Six Things I Will Not Say Tomorrow at My Father's Funeral
By Derek Patton Pearcy
1. I Am Overwhelmed.
Hello. Good afternoon. Today we—we are gathered here to… No, stop—what am I doing?
Look: I wasn’t close to my father for some years, no one was. But now he’s gone and it’s like he was the center of my world and I didn’t even know it.
Why am I wasting my time talking to you people? My dad’s dead, and it happened just like that.
2. What Happened Was Awful.
He fell, my sister called to say. The doctor told her that he’d developed a blood clot, a goose egg on the back of his head, so they kept him overnight for observation.
“Okay,” I said, “so then what?”
“I’m not finished,” she said. Later they found a second clot, deeper in his head, and they couldn’t operate. This was last week, Friday morning. They figured he had about forty-eight hours.
“Why can’t they operate?” I asked.
Turns out he’d been sick for a while. He was always distant over the phone, in his affable but preoccupied way. No, he hadn’t found another job, but things were fine. No, he didn’t need money. Nope, just hanging out with friends, not really, nothing special. After talking to him, my sister generally came away thinking he’d been drunk because he wouldn’t always remember the last time they talked.
“I won’t kid you,” the doctor told her. “Your father’s yellow as a lemon. I don’t say that to shock you: it’s the truth. Your father has end-stage liver disease. Even without the fall, he’d only make it another three weeks.” She had nothing to say to that and I didn’t either. He hadn’t told anyone he was sick.
Twelve hours later our plane landed in Kansas City. Our mom flew in with us, leaving her new husband back in California. We told mom she didn’t have to come, but she always insisted on being the best wife she could be, without questioning whether her ex-husband deserved it.
The doctor’d been right. He wasn’t just yellow, he was a special-effect. He sat in the hospital bed, gently reclined, eyes closed. Occasionally he would stir, shifting in his seat like he was trying to get comfortable. Sometimes he’d kick his feet. His skin was a deep and almost beautiful gold, red in patches and bright florescent yellow in others.
“You can talk to him,” the nurse told us. “I think he can hear you.” And we all agreed that yeah, it felt like there was a presence there in the room. It felt no different than any other time I’d caught him dozing off in front of the TV: a remote control loosely cradled in one hand, mouth half-open.
The lump on the back of his head was huge. The one inside his skull, the nurse told us, was not as big but it was growing. They couldn’t operate because of “his condition,” she put it delicately. “Without a liver,” she explained, “he won’t stop bleeding fast enough for the surgery to be any use.”
“Won’t they need to do another CAT scan?” my sister asked.
The nurse smiled peacefully. “They won’t be doing another scan,” she said. We stayed there until just past four, talking quietly to him in turns before finding our way to a hotel.
The next morning a different nurse told us the same thing. “Talk to him. They can still hear you when they get this way.” But unlike the night before we could no longer feel dad there in the room. His breathing had deepened to an unsettling gurgle.
The past two years since we’d seen him had brought other changes as well. His moustache had grown out over his lip in an uneven rag, and the hair was stark white. The mottling across his baldness reminded me of a yellowed ostrich egg, but at least he’d gotten rid of the comb-over. “He looks much better,” we agreed, about the comb-over, ignoring everything else for a moment. Under the sheets, his belly and legs and feet had swelled horribly, and his toenails hadn’t been trimmed in months. It was the tops of his feet and the way that they’d inflated that finally triggered the urge to scream, though I didn’t.
Mid-day they moved him to the hospice ward. “It won’t be long,” the nurse told us. He died the morning after. Wondering how our lives would go on from there, we started by making the phone calls we’d put off. Most people didn’t even know we’d left town. We wandered aimlessly for hours, the three of us. Eventually we stopped at a funeral home and picked out an urn.
It was a couple of days before we went back to collect him. The plan was to drive down to Texas—me, my mom, my sister, and what remained of dad: our last family trip. After they brought him to us, when the funeral director stepped out of the room for a minute I lifted the lid to marvel at the ashes, wrapped in plastic, inside. The funeral services industry calls them cremains. The term makes me shudder. Touching gently, through the plastic I felt they were still warm and again something wanted to scream.
