I stood in the hospital waiting room thinking of how it smelled vaguely like a bathroom mixed with medicine. I kept having this image of a small toilet with a huge urinal mint in it that stank the whole place up. I smiled at the image as the buzzing of my mother on the phone went on and on forever. My mother dealt with trauma by talking, it was her defense mechanism. At my age I had developed a rather fine tuned filter. I could turn most of what she said into background noise but still allow enough to leak through that she was convinced I hung on every word. I used the giant urinal mint bathroom image to get through he latest tirade.
“Like I said he’s asleep.” There was a pause so I felt I had to say something. “The doctor doesn’t have much more to tell us than he already did.“
My mother began prattling on again and my mind switched gears to the last few hours. The Doctor had stood there trying very hard to not look like a doctor. Cowboy boots instead of shoes, open collar shirt with no tie, etc. He held a clipboard; spoke to my father about how the Sarcoma had spread into his lungs. I watched my father, all 100 pounds of him; begin to talk about getting involved in chemotherapy right away.
The Doctor looked at me for help as my dad continued talking about being strong through the sickness that Chemotherapy would bring. It was the first time since the whole ordeal began that I had wanted to cry. I didn’t cry, I couldn’t cry because dad would want to know what I was crying about.
“Dad you have AIDS so chemotherapy is not even an option.”
Yeah, that wasn’t something I could say so I sucked it all back using the “my eyes sure are tired” excuse when I wiped them free of tears. The Doctor smiled at my dad and tapped me arm, the indication that we had to talk. Over the months the Doctor and I had unconsciously come up with a laundry list of signals for each other. The arm tap meant I needed to follow him outside. It was the one the Doctor used when he first told me dad had AIDS. I followed the Doctor out and stood watching him, trying not to be pissed that his kids wouldn’t be losing their dad anytime soon.
“We both know he won’t live through Chemo.” He said.
“I know Doc, he knows it to but he won’t admit it. Would you?”
“I suppose not.” He said after a long pause. “Do you want to tell him or shall I?”
“Nobody is telling him anything.” I said flatly. “Let him hold onto this until he dies, which we both know won’t be long.”
“We just lie to him?” The doctor said.
“We just…” I trailed off. “Humor him.”
The Doctor thought about this and shrugged a tenuous approval. As he left I watched him walk down the hall. Past the man on the stretcher sleeping, the zombie like patients on the AIDS floor who moved silently through the lime green halls pushing IV drips along with them and the nurses who had long become immune to seeing so much death. I watched the whole circus move through this tiny section of a grand hospital and fought back a flash of anger. My father was dying, I was losing him, I would never see him again and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
“ I have to go mom.”
I was rushed back to the present by the silence. A lengthy silence meant my mom had been waiting a long time for my response. I had forgotten she was on the phone so my filter was of no use to me now. I had no clue what she had said at all and I didn’t care. I needed air; I needed to be off the phone and out of the giant urinal mint. I hung up the phone without waiting for her reply and bolted for the elevator.
I pushed the buttons over and over afraid a nurse would come running up to me and tell me dad had suddenly passed. The entire time I had managed to think of his death coming with warning bells, sirens, something to warn me to prepare myself for what his actual death. It didn’t work that way, he would die and I would be alone and it would happen with no more fanfare than when a clock changes numbers.
I stepped into the elevator and leaned against the wall. I was nearly to the ground floor when I realized I was crying, soft sobs that were almost silent. When I stepped into the general chaos of the ground floor my face was streaked with tears and this desperation to get outside and let the sun wash over me. I pushed through people, not caring who was sick and who wasn’t, propelled by a need to be outside. I burst through the doors into the warmth of the sunlight and put my face up to the sky. I had forgotten how cold the air conditioning inside could get and I basked in the chills that went through me as my body forced out the cold and replaced it with warmth.
It was several seconds before I was able to turn my face away from the sun and open my eyes. I looked over the bustling New York streets watching people dash around in their madness to get where they needed to go. None of these people knew my father and yet I felt another wash of anger that they wouldn’t stop and think of him. I wanted to shout that a great man was dying, stop worrying about your coffee drinks and portable hoo-haas
Though, to be honest, a coffee drink did sound good didn’t it? My tirade against the unfeeling masses of total strangers stopped short when I thought of how good an iced latte would be. I crossed the street and filed into the coffee shop. Inside was a circus of laptop computers, intelligent and feux intelligent conversations and all of them on cell phones. My father had called that the Modern Mosquito Buzz. He’d also called car alarms the Urban Cricket. My dad was a funny guy.
IS a funny guy
“Iced caramel latte.” I said to girl behind the counter.
“Vente, Grande or…”
“A fucking large.” I snapped, instantly regretting it.
I tried to apologize but she had already moved away to start my coffee. Wonderful, I was that guy now, the douche in the coffee shop. Awesome.
