Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Funniest Thing About the Day My Father Died

And so, in the years of Our Lord 1988 and 1989, it came to pass that my family and I suffered one blow after another. In that span of time, we went through the following:

  • my mother collapsed from grand mal seizures, and lapsed into a coma for several days from unknown causes (although spinal menegitis was the suspected cause, the tests did not confirm the diagnosis)
  • I quit my job as a switchboard operator at a hospital when I realized that the new girl that I had trained was my replacement (My old boss had left to find a less stressful line of work than office manager at a hospital. The new guy didn't like me because I had one too few X chromosomes. Did I mention my replacement was a buxom young babe? Did I also mention that the new boss was forced out after a few months on the job because he kept trying to boink his subordinates? No? Just as well. I wouldn't want to be accused of gossip.)
  • I spent two and one half glorious weeks as a construction worker (Yes, I can drive a steam roller and a front-end loader! And yes, it's every bit as fun as you would hope.)
  • shortly after Mom got out of the hospital and back on her feet, my brother and I were involved in a horrific car accident that left me with a shattered leg, a broken back, a severe concussion, and other assorted injuries, and left my brother with a busted shoulder, a ruptured spleen, several broken ribs and a collapsed lung (for all of that we were lucky - we should have been dead)
  • I had my leg rebuilt, spent two weeks in a hospital, and several months (years, really) recovering (Using a walker is exactly no fun at all. OTOH, having a brace instead of a half-body cast is a wonderful thing.)
  • while recovering from surgery I experienced bad trips from the morphine injections
  • of course, I had no insurance coverage at the time, it being that kind of year
  • my brother was going through his own difficult recovery
  • I fell in love with my best friend's girlfriend during the recovery (Not being able to do anything about that hurt worse than the other injuries. See, I do have a heart.)
  • my father was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer, and had his voice box removed
  • my father was given a death sentence when his doctor decided to ignore a small shadow on a lung X-ray, having determined that it was a dust mote; four weeks later, when they X-rayed Dad again, his lungs were mostly rotten with cancer, which had also spread to his lymphatic system
  • I got to experience Mom and Dad doing their relationship death-spiral thing one last time - one for the road as it were
  • I got fired from my first post-accident job, which I didn't regret a bit; the night I was fired two other people walked off the job because the manager in charge was such a collosal prick; what I DO regret is that when the sumbitch challenged me to a fist fight, I couldn't take him up on the offer - it had only been a couple of months since I had traded my crutches for a cane and my mobility was severely limited; of course, that's the only reason he was willing to challenge me in the first place, because while 5'2" is collosal for a prick, it helped contribute to his being just another little shit of a man, especially standing next to someone that was a full foot taller than he; what I regret most is that I didn't think to break my cane over his skull - I'm getting steamed at myself about that all over again, and that was over seventeen years ago! Getting arrested for assault would have been worth it, he was that much of an ass
  • I missed seeing Dad for the last time by about 15 hours when he died the night before I was to see him for the last time (we knew it would be very soon at that point)
  • I had a bad case of strep throat through all of Dad's services, meaning I didn't get to talk much with his side of the family - that is an opportunity that I hated missing, as I don't know them well, they rarely gather together like that, and as Dad was the one that had died, the stories were mostly about him
  • I ripped open an inguinal hernia while lifting a grocery bag packed with cereal and crackers (which is exactly the kind of luck I usually have)
  • I continued working for a couple of weeks afterwards, before I decided that burning sensation was probably an indication that something was actually wrong (it's every bit as painful as this picture makes it seem like it would be, and consider that a warning)
  • I discovered that it is impossible to wiggle fingers or toes without using the muscles of the lower abdomen; that recovering from an inguinal hernia surgical repair is almost as painful as having the hernia; I also discovered that the phrase "It only hurts when I laugh" is not at all funny when it applies to oneself

But this isn't really a tale of woe. That's merely the setting. This is about how humor shows up in strange times and places, and how I managed a small act of kindness during a really bad day.

