A recounting of my experience taking emergency leave after my father's unexpected death.
| I spent the entire flight in a daze, lost somewhere between cold and numb. The ocean spread out beyond the tiny window beside me just as it had for the last eight hours, a distant, still reflection of my own emotions. Nothing visible marred its surface, but nothing moved it either. It was simply there, just as I was, idly waiting for something to cause a ripple. My eyes were burning, I realized, but I couldn't be bothered to close them. That ocean was just too still; something had to make it move.
Then there was also the matter of the transparent man in the window, a ghostly visage that was there to greet me whenever I could be bothered to acknowledge him, which wasn't often. But he was always there, and his brown eyes never lost their cold stare. His face was gaunt, pulled tight by more experiences than he could've possibly been expected to endure. He was young, but he wasn't youthful; and if the ocean behind him was still, he was lifeless. Still, there was an eerie resolve in the transparent man's eyes, something unmistakably resilient. I only wished I knew what it was.
“Please prepare for landing,” came a voice over the speakers. Was it time already? Surely, there was some mistake. This was far from the first time I'd made the trip home, yet it seemed like this one had only just begun. Luckily, I hadn't bothered to unpack, so my preparations were a perfunctory matter of stowing the small tray table in front of me. I hadn't even moved my seat from the upright position, a fact my lower back was now attesting to with a dull ache-- just another thing I had failed to notice until now.
A flight attendant was walking down the aisle making the last call for trash, but I waved her off with an absent-minded gesture and a distracted smile. I knew it never touched my eyes, however, because despite my best efforts, I simply couldn't bring myself to the here and now, not mentally anyway. My mind was thousands of miles away, further even than the shores I'd left what seemed like only moments ago. Where I was, how I got there: it all faded in an instant. I could only concentrate on the why: my father.
It wasn't the typical father-son moments, however, on which I reminisced, but my father as a whole. I never knew him as closely as a son should. He moved to another state along with most of my paternal relatives when I was young, and the majority of my memories were formed over infrequent summers spent together and even more rare visits paid to me at home. As I grew older, I discovered that the latter was due in large part to a recurring drug addiction and the locale of his contacts; I was almost more of a convenience than anything. Still, he was far from unloving, and nostalgia had a way of making even the darkest memories shine.
Now he was dead-- a suicide, which in non-medical terms meant “complete and utter surprise”.
Just thinking about it brought a sobering chill, like being shaken from an all too lucid dream. It had been a full day since I'd gotten the news, yet it still didn't feel real. It seemed for all the world a hoax, or better yet a distant event that somehow had no bearing on me, a sentiment compounded by the distances between us: a few states growing up, an ocean since. Either way, it wasn't sinking in. In fact, I only cried when I called to tell my mother-- they had been separated for well over a decade, but I knew she would take it harder than I did, and the tears were more in sympathy for her. Without any real precedent to go by, I felt as if I should be more affected, that the ocean should be stirring. Strange, that.
Stranger still were the thoughts accompanying that of my father's passing: paternal uncles, cousins, and half-siblings-- a younger brother and sister. They had all moved to or were born in the same state my father lived in, and for the greater part of my life he had been my only link to them. In their cases, our interactions were almost exclusively limited to those infrequent summers, and losing my father meant losing a pivotal link in the already fragile chain connecting us. That concerned me more than the funeral I was flying home to face, which in turn drove guilt into some deep recess left by my grief's absence. Would that grief ever arrive? Would the ocean ever move?
I took another glance out the window and was surprised when the transparent man failed to greet me. The ocean, too, was missing, replaced by a myriad of tiny buildings and narrow rooftops in various colors. The sun was even lower in the sky, its midday yellows traded for evening golds. When did that happen? Oh, that's right; I had already boarded my connecting flight, which meant I was that much closer to home and the tribulations it had in store. I could still picture the ocean though, its surface smooth as glass but its waters dark and foreboding.
“Please prepare for landing,” the call came again. It was almost like deja vu, except that it was a woman this time, and there was no flight attendant asking for trash. They had already made their rounds, and the passengers had already been checked for upright seats and tray tables. Most of them had already removed their seat-belts and were stirring well before the plane had come to a stop, but I doubted any of them had a funeral to attend. I took my time. Somehow, I don't think I could have managed anything but, or maybe I just didn't want to.