“Try not to worry about it.” A voice said.
I turned to see a young man standing next to me. He was all of twenty-five with a cherub face and long black hair. His skin was porcelain white and stood out harshly against the black clothing he wore. His eyes had a kindness to them but seemed weighed down with weary sadness. Though skinny he didn’t seem weak or mal-nourished.
If I were a man who believed in auras I would have said his burned brightly. He was a beautiful and sad and hard not to look at even for a confirmed straight man. He didn’t look at me but instead at the clear case filled with cookies and cakes and breakfast goodies. He seemed entranced by them as he ran his finger lovingly across the clear glass.
“Excuse me?” I said, when I could speak again.
“I said try not to worry about it. Being the douche at the coffee shop.” He still focused on the case.
“I didn’t realize I had said that out loud.” Had I? Great now I was talking to myself.
“Doesn’t matter, I was just saying not to be hard on yourself.” He paused. “Don’t those look wonderful?” He pointed at the cakes and cookies.
“Uh, I guess.” I wasn’t in the mood for small talk.
“They are, trust me, food of the Gods and all that kind of thing. You should have one.”
“I don’t want one. I don’t eat sweets really.”
“Really?” He finally looked at me. “Foolish boy.”
I looked at him and his smiling cherub face and then rolled my eyes and turned away. There may have been something about him but today was not my day to talk to strangers. I moved closer to the serving area and waited to get my coffee. The young man went back to obsessing over the cakes. When my coffee came up I took a big swig and headed back into the heat. I crossed the street to the hospital taking large sips of iced latte.
My phone hadn’t rung in awhile which was never a good sign. The only thing my mother did better than talk was pout. I could see her now turning my father’s death into something that affected her. Though she hadn’t been to see him since he had gotten sick. Though he was long her ex-husband. Though they never really spoke. It didn’t matter; his death would be a great burden to her.
She did that, my mother, turned everything into a hardship for her. If your foot got severed she’d be mad because you’d made her nauseous. She wasn’t evil or even bad she was just selfish. Her idea that spreading money was how you became known as giving was skewed to say the least. I knew this would turn into a fight later on down the road but I couldn’t bother with that right now. Right now was about Dad and Mom would keep. Her grudges didn’t die easily so there would be plenty of time to be told how mean I was to her later. Suddenly I needed a cigarette, badly. I had quit when dad first got really sick because he’d asked me to. It wasn’t easy but it wasn’t dreadful and once I had survived a month I never thought about them again. Right now though, I needed a cigarette worse than I ever had.
I turned to see the young man from the coffee shop holding out a pack of Nat Shermans (my favorite brand) with one smoke leaning out of it. He smiled like the cat that swallowed the canary and gestured again for me to take one.
“Are you following me?” I asked him.
“That’s a long story Mark.” He said back, still smiling. “Take the smoke.”
“OK how do you know my name?” I was getting anxious.
“Oh not this again.” He sighed. “I was really hoping to skip the part where you question who I am and I have to resort to parlor tricks to convince you. So been done, so boring, so cliché. I hate clichés; I try to avoid being one if I can.“
“What the fuck are you talking about kid?” I snapped. This was pissing me off.
“Kid? I take offense to that, I am older than you by a long shot. Do you want this smoke or not?”
“No.” I yelled. “I want you to stop following me and…”
“I’m here to help your father Mark…”
I swung at him. I wasn’t even fully conscious that I had done it until I saw my fist rocket towards his face. I closed my eyes, waiting to hear that ugly crack of bone against bone. When I didn’t hear anything my first thought was that he had ducked. I opened my eyes to avoid his retaliation. What I saw froze my blood and in one instant I was smarter than everybody I had ever known and even most I had never met.
My arm was completely extended about an inch from the young man’s face but it was frozen. In fact I was frozen, unable to move anything at all except my eyes. What I saw when I looked around scared me beyond any kind of fear I had ever known.
The entire city was frozen, still, not moving at all. Clouds of exhaust behind cars hung in the air like foul decoration for a twisted party. People didn’t move, cigarettes tossed out were locked in time. Pigeons were in mid-flight, people’s faces were frozen in odd configurations of conversation or yawning or yelling. It was as if somebody had pushed the pause button on the entire world. I was surprised my mind could handle this without turning to jelly.
“That’s actually my fault.” The young man said, moving as freely as I had a second ago. “I helped your mind process this without snapping. I realize this is all very melodramatic but after centuries of doing this I grew tired of the subtle approach. This has been my most effective demonstration but when I first attempted it half my clients turned into gyrating gibberish monkeys. Once I figured out the wiring of the brain I could help process what the person was seeing. You may be totally freaked but you won’t snap, trust me.”