Mom and Dad had had a strange relationship through the years, in the sense that they persisted in having one at all. Dad was a drunk, irresponsible with money (his family rarely if ever got anything from his paychecks), and he had the wanderlust to boot. I really have no idea how many places he travelled to, but I know that he spent several years in the early 1970s travelling in Western Europe, at some point he had been in Central America, and I have a sneeking suspicion that he had spent time in the Middle East. (He was planning on going to Egypt for work when he was diagnosed with cancer.) And at some point in the 1960s he was planning to go to Vietnam to teach South Vietnamese citizens how to drive bulldozers. (He didn't make the SE Asian scene because Mom put her foot down that time, and somehow made it stick.) Anyway, all of this made for a very rocky marriage. Married in 1948, they probably should have divorced by 1960 or so. But I can't complain, as I wasn't born until 1968. (I'm only lucky in matters of life and death.) Their relationship was really doomed from the start, but that's a story for another time. Still, they were married until the time he died, over 41 years after taking their vows.

Dad was (oddly enough) living in Orlando when he was diagnosed with cancer. Mom took pity on him and decided to let him move back into the house while things got sorted out - but only on the condition that he stop drinking. About a month into this arrangement, Dad showed up one night too drunk to get out of his car. When he sobered up he found his things waiting for him on the front porch in paper bags. This wasn't altogether unfamiliar! Not long thereafter, he got the news that he was a dead man walking. In a fit of perfectly in-character kindness, my sister's husband decided to take Dad in for the duration. (My brother-in-law is really one helluva good man.) Note that I didn't say that my sister made this decision. If it had been left to her, she wouldn't have taken him in. She had a 12 year-old and an 8 year-old, and she didn't want them exposed to Dad's inevitable drunkenness. (Yeah, Dad had burned all of his bridges, multiple times.)

But my brother-in-law took him in over my sister's objections, so Dad was off to Louisville, which is as good a place to die as any, I suppose. Naturally, it wasn't that easy. A few months after Dad moved to Louisville, my brother-in-law was transferred back to Jacksonville Florida. Moving is never easy, but having someone in the house who is waiting to die complicates matters. Everything becomes more difficult. Finally, the move was organized. But breaking down, moving, and reassembling a household is a major task that requires many days., many days where taking care of the dying just can't be done.

(Looking aback at this, I am amazed by the timeline. It was almost eight months from the original diagnosis until my father died. That's not remarkable. What surprises me now is that he lasted about six months from the time the doctors discovered he was eaten up with the stuff. It had never really occurred to me before how remarkable that is.)

Dad had to go somewhere else for the move. So he came back to Orlando, to live with a friend for the seven to ten days the move would take. He arrived on a Wednesday or Thursday in June of 1989. The combination of my work schedule and my mother's work schedule was such that I wouldn't get to see him until Saturday morning. (I was not driving at this point, and Orlando is not conducive to other forms of travel.) Of course, Dad died in his sleep Friday night.

This isn't a sad thing. This wasn't going to be my chance to see Dad one last time and tell him that I loved him and forgave him his foibles, and have him offer up an apologia for all that never was. No, there was nothing to resolve between Dad and I. Of his three children, I had the warmest feelings for him, and still do. I knew from a young age that he was weak, rather than hateful. I knew that he loved me, but that he would have little or nothing to offer me in this life. I loved him too, in a manner more likened to a father's love of a wayward son, than to a son's expected adoration of his father. Dad and I knew where we stood in each other's affections and words were unnecessary at that point. No, my visit was to be a courtesy call, an obedience to the formalities, the last call.

But early Saturday morning, around 6:15 if I recall correctly, his friend called and told us Dad had died in his sleep. Mom and I dressed and went to see him anyway. During the drive over, on a beautiful June morning, Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World started playing on my internal soundtrack, and wouldn't stop. That song has been a funeral dirge for me ever since.

When we arrived, we spoke with his friend, who informed us that the authorities had been called. The police would be there shortly, as a matter of routine. Dad had passed sometime between 3 and 5 AM, the dying time. We chatted for a while and then I decided to go in and see the body. People had died in my family before, but somehow I had never seen a human corpse. Despite this, it wasn't curriosity that drove me, but just some primal need that I can't articulate. I went into the bedroom where he lay, and saw him in familiar repose: lying on his back, his arms streched out along the side of his body above the sheets, head thrown back, eyes closed and mouth slightly agape - his standard snoring pose. As I looked a him, my thought was, "There is no life here." Something vital was visibly gone, something more fundamental than mere breath. I left him undistrubed, and quietly closed the door behind me, so as not to disturb his shade.