Getting through the airport was easy enough, especially since I'd been to that exact one a dozen times before. It was a small place with only a few terminals and a handful of shops to occupy its blue carpets and oddly blended tiles. It took longer to get to the carousels than it did to cross the Atlantic, or so I thought. Once I did make it and after my luggage arrived, I made my way to the entrance where I knew the real journey would begin.
My family was waiting for me just as I knew they would be, including my mother. She was all brown hair and smiles, but even from the other side of the lobby I could see the question burning in her eyes: “are you okay?” I'd heard it at least a dozen times since getting the news, and the wording seldom changed; another regurgitated platitude used by disinterested people when they couldn't think of anything better to say. I had long since begun to wonder if they knew the frustration it effected, the roiling undercurrents it kicked up just below the ocean's surface. At least my mother was more sensitive. She waited until after the traditional warm “welcome home” before pitching her version, and the pain in her eyes made it somewhat less grating. I gave her the same reply I did everyone else: an equally unvarying response.
They helped me load my things into their car, and it wasn't long before we were home. The rest of the day was filled with greetings and temporary reunions, new neighbors introducing themselves and siblings welcoming me back-- I also had a younger brother and sister on my mother's side. We passed the time with laughter and joy, but it never felt genuine. The air was too unsettling, thick with the mutual trepidation none dared to express; they out of respect for me, and me because it simply hadn't set in. It added a certain tension to the situation, and that tension became yet another undercurrent. At least being at home and not in an airport put me at a relative ease for the night. The morning, however, washed away all pretense of it.
My grandmother arrived early to take us-- my mother and I-- to the funeral home, and we didn't waste much time before getting on the road. It was nearly a four-hour drive, and we wanted to get there as early as possible. They felt compelled to show their full respects, and I was already there mentally. It was odd how we were unanimously dreading our destination yet were so eager to reach it. At least, I knew I was; they were probably acting in deference to whatever social convention mandated for the situation.
All the unnoticed time from my flights and more saw fit to revisit me on that drive, and I spent most of it in silence, excluding myself from whatever conversations were being passed between the front seats-- they seemed menial in the grand scope of things. Instead, I became self-absorbed and contemplative almost to the point of non-existence, a catatonic wreck riding in the back solely because reality and circumstance put me there.
I thought of everything from the two siblings I'd just left to the two I was going to meet, my friends back home awaiting my return to the girlfriend I'd left on the other side of the ocean for when everything was well and truly over. I thought of the apathy I had for the world and the guilt I felt because of it: guilt for the half of my family I barely knew; for the months that had passed since the last time I'd talked to my father, even though he never kept the same number for any length of time. I thought of it all, but it was that last that stung the most. I dwelled and dwelled on it until I was no longer sure if I was angry with myself, my father, or just at life for working me into such a corner.
But not all of my thoughts were so negative. I had memories too: memories of a tall, lithe man with brown hair and matching eyes; of precious moments walking with him to this store or to that park, laughing and smiling all the way. There were bad ones, of course, such as the drug addictions, the excessive absences, and a hundred empty promises, but even in those I could only see the man. Where there were wrongs, I saw only good intentions, and where there was nothing, I remembered the love and the longing he suffused. It was there as strongly as in any father, moreso than most for not having the customary possessions to gift to his children. It was his greatest source of guilt, and he was never entirely successful at hiding it. I let that reverie fade as we neared our destination.
The funeral home was a small building in the middle of a town built to the same scale. I spotted it first by the rings of half-familiar faces huddled by the door and spilling into the parking lot. They made quite the emotionally-mixed welcoming committee, and if the ocean was my emotions, they were the undercurrents. Some of them were quiet, sullen, and utterly subdued by the moment. Others were making poor attempts at conversation, and others still were successful in such attempts. But they all had a slight downcast to their eyes and the same barely-contained anguish playing behind them. I felt like I was relating to all of them at the same time.
