Today marks the five year anniversary of the beginning of the worst 15 months of my life. It started on May 17, 2003 and it ended on August 9, 2004. And boy was it sucky.
But for today we’ll stick with May 17th.
Five years ago today my father had massive heart attack and died on the kitchen floor of the home that he and my mother had bought just two years before. My mother was devastated. Although the paramedics assured her there was nothing she could have done, she blamed herself for not getting to the phone faster. I had just gotten home from spending the night at my boyfriend David’s house. There was a message waiting for me from my brother’s boyfriend. (I’m still not sure why it wasn’t from Steven). All it said was call us back, something has happened to your dad. I immediately picked up the phone and called Jerry back. He answered and there was a long pause and he said, “He’s gone.” I didn’t even respond. I just hung up.
I didn’t even know how to respond. I’d never had anyone close to me die. The relatives that I knew that had died were older and it was expected or I didn’t know them very well. None of my friends had ever died. No one. So suddenly grief was staring me in the face and I didn’t know what to do. I picked up the phone and started calling. My boyfriend…no answer. My friend Lou…no answer. My friend Sean…no answer. My friend Neal…no answer. My boyfriend again…no answer. My friend Dan (he’d just lost his father)…no answer. My friend Michelle…no answer. I was desperate to talk to anyone. Anyone at all. I was sitting in my living room shaking unaware of what was going on around me.
After a few minutes of panic, adult Maddog kicked in. There was no time to stress, or even thing about other things. I had to book a flight to Kentucky. I knew that I’d never be able to afford a ticket at the last minute even with the discount they give, so I called my friend Lou back. He travels for business and picks up over a million miles a year. I left a message telling him what was going on and that I needed to get to Kentucky today. I then went to my room and started packing. I had no idea what the plan was but I knew that even if I had to rent a car and drive I would be in KY by the end of the day.
In the midst of all this the phone calls began. I don’t remember who called first. I do know that I was on the phone for the next hour or so, with people calling. Sometime in there my boyfriend David called. I asked him if he would come with me to Kentucky. He told me he would think about it. I remember thinking that if he didn’t come that would be the end of the relationship, no questions asked. It seemed like hours but it was minutes that my friend Lou called me back. He wanted to know the specifics of where I was flying, when I could be at the airport, etc. I told him what he needed to know and asked for two tickets and he hung up. I continued packing. Within minutes he called back and had booked the tickets. I know they weren’t direct, and I know that I got there around 10:00 but that’s all I remember.
David did go with me and as we got off the plane I realized the next few days were going to be a chore. Instead of driving straight home, David and I stopped for dinner. I hadn’t eaten all day and I knew it was going to be a long evening. I knew that I needed to prepare myself for what was coming. It was fast and then I drove to my mother’s house. My mother was in bed when I got there. She had been given a sedative by the doctor. She was out of it, but got up the minute I came through the door. She was a mess. She would be fine one minute and crying hysterically the next. We sat in the kitchen and talked for a long time. I don’t even think she realized David was there. I finally convinced her to go to bed and she finally went.
I went back to the kitchen to clean up. All the remnants of the paramedics having worked on my father were there. I don’t even remember what there was but I knew that my mother kept looking at it and crying all night.
And then the next day arrived. The whole day is embedded in my memory vividly. Almost as though it was in slow motion. We had calls to make. Arrangements to make. I called a lot of people that morning to make sure they knew what had happened. When my mother was finally able to get dressed we left to do all the things one must do when a parent dies. The first stop was to make arrangements for the funeral. My mother insisted that we use the place in the town where I grew up around twelve miles away. We drove there in silence. As we drove up, my mother began to sob. We waited in the parking lot till she was calm. I had called a head and they were expecting us. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
We walked in and took a seat in the office. It was my mother, my brother, his boyfriend Jerry, my boyfriend David, and my dad’s brother and his wife. The funeral director took a seat and began to walk us through things. What I had suspected quickly came true. I had to take the lead on everything. He only spoke to me. When he asked questions I answered them. When he needed to know additional information. I gave it. My mother sat there sobbing. My brother was useless. (That’s a whole other post). We were sitting a the table for what seems like hours now. I have no idea how long it really was.
Next was the hardest part of the day for my mom. Walking in and choosing a casket. She almost collapsed on the floor as we entered. It’s not an easy task. You don’t want to appear cheap. But at the same time it’s a waste of money to buys something expensive that’s just going to be put in the ground. You want it to be something that fits the person, but once again they are dead. I basically did a quick tour around the space while my brother held my mom. I picked out three of four that were okay and fit within my mother’s limited budget. We helped her to take a look at them and she chose one. Then it was back out to the meeting room to sign the final papers.
Next we were off to the florist. All of this was surreal by then. It’s even more surreal now. As I type this it sort of sounds like we were planning a wedding. My friend Karen owns a florist in the town that I grew up and my mother requested we go there for the flowers since Karen knew my father. We got there and my mother began sobbing again. We got her settled in a chair and told Karen what we wanted. She offered many suggestions and gave us much advice and we made more decisions.