I had no response, how could I? In the blink of an eye everything I had known, believed and understood about the universe was turned on its ear. My whole life would be different now and this was also the first time my father hadn’t been front and center in my brain. Was this real or a massive hallucination brought about by stress?
“It’s no hallucination. Look I’m going to unfreeze you but if you start screaming or try and hit me again we’ll just forget the whole thing.”
The young man touched me and I collapsed to the ground. I shook my head vigorously but nothing had changed, the world was still on pause. Resigned to my fate I stood up and brushed myself off.
“Who the fuck are you?” I asked, trying not to panic.
“I don’t have a name, you can call me whatever you want. I had a man call me Wolverine once, that was weird.”
“Ok if you have no name then maybe you can tell me what’s going on”
“I’m sure you’ve worked out that I’m not your average cookie and cake fan.” He laughed. “I’m what you’d call a facilitator, I help prepare people for death, let them go with out fear.”
“Uh huh.” Was all I could say. “So I’m dead?”
“Oh Mark.” He seemed disappointed. “No foolish man not at all. I’m here to help your father but it isn’t going as well as I’d hoped.”
“Uh huh.” I mustered again. “I will have that smoke.”
“Good man.” He said tilting the smoke back out to me.
I lit up and dragged hard on it. I didn’t cough or throw up I just felt that tingle that only nicotine can provide. I began to relax and as fear dissipated questions started rising up. My father? A facilitator? Was this God’s work? Was there a God? Did this mean I was dying to?
“Not at all.” He said, reading my mind again. “You’re not dying. There is a God though I hate using that word because it’s a sad mortal understanding of how the afterlife works. The Universe is like a giant school. Each life is in a grade, learning to better themselves so they can move on to the next grade.”
“Is there a graduation.” I spit out.
“No, you’re not understanding me but that’s OK it isn’t the point.” He seemed amused at my ignorance.
“Are these other people aware they’ve been, y’know, frozen?” I asked.
“No, nobody is aware right now but you and I. We’re between the fabric of time happening just outside of it. As far as these people know nothing is going on.”
“What does this have to do with my father?”
“Well as you know your father is dying and I’m here to help him move on but he doesn’t want to. He won’t accept his death and a lot of that has to do with not wanting to leave you. I’m here for your help actually, so that he can die with no fear. Fear when you die is more traumatizing than you’d care to understand. So much so a whole section of the universe is dedicated to helping mortals with it.”
“Well if he doesn’t want to die then maybe it isn’t his time.” His matter-of-fact tone about the death of my father was starting annoy me.
“No, his time is up, he is due to move to another world. That’s just how it works out for him.”
“What if you’re wrong? What if he’s refusing because he knows better that….”
“He doesn’t know better.” He interrupted. “His death is not a matter of argument it is simply something that is happening and..”
“STOP THAT!!” I said, slamming the young man against the door of the hospital. “Stop talking about him like he’s a goddamn statistic. I refuse to let some universal public servant talk about him that way!”
“Are you quite finished?” He said staring at me seemingly bored. “We have no time for this. Your father will die, how he dies is your choice so make it and let me get on with my work.”
“My choice?” I said as I backed off of him.
“Yes, your choice. The only reason I’ve allowed you to see all of this is because I believe you are the key to helping him accept his death. The long and short of it is that he knows you can’t accept him dying so he won’t either. Now whether he accepts it and dies at peace or doesn’t and gets ripped from his body is entirely up to you letting him go. I’m here to help that happen.”
“I never wanted him to suffer, ever. I always said if death brought him comfort then….”
“That’s a lie.” He said flatly. “Nobody means that when they say it. Humans simply can’t be that magnanimous.”
I began to boil over with rage. I just wanted to punch this cherub face into something bloody and unrecognizable. I was burning holes through him with my eyes but his look never changed. He was examining me, waiting for my response. I began to realize that all of this anger wasn’t directed at him, not all of it anyway. Somewhere deep down I knew he was right, I didn’t want my father to die and at the same time the burden of having him alive was depressing me. I could feel the tension in my face turn to something akin to guilt.
“That’s a lot of guilt to hold onto.” He said soothingly. “For no reason.”
“Am I an awful son.” I said for no reason. “God I am, I’m an awful son.”
“MARK!!” His yelling startled me. “We don’t have time for this right now so try and focus. As much of a cunt as I seem like it doesn’t change the fact that I can’t spend all my time on you and your father alone so what will it be?”
When the elevator opened I half expected to remain invisible to the world but whatever this man had done was over now. The nurse’s nodded casual hellos to me, the patients followed both of us with their eyes and everything seemed to be business as usual. I had never thought about what would happen if I met some other worldly creature but I know I didn’t think it would be this, I don’t know, common. We moved quickly through the hallways and made our way to my father’s door.
“Before we go in.” I said. “Do you have a name? I’d rather not refer to you as ‘Hey You’.”
