My phone rang at 7:05 a.m. Caller ID identified my brother as the incoming call. My heart stopped.
My brother and I had basically been estranged for nine months except for the brief time that we had to come together to sign for the disposal of our mother’s remains. There was only one reason he would be calling me.
Perhaps I was just being my anxiety ridden self. Perhaps he’s only ill.
Shaking, I picked it up, “Hello?”
“Sis, Dad’s gone,” he blurted out in a matter of fact tone.
I was working at the clinic at that time and was in the midst of getting ready to leave for the day. I had make up on, but my hair was still wet.
I jumped in my truck and flew down my driveway, my face stinging. I could hardly see to pull out onto the highway, my vision blurred from so many tears.
I’d only gone about 300 yards when I could feel the familiar burning on my lips. By the time I’d driven the short mile to my brother’s house, my upper and lower lips were covered in cold sores. The stress of those words, “Sis, Dad’s gone,” had initiated an immediate herpetic outbreak.
My brother stood in his driveway looking like he didn’t know what to do. My 13 year old niece, who found my dad in his little trailer, was crying. It was real.
The clinic didn’t turn its phone on until 8, the time I was supposed to be to work. So, I reluctantly drove in to tell them I wouldn’t be coming in that day. Young girls who typically gave me strange looks and seemed haughty, girls I knew didn’t like this older woman who couldn’t pick up on the job as quickly as they, were tender and sweet. They hugged me and assured me that they would tell the boss, encouraging me to just hurry back to my family.
My brother also had to take his daughter back to her mother, so she could take her to school for the day. He only has visitation every other weekend and overnight on Wednesdays, so I couldn’t believe the shocking odds that she would just happen to be there the evening my dad died. And, find him the next morning.
At one point or another my brother and I left each other alone in the gravel driveway to wait for the sheriff. I stood there quivering in the cold of the morning, knowing that my dad’s body was inside that 5th wheel just feet away from where I stood.
The once strong body that I was convinced could do anything now lay there lifeless, an empty shell, weak, unable to do anything.
The sheriff finally arrived and did his inspection and paperwork. He leaned against his large white truck in silence as we all waited for the funeral home people to arrive. While we stood there in the thick fog, my brother tried to make small talk with the deputy, showing off his knowledge of engines and trucks. The deputy looked slightly disgusted by my brother’s self-impressed prater. I just cried quietly as I tried to warm myself against the big engine of my own truck.
At one point I remember telling my brother, in between sobs and gasping for air, “I. Can’t. Do. This.”
He coldly remarked, “Well, you’re gonna have to cuz Dad’s dead!”
The sheriff, my brother, and then later the funeral home employees all asked if I wanted to go in and see my dad one last time. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to see him like that. Pale, cold, dead.
I wanted to remember him as I’d seen him four days earlier. He had been at my house for barbecued chicken and had paid his portion of the cell phone bill. He initially handed me the money. But, when my back was turned as I made up plates to send home with him, he’d hidden the money on my desk, teasing me. He was jovial and spirited. He had been sick for so long; the kids and I commented after he left that it felt like having Grandpa back. He had been himself that afternoon. My last visual memory of my daddy was as he turned to wave at me as he walked toward his truck. He was smiling his big smile, laughing as he spoke. I wanted to cling to that and absolutely did not want an image of what lie in that trailer to replace that sweet picture in my mind.
My brother went in and then watched as they removed his body. I went around the side of the garage and hid and waited until I heard the van door shut.
Over the course of the next few weeks ensued a battle regarding what to do with my dad’s remains and whether or not to memorialize him.
My brother and I agreed we would include our half-brother though our dad had emphatically denied he was his son. We didn’t want D to not have the opportunity to appropriately mourn not knowing his dad and the fact that was now impossible.
The two of them sat at that long conference table at the funeral home, going through Dad’s wallet and laughing, mocking our dad’s idiosyncrasies. He clipped coupons and faithfully played the state lottery, so his wallet was full of tickets and coupons, along with pictures of his children and grandchildren. Those things that were such sweet reminders to me of who that man was were sources of laughter for my brothers.
The gentleman assigned to us was a very tall man who carried himself well, an attractive man, in his three piece suit. I think my brother underestimated who this “suit” was.