My mom gave me some marbles to put in there with his ashes. My dad used to collect marbles. Carefully, I gave the urn a little shake to make the marbles click together inside. “What are you doing?!” shrieked my sister. I smiled.
3. What Had Happened Already Was Worse.
I never felt like my dad taught me a lot in life, but as soon as he was gone I realized what powers he’d shown me.
Like, I can recall the first time I went into a room and forgot what I’d gone in there for. I was three years old. We were lucky enough to live in Hawaii because Dad was in the military, a Captain. It was warm there all the time, a bright and happy dream, and one day I ran into my room for . . . what? I had no idea why I’d gotten up to go in there. Something to do with Charlie Brown, maybe? I remember very clearly having forgotten. It was unsettling. I thought, “This better not happen often.” I went and asked Dad about it and he just grinned, tousled my sun-bleached hair, and said, “Don’t worry about it, boy.” And for some reason, nothing more magical than him telling me not to worry was all I needed to feel better.
Back in Kansas City a few days ago, my sinuses ached with the effort of not weeping when I realized that the only person with the magic power of calming me with hardly more than a grin was about to die.
The story was: crossing a strip mall parking lot, dad fell and whacked his head on a curb. I didn’t know where the mall was, or his car, or even his house—no one knew. He’d bought the house and car two years back, before he lost his last job, and none of us had been there. It became obvious, while digging through the bag of personal effects that the hospital left in the room, that something was more deeply wrong with dad than his orange and yellow skin.
That morning, a woman I’d never met showed up at the hospital. She stood politely in jeans and a red windbreaker, first waiting to be noticed and then introducing herself with a strange mix of pride and embarrassment—she used to work with dad— and as she spoke I realized I was meeting my dad's girlfriend, whose affair with my father had kicked off my parents' divorce. To mom’s credit, she invited her to hold vigil with us. To the other woman’s credit, she offered to show us where they found him and to take me to his house. But I’d need his keys, which we hoped would be in the bag that the hospital had provided for personal effects.
After this week there are some words I’ll never again use if I don’t mean them literally. Behind “nightmare” is “overpowered.” I was overpowered by the smell of the clothes inside the bag. It was the smell of bad sick. I rooted around and finally came up with the keys, his wallet, and his watch. I could make out burnt orange liquid stains down the inside pants legs and a dark mess along the backside. I calmly followed dad’s girlfriend outside, thinking I would never get that smell out from underneath my nails, no matter how short I cut them or how much I washed.
We found his car where he’d left it, unlocked in front of a strip-mall liquor store. Later, reading his credit card bills, we found that he went there more often than he’d eaten in the last six months of his life. When the doctor’s final report showed that he’d suffered bone and muscle damage from malnourishment, in addition to the Hepatitis that was destroying his liver, we all simply nodded.
“It was his favorite place,” his girlfriend explained about the liquor store. “I didn’t want to say before where they found him.” They were just friends, she insisted; she’d dedicated herself to working things out with her husband of twenty years. I knew better, though I had no confirmation until after recovering some text from his computer, coldly examining it like forensic evidence a few days later.
“I can’t see you this weekend,” she wrote him only so long before, “he’s changed his plans.”
“Does he suspect?” my dad wrote back.
Dad lived a few blocks away from the liquor store, on Greenwood Street. My guts clenched when I saw the street name. “He said,” the girlfriend told me, “he liked it ’cause it’s the name of the place where his dad lives.” I didn’t tell her the truth: Greenwood Cemetery was where his dad was buried, and where he himself would likely be buried within the week. As we pulled up to his house the world fell away into a tangle of symbols when I realized that dad lived on Greenwood between 60th Street and 61st Street, and that he would be buried at Greenwood between his sixtieth and sixty-first birthdays. Overpowered by symbols, I braced myself getting out of the car.
