My dad: 35 and dead

I was so young when my father died that it took decades to understand my mom experienced loss, too

Topics: Books, Fathers, Death and Dying, Editor's Picks,

My dad: 35 and dead

And then, just like that, he is gone. Thirty-five and dead.

And just like that, we go on. Or, try to. Three of us stumbling through that first year. My mother, thirty-three, a widow now. My brother and I, eight and six, 1970.

A death, quick. Abrupt. Unwitnessed. Mysterious.

*

The parking lot. That morning. I am on my bike, my new two-wheeler, riding in circles in the parking lot of the Kroger grocery store. My mother has sent me out. Or have I chosen to leave?

Here they come. People I know. People who know me. Blood, they say. Relatives, all. In big, wide American cars, they drive into my faded-asphalt lot. There’s my uncle Paul, my aunt Nancy; my godmother Lorraine and her husband, Clarence. There’s Uncle Harry, there’s Aunt Sue. They are waving to me. I am one boy on two wheels, going in circles, not stopping. And there they go, one after another, to do what you do when a life stops. Coming to close the circle.

*

“What do you remember about that day?” I ask my grandmother as we sit toe-to-toe, her in her wheelchair.

She tells me that after they broke it to my brother and me, she went upstairs to the bathroom.

“I needed a place to cry,” she says. “That’s when I saw them, right there in front of the radiator—your father’s slippers.”

My grandmother stares at the slippers for a minute, hesitates, and then—she stuffs them into her purse.

All that long day, she carries my father’s slippers with her. When she goes back into the kitchen to comfort my mother, his slippers are in her purse. When she is waiting at home with my brother and me while my grandfather takes my mother to buy the coffin. While she is helping to serve us dinner. My father’s slippers stay in her purse until late that night when she and my grandfather return to their silent house on Kenneth Avenue. Slowly, my grandfather will back his red Impala into the garage and then, when he turns the engine off, they will both get out of the car and, together, pull the heavy door down.

They walk with no words between them.

My grandfather pushes open the cyclone gate to their yard and stalks toward the house. In the darkness, behind him, my grandmother considers the battered fifty-five-gallon oil drum that has been their garbage can for as long as they have lived here. She unlatches her purse, clutches his slippers, slides them into the dark can, hides them between bags of trash.

“All I could think was your momma was never gonna see him in those slippers again. I couldn’t bear for her to see them.”

*

I went to school that day. Kindergarten. My mother asks me if I want to go or stay home.

“Your brother is staying home,” she says.

“I’ll go,” I say.

Not go on a day like this? More than ever, I want to be present. Thomas Alva Edison Grammar School.

I walk to school alone.

And then there I am, cross-legged, Injun-style, on the floor. It is my favorite time: story time. Miss Nome reads to us. And in my wandering mind I become aware of someone at the classroom door: the principal and my brother’s second-grade teacher. The principal says something. I see her lips move but hear no words. They stare at me, point. They shake their heads and then they are gone.

*

At the end of the day, my brother’s teacher reappears at the door, and then all of my brother’s classmates file in, bearing gifts for me. Well, sort of. There are no trinkets. No furs. No wampum. Instead, each has made a card for my brother. All of them big, multicolored, construction-papered, glue-and-Crayola’d sympathy cards. I hold out my arms, receive them all. When it comes time for me to go home, Miss Nome has to help me carry them toward the curb outside, where Uncle Dick waits. I get in the car, and she piles the sympathies onto my lap. I have never felt more alive.

*

My mother used to be afraid that people would know anything about our family—to know our weaknesses. Like the fact that my father was dead, or that she was a widow at thirty-three. A fear we’d be seen as strange. Or not right. As I got older, I had to keep telling her, Every family has skeletons. The family that you think is perfect, the one sitting front and center at church every Sunday, the kids all smiles and well scrubbed? They’re probably the most in need of sympathy. At our church—Mary, Seat of Wisdom—it was the _________. How many times did I sit at Saturday Vigil Mass when I was a kid, wishing that I were in their family, not mine? They’d stride the aisle to take a pew, the mother beautiful as Mary Tyler Moore, the father all JFK. And their kids? I envied them. I’d imagine how nice it would be to go home after Mass with that family. Only years later did I learn the truth: one daughter estranged; one of their sons living a life they didn’t understand; the parents with heavy hearts.

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It was my mother who told me about them.

“Family secrets,” she said when she finished telling me the story, waving her hand across her face.

“Family?” I said. “Secrets? Sometimes I think they are the same thing.”

*

I come home from school bearing all those cards and find our house crammed with people. In walks a neighbor, Phil James, carrying a giant ham in a roasting pan. If you asked me what I remember about that day, one of the first things I’d say is “ham.” He’s weavng his way through the crowded room, holding the thing above his head like some priest raising high his sacrifice, and it’s hot out of the oven all sizzling and smelling good and everyone smiles and laughs.

*

We waked him on Sunday. Ryan-Parke Funeral Home. “Visitation,” they called it.

