"You don't go around grieving all the time, but the grief is still there and always will be." Nigella Lawson
Recently a friend of a friend, someone I have met all of two times but have interacted with over the years through email, joined a sad club. A club whose members are those who have had a parent die too soon. There are two levels to this club, those that lost their parents as a child and those that lost them as adults. If you’re lucky you lose you parents when you are an adult and they are old. There are those that lose them before they should when we’re adults. When your parents are past 75 you’re ready. You’re still all tore up but at that point it’s not a tragedy. You don’t mourn too long. At some point you’re ready to celebrate a life. That happened a couple of years ago at my Grandfather’s funeral. He was 90 when he died. He passed away pretty peacefully surrounded by his family. At the funeral we all cried, some sobbed. Afterwards, at the wake, we all got drunk and had a good laugh and warmed ourselves with shared memories.
Back in 1992 my step Dad died on St. Patrick’s Day. I experienced one of those nightmare scenarios. I got home from an evening spent with some friends and there was a firetruck in our driveway. They were packing up their equipment. That evening is a blur. The firetruck idling. Our neighbor from across the street, a former warrant officer in the Marine Corps, coming out of our house and telling me, “Eddie, your Dad had a heart attack and I don’t think he’s going to make it.” A drive to the hospital and my Mother insisting on seeing his body. We walk to the door of the room his body is laying, I stop at the entrance, I remember his face dark and discolored and a breathing tube still in his mouth. Going back home and thanking our neighbor for watching the two younger siblings and then waking them and telling them their Dad was dead. Then days of immobilizing sorrow. I don’t ever want to have to be present ever again when an 8 year old and a 12 year old are told their Dad has just died.
When I was eight my paternal Grandfather died. When I was 12 my maternal Grandmother died. Those were landmark events of my childhood but, since you’re a kid, you bounce back pretty quick from the death of a grandparent. After all, they are old and you’re young and going to live forever. I also remember attending the funerals of two great grandparents during my childhood. The funerals of the great grandparents were interesting because it’s hard to imagine your grandparents have parents. As far as your world is concerned time started with your grandparents.
But, my step Dad’s death was sudden and unexpected. He was the rock on which we built our home here in Charlotte and when that heart attack killed him I went through a real grieving process for the first time. I could not have been more unprepared for it. I was truly immobilized. I called in to work at the shitty convenience store I worked at for $5 an hour and told them I’d be out for a few days. I barely made it to Central Piedmont Community College for my classes and probably would have failed all of them if it wasn’t for the instructors giving me time to catch up. If his cousin hadn’t flown in immediately and taken over the funeral arrangements I don’t know what my Mother and I would have done.
The first few days were surreal. I’d hear his voice. I’d enter a room and expect him to be there. Once a coworker of his with a similar physique and wearing the official Rick Hendrick Lexus black pullover windbreaker that my Dad wore a lot walked into our living room and for a split second my Dad was there and then, of course, he wasn’t. Grieving is full of these tiny stabs that over a couple of weeks completely break you down. Today at the library I overheard two World War II veterans talking and one was just recently widowed. The other had lost his wife years before and when he heard the other lost his wife just days ago he said, “Oh, you’re still crying. I cried for weeks.”
You do get over it. After a while I could think about his death without losing it and then eventually I could talk about it. Which is necessary if you want to function in this world. If every wound was always fresh we’d either be living in Elantris or no one would ever go to football practice or eat three McDonald’s cheeseburgers in one sitting. It’s unfortunate because my memories of my step Dad get dimmer each year. All have are snippets: his waddling walk, his strong voice, his smile. First your loved ones are taken out of reach and then they slowly fade away.
I guess one good thing did come from his death. I got out of that dead end job at the convenience store. It was a Quik Shoppe owned by Spivey Enterprises and the way they handled the situation was disrespectful. They called me a couple of days after Dad’s death asking when I would be back. I remember saying something along the line, “I’ll be back when I get back” and hanging up. When I did finally decided I could handle a shift they scheduled me for a double shift. The day I was scheduled for the double was the same day my buddy Jeff decided he’d rather owe the Marine Corps a bunch of money for college rather than spend four years as an enlisted cook (he had failed to finish Officer’s Candidate School). I didn’t bother to report for my shift and we went to a baseball card show. It felt good.