by Risa Green
My life changed on a Saturday morning with a phone call. My father …. hospital…heart attack….ventilator. It was Halloween. I was three thousand miles away. I booked a plane ticket for a red eye that night; I had already missed the only other flight of the day. More phone calls. My brother, my uncle, my mom, the doctor. I found a hotel near the hospital and called to make a reservation. How many days? I didn’t know. I couldn’t think. My husband took the phone away from me. Three days, he told the agent. Maybe longer, but let’s book three for now. More phone calls. Not looking good…not optimistic…still not stabilized. I tried to pack, but what? His birthday – his birthday is in four days. I cried violently; a wild, primal, shaking cry, like no cry I’d ever experienced before. My children were terrified. It’s Halloween, they whispered to my husband. Are we still allowed to have fun? More phone calls. Nothing else we can do…we want to make him comfortable…let him go in peace. By four-thirty, my father was gone.
Somehow, I pasted a smile on my face and went to a Halloween party. Somehow, I took my children trick-or-treating. Somehow, I walked through the airport and found my brother in the waiting area. Somehow, we boarded the plane. I barely remember any of it. I must have been giving off an aura of vulnerability, because I remember thinking that strangers – the TSA inspector, the guy I bought a water from at the airport, the flight attendant – were being unusually gentle with me. On the plane, I listened to my iPod and cried in the dark. I must have slept a little, because my neck hurt when the captain started his descent into Philadelphia.
At five am, my brother, his wife and I rented a car and drove to our hotel. We ate breakfast at a diner. At nine, we went to the funeral home. The director had been our next-door neighbor for twenty years. I used to go swimming in his pool. I used to flirt with his son. He looked exactly the same. He said that we did, too. We picked out a coffin. Dark wood with a Star of David on top.
We drove to my father’s apartment. He moved a few years ago, and neither I nor my brother had ever visited him there. It was small and sad. I hadn’t talked to him since Father’s Day in June. I hadn’t seen him since May. We met him at a children’s museum in Philly. My son refused to give him a kiss. He hadn’t looked good then; puffy face and shaking hands. He said he wasn’t drinking anymore. I knew he was lying. I would have called him on his birthday. I almost called him the week before, but I knew he wouldn’t answer. He only answered on his birthday, and on Father’s Day. His birthday was in three days. I had been waiting for it. I still loved him so much.
I barely knew him the last fifteen years. Friends appeared whom I hadn’t known existed. Clothes I didn’t recognize were in his drawers. An email account I thought he never checked was active. He’d saved the ticket from the children’s museum. He had a picture of my kids from last year’s holiday card in his wallet. He loved you so much, said a woman I’d never met before. She had been the last one to see him alive.
At the Men’s Warehouse we bought him a new sweater. His old ones were covered in cat hair. He never wore a suit, and it didn’t feel right for him to be in one now. The sales lady asked me if I wanted her to put him in the system? I told her I didn’t think he would be buying anything anytime soon. My brother thought that was hilarious. At the cemetery, we bought a plot near his parents. We were lucky. There were only a few left in that section. His brother owns a plot there, too.
The night before the funeral, we went to see him. He looked like himself, but not really. The makeup was too orange. His mouth was in a grimace. His blue eyes were hidden behind closed eyelids. My aunt said he looked at peace. I didn’t tell her that I didn’t agree. His ear had started to turn blue.
Eighteen people came to the funeral. A rabbi who had never met my dad performed the service, at graveside. He asked if anyone wanted to say anything. My dad’s cousin said that we should try to remember the old Gary, not the Gary who had struggled so much these last fifteen years. I couldn’t picture the old Gary. All I could picture was the Gary with the orange makeup, in the sweater from the Men’s Warehouse. I thought the coffin looked nice.
Eight hours later I was back on an airplane. My brother was ten rows behind me. There was no movie to distract me, no televisions on the plane, even. I was wearing his watch, the one my mom had bought him for his twenty-first birthday. I hadn’t ever noticed before that it was inscribed. To G.R. 11/4/66. His birthday was tomorrow.
When I got home that night, I lit the memorial candle they’d given me at the funeral home. They said it would burn for seven days. Seven days that you’re supposed to sit at home and mourn. Seven days that you’re supposed to receive visitors, and cry, and talk about the person you’ve lost with the people who love you and support you. Seven days that you’re supposed to wear a black ribbon, and focus on nothing but your feelings. My kids were asleep already. My son had come down with swine flu while I was away, and I went in to check his fever. I had to pack my daughter’s lunchbox for school. It was picture day in the morning, and I needed to fill out the forms and put them in her backpack. There’s no seven days when you’re a mom.