“Daniel.” He said.
“Daniel? That’s funny I….”
“Picked that name out if you ever have a son, I know. I figure it’ll be easier to use than my real name.”
“Fair enough. Is this going to scare my Dad or anything?”
“Let’s end the suspense.” He smiled at me.
I opened the door and stepped into my father’s room waiting for the smell of sweat and medicine to fill my nostrils as it always did. Instead there was no smell, nothing at all that even registered. I was only half way through figuring out that mystery when I saw my father and my heart nearly quit. It was my dad but not the sickly dying man I had been tending to, this was my father as I remembered him. He was standing straight, his longish salt and pepper hair was full again and his matching beard was no longer the scraggily chin whiskers of a dying man. He was also dressed which I hadn’t seen since we arrived in the hospital. It had been so many months of hospital gowns I barely recognized him in his favorite suit.
My father had a favorite suit that he’d worn everywhere he could for as long as I could remember. It consisted of dark slacks, shined loafers, a solid shirt and a red bow tie with blue dots. A blue blazer glasses he had found at a garage sale and a handkerchief that matched the bow tie. The last time I had seen him in this suit was five years ago when his play opened. It was shortly after that he had been diagnosed with AIDS. I could make the argument that was the last time my father knew true happiness.
I don’t know how long I stood there staring at him before he turned and smiled at me. He was so healthy looking; so full of life, so much the man I had grown up with. I rushed into his arms and hugged him tighter than I had ever dared since he became ill. I could feel his warmth around me and the familiar smells of his aftershave filled my head. I started crying again in his shoulder, holding him tighter and tighter. I was no longer the crisp adult who had long since learned to check his emotions. I was a little boy who didn’t want his father to leave.
“Don’t cry boo boo.” He said kissing the top of my head.
“Oh god I hate that name.” I said laughing through my tears.
I moved away from his embrace and looked at him again. His eyes flickered with the light that had made him so memorable. The twinkle in my father eyes mixed with this face that always seemed like it would burst forth with a huge smile had brought him so much love. Everybody loved my father and loved him in a way my anger and bitterness had thwarted me from ever knowing.
“Are you two ready?” Daniel said softly.
“Oh Mark you’ve met the angel.” My father said.
“Angel?” I said, confused.
“Him.” Dad pointed at Daniel. “He came to me last night and told me this day was coming. It’s nice to meet you finally..um?”
“Daniel. It’s a great pleasure to meet you as well sir.” He shook my father’s hand. “Shall we begin then?”
“Of course.” My father said, taking hold of my hand.
“So what happens now?” I asked.
“We’re going to take a trip.” Daniel said.
My father smiled and nodded turning back to look out the window. I looked at Daniel with my head cocked and he smiled.
“People see me as they need to. I read the subconscious mind and present myself in that way. Your father has always been deeply spiritual so I appeared as an angel.”
“But he’s not religious.” I said confused.
“Religion is not spirituality Mark. We’ve been waiting for mortals to figure that out for the longest time.”
“An angel though? Like wings and halo and all that?”
“He wanted to see that, you for some reason wanted me to look like a member of The Cure. I don’t explain I just accept it. Can we go now?”
“Sure thing, you’re the angel.” I almost laughed.
“Thank you.” He nudged me closer to my father. “This is very simple you both just close your eyes and I’ll do the rest. The only thing I ask is that you don’t open your eyes until I tell you.”
“Why?” I asked, closing my eyes.
“You wouldn’t understand. I don’t mean that in a harsh way I mean it quite literally. If you see things during the journey you won’t understand them so eyes shut please.”
“Of course. Mark stop arguing.” My dad grabbed my hand again.
I apologized and shut my eyes. At first I felt nothing but soon comforting warmth began caressing me and then pushing through my skin. It was a feeling I have never been able to accurately describe other than to say it felt like the best day you’ve ever had in your life times 1000. It happened quickly and then I heard the sounds of the Ocean crashing hard on the surf. I opened my eyes and we were at a beach.
It was empty save for the seagulls and us. The wind was soft from off the water and it mixed with the warmth beating down off of the sun. I looked at my father and he was just staring at the Ocean drinking it all in. Daniel stood right behind us watching as my father crept closer to the edge of the water.
“I recognize this place.” I said suddenly. “This is Cape Cod, the beach at the bottom of the huge sand dune. I haven’t been here in 20 years.”
“It’s beautiful here.” Daniel said moving next to me.
“The water is perfect.” My father said bent on one knee running his hand back and forth across the water’s surface. “I’m going in.”
Before I could protest my father was removing his clothes strewing them hap-hazard across the sand. I put my hand over my eyes to get a better look at what he was doing but all I saw was a splash and then my father swimming out into the Ocean. Daniel laughed. It was an oddly comforting laugh that made me feel better. I wondered if he had done it one purpose.