There were more people I didn't know than those I did, a fact that piqued my relative unease around the paternal half of my family and the guilt laden within. Acquainted or not, however, they all became the same veritable sea of the same question, worded the same few ways, and I waded through it grudgingly. “I'm fine,” I would tell them as I passed, never lingering long enough for a second inquiry. None of them watched me go, and I thought even less of them for it, for pestering me without any real interest in my response. Those that weren't previously acquainted with me were the worst by far, incessant in their inquisition but quick to move on to their next conversation. It was loathsome.
Finally, I saw my relatives and moved toward them. They stood out from the crowd in that they stood in a fully closed circle, and the only sounds coming from it were that of quiet laughter and the occasional sigh. Our family always did have a way of using humor as a defense, and it was on full display now. They admitted me to the group and welcomed me with open arms, literally. I was welcomed by uncles, aunts, cousins; even my sister was there with her mother and an eager embrace-- she always was quick to adhere to the conventional sibling bond, something I was particularly grateful for at the moment; it made me feel less at fault, or at least that I had less to be at fault for. We regaled each other with the latest happenings in our lives, and they were particularly interested in my mother whom they hadn't seen since moving out of state. We talked for a good while, and never once did they ask how I was coping. But our conversation eventually wound down, and I knew there was only one thing left to do. It was time to go inside.
I entered the funeral home and headed straight for the viewing room, and there my pace slowed. A large casket laid at one end, menacing in a dark oak finish and matching trim. Even more menacing was the open lid with its white felt liner, because on that liner was my father. Just his face was visible at first, but as I drew closer he came into full view. His hair was combed straight back, eyes closed, and hands arranged flat near his waist. It was the traditional viewing pose, which his side of my family had become unfortunately accustomed to.
Two uncles and a grandmother had passed away over three consecutive years, all on my father's side; now, he made it four for four. It was a sadistic irony that our family, plagued at all angles by separation and vice, had so often come together in so short a time. In fact, the first and only time I'd been with both my paternal siblings and our father since adulthood had been at my grandmother's funeral. I was twenty-one, yet only a single picture taken outside her viewing existed of the four of us together, at least that everyone was old enough to remember.
Thinking of that picture made my mind wander, especially seeing as it was arranged in a collection of dozens of photos on one side of the room. I gave my head a shake to clear the fog, averted my eyes, and the casket and my father came back into view like a well remembered nightmare. I started across the room, and from the other end I could hear the whispers of a dozen strangers muttered at what they thought were inaudible levels. “That's his oldest,” they said, and, “Maybe we should give him a minute.” And one-by-one they filtered out of the room. It wasn't until they were all gone that I took the last few steps to the casket and placed my hands on the edge. It was smooth and cold, and the body inside was bloated in the aftermath of an autopsy. At least my father had been dressed in simple blue jeans and white tennis shoes, and a gray sweater concealed most of the bloat and, more importantly, the scars where the noose had tightened. I muttered a silent thanks for the mortician's hand in that.
Casual was my father's preferred attire, and I couldn't remember him in anything else. It was one of many things we had in common, or so I'd heard. All my life people had been telling me how much I acted like him or how similar our senses of humor were. Now, peering down into the casket, I realized just how similar we looked, no matter that his hair was thin and brown whereas mine was thick and red.
And that's when the ocean moved.
It reared up like a roiling tempest, a series of veritable tidal waves that came slamming into me with crushing finality. Those waves soon turned to tears, accompanied by a violent shaking in my hands and a slight quivering in my knees. I was wracked by emotions I didn't know I had, mostly fear. I was afraid I would slip just as he had, if not in so many ways; that I would recreate the schism in our bond in those shared with my paternal siblings, by distance alone. I was afraid that I'd lost not only a father but the one person that could translate half of my existence, the Rosetta Stone of my paternal family. How I wished he would just open his eyes and reveal the hoax, but with every passing moment I became more and more aware of just how real this was.
For a long while, I simply stood there, quaking. I ran a hand along the gray sweater and was repulsed by the cold, hollow feel beneath it. At that exact moment the body before me became less a corpse in my mind and more a mannequin, a plastic representation of what once was. But what it represented was an embodiment of my soul, and it struck deep into it. I cried harder, making feeble attempts to dry my eyes with the back of my hand, but I didn't want them to stop. I wanted them to continue. My mere presence wasn't enough; I wanted the tears to flow unhindered, like man-made rivers crafted solely in tribute. Most of all, I wanted my father to know that I was there and that I cared, that the precarious nature of our relationship hadn't hampered my feelings for him. I even hoped against my Agnostic views that there was an afterlife where he was already looking down, if only so he could see these things.