In my high school class was a girl named Cristen Ryan. I never knew her. There’s no way I would have—she was a cheerleader. Dark hair and dark eyes and thighs soft and smooth and olive-skinned. She was like a Gauguin painting on Game Day in her pleated wool cheerleader skirt, the one that was white but had black and red panels hidden underneath that I would get glimpses of as she passed me by in the hall: black, red. Profit, loss. And that thick turtleneck sweater, the big block MS stitched onto her chest. Pointy Keds white as her teeth. She was always smiling. Walking the hallway, hugging her binder and her books to her chest, laughing at whatever it was the person walking with her was whispering.

I wish she would’ve noticed me, talked to me. I believed she didn’t because she knew my father had been inside her father’s funeral home. I was sure that she didn’t talk to boys with dead fathers. I was positive her father told her who we were. It all made me feel ashamed. Weak. A failure. Why do I have to drag this dead man with me, wherever I go?

Still, she was lovely. A vision.

Sometimes, at Thompson’s Finer Foods—where I started working at fifteen, selling fruits and vegetables—she’d come in with her mother. Her mother, perfectly tan, even in December, always wearing a black fur coat that didn’t stop until her ankles. In the winter, the pelt rubbing against the wet wheel of the shopping cart. Their cart, piled high with provisions for what I was sure was a never-ending party that I’d never be invited to. I imagined their house, aglow, bursting with laughter, with life and beauty.

And me, standing there, rotating my stock, uncrating another rickety crate of peppers or beets, scraping off the caked, crushed ice. Stacking sack upon sack of potatoes. My hands, soiled from my 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. shift. “Secondhand dirt,” my boss called it—the grime of the earth that would work its way into the grooves of my fingerprints. My hands, blackened, cracked. Transformed into dirty relief maps. And my mother, always after me to scrub my hands when I returned home. “Go into the basement,” she’d say. “And don’t touch my walls.”

*

At the wake, I’m on one of my mother’s hands. My brother, the other. She leads us down the aisle, past the rows of gray metal folding chairs, toward his waiting coffin.

“Kneel,” she says.

I’m next to his face. It is as though he’s asleep on the couch. He even has his glasses on. Brown frames, thick.

I look to my mother, but I can’t see her face. A mantilla? Behind the coffin is a curtain. Like the kind through which a host would make his appearance on a television talk show. Floor to ceiling. Shimmering. Suspended in the midst of it, a crucifix.

I touch the wood of my father’s coffin. It’s smooth and shiny, deep and brown. Like his Buick. He always drove a Buick. That’s what he was driving the night he died. Beer-bottle brown with a black hardtop.

The rest of the day, I sit in the back of the parlor and people walk in and point to me and say, “He’s one of the boys.”

*

We buried him at Maryhill Cemetery. A town away. Us, one long row of dark black cars. But we didn’t really bury him. It was that Catholic thing, where you have the funeral Mass and then the procession to the cemetery and then the final prayers in the cemetery chapel. The body left behind.

No ropes. No lowering of the box bumping against the grave wall. No fistfuls of dirt tossed on top.

A few years later, we are at the kitchen table, the three of us, and my brother says out of nowhere, “How come we didn’t get to throw dirt on Dad’s coffin?”

My mother says, “What did you say?”

He says, “Like they do on TV.”

“Because we didn’t,” she says. “That’s why.”

And then she walks out, her food sitting there, going cold.

*

A few weeks after he was dead, a man in a white shirt, white pants, and a white cap comes to our house and starts working on our doors, front and back.

“What are you doing?” I say.

“Deadbolts,” he says.

Not until I was in my thirties did my mother let slip that for months after he died, phone calls came for her in the middle of the night. Obscene phone calls. She tells me she has a theory: There are men who read the obits in the paper, looking for what she calls “fresh widows” to prey upon. “It’s easy,” she says. “Everything is right there in the obit. Everything you need to know to hurt someone. It’s like a burglar driving through a neighborhood and looking for a dark house. A vulnerable target.”

My mother calls the police. They come to our kitchen and take her statement. In the end, they do nothing, just tell her to take the receiver off the cradle at night.

One of the cops tells her, “You don’t want to be inviting any of this.”

I can only imagine her terror. Alone in that house with her two children, aware that somewhere out there is someone who knows where you live. Someone who is watching you. Someone who has your number.

Dead bolts.

*

I asked her about her friends. Who was there for you after he died? Who was there for us? Who stepped up?

“For a month or two, I got invited to dinners or to parties. The things we always went to as a couple. But then that stopped. Just like that. I’d hear talk about the parties the morning after, when I was in town running errands. I think it was the women who cut me out. They all thought I was out to steal their men.”

She is playing solitaire at the kitchen table.

The shuffle. The cut. The deal to herself.

“Married women don’t like single women,” she says. “If one appears in the group, they cast her out. That’s when I saw that I was alone.”

She looks back at her cards. 1, 2, 3. No match.

1, 2, 3. No match.

1, 2, 3. No match.

“I’ll never forget the women who cut me loose,” she says, not lifting her eyes from her cards.

Excerpted from “AFTER VISITING FRIENDS: A Son’s Story.” Copyright © 2013 by Michael Hainey. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Michael Hainey is the deputy editor of GQ magazine.

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