Then we had to go to the cemetery to pick out a plot. So we drove there, and were met by a farmer in jeans. I don’t even know how to explain this part. The cemetery is behind a little country church. It’s a beautiful area. It sits on a hillside and is covered with wild flowers. When I was little it was not very full at all. In the past few years people have begun to use it again. The reason we were there was because my mother’s parents and her brother are buried there. So here’s the problem. No one keeps accurate records of the burial plots. So my mother walked down to where her family was buried and found a place that was big enough for both my father and her. And then she was told, “Well, I’ll start digging, and as long as I don’t hit anything it’ll be fine. But you might want to pick out another spot just in case.” Some of this is probably explained by mentioning that the plots in this cemetery are free, you just have to pay the cost of digging the grave
By this time my mother was exhausted. I drove her home and got her comfortable at home. Then the visitors started. My mother, I think ignored them for the most part. She spoke when she had to and answered questions when she was asked. But that was it. Eventually I made everyone leave and got my mother to bed.
The next two days were more of the same. My mother was trying her best to hold it together and wasn’t doing a very good job of it. She almost collapsed a half a dozen times until it was all over. It was bad when she saw my father in the casket for the first time. It was worste at the end when she had to say goodbye. The two days of the visitation and the funeral are a blur. I remember the first 36 hours vividly. The next 48 hours blend together indistinguishably. It was clear that I was the man of the family. I moved among the people thanking them for coming and speaking of my father. I met relatives I had not seen in years. I spoke to people who knew me that I’d never met. I shook a million different hands. At one point I thought to myself, this is what being a politician must feel like. I stood there in my suit, feeling like an imposter.
The funeral was short and sweet. I sat next to my mother holding her hand. She was surprisingly strong that day. At the end as people filed forward to pay their last respects my mother was a brave and courageous woman. She was polite and thankful. She held herself together quite well. When everyone had filed out there was just the immediate family left. It was my mom, my brother, my stepsister, and her husband and me. One by one they filed up to say goodbye. I waited with my mom. Finally I helped up her and I thought she was going to collapse on the floor. I walked with her up to say goodbye to my father. I stepped back so she could have a second alone and then escorted her out of the room. I left my mother in the care of my aunt and then went back to say my own goodbye.
Growing up I had never been close to my father. My stepfather actually. I had just turned three when my mother married him. I was almost four when my brother was born. My stepfather and I didn’t get along from the beginning. He didn’t understand his placement in the family. I was the man of the house and always had been and it was tough if he didn’t understand this. We butted heads for the next 18 years. Sometimes literally. The Christmas of my senior year of high school we got into a fist fight and I moved out. I lived with my aunt for almost four months before my mother convinced me to move back home. Soon after I went off to college and I never really lived with my parents again. My father and I were tolerant of each other for several years after that. And then I moved back to Kentucky. And I started doing tech for theatre instead of acting. Tech he understood. Suddenly I could talk to him about tools, and electrics. He would come to see the shows I built and he understood what was going on. He started to take an interest in my life. For the first time in my life he actually treated me like a son and not some asshole kid. Then in 1992 he had a stroke. I was in the middle of building the set and designing the lights for a production of Sweeney Todd. I would go the hospital in the morning, at lunch, and dinner and I would go by at night to say goodnight to my mother. He slowly got better but it was soon evident that his personality had changed. He became beligerant. He was impatient. Everything bothered him. When the dog next door came into our yard, my father would become irate. Things like that. What’s interesting during this whole thing is that I was the only one he would listen to. If he got impatient and I asked him to wait he would be fine. If something was bothering him, I would explain that it would be okay and he would calm down. And through all of this we became close.
And so I stood at the casket, thinking to myself that he really had become my father in the end. And that I really did love him.
We got my mom situated in the car and then began the long trek to the cemetery. We gathered on a hillside on a sunny Tuesday afternoon to say goodbye to my father.
We drove back to Lexington without speaking. We did the standard gathering of people and everyone brought food. It’s no wonder everyone in America is fat because we learn at an early age to feed our feelings. Soon everyone was gone, and I put my mother to bed.
My boyfriend left the next day.
And I spent the next two weeks helping my mother get things in order. Dealing with insurance issues, bank issues, social security issues. All of the financial things one must do when dealing with the death of a spouse. Through this all I made the decisions. I made the choices. I told my mother what to do. And she politely did as she them.
And two weeks later I went home. And I went about my business. I had dinner with friends. I spent time with David. I lived. And sometime around three weeks later, I broke down in tears. And as I was crying I realized that it was the first time I had been allowed to grieve. I was so busy taking care of my mother, my brother and everyone else that I hadn’t taken care of myself. And so I curled up in the fetal position on my couch and cried. And cried. And cried.
And it’s five years later and we are all living our lives. My mother has a new job. She gets up every morning and goes to work. She’s learned to cook for one. She does her own shopping. And she has learned to live on her own. She does quite well. We’ve grown quite close since then. I talk to her almost everyday on the phone. The only time I tend not to is when I’m working a lot at the restaurant or in tech for a show. But I leave messages for her everyday. She likes this. She brags to people that come into the office she works in, that her son calls everyday. She also brags that he sends her flowers and bought her a computer. And she lives. And for the most part she’s okay.
I too have gone on with my life. I went to grad school that fall. I moved to California. I did all the things that I planned to do. Even now I get nervous when my mother doesn’t answer the phone when I call. I get even more nervous when several hours go by and she hasn’t returned the call. I realize that one day I’m going to get another call and I’ll have to go through this process again. And once again, I’ll have to take care of everyone around me. And of course I’ll do it. It’s what’s expected of me, and it what’s I do.