“Your father loves the Ocean doesn’t he?” Daniel said.
“Always has.” I replied “He spent two summers on a fishing boat in his teens and never lost the love for it.”
“Mark you have to come in.” My dad yelled waving. “It’s perfect.”
“Go on in.” Daniel said.
I stood watching my father swimming for what seemed like forever. He would backstroke then dive down and erupt from the water splashing water around and laughing the entire time. I thought about the first time my dad went swimming with his first boyfriend, Rodney, I was 14 and humiliated. I sat on the beach on a grey afternoon and watched them have all the fun.
At the time I couldn’t believe it was happening to me, my father was gay. I hated him for that for such a long time. As I got older I hated myself for hating him being gay, I was always good at heaping hate onto myself for something. It was easier than guilt, which forced you to examine the world around you. Hate allowed you to be the victim and that was so much easier.
“You’re over thinking this.” Daniel’s voice derailed my train of thought.
If you asked me why I did what I did next I don’t think I could come up with a real reason. Instead of thinking I just stripped down to my boxers and plunged into the water. It was unseasonably warm and though I was not a big swimmer I was happy to be there. I dove down as deep as I could and then let myself float in the silence. I emptied my head and just enjoyed the water until my lungs ached for air and I kicked to the surface. My dad was right next to me when I surfaced. He was floating on his back; eyes shut and face to the sun.
“I never thought I’d feel this again.” He said.
“I know Dad, I’m sorry.”
“For what.” He turned his body so he was no longer floating but treading water next to me.
“That all this is happening to you.” I said.
Before I could protest my father was kicking towards the beach singing to himself. I treaded water a bit longer and then followed my father in and found him sitting on the beach next to Daniel. He was dry and, to my shock, so was I. I put on my pants and sat down next to Daniel and my father.
“I love the sunsets here.” My father said. “I remember being drunk with Rodney and watching them. He had to drag me here the first time, I wanted nothing to do with it.”
“Foolish man.” Daniel said.
“I know, so foolish.” My dad replied.
We sat for a while watching the sun slowly dip behind the horizon. I didn’t want any of this to end. It had been so long since I had seen my father strong and healthy. So many of my memories of Dad had been filled with him gaunt, weak, sick and dying. It was as if this god-awful disease had managed to spread through my good memories, leaving only these awful visions of what it had done to him. I started getting angry with myself for forgetting, for letting the disease eat up those memories.
“We should go.” Daniel said.
“What, why?” I snapped at being brought back to reality.
“Because it’s time to go.” My father said.
“We can stay for a little while longer can’t we?” I pleaded. “Another swim maybe?”
“Mark we really have to…” Daniel started
“Fuck you.” I was surprised when it lept out. “We can stay a little longer, my dad can stay a little longer. Just another swim, just another….”
“Mark.” My dad’s voice was soft but firm. “It is time for us to go.”
I looked at my father and suddenly I was 12 years old wanting to stay longer at the park. My father was in his suit, that stupid suit he loved so much and he was smiling at me. Why would he smile? What the fuck was there to smile about? When we went back he would by dying again, sick and weak. Why the rush to go back to that? Was nobody thinking about what waiting for us back there?
“Of course we are.” Daniel said.
“Stop that!” I shouted. “ I don’t need you in my head.”
“We have one more place we need to go Mark.” Daniel said softly.
Daniel and my father stared at me just waiting. If it took an hour or a year they were going to wait, not push, just wait. I started having insane little thoughts all at once. I found myself scanning the beach for something to build a shelter out of, then wondering if I could find work here, then suddenly I was planning an irrigation site to get us running water. I stood paralyzed while the two sides of my brain fought each other. The logical side of my brain was arguing to leave. I was glad he was back; ever since the journey started my logic side had taken an extended coffee break.
“Fine.” I spat out. The illogical side of your brain is like a child. It’s loud and persuasive but tires out quickly. I had a headache and I really needed a smoke. I shrugged a final defeated shrug and joined them.
Daniel turned us around and faced us towards the bright yellow sun. My father closed his eyes and, I just stared at the sandy ground trying to figure out why I was so angry. Sure I was pissed at Daniel for making us leave but that wasn’t it, that wasn’t all of it. I hated puzzles, I always had. I had no patience when it came to figuring things out and my frustration level went from zero to three hundred and sixty in two seconds. Even so I was always good at knowing when what I thought I was mad at wasn’t really what I was mad it. If you think that all sounds confusing try having it happening in your brain.
I heard Daniel give the “close eyes” warning and felt him grab my shoulder. I felt my father take my hand and without realizing it I jerked away. I wanted to say something but I felt the world go hazy and I shut my eyes tight against whatever it was Daniel was protecting us from. This time it was harder though, this time I felt warmth and a light that I hadn’t before. It was so drawn to it I had to fight my eyes to stay shut. I began thinking about horrible things that would happen if I opened my eyes.