Shortly thereafter, following more solemn conversation around the kitchen table, the police arrived. Two young, uniformed officers arrived, a man who couldn't have been much older than my 21 years (if that), and a woman a little older than that. They came in, asked the standard questions, examined the body, and ruled it a natural death.

At the same time the officers arrived, my brother showed up. He spoke to Mom briefly inside the house, and then we spoke outside. He had been civil in front of Mom, but once we were alone he cut loose. My brother and father had by all accounts never gotten along. (My brother is 18 years my senior, so a lot of their history can never be more than hearsay to me.) My brother could never forgive Dad his faults, or even his virtues. Worst of all, my brother is cut from the same mold. That morning my brother let forth with a stream of great hate and anger, seemingly made all the worse for the object of this invective now being a corpse. It should have been a very sour note, but it wasn't. It was pretty much exactly what I would have expected. How could it have been otherwise, my brother being who he is, and my father having been who he was? My only concern was that he keep this away from everyone else. Fortunately, he had enough self-control to keep it soto voce.

After properly completing the paperwork (I don't remember if anyone other than the police had to do anything), the two young officers took their leave. And then it happened....

I had come back in the house by this time. The young woman let herself out, followed by the young man. Really, he couldn't have had more than two years experience, and I wouldn't have been surprised if it was even his first week on the job. And as he closed the door behind him, he looked me square in the eye, and said firmly, "Have a nice day."

His whole body winced, having immediately realized what he had said. But much like they teach you in a music class, if you make a mistake, keep playing! Don't back up to hit the missed note! So he continued his movement, closed the door and walked away, his body still convulsed in some sort of grand mal wince. (The front door was largely made of glass, so I could see the whole walk to the squad car. He never unclinched.) There was no question that he felt terrible about this horrible gaffe....

And there was no question but that it was riotously funny! His whole body winced! I've never before or since seen the like, not even from the best comedic performers. Such antics as part of a performance always pale next to this man's most natural and human and pained reaction. No one is that good of an actor! It was really the perfect comedic note, struck at precisely right time, in an otherwise dismal day ... month ... year....

And the act of kindness? Why, that I didn't actually laugh in his face, of course. Had I done so, it would have probably made him angry and confused and even more embarassed. And after the unintentional gift he had given me, and purely at his own expense, I just couldn't do that to him. I didn't even crack a smile. (I can be a real stone-face when I care to be, and often enough when I'm not even trying.)

I didn't tell anyone in the family about that incident until much later. Naturally, when I told Mom she laughed. For weal and for woe I am her son, and we share an evil sense of humor. My sister's response when I told her was similar, but she is more quiet than Mom or I. I haven't told my brother. There's really no need to bring this up with him, as I'm sure he'd rather forget the whole thing.

As for that young officer? Should he read this at some point, and recognize himself in the story, please don't feel bad. Your gaffe has been well-received! As no malice was intended, no offense was taken. Dad would have even appreciated the story, and would have winced himself in the hearing. Unintentionally, you provided the only humor of an otherwise miserable day, and wholly at your own expense. And for this, I thank you.


bill said...

Wow. Nicely done.

It's fascinating how there's this subculture of people that exists that mainly takes of people that die in the middle of the night. My dad died at home after a long illness. We had in-home hospice care, so the hospice nurse showed up first and made the necessary calls and did some hospice stuff. No police were involved, but after an hour two old guys from the funeral home showed up. Funny moment for us was when they almost lost control of the gurney and almost flipped him onto the sidewalk. They're trying not to freak out and my wife, mother, and I are laughing out loud. Good thing the neighbors were asleep.

Icepick said...

Thanks for the compliment.

Maybe we should start a funny dead parent story meme. Or would that be too macabre?

bill said...

Too macabre? Eh, personal tastes.

we found Julia Sweeney's God Said, Ha! to be very funny.

And not to bring down the house, but Photodude has no humor in his story.

Icepick said...

No, there's no humor in PhotoDude's story. Part of it was a little too remenisent of when my father-in-law died. There was no humor in that either. Really, that policeman did me a favor that day, though he didn't mean to.