My brother pulled out the same demeanor he’d displayed with the sheriff the day before and answered all of the questions with an authoritativeness inappropriate for the situation.
Then, the big question came. Were we planning burial or cremation? My brother declared that we were going to cremate Daddy and scatter his ashes on my brother’s own locked and inaccessible mountain property on the other side of the county. He looked directly at me and stated that was what Dad wanted. He claimed they just recently discussed it, and Dad had changed his mind about being buried at the VA cemetery. Supposedly, Dad was disgusted by the cost of my mother’s funeral and didn’t want that kind of money spent on him.
But, my mom wasn’t buried. She didn’t have a casket. She was cremated. My daughter did everything herself. She made the floral arrangements and the memorial cards, and she ordered the urn online where she’d found a good deal. Besides, the VA was to bury our dad for free. What was he talking about?
I managed to stop sobbing long enough to utter out, “Dad. Wanted. To. Be. Buried. At. The. VA. It’s supposed. To be. Free.” I gasped as I spoke. My brother argued sternly, again looking directly at me, “Dad isn’t eligible for that. He and I just talked about this! He changed his mind after mom died! I knew this would be a problem with you!”
I turned to the stately gentleman in the suit, “Daddy was a veteran of the Korean War.”
R began to once again attempt to display his immense knowledge, “Dad was in after the Korean War. He never actually saw any combat at all. He flew P2Vs…….” He went on and on, rapid firing random numbers and letters that meant nothing to me, but I knew he was lying.
Apparently so did the man in the suit. He look perturbed and turned his attention to me, “It’s easy enough to find out. I’ll give the VA a quick call and be right back.”
I later found out this gentleman in the suit had spent most of his life in the uniform of an LA police officer. He could smell a liar and a thief.
He returned shortly with a smile on his face and my dad’s military record in his hand. He directed his comment at me, “As a combat veteran, your dad is eligible for burial at the VA cemetery.”
The war raged for a couple of weeks as my dad sat on refrigeration at the north end of town. My brother even went to my pastor and tried to convince him to turn against me and talk me into letting him have his way.
In the end, my dad received his honors and his burial at the veterans’ cemetery, like HE HAD ALWAYS WANTED. My dad was proud of his service and his military record. He deserved that. And, as my 82 year old uncle said, my children deserved a place where they could go mourn the man who stood as their father figure. Young R’s counselor recently made an off hand comment about the kids’ father leaving them in July and then they lost “their real father figure” just a few months later. This was important. It had been important to my dad. And, it was important to his siblings, to me, and to my children.
I wouldn’t have won that war without the help of that kind and wise police officer turned funeral planner. Six weeks later he helped with my aunt’s service. And, a few weeks after that he gave my children a book about grieving. I will be eternally grateful for that man, and I pray that God blesses him richly for standing in the gap for those who cannot find their own voice and for those who no longer have one.
We read that book he gave us frequently. Because, you see, we’re still grieving.
I’ve had a couple of very dear friends turn on me. The friendships have been severed because, as one told me in January, my sadness and depression weren’t healthy. She felt she had all of the solutions to fix my broken life, and I suppose she thought that my grief caused me to forfeit my right to make decisions for myself. She angrily accused me of making my own decisions as though I was doing something unlawful or dangerous.
So, we read the book again.
That book with its large illustrations, that book written for children, declares to us that our sadness and depression are healthy. It’s okay to grieve, to experience the depths of that dark place. The funeral planner told me that we need to do that; it’s critical to embrace the dark night of the soul. He said it is the healthiest thing to do. He warned me that if we didn’t, it will fester and come out in some extremely unhealthy ways later.
So, we have mourned. And, we continue to mourn. We have mourned the life that we once knew. We have mourned the dreams that my ex would change, and we would live the life we longed for. We have mourned the possibility of my mother softening in her old age and being the grandmother to my children that her mother was to me. We have mourned my precious daddy, my children’s “real father figure.”
We shouldn’t have had to fight for our right to bury my father where he wanted to be buried. We shouldn’t have had to fight for our right to honor him. We shouldn’t have had to fight for our right to be sad.
Throughout this long and twisted journey though, no matter what anyone else has said or done, one thing has remained constant…….
We still miss that funny, stern, quirky, intense, talented, intelligent, full of wonder man who died one year ago today.