We were only going to drop off the car at his place, but once there I wanted to go inside. Maybe the cat needed feeding. “I fed the cat,” she told me. “You don’t want to go in there.” I went in.
It was not entirely a warren. He hadn’t been there long enough for it to get that bad. Part of me had a hard time imagining that the proud and cheerful guy I called on the phone—too rarely, I’m ashamed to say, but not even two weeks before—could live that way. There were unopened bills on the table going back two years, and expired food in the fridge that was nearly as old. Every horizontal surface in the kitchen and dining room was cluttered with bottles. They weren’t all empty but most were open. The place was dank. In the living room, one of the couch cushions was stained from multiple waves of diarrhea, and caked with residue from the most recent attack. The other cushion had already been flipped stained-side down.
Reeling, I took in the living room. At first it seemed simply shabby and thoughtlessly arranged. Then symbolic meaning resolved through the noise:
- the fake plant was a gift from my mom, for his office when he started his last job;
- he was always so proud of the enormous, out-of-style speakers he’d bought when we lived in Hawaii;
- the scattered stack of photos on the top shelf were of his granddaughter, who he always made some excuse or other not to come out and meet (though by the front door sat a dusty shoulder bag inside of which were printed directions to my sister’s house from our local airport, dating back to the time my niece was born);
- the little crappy trinkets on the shelf were, down to the last one, every little crappy trinket I’d ever given him for his birthday, and the unread book half-sticking out of the shelf of old work binders was my last Christmas present to him.
The symbols swirled, precipitating from the abstraction of idea-space. I was no longer part of the world. His house was like my own place used to get, back when I’d grow depressed for weeks on end and turn inwards, rearranging my environment so as to surround myself with faint reminders that I was cared for, that somewhere must be someone who loved me surely, if distantly.
4. From His Home, As My Father Lay Dying, I Resolved a Few Things.
I resolved that my mom and my sister wouldn’t see this. Dad’s girlfriend had brought along some industrial-sized garbage bags, twice as tall as usual, and I quickly filled two of them with the bulk of the empty bottles. I tossed the sets of soiled clothes when I found them balled up at the bottom of the stairs or tucked behind a door. Later, my mom would find his bed sheets, which I didn’t think to check, and stoically judge that he must’ve been sick for some time. It sickened me how my father, a strong and stubborn man, had been reduced. The hospital thought he was homeless.
I resolved that no one else should have to clean up my warren because I was too proud to ask for help as my organs failed me. I resolved that, among other things, I would not leave behind a small black squeeze bottle of clear lubricant, pubic hairs gummed up around the spout, for a family member to find beneath my computer desk.
And I resolved that even if I am randomly struck by a car, my affairs won’t be left in such a state that anyone will discover, among my many prescription medications, three bottles of Viagra—while a woman who denies being my lover realizes what was discovered and discreetly excuses herself to the living room, to better study her fingernails there in the brighter light.
All these things I resolved. Above that, I also hope no one has to come across the many signs of a long-functioning alcohol addict: party bags of mints as big as silver dollars; cinnamon-flavored gum in nearly every drawer and overflowing from the car; small rum bottles tucked behind the couch, in golf bags, under a pile of gym clothes. I do not know when my sister and I will again drink alcohol, but it will never be in any quantity or with any earnestness.
“He’s been yellow for about a month,” his girlfriend told me flatly on the way back to the hospital. “His eyes turned yellow maybe four months ago, but it all else happened so fast.”
“I bet,” I said.
“I tried to tell him to get some help. I tried to, but he said if I called anyone he’d never talk to me again. He said, just this last Tuesday, ‘Why can’t you just leave me alone to kill myself?’ That’s what he said, and it made me cry. I’d come by to . . . help with the computer.” She white-knuckled the steering wheel from holding back the tears. I felt sorry for her.
“It’s okay,” I told her from really far away. Later, we would find the computer my dad had bought the week before, in its unopened box, sitting in plain view in the back of his car.
