She wasn't prepared. Even knowing weeks or months in advance, she couldn't have
prepared. How can you truly prepare for the moment your life changes irrevocably?
When everything shatters and no matter what there is no putting it back
together. No matter how you try to rebuild your life, all the cracks will never
be filled in. She never even wanted to imagine it. What it would be like to get
that phone call or visit from the police that begins, “I’m sorry to inform you…”
If you can even get your brain to imagine it without shutting down in abject
denial you never truly know just how unprepared you are, until you hear those
debilitating words. Even then your brain rejects what it hears. There is no way
you heard that correctly. While your brain attempts to process the unimaginable,
you realize you’re having trouble catching your breath. How can you still be
breathing when your world just came to a devastating halt? Life as you know it
is no more. The one person that you loved the most in this world and that loved
you the most is gone. How do you prepare for that? How do you even begin to accept
that? You can’t prepare. And sometimes, you can’t accept it.
It all started with a few routine tests. At first everything appeared to be normal but then the doctor found several blocked arteries that required stents. A simple procedure he said. We do it every day. So the night before the procedure she went to her Daddy’s room to sit with him and talk to him. They joked about things they always did and talked about everything and nothing. He jokingly--well maybe not so jokingly--asked her to bring him back a bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a vanilla shake. She scolded him. Bacon cheeseburgers were part of the reason he was here to begin with. She told him no. Since she worked the next morning, she kissed him good-bye, hugged him, and told him she loved him. On her way out the door she wrote ‘I Love You, Daddy’ on the nurses’ board.
No matter what your last words are to each other, whether good or bad, you never expect those to be the last words you speak.
She went to the hospital on her lunch break to check on his progress. When she walked into the waiting room, the first thing she noticed were the blank, devastated looks on her mother’s and older brother’s faces. Several of her relatives were also gathered around. The doctor was talking to her mother in hushed tones. Everyone turned to her when she entered the room. The quiet was deafening. Before she could question what was going on, her mother took a step toward her. That’s when she noticed the tears. “Oh, baby, I’m so sorry…,” her mother began.
“No,” her mouth was suddenly dry, her voice faint.
“No,” her voice was more forceful. “I don’t believe you.”
Her brother stepped forward. He looked cautiously at her like she was a cornered animal and he was unsure how to approach her safely. They all dreaded this. From the moment the doctor came out to inform them that things didn’t go according to plan, no one wanted to be the one to tell her. No one wanted to tell Daddy’s girl that her Daddy was gone. Throughout the years, there had been a few incidences that required her to be medicated. She even spent a couple of weeks in a facility at one point. They feared her reaction so much that they focused on how to tell her more than their own overwhelming grief.
“Sis,” her older brother began.
“No,” louder this time. “No, no, no,” became her mantra. She shook her head in further denial, taking a step back for every one he took forward, until her back hit the wall. He reached for her and she raised her hands, warding him off.
“You—you’re lying,” she whimpered. “You’re lying.”
“No, Sis, I’m not.” The concern in his eyes reached out to her. She knew this wasn’t the time to fall apart. She needed to be strong for her family. But how could she be strong when her mind could barely comprehend what they were trying to tell her.
“I—I—no—I,” her vision blurred as her eyes filled with tears. Her lower lip trembled, her legs felt weak. The wall against her back was the only thing keeping her upright. Her breath caught on a hiccup-sob. She used the back of her hand to wipe away her tears. She glanced around, her eyes darting from person to person looking for someone to tell her it wasn’t true. But each person’s expression was the same.
“Nooooooo,” her wail was loud, long, and so full of pain it hurt deep in your soul to hear. Her legs gave out and she sank to the floor, folding in on herself. She didn’t feel the prick of the needle in her arm.
When she woke, she didn’t know what was going on at first. It took her a few minutes to comprehend she was in a hospital bed. Turning her head, she saw her younger brother asleep in the chair next to the bed.
What is going on? Why am I in a hospital bed? Was I in an accident? Daddy was the one having tests run. He should be in this hospital bed. Not me.
As she finished her thought, reality slammed through her brain. Oh, God. How was she going to cope? How would she survive this? This new reality she’s now forced to live in.
