dead.”
Less than 15 minutes later I had dropped the girls off with Scott and April and was en route to pick up Kim and go to Dad’s house. I felt bad about leaving the girls. But I felt bad about a lot of things and I didn’t think it was right to take them with us.
Twenty minutes after that I walked into his house. My dad’s house, where my dad was dead on the floor. I hadn’t thought about him being there. And I didn’t realize it until seeing him – but I was glad. I wanted to see him, shocking as it was.
Everyone was crying. Kim couldn’t be around the body and went out to the car. I sat above him, in his chair. His mouth was open and his head was cranked back. Had he been gasping for air when he died?
Numb, then panicked. That cycle would repeat itself hundreds of times inside me. My dad is dead.
The paramedics and coroner had just left. When I considered that they’d probably done CPR, it made me feel better about how his neck, mouth and face were positioned. Maybe he didn’t die gasping for breath…
But maybe he did.
In time, the mortuary came. They cordoned us off in the kitchen while they moved his body to a gurney and covered him in several tight layers. Then they said we should say our goodbyes and that they’d take care of him.
I walked my father out into the quiet night in silence. In my head and in my heart, I know it was how my Dad would have wanted it to be, with me taking him out of this world.
But I was with him. I was with him and I told him Dad, I understand. I know what you want from me and I will take it from here. I will conquer the things in life that have plagued you. They stop here Dad. I will do this.
God I am so sorry Dad.
Two mortuary workers lifted him into the van and then I watched as they slowly drove him away from me, into the night, out of sight. Out of my life forever. Away from this world.
After he left, we left. My mom, Kim and I went and ate Mexican food on Federal, right off the highway. We cried. Sometimes we laughed, but it was out of sadness. And I told them what I know:
He wants Kim to forgive him.
He wants Mom to remember him in the way that only she can. Because she knows him like no one else does.
He wants me to be him, without all the bad stuff. He wants me to be a better version of himself.
He also wants me to take care of things. To take care of Kathy. To make sure there aren’t any problems, any strife, any bad feelings.
Ok Dad, I will. I don’t know how. But I know that I will. That you can count on. You just relax. You’ve been tired for so long. Just relax and let me take things from here.
This morning we went to the funeral home to discuss arrangements. I made a list of things I thought we needed to figure out before we went. My mom helped me put it together, then she ended up going with Kim & me. I thought about what she must be going through.
She’s known him longer than anyone. They were married the longest. Their years together were such developmental points in their lives. She’s got to be hurting in her own way, from her own place.
In discussing how and when we might do the event, I was adamant that the funeral home chapel wasn’t going to be big enough. They seemed skeptical and made it gently clear that if we didn’t use them, we’d be on our own. I was fine with that. I don’t think two hundred seats is enough. Furthermore…the location is in south Aurora. It’s not that accessible. And it’s a bad time of the year. I pushed for us to consider doing something after the holidays, when we could do it right. My dad deserved that.
Later I went to his house and picked out the clothes he’d wear when cremated. Kim and I wanted him to be comfortable. For some reason, we were both drawn to a yellow windbreaker top with blue nylon sweat pants. We dropped them back off at the funeral home and headed home. Tonight we realized the clothes we selected were the same ones that he wore last Christmas.
Finally I got to my girls. My girls…my poor, poor girls. They’ve now lost both of their grandfathers at the young ages of 4 and 5. And everything we told them about death seems fraudulent now. Rhonda’s dad died a slow death, descending into stage four pancreatic cancer over the course of years. In the end, we spent time with him, the girls talked to him, sat in bed with him, etc. And then he died. And he had a viewing and a burial and a celebration. Then my little babies packaged up that painful memory into a sealed box and placed it on its rightful shelf inside their minds…hopefully in a place where they woudln’t have to re-open it for a long, long time. But then…
My dad was just the opposite. He dropped dead. He wanted to be cremated. There would be no drawn out goodbyes. So not only did they have to pry open that painful memory box sooner than should have been the case – but nothing in there is helping them make sense out of this.
Was Grandpa old then? Not really.
Was he sick, like Pops? No…
When will we go see him? Well, we won’t…
It was at that point that I decided to pursue a different path, one that might help them not feel so victimized by God, so lied to by us. I called the funeral director and asked about setting up a viewing. Realizing that a body is most likely prepped differently for a burial with a viewing than it is for cremation, I really needed him to tell me whether or not what I was asking made sense.
Last year, when we lost the baby, I was traumatized when I realized there was a day or so lag time between the last time we saw her and when she would be cremated. I immediately called the funeral home and told them I was coming to see her. Had I known what that was going to be like, I wouldn’t have done it. During an actual viewing…the funeral controls for the entire experience…the optics, the sounds, the smells, etc. When I saw Stardust last year, it was completely clinical. She was on a pillow, on what appeared to be a work table, in a large laboratory looking room with a singular candle burning on a counter top.
The funeral director confirmed that they wouldn’t be embalming, but also said that if I was worried about the body looking bad, I shouldn’t worry.
There wasn’t any trauma, he said. Your dad will look fine. I think this is really your call as a parent.
So today I took the girls down there. Ultimately I believe it was the right thing to do. They were sad, but not hysterical. More curious I think, and wanting to make sure their experience was aligning with what they went through with Rhonda’s dad. It did.
My dad looked good. They’d done a good job and the experience was nothing like I had when I went to see Stardust.
After the kids had done their part, I decided I needed a few minutes to be alone with dad. The room was quiet. I moved a chair by him and put my hand on his. And then I talked to him. Out loud. I talked for maybe 10 or 15 minutes and you know I don’t even know what I said. It was some version of how much I love him I think, of everything we’ve gone through, of how good he should feel about how he built me. I will be a better version of him, but that isn’t to say he was a bad version of anything, so he shouldn’t think that. We all make decisions that turn out to be mistakes. All of us.
Tears are streaming down my face right now. I’m gasping. I’m hurting. I’m sad. But I feel so clear and I’m horrified that that clarity is going to lift as the shock element of his death dissipates. I want to be better. I want to do what he would have wanted me to do. Today I know I can. I’m worried that in a month I will have retreated into a murky depression.
Today I realized that I blocked out three months of journal writing in 2009. This is the first time I’ve ever written about Stardust or anything we went through.