5. I Visited My Dad’s Favorite Place, and Though Horrified I Mostly Kept a Straight Face.
The night before Dad died, my sister and I went to the mall. We stood in the parking lot and watched the sunset together. It was the most beautiful sunset we’d seen in years, it truly was: wide orange horizon with long clouds stretched out low, pink on the bottom and purple on top, like a deep blue shroud pulling back to reveal a sky full of stars. I loved it. My sister did, too. “It’s his last sunset,” she said, telling me what I’d been thinking. “He probably won’t make it through tomorrow.”
Shuffling through the mall, she asked, “How can people go about their lives like this, so happy while my dad is dying?” Nothing had ever felt so much like living a nightmare: a vaguely familiar place with familiar people, and some unfamiliar but friendly people, and everything was subtly different than I figured it was supposed to be. With no sense of time or space, we walked through the platonic ideal of the American Mall, passing groups of smiling platonic ideals of American Mall People.
On the way out, I bought a Star Wars video game. As a kid I used to play with Star Wars toys on the couch while Dad watched football next to me. Last week after everyone else went to sleep, I pulled a chair over to dad’s bedside. I held his hand while shooting at bad guys on my laptop ’til four in the morning, half-awake playing a game and half-asleep dreaming my way through a rescue attempt on Starship Dad. The gurgling in the back of his throat got worse.
As we finished up at the mall I told my sister some of what I’d found at the house. “I can’t believe it,” she said, shaking. “Who would sell alcohol to an old man with bright yellow skin?”
Stomping out into the cold night, she added, “And he’s not even that old. I wanna go to that liquor store and give those people a piece of my mind.” We went back to the hospital instead. A few days later, I took off in the rental car and didn’t tell anyone else what I was out doing.
It was a large suburban liquor store like any other, with diagonal aisles made from cases of any kind of drink you could imagine. The cashiers were mostly teenagers, years too young to drink what they sold. I made my way to the back of the store, ostensibly looking for bottled water, but I couldn’t find anything that didn’t have alcohol. I wasn’t in the mood for alcohol. I started to walk out.
A pretty girl raised her eyebrows at me as I made my way to the front. “Bottled water?” I asked. She smiled and waved me to follow her into a cage that ran the length of the store though it was only fifteen feet wide. It felt private. There was bottled water there, in what they labeled “The Party Barn,” and a tall bucket of energy drinks, too. I grabbed one of each and walked back up to the front where the girl waited at a small manual register.
As she rang me up I recognized the picture on the front of her blue sweatshirt. “Nice ‘Kids in the Hall’ hoodie,” I told her.
“Thanks,” she said, eyes brightening. “A friend of mine made it for me. I love it.”
“It’s really cool,” I told her, nodding. We exchanged some cash and turned at the same time to walk out of the cage. The girl slowed to pace me as we walked, shoulders close, giving me a sideways grin. She was cute. I smiled back and asked her conspiratorially, “Hey, did some guy have, like, an accident out front on the curb the other day?”
“Yeah, totally,” she said, eyes wide and happy to share. “This guy fell down and hit his head. He was messed up. We didn’t know what to do, so someone called the hospital.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Yeah, ambulance took him away. That’s what I heard. I wasn’t here when it happened, I just heard about it ’cause he was a regular, you know? And he was . . .” she made a kind of waving motion down the front of her body. “Messed up,” she finished. Unable to control his dying body, I thought.
“You know what happened?” I asked.
“His car was outside for a couple days, right there where that car’s parked.” She pointed at my rental car, which I was glad I’d brought. I didn’t realize that I’d parked in the same space. It would’ve freaked her out if she turned to look and his car had come back. “Nobody knew what to do afterwards, so we looked out for it, you know? Shut the door. He was a regular. A couple of days ago it disappeared.”
She stopped talking, her face going slowly blank. “So…how’d you hear about it?”
“I took the car away myself,” I told her. “I’m his son.” She stared at me, literally gaping for a couple of seconds. “He passed away Sunday morning,” I added softly.
