I’ve come to the conclusion, after ten years of grief nipping at my heals in the form of apathy, that I am stronger than I am fast, and therefore it stands to reason that I should turn around and face what has been chasing me.
May 22, 2011 was the single most impactful day of my adolescence. I remember every other detail of that Sunday from 11am on.
I remember standing in front of the youth ministry at church following the service, going through the unironically religious ceremony of waiting for our mom to stop talking to her friends so we could leave. Dad was going to go get lunch and meet us at the house, I strategically offered to join him, certain that the two of us could make it back to the house before mom ran out of wind.
I don’t remember the next bit, getting to the car or driving to KFC. I imagine we walked, holding hands unapologetically. Dad had the roughest hands in the world but they were safe, like a weighted blanket made of 40 grit sandpaper. I remember he wore a brown, floral, short-sleeve button-down shirt that had gone out of style years before and it would be another decade still, til it saw its return to popularity. He didn’t care. I imagine in the car, I concentrated my efforts to conjure a belly laugh from the man (and hell, it’s my story so I’ll fill in that blank with a success). I loved to hear him laugh, perhaps because a small part of me knew that he bore the weight of the world on his shoulders and laughter makes everything lighter, more likely because I wanted to make everyone laugh.
At the restaurant, I have no idea what was ordered; chicken and fixins enough to feed the army probably still in the trenches at the church. I do remember when Dad went to pay, he and the cashier mishandled his debit card and it fell between the hot bar and the table holding the register. I remember this so distinctly because it was the first time I can recall God smiling upon me with the gift of a moment -another blank space.
Back at home, mom and the others had beat us back, a small loss turned enormous victory by circumstance. I was in the kitchen, spreading the buffet on the crowded kitchen table having somehow been the only one yet to forget my innate need for sustenance. Mom and Dad were talking on the sofa in the next room, my younger brothers having a relatively tame, insignificant argument, I believe my younger sister was in her room, and our oldest sister had gone to a good friend’s house. Dad interrupted his own conversation to release a half-hearted “settle down” to the boys in the hall. Quiet speech continued in the den, the fighting stopped. Blank.
The talk in the living room became one-sided and grew exponentially in volume, “Honey, are you okay” … “Joseph, Call 911!” I mindlessly leapt to the dinosaur set upon the receiver, pressed the four buttons necessary to complete her call to action, and ran to the den to see the strongest figure in my life convulsing uncontrollably. It wasn’t long before the seizing ceased.
I don’t know if my mother could’ve lifted a car in the moment, but we may as well have because we grabbed hold of the man, who in my eyes dwarfed Goliath, and repelled him to the living room floor. This was a moment entirely absent of grace, he thudded to the ground, and mom began what I vaguely recognized as CPR.
The 911 operator and I were engaged in a discussion about what was happening. I squeezed out something to the effect of “my dad” and our home address. I grew frustrated with the operator who asked my age, and told me how strong I was. I was nine days from being fourteen years old, overwhelmed with the inevitable feeling that I was about to find out precisely how strong I was.
Mom continued CPR, offering her breath as a substitute for his own, his body selfishly rejected her gracious gift, his chest would rise but the air would exit passively, pushing through his lips like a deflating balloon. In his last breaths, that were not his own, the giant that I loved and admired looked like he was trying to entertain a baby. His lifeless body mocking my mother’s efforts.
Firefighters arrived within minutes. Family friends arrived in hordes, someone drove Mom to the hospital. Blank.
I was alone in the backyard, subconsciously walking the path that our dog had laboriously treaded, running in circles, seemingly to clear the way for this moment of reflection. It was a hot and sunny afternoon, that at the time I perceived to be spitefully bright for the darkest day of my life. But spite is not in nature’s vocabulary, the Earth knows only to spin. In the matters of humanity, our bulimic world has binged and purged for centuries, why should it be at fault for not considering what must seem to it a grain of rice.
We were all gathered downstairs upon Mom’s return from the hospital. “Dad’s not coming home.” These words, although remembered clearly, were hardly necessary, there is something in the countenance of a person that announces death before their lips ever move, such was the case with Mom in this moment. I buried my head in my hands and counted to ten. This was the arbitrary number I had decided to give myself to grieve, because in the eyes of a boy who has watched too many movies, and yet to live enough life, I was the “man of the house” now and must act as such. The greatest gift my mother has ever given me, was immediately striking that notion from my heart, allowing me a complete boyhood.
When a man dies, it is not only one person who is lost. In the case of my dad; one husband was lost, five fathers taken away, two sons, a brother, uncles, coworkers, friends. Future relationships lost; thus far two father-in-laws, a grandfather to three beautiful girls. Regarding God, I never experienced the fury that is often described when losing someone such as this. I felt jealous, as He is the only of anyone I know who gained a companion that day.