Her brother stirred, stretched in the chair. He sat up and ran his hands over his face. He turned his head and noticed she was awake.
“Hey, sleepyhead,” he smiled cautiously at her. “How are you feeling?”
“Groggy,” she replied. “Thirsty.”
“Okay.” He got up and poured some water some from the pitcher next to her bed into a cup. After lifting her into a sitting position, he held the cup up so she could drink from the straw. She took a few small sips.
“Thanks, lil bro,” her voice still scratchy. “What happened to my voice?”
“Apparently after they told you about--,” he stopped. “Anyway you started screaming and didn’t stop until the doctor gave you something.”
She felt her face flushing with the familiar embarrassment she always felt when she lost control. She tried so hard to keep that control, to be normal that when she lost it, sometimes it was hard to come back from. So far though, each time her mind fractured for whatever reason, she was able to come back from it. One of her greatest fears was that she wouldn’t come back. That she wouldn’t be her anymore. But then again if that happened, would she even know? Realizing her thoughts were going off on a tangent, she tried to rein them in. The sooner she was back to ‘normal’, the sooner she could get out of there.
“How long do I have to stay here?”
“Just until the doctor comes back to check on you. He said that you should be fine to go home. He’s consulting with your primary care physician about your medications.”
“Okay.” That wasn’t exactly what she wanted to hear, but she didn’t say a word in protest. For her to be in a hospital bed, she must have put on quite the performance. At least it wasn’t bad enough to warrant time on the psych ward again. That really wasn’t an experience she wanted to repeat if she could help it. She knew how much it worried and scared her family when she had one of her episodes. She could be strong. She had to be. She wished she knew how to be.
A couple of days later found her at the wake. She sat three rows back from her Daddy. She couldn’t take her eyes off of his face. Even though she tried to deny it to herself, a big part of her knew in less than twenty-four hours she would no longer be able to look at her Daddy’s face ever again. She tried hard not to think about it because when she did it became hard to breathe. She took deep even breaths. She needed to keep her breathing as regulated as possible. It gave her something to focus on besides the fact her Daddy was gone. People came up to her, expressed their condolences. She barely acknowledged them. She had to stay focused on her Daddy. Their time was running out. Her mind wandered back to when the doctor deemed her fit enough to be released. They told her it wasn’t a good idea. Especially in her ‘fragile’ state, but she insisted. They took her to where her Daddy was. She looked from the doorway and saw him lying there so still on a metal table with a white sheet covering him to his chest. At first, she could only look at him through the door way. He was so still. The doctor said something to her, but she couldn’t hear for the chaos in her mind. This couldn’t be real.
Even though part of her denied what it was seeing, another part knew it to be true. She could deny it all she wanted, but her eyes weren’t lying to her. Taking a deep breath, she slowly walked into the room. She was aware of the doctor and a couple of orderlies walking cautiously behind and to the left of her. They were giving her a moment, but after what happened earlier they were watching her closely for signs of distress. When she reached the edge of the table, she looked down into her Daddy’s face. He seemed so peaceful. It was like he was asleep. Then her eyes darted down to his chest area. She stared hard for long moments willing his chest to rise and fall; willing him to live again. Her silence unnerved the others in the room. One of them cleared his throat in nervousness. It seemed to snap her out of her near trance. She focused on his face again. After saying a few silent words to her Daddy, she leaned down and pressed a kiss to his forehead. Her heart squeezed in agony to feel the coolness beneath her lips assaulting her with further proof that her Daddy was truly gone. Lifting her lips, she whispered, “I love you, Daddy.” She straightened and walked out of the room and into the hallway where her younger brother waited to take her back to her parents’ house.
She slowly became aware of someone trying to get her attention. She turned her head slightly, still keeping her Daddy in her peripheral vision. It was one of her close friends. He expressed his sorrow at her Daddy’s passing. He knew how close they were.
“Honestly,” he said to her,” I can’t believe how calm you are. You seem to be taking this much better than I expected you to.”
“Well, that’s what Prozac and a couple of jack and cokes will do for you,” she replied, her tone flat and devoid of emotion.
Her friend gasped in shock. “I can’t believe you would come to church after drinking.”