Wolves would eat all my friends, if I opened my eyes.
A bomb would go off in an orphanage, if I opened my eyes.
God would reveal himself to be nothing but a marketing scheme, if I opened my eyes.
I was on my sixth or seventh idea when Daniel lifted his hand from my shoulder and I opened my eyes. What I saw caused my breath to draw in harshly and my mouth to drop open. The three of us were standing in a large graveyard, next to a giant Sycamore tree that cast a far-reaching shadow across the yard. My father was already walking towards a cluster of headstones as if he knew where we were. I didn’t need this I couldn’t stand this now. I turned to face Daniel who was sitting under the tree watching my father.
“Go join him Mark.” Daniel said not looking at me.
“What are we doing in a goddamn graveyard?” I shouted.
“You curse a lot.” Daniel said smiling. “Sign of a lack of vocabulary.”
“Oh really? OK then how about this; fuck you, you asshole, why the shit cunt are we in a goddamn graveyard?”
“Ask your father.” Daniel said as if he was growing bored with me.
“I’m asking you.” I shot back
“I don’t have any answers Mark. Your father wanted to come here and so here we are. Y’know this trip doesn’t last forever.”
“What does that mean.”
“It means.” He said sighing. “That I’m not the one you should be talking to.”
Daniel motioned to my father with a “get it stupid” look on his face, which ticked me off even more. I turned on my heels and headed out after my father. I could see him even with the glare of the sun kneeling in front of a headstone that had a stone vase with dead flowers and a tacky stone angel atop of it. As I stepped out of the shadow of the Sycamore tree the place became more familiar to me. I couldn’t place it exactly but the sounds and smells were triggering something.
It wasn’t altogether pleasant but it wasn’t bad either. I took huge breathes through my nose trying to give my brain what it needed to decipher these smells. Flowers, dew, freshly cut grass, and humidity were some of the factors but there were other things. Things that made this place unique and familiar but not a firm memory. I reached my father, standing just over him facing the gravestone. It read simply: THOMAS WESTON with his birth date and a black space for his death. It also read BELOVED FATHER. I knew where we were instantly.
“This is Bastrop isn’t it?” I snapped.
“Bastrop Louisiana USA.” My father said proudly.
“Why are we here?” I started looking around nervously. I hated it here.
“I wanted to see it in the summer one last time.” My father stood up. “This is how I grew up, hot summer days in the south.”
“I know. Iced tea, mama’s porch, and the attic fan. Nobody could romanticize the south like you could pop.” My tone oozed with bitter sarcasm.
“Why do you hate it here so much?” He snapped.
“I don’t know. I don’t, it’s great, it’s a great place to grow up I guess.”
“Don’t patronize me Mark, I asked a simple question.” This had always been an issue with my father and I.
“I don’t know dad, I never thought about it.”
“Don’t lie to me.” He was getting angry. My father’s left eye only twitched when he was angry or eating. For some reason I was struck with the image of my dad eating when I was young and how freaky his twitching eye had been to me. My father stood silently, his eye twitching, sweating in the sunlight.
“What do you wanna hear?” I blurted out. “That I love this place? That I was wrong? That I have the same yee-haw back country love for this hole in the world that you do?”
“Is that it?” My father’s anger had eased; honesty usually did that for him.
“I don’t know pop, pick a reason. Years spent banished down here for the summer so your sister and the rest of that goddamn freak show could hammer into me that I was going to burn in hell for such unforgivable sins as loving Star Wars and living in New York? I was eight, I had never thought about an eternal lake of fire. My biggest fear was that you guys might leave me at the beach. Eternal torture by fire had never entered my mind.”
“I know, I hate that it happened to you.” Dad stepped towards me.
“BULLSHIT!!” I said it louder than I had wanted to. “You grew up down here. Fucking hell you grew up as a closeted fucking gay man down here. You knew what this place was, you knew how they were, you knew but you didn’t care. You wanted everybody to have the front porch and honeysuckle dew smell orgasm you did about this place. If I didn’t well then fucking hell too bad I was going to learn to love it.”
“Oh now you’re being melodramatic. My father snapped.
“Melodramatic? Are you kidding? How can you stand there and say that?” I laid on a mocking southern tone. “You smell tha hunnydew in tha ahhir and how mamma snapped green beans uhn da pawch as ice tea brewed in da back kiichuun undah tha attic fan.”
“That’s not fair.” Dad was relenting now.
“It is fair.” I said quietly and normally. “You smelled honeydew and I smelled that god awful paper factory. You saw mamma snapping green beans and I watched Grandma stand by and let these religious zeligs brow beat me with fear. I had no connection or love for this place, to me it was hot, sweaty and I was either ridiculed for being bad at sports or told I was going to burn in hell.”