My mother and grandmother approached then, and they took their turns grieving, the first out of reverie and the second still in deference. One of my uncles followed them in, though he did so to talk to me. He told me about an altercation between my father and brother, and that my brother was refusing to come because of some words exchanged in it. I felt yet another stab of guilt; not just for the words, though they were unbelievably harsh, but for not noticing my brother's absence in the first place. Before I was even asked, I decided I would persuade him to come. I even went so far as to make a silent promise to my father's body that I'd see it done. I took it as the first of many ways I could begin strengthening our sibling bond, a list of which was already forming in my head. I promised to see that done too.
A few hours later saw me waking up in the hotel room my siblings' mother had reserved for us. All promises notwithstanding, I'd needed a break from the mourning environment; either the stress of the situation or the stench of the preservatives had made me physically ill, but a quick nap seemed to take care of it. Besides, I'd already arranged for my siblings to meet me at the hotel, and there was still enough time to get my brother to the viewing. When they arrived, we exchanged all the customary greetings, but my sister spoke before I had a chance to move past them.
As it turned out, she was in a school play showing soon and wanted to know if I could stay an extra night to see it. I said yes, and she was beaming almost before the word was even out of my mouth, an infectious little smile that lit up the entire room. The decision wasn't a hard one, and that list in my head shrunk ever so slightly. It was calming, both her smile and my gesture, small as it seemed, and I realized not for the first time how comforting her eagerness to conform really was.
My brother was slightly different. It wasn't that he showed no recognition of the title, just that he approached it carefully. He was always a bit more hesitant, a bit more cautious-- a bit more like me, I realized. I took a similar approach to our conversation, asking first about school and sports before working up to the most important topic. Even then I worked first to resolve the altercation I was told about before asking him to go to the viewing. I didn't think I was entirely successful in the first undertaking, but he agreed to come quick enough after I offered to go in with him. I could have been reading too far into it, but I took a hint of pride in that being the tipping point. It was also another thing to cross off the list.
We left for the funeral home as soon as he was decided, and we got there just fifteen minutes before it closed. The relief on everyone's faces was readily apparent when they saw my brother. We entered the viewing room together, as promised, but I stood a few feet back to give him some sort of privacy. The rest of the room was disturbingly empty. Sticking around just didn't fit into anyone's schedule, it seemed. Only family and a few of our closer friends-- people I actually recognized-- remained, but I didn't have it in me to be angry at the moment. I felt that the service had more meaning when attended by those truly in mourning, anyway. Unsurprisingly, and a bit begrudgingly, that crowd was less than a third of the previous one: such a strange thing to note considering the situation, but there it was.
After a few minutes had passed, I went to my brother's side. There wasn't much to say, so we stood there in relative silence, gazing down at our father's body, now littered with memorabilia. All the while, I projected a thought over and over from my mind to whatever greater cosmos I hoped existed: “I told you I'd bring him,” I said to it. I wanted to say, “He's not angry”, just as I wanted to put a hand on my brother's shoulder, but that wasn't my thought to share, and I was afraid it would make him find the situation even more awkward than it already was. Instead, I took satisfaction from the promise I'd fulfilled and the crack I'd mended in that my brother was right there next to me.
Our sister joined us then, and without so much as a single word passing between the three of us, I knew we were all thinking of the same thing. We were thinking of a man with brown hair and a smile that rarely left his face, no matter how seldom he was around to show it; of how he wanted to give his children the world, though he could never find the means. We all knew he was never happier than when the four of us were together, and as if by one last poetic wish, there we were. Looking between our father, his half of my family in the next room, and both of the siblings he'd given me standing by my side, I thought of one last thing just as the funeral clerk came to tell us it was time to go: I thought of what my return flight would be like and imagined gazing at the bright ocean through a tiny porthole window.
It was smooth as glass.
In Loving Memory:
Monte Lee Cook Sr
February 15th, 1970 - July 16th 2010