For the first time since she sat down, she turned completely from looking at her Daddy and faced her friend. The look she gave him caused him to draw back.
“What do you want from me?” Though she whispered, her voice was harsh. “I’m doing the best I can. You either get me like this with the help of chemical assistance or you get me hysterically crying and throwing myself on the coffin. Which would you prefer if you were my family? Because I can tell you there is no middle ground for me right now.” She turned away from her friend to focus on her Daddy’s face once more. They were running out of time.
The next day was the funeral. She sat in the front row with her family. She listened somewhat to the minster and everyone that had such wonderful things to say about her Daddy. But her main focus was once again her Daddy’s face as he lay there so very, very still in his favorite suit. Before she knew it, the funeral was over. She knew where they were going next and she dreaded it with everything in her. Someone was talking to her, but all she could do was look at her Daddy’s face because she knew it was only moments until she wouldn’t be able to look at him anymore. It was time to go and the funeral director was starting to close the coffin. She couldn’t tear her eyes away. It was their final moments together. It took everything in her not to scream and yell at the man to not close the lid. She wanted to rail at him to stop, to not take her Daddy away from her. She opened her mouth, but her older brother chose that moment to grab her hand and give it a squeeze. She turned and looked at him. He tried to smile at her, but it fell flat. He was hurting too. He held her hand as they stood and followed the casket down the aisle.
The ride to the cemetery was made in complete silence. She hated this place. Hated it so much, her visits were very few and very far between. They were led to chairs that had been set up for them. They sat for the minister’s final words. Her focus remained on the casket. She imagined seeing her Daddy’s face through the wood. When it was time to leave, she took a single white rose with her. It was her favorite flower and the one her Daddy gave to her every birthday and Valentine’s Day. The ride back to her parents’ house was made in silence. When they arrived, people were already there to greet and feed them. She knew it was only a matter of time before she couldn’t hold on any longer. She ignored everyone and went up to her old childhood room. She locked herself in, stripped to her underwear, washed two Prozac down with a shot of Jack, and crawled into bed. She lay there, letting the drugs and alcohol wash over her. She felt the blessed relief of numbness start to sink into her body. Her mind began to shut down. That was a good thing. She didn’t want to think anymore about anything. The tears, when they came were silent. They ran continuously until she started to drift off. As sleep claimed her, she would have sworn to anyone that asked that she felt her Daddy wrap his arms around her, holding her, rocking her to sleep as he did when she was a child. The first smile since she received the news settled on her lips as she drifted off and knew no more.
It was a month before she could convince her family to let her return to her own apartment. They still weren’t completely sold on her stability, but knew they really couldn’t force her to stay. What they didn’t understand was that the more they hovered and asked her how she was doing, the harder they made it for her. All she wanted was to be alone. She just wanted some peace and quiet. She wanted to grieve in her own way and come to terms with what happened in her own time. As the days turned into weeks, she tried to work, spend time with her family and friends, and have some semblance of normalcy. It was so hard. How can you be normal when things have changed so drastically? How do you go on with your life? The pretending was the most difficult part. Pretending that she was fine. Pretending that everything was just fine. Luckily she worked from home and didn’t have a bunch of co-workers to deal with. But her family and friends wouldn’t leave her alone for any real length of time. It took about four months, but she finally convinced the people in her life that she was “ok” and they started backing off. They were actually used to her being on her own for long stretches of time. Between her job and her natural inclination to be alone, she didn’t spend a lot of time with people. She preferred it that way.
Although in this instance, her being alone was not the best thing for her. Over the next several weeks, she began to pull away from everyone in her life. She believed she needed the distance to get better. What she couldn’t see was that the longer she spent on her own, the less stable she became. She would go to bed and not get up for several days at a stretch. If it wasn’t for the money her grandmother left her, she would have lost her apartment. Her boss was great and willing to give her time to work things through, but after her third missed deadline even she could only do so much. Her boss didn’t want to do it, but she strongly suggested that she take a leave of absence for a while. When things got better for her and she was able to meet her deadlines her boss told her to call and they could talk. She was told she would always have a place there.