My father didn’t respond, instead he just looked at me and leaned against a gravestone. He held his head for a while and then looked back up at me.
“Why do you hate it now?” He said quietly. “You haven’t been here in years, you have no connection to this place. Why do you hate it so much now?”
“You don’t know?” I asked. “Really?”
My father shook his head .
“Nevermind.” I suddenly didn’t want to make the point.
“He’s upset you’re being buried here.” I had almost forgotten about Daniel.
“What?” My father looked at Daniel than at me.
“Look forget it.” I said. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”
“It does matter, it matters to me.”
Daniel moved to just outside the little V my father and I had created. He brushed his hair out of his face and leaned against a tree. The next three minutes was a silence, one of those silences they go on about in books where you can hear a pin drop. I’d never experienced a silence like this so somewhere, even with all of this going on, I cataloged that feeling to be recalled at another time. Daniel leaned forward a bit and scrunched his eyes, as if he was getting annoyed with the entire thing.
“Mark we are on kind of a time table here. This would be much easier if you’d just spit it out and move on. Your father needs to…..”
“DON’T YOU TELL ME WHAT MY FATHER NEEDS!!” I screamed, flood gates burst, shit this was going to be bad.
“I’m so sick and fucking tired of everybody telling me what my father needs or I need or how the fuck I should deal with this. Deal with it? Deal with it? I deal with this every fucking day, day in and day out, me, just me only me!! I come to the hospital, I deal with nurses and doctors and insurance and get lunch and soda and bring movies. I give myself a goddamn Irish shower so I can stay overnight and then go to work. I do this, I take care of him because he’s my father and I love him and he suffers and it’s all I can do to try and make it as easy on him as I can. Then what? Then these redneck Bible thumping assholes show up, these people who did nothing my whole life but rage and scream about my 8 year old eternal soul burning forever. These cretins who look down on my father because of who he is come sweeping in and decide that he’ll be buried down in here in this shit hole and he agrees?
You agreed to it dad, you said OK you fucking told them you wanted to be buried in a place you ran screaming from. Sorry Mark, thanks for all the hard work but fuck off I’m down here with the snapping peas, iced tea and ceiling fans. Do you have any idea what that does to a person, how that makes me fucking feel!!”
I was breathing in to make another point when I heard my father crying, a sound I hadn’t heard in a long time. My father wasn’t a crier, not for any macho way but he always just felt it was giving up. As if you’d tried everything and there was nothing left to do but sob and wait for the fates to smother you. The only time my father was a big crier was during the good times. Tears of joy he had called them when I was young. These were not tears of joy.
“See” Daniel said. “Was that so hard?”
“Not a lot of friends back home huh Daniel?” My rage had subsided into wit, which was worse in most cases. “I’m sorry pop, I shouldn’t have..”
“No.” He cut me off. “You should have, and I’m glad you did.” He paused. “It was the most arrogant and selfish thing I’ve heard in a long time but I’m glad you got it off your chest.”
“Excuse me?” I said, flames of righteous indignation began to burn.
“You heard me.” My father said, tears drying up, angry voice coming out. “I don’t know if anybody clued you in on this Mark but I’m dying. I’m not only dying I’m dying slowly and in awful pain most of the time. This isn’t about you Mark do you understand that? I hate to sound this way but this is about me, what I want when I die, where I want to be buried, where I want to be at peace. Not about your lack of visitation rights.”
“I never said…”
“Mark.” He cut me off again. “Let’s be honest about this. After I die you will come visit my grave two or three times a week. Then that will fall to once a week, then once a month and so forth until the only day you come in my birthday. That doesn’t make you a bad person that’s just how people are. I don’t want that, I don’t want to be a forgotten plot in a giant field. Here I’ll be under a Sycamore tree, in the place I grew up with your Ma’maw out everyday to visit me. With you my memory will live forever in your heart and you carry that where ever you go. You don’t need me to be up there but I need, I need to rest down here."
“You want to be buried here?” I was shocked. “You ran from this place screaming, you couldn’t get far enough away. “
“Things change Mark.” My father said grabbing my shoulders from behind. “I was young, I was gay and I wasn’t happy. I needed to escape the hold of this place and make my own life but I couldn’t even do that. I got all the way to New York and still married your mother, still tried to become what I was trying to get away from. Don’t get me wrong I fell in love with your mother and if not for her I would never have had you. You were the only non-polluted thing to come out of that whole mess, a mess I largely created. I knew I wasn’t going to stay with your mother, hell she knew that but I was still trying to please other people. Even with my melodramatic exit from the South I still didn’t escape what was really wrong.
All of that shit came later. It took me years to be happy with who I was, years before I could even be honest with you about it and that was wrong on my part. I left you with so many questions about what was going on with me because I was afraid if I told you the truth you’d turn your back on me.”
