In my original family the topic of death is like a finger on the trigger. Whenever a difficult subject or feeling comes to the surface it’s swiftly silenced by the threat of death. What I mean to say is that someone is always talking about their dying. Subtly insinuating that it could happen at any moment. This is not because they accept it as being a part of life, but rather as a way of keeping you from pursuing a problem they refuse to deal with. Implying that the only thing that’s important, worthy even, is keeping things comfortable. That way when sudden death occurs, no one will feel guilty. Least of all them.
My father died of lung cancer when he was only fifty-two years old. No time to clear things up between us. The diagnosis came and not long afterwards he was dead. I took comfort in knowing the soul of my father was finally free of the torment he endured during his short stint on the planet. Of course, the expectation was that the proper thing to do was to show up to the funeral. Which I chose not to do. Being there I was told, was for my mother’s sake. To support her in her grief, which was really relief. She hated my father. Did her absolute best to discredit everything about him while he was alive.
The last time I saw my father was about a month before he died. I drove from Utah to California, straight through, after my mother called to say if I wanted to see him before he died I better come. When I walked in their house she was half in the bag as usual. In the kitchen dutifully making dinner. I asked her where he was and she pointed toward the back porch.
He was sitting in his chair, legs crossed, cheap reading glasses sat lopsided on his jaundice looking face. A few tufts of hair randomly clinging to his scalp. Holocaust survivor gaunt, he looked scared. My father and I had a tortured relationship. I was terrified of him. I also identified with and adored him.When I knelt down in front of him he took my hands in his. As we looked deeply into each others brown eyes [something only the two of us had in common], I experienced his heavy sorrow. Tears streamed down our cheeks as we fell into the love we had for each other. “It’s ok dad,” was all I had the chance to say, when like a bullet tearing through the atmosphere, my moms shrill voice rang out! When I went to the kitchen to see what the problem was, she started to rant about how offended she was by what had happened between me and my dad. What about me she shrieked! That son of bitch and his crazy goddamn mother ruined my life! Without saying goodbye to my father, I grabbed my purse off the table and drove back to Utah.
The father’s day after my father died, I was standing in the card section of the local drug store looking for a card for a friend. I’d read three or four when I realized I was thinking about my father. How I wished I would’ve had the kind of relationship with him that inspired me to find him the perfect card. It was then that I felt a distinct presence. Not something outside myself but inside my heart. I knew it was my father and that he knew what I was thinking, feeling. I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I had to leave the store.
A year before my brother died I was riding my bicycle along a bike path when I was suddenly overwhelmed by what I perceived as a voice whispering something into my minds ear. “Your brother is going to die soon.” Deeply shaken I returned to my car. When I started the engine the first song that began to play on the radio was Angel, by Sarah McLaughlin. Again, I heard the voice say,”Play this song at his funeral.”
The night my brother died he called my house. I was between shifts when my son relayed the message and I didn’t take the time to call him back. The next morning when my phone rang I knew that he was dead. The following year on the eve of his death, New Years Eve, I said, out loud, before I fell asleep, “Cody, where are you? Where do people go when they die?” The next morning I got up to take my dogs for their walk. I couldn’t go my usual way as we were in the middle of a January thaw and I couldn’t cross the stream. There was a light skiff of snow on the asphalt. When I cut through the neighborhood to take a different path, I noticed that someone’s boot had stomped out a picture of a space ship on the road. It looked like a picture made with an etch-a-sketch. It was of no real interest to me until I noticed that they had also traced the name CODY next to it. I was so stunned that it brought me to my knees. The first thought I had,was, no one will believe this, so I ran back to my house for my husband, [a witness], and my camera.
Things went down the same way after my brother’s death as they did when my father died. We were there to support mother. It was her son that died. Anything we might be feeling, was in her eminent opinion, secondary to what a mother feels when she loses a child. And yet, the fact that Cody had a son, who had a mother who loved Cody, was way down the scale in comparison. I was appalled by this and spoke out against my mother, her demands, disfigured wishes in regards to who she felt was worthy of considering their grief. Inviting to my brothers funeral. The rest of the group didn’t even want to have a service for him. Had I not intervened, they would have opted to only do what was needed to clean up the mess of my brother. Our shame. I did play “Angel” for the service.
By all the usual standards I failed both my father and my brother when it came to their deaths. I believe at times I am tortured by survivors guilt when it comes to my brother. He suffered from a heroin addiction, had begged me to give him shelter so he wouldn’t have to go back to my mother. I told him no. I loved him but didn’t trust him. Opted to put the welfare of my child and myself first.
At times the fear of death feels as threatening as a gun held to the back of my skull. Especially when I consider some of the things that are still unresolved between me and my kids, my husband. There are days when I give in to this tyrant. Shut us all up inside the lie, that the death of a loved one, is the price I will pay for my freedom.