November 28, 2016.
My mother is from Belfast, and superstitious in the way that Irish Catholics can be - a belief in the supernatural that comes from the marriage of religion with a culture whose heritage is rich with mysticism and the power of things unseen. In my family there’s a story that’s been passed around in hushed tones that says when someone dies, there are three knocks at the door - my grandmother heard them, my mother heard them, and I’m pretty sure one of my sisters has too. So when my father passed away a week and a half ago, the day after the election - my mother waited for those knocks. A few days after his death she said that she sat in the living room and said, If you’re OK, if you’re in heaven, if you can hear me, give me a sign.
(On the roof of their mobile home: knock, knock, knock.)
My father and I weren’t what you would call close, but there wasn’t really any animosity between us either. Mostly I just wondered why it seemed like I never mattered that much to him, although I believe that I did. That belief was weighted equally with doubt and the timid hope that comes from years of small disappointments, sometimes larger ones. One time he called to let me know an Uncle had died, and for the first minute I thought he was a friend playing a joke; Come on, I had said - who is this really? Darren? Michael? He had only called one other time in the 26 years since I left home, it was not such a stretch for it to be unbelievable.
To his credit, when I floated the idea 15 years ago that it might be nice to get a birthday card, he sent one faithfully nearly every year. I wished he had wanted to do it without having to be asked, but I still appreciated that one small act of devotion.
Something to miss.
When I called, a few times a year, I usually talked to my mother and sometimes she would hand me over to him. We'd talk about the weather, simple things, 10 minutes punctuated by periods of awkward silence, the quiet that comes from having too much unsaid or unsayable. He was tender, kind and had a great sense of humor, but for the most part he kept his deepest thoughts and feelings hidden and when he died I had the sense of one mystery passing into another.
I was in Pittsburgh when I found out about his death, my mother left a message and I had a show to play 4 hours later at noon. We had gotten the news that he wasn’t doing well a few months ago; he rebounded, was given 6 months, and then it was whittled callously down to 2 weeks. My sister and I had both planned on being there that weekend to see him, to say goodbye and try to connect in some way one last time.
Two weeks became one day and he was gone.
My mother said that when the hospice worker told him he had less than 2 weeks left, he lost heart, his energy flagged, he stopped eating. Like he realized the fight was over and there was no point sticking around and trying to deny it. But my sister and I were on our way there, we would have been there in a couple of days, couldn’t that have been a reason, couldn’t that have been reason enough to wait, couldn’t he
The next day I felt something here and there, small pangs of sadness, but no great wall broke until on the way to Florida a state trooper pulled me over and asked where I was going in such a hurry. I started crying so hard I couldn’t choke out the words, and although I’m sure he’s seen plenty people try to weep their way out of a ticket I think my display of emotion was genuinely alarming to him. He still wrote me a ticket but said he’d dismiss it if I sent him a copy of the death certificate. Was that kindness or distrust.
Two days later at the funeral my feelings went back underground and I felt sad and tender but also oddly controlled. When my niece and nephew burst into loud tears in the church, I felt embarrassed to be so distant, where were my tears, where was my grief. My sisters and I were singing before the service, the first time we had ever done that together, and maybe something reflexive about performing made it hard to be too emotional. The few times I welled up, it wasn’t even that hard to just push it away like a petulant child, not now, now’s not a good time.
At the end of the service, my father’s ashes in a wooden box, surprisingly heavy, on a table with some flowers. We’re sprinkling it with holy water from some kind of ceremonial scepter, I still feel so distant, it seems like such a strange ritual but it’s only one of many in a church filled with strange rituals. Cross yourself, cross your lips with your thumb before the gospel, genuflect before walking up to the altar, stand, sit, kneel, shake hands, confess, last rites.
My younger sister and I are there and I had forgotten how goofy we both can be, it’s probably a coping mechanism and death brings it out in spades. She joked later about how she missed the box when she sprinkled the water, none of use knew we’d have to do it and obviously didn’t have a lot of practice flinging water from a scepter onto a box from 6 feet. Sometimes we laugh until we cry and maybe that’s why we laugh in the first place.
The next day my brother and niece had disappeared on an early flight and my sister took a shuttle to Orlando at 8 a.m. I left mid-afternoon and drove to Marietta, GA on the way to Oak Ridge to finish my tour before flying out of Chicago a few days later. I checked into my hotel, and maybe it was that I was finally alone for the first time in days - but I sat on the bed, looked at the ceiling and said, If you can hear me, if you’re out there, give me some kind of sign. Three knocks. Something. Is silence a sign.
But our whole lives were silence.
Later that night I was feeling looser after a couple of drinks and I started journaling. I like to write down the things that happen, the things I feel, the things I remember, small details. Things came to me, sadness, regret, we were closer the past 5 weeks, I called more, he was easier to talk to, he became expansive and philosophical and even once referred to God in the feminine. At their mobile home his clothes already in a bag in the room where he spent his last two months, is it a gift or a curse that I never saw him there, like that. Mass cards on the counter, a 3-cornered flag from the time he spent in the navy. Brown mustard in the fridge, he liked that, chocolate ice cream in the freezer.
That last was what finally broke me open, and I felt myself crack like the heaving of frost in winter.
They had both been watching their sugar and it was an extravagance, and probably also an acknowledgment that things weren’t going to get better, that he should find his joys where he was able. My poor mother, she probably could have, would have given him anything he wanted, anything, but after 52 years of marriage they were still struggling from month to month. In the end she splurged on chocolate ice cream, the good kind, have as much as you want, the biggest bowl you could imagine, have so much, it’s all for you.
What else could anyone have given that would have meant more, by then everything is transient, nothing is graspable, what else would have meaning but something for that moment and that moment only.
He died a few days later - there was still 1/3 of it left in the freezer and it seemed so, so precious. What remained of something holy and sacramental, take this, eat.
I fixed myself a small bowl and ate it slowly in measured spoonfuls, all the while realizing this was one of the last things my father enjoyed, one of the last things he tasted in this life, something ordinary and yet pregnant with meaning and symbolism. Dark and complex, but also simple and sweet - like all the rest of it, like life.
A final instruction from my father, the Catholic, the mystery, a kind man who savored simple things and lived a difficult life uncomplainingly: remember me, think of me, know that at the end of my life I didn’t wish for wealth, fame or anything so lavish, just a beautiful bowl of chocolate ice cream from the woman I loved and was loved by for over half a century.
Do this in memory of me.
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