“I didn’t.” I said, noticing for the first time I was crying to.
“No.” He continued. “You didn’t and that was one of my proudest moments, one of those times I knew your mother and I had raised you the right way. Once all of that venom had gone, once I purged myself of that entire mess I could look at the South again. I could see how it shaped me, what it was both good and bad. It’s why I wrote about it so much, why all my work comes from there. I’m going home Mark, because I want to.”
He finished and I couldn’t speak, I could barely even breathe. Something in me moved, lurched forward like a clumsy child and came pouring out. I was crying, crying so hard the world was drowned out. I didn’t know when my father had turned me around just suddenly that he was holding me. I sobbed and sobbed and tried to figure out where it was all coming from. Did I hate the South that much? Yes, yes I did. Did I hate my father wanting to be buried down here? No, not so much.
Trying to be reasonable when you’re crying like this is next to impossible. Every time your brain tries to signal a rational thought it’s drowned out by the uncontrollable sobs. I found myself rationally becoming annoyed with the side of me that wouldn’t stop crying. I knew a headache would follow, maybe nausea, something uncomfortable would come from this much crying. I couldn’t stop it through rational thought so my brain started declassifying things. It tore through the bullshit, the reasons, the logic and tried to find the base root of all of this crying. Finally, after much deliberation my brain found what it was looking for.
I didn’t want my dad to go.
It sounds simple, stupid even. I knew my dad was going, he’d been sick for years, even had a few close calls when all seemed lost. I knew he was going to die, I knew it but that wasn’t what this was. This was accepting it, allowing my brain to wrap around the fact that my father would be gone forever. I had roughly another forty years on this planet and he would not be around for any of them. There would come a point in my life when I had been without him longer than I had been with him. He was going, really going, not coming back and I could do nothing about it. My vast humor, wit and intelligence couldn’t change anything. Dad was going away forever, and that was all there was to it.
“Mark?” I heard a voice reaching through all of this and I grabbed it. My father’s voice brought me back into reality and I straightened myself up. My head was pounding, my face was hot and my eyes hurt but I actually felt OK. I looked at my father, was smiling. That stupid bow-tie glinting off the sun.
“I’m sorry dad.” Was all I could squeak out.
“Don’t be, ever. You’re a wonderful son, you always have been. I will miss you so much when I’m gone but I can at least go knowing I had a small part in making you so good.”
I wanted to say something but nothing came to mind, it all sounded so trivial at that point. Instead I smiled at my father and saw for the first time more than just his dying, I saw the man who had raised me and I found the joy in having known him at all.
“We have to go.” A quiet voice said.
Daniel was standing between us again looking solemn but happy. My father and I turned to face the sun and Daniel took both out shoulders. I felt the warmth creep over me again and that feeling of having the best day of your life. I don’t know why I did what I did next and I probably never will know. I opened my eyes, just for an instant, just to see what I wasn’t supposed to see.
I can’t tell you what I saw because you wouldn’t understand. I don’t mean that as a put down, I mean it honestly. I could spend every night for 100 years trying to organize my thoughts into a cohesive description and I’d fail. It was over before I knew it and I was back at the hospital staring out the window. My father was back to what he had been before this trip, gaunt and sickly, laying in bed breathing with the help of an oxygen mask.
“I can’t believe you opened your eyes.” Daniel said, standing next to me.
“I didn’t mean to.” I said.
“Bullshit.” Daniel retorted, smiling. “What did you see?”
“I couldn’t describe it, I’m not that smart. Whatever it was it made me feel…I don’t know…better? Is that the right word even? I guess it is, I guess that works. It made me feel better, as if all the other stuff fell away and I was shown what actually did matter.”
“So what matters?” Daniel asked.
“I can’t say, it’s just a feeling really. It’s a good feeling though. I feel better than I have in a long time.” I looked over at my father.
“You did well Mark, his passing will be quiet and filled with warmth. Not a lot of people can let go, you did well.”
“I guess. I still hate that he’s leaving me, I still hate that he has to die. I even still curse God for taking him away from me.”
“Interesting idea from a confirmed Atheist.” Daniel laughed. He had a strong laugh, long and drawn out. I would never have expected it from him. “Don’t worry Mark, this wasn’t a cure all, just something to help you move on.”
“You leaving?” I asked.
With that he was gone and I was alone in the room with my father. I said a quiet thank you and finished watching the sun vanish behind the skyline. I walked over to my father’s bed and switched the TV on low. I sat down in a chair and started watching some cop show. Things were running through my head so quickly. I needed to work things out with my mom. I needed to call my grandmother. I had to figure out the insurance issues and then talk to the doctors again. I had a lot to do, a lot to take care of.
Mostly though, I was going to hang out with my Dad.