“Oh my God,” she said. “Oh my God, I am so sorry. And here, I—”
“Don’t worry about it,” I told her. “You have nothing to apologize for.”
“I’m so sorry. I had no idea. I wasn’t even here when it happened, I just heard all about it ’cause it was a regular and he was . . . someone they said I should recognize.” Because only so many bright yellow men are seen in liquor stores.
“So how often did he come in?” I asked.
She wrung her fingers and bit her lips, until something inside won out and she went expressionless, dropping her hands to her side. “If it’s who I’m thinking of . . . and if you saw him then you know I probably knew who they were talking about . . . then he used to come in every other day and buy a half-gallon of vodka.”
“How long?” I asked, knowing full well how far back the credit card records went, having watched my sister tremble as she organized his unopened mail, and knowing that it had been nearly two weeks since my dad had last bought food.
“Months,” she said. “Months and months. A long time.” Some strange expression must have come across my face, I don’t know what it could have been, but immediately she threw her hands over her mouth and said, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
6. At the End I Found His Strong Center.
The end came quickly. I’d been asleep in the waiting room for a few hours—half of me on a short couch, the other half supported by the seat of a carefully placed chair, all of me covered by a jacket—when Mom woke me up.
“You should come,” she said. “Hurry.”
My sister held his left hand; I held his right. Mom touched his knees. His girlfriend touched his grotesquely swollen toes lightly with her fingertips through the thin hospital sheet.
“His temperature’s 105,” my sister told me. His hands burned and his heart beat strongly. The hospice nurse had said that as his pulse weakened the extremities would cool, drawing energy to the center to conserve heat, but she was wrong. With all his flaws and his frailties burned away, something weird and powerful remained.
His breathing had slowed terribly from the night before but I couldn’t imagine the deep gurgles simply stopping. Some stubborn thing in the engine room of Starship Dad could see all the red lights flashing and was pulling hard on every lever it could find.
I cried. Even balding, jaw slack to one side, he looked too much like me not to be disturbing. I was split by a sense of being in two places at once—that it was me lying there, myself exactly, that some strong and powerful center struggled to keep going.
Then my eyes dried up. An old feeling welled up and calmed me. How curious, I thought, that it had been there all along and I never noticed.
“Come on, man,” I whispered in dad’s ear. “It’s okay. You did a good job. We’re going to be okay. You can relax.”
He took breaths in deep choking gurgles followed by a quick exhale, pausing a few seconds between each gasp. Warmth spread up from his hand into mine, and all my worries slipped away. I breathed in and out as deeply and slowly as I could. Soon each breath took fifteen seconds, then twenty, then thirty.
“Come on, dad,” I said. “You can let up.” That’s me there in that bed, I told myself, and I am breathing more slowly. It was the single-most eerie thing I’ve ever felt, like I was laying there and holding my own hand, slowing my own breath.
With my hands on my dad, I imagined a large blood clot pushing hard against a little gland in his brain—is that all you are at the core of your soul? A cluster of nerves that doesn’t give up, that won’t let you stop breathing?
His final breaths showed little sign of being his last. Starship Dad had slowed to a limp, to a crawl, but refused to collapse. His face was slack; it lived, though there was no longer any sign of anyone behind the controls. His heart still beat, his skin flushed red—what was the problem?
Then he pulled in a particularly deep breath. His eyes crinkled up, his forehead wrinkled, and for a moment the expression on his face was my dad’s again. He tensed, like he was thinking through a really tough problem, or maybe more like he was about to sneeze, but nonetheless there he was. The real man inside his head bubbled up to the surface—Dad! Dad, I love you!—before gratefully letting go and sinking back into the pillow.
“See you around,” I whispered. A
thick vein pulsed on the side of his neck for ten seconds, for twenty
seconds, and then the strength and majesty and glory of a living being
simply vanished, as if it’d never been there, like a sunset or
a rose, or something I went into a room to get but could not remember
what it was once I got there.