It didn’t matter to her if she worked or not. Since she didn’t have to worry about deadlines, it freed her to do other things. It freed her to go through every photo album she had so she could see her Daddy. She had the pictures of him and them together on her phone printed out. With nothing to steal her focus, she was able to relive every moment she had with her Daddy. So that is what she did. Every memory she could recall she relived over and over again. She didn’t sleep well. She never had. Although when she was able to fall into a fitful sleep, her dreams were filled with her Daddy. She always woke with the beginnings of a smile on her face, until she remembered he was gone. Then the grief would overwhelm her again as if she were just hearing the news. After a while she tried not to fall asleep. Soon the line between what was real and what wasn’t began to blur for her, but she didn’t realize it. All she knew was that her Daddy was gone and she wanted him back as impossible as that was.
She lost track of time, so she didn’t know how long it had been since she slept for more than a few minutes at a time. All she knew was that she was so tired. She just wanted to sleep if only for a little while, even if it meant dreaming her impossible dreams. The disappointment was crippling, but so was not sleeping. In what she believed to be a moment of clarity she knew what she had to do.
She hadn’t been there since the funeral. After stopping to ask directions, she made her way to her Daddy’s grave. It was the first time she was seeing the headstone. Her brothers and mother picked a nice one. All at once it hit her where she was and she couldn’t catch her breath. She started gasping and her knees went weak. She dropped in front of the headstone, using one hand to brace herself. Her head fell forward as the tears started falling. Without conscious thought she wrapped herself around the cold, hard stone and pretended it was her Daddy she was embracing. Between sobbing breaths, she told him how much she missed him and wished he was here. She was so weak and shaky by the time she ran out of tears, she sank to the ground her limbs unable to support her anymore. Her head lay at the foot of the headstone. She curled into the fetal position, letting the coolness of the grass soothe her somewhat.
“I miss you so much,” she whispered. She reached one hand out and slowly began running it over the ground in front of her. She focused on the back and forth motion, which was almost a caress, the movement becoming hypnotic. “Why did you leave me, Daddy? Why? I’m tired. I’m so tired, Daddy. I want to sleep. I just want to be ‘Daddy’s’ girl’ again.” The more she talked, the firmer her strokes became. Over and over, back and forth her hand went. She didn’t realize it when her hand curved, digging into the ground.
“Mom, phone,” her younger brother called. Her mother answered the phone. He watched as she listened to the voice on the other end of the line. He watched her face pale and how her hands began to shake. He took a step towards her. He felt the call must be about his sister. It had been almost a month since anyone had seen or spoken to her. That was the reason he’d come to his mother’s house to begin with. He thought they should go and check on her. He was worried. For the last four days all he got was her voicemail. The last time she didn’t answer for that long, she had gone to bed and not gotten up. It took another two days before he could get her to do more than get up and go to the bathroom. At that point, she’d been so weak she’d been hospitalized for dehydration and because she refused to eat.
His mother hung up the phone and looked him in the eyes. The look on her face unlike anything he’d ever seen. It frightened him.
“Wh-what happened to her?”
“Her?” His mother looked confused.
“The phone call. Wasn’t it about, Sis?”
“Oh, no. No it wasn’t. But we need to get over to your sister’s before she hears this from someone else. My God. It never ends. It never ends.” Her voice was rising in tone and pitch. “Who would-- why would--,“ All she could do was stare blankly in disbelief then she put her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking.
“If it’s not about sis then what’s happened?”
He listened in horror as his mother told him about the phone call. His face paled as the full impact of what she was telling him began to sink in.
“Oh, shit,” he breathed. “We have to be very, very careful with how we handle this. This could send her over the edge.”
“Her? Send her over the edge? What about me? When do I get my breakdown? Why is it always about her and her reactions? I know he was her father, but damn it, he was my husband!”
He pulled her into his arms, holding her tight against him, feeling her tremble as she cried.
“Sh-sh, Mom. It’ll be okay. Everything will be all right,” he soothed her. “We will figure this out.” He held her back from him by her shoulders. “Okay?”
“Yeah, okay. I’m sorry for my outburst, but--,”
“It’s okay, mom. Really. I’m sorry that I haven’t been here to give you the support that you need. You’ve always been so strong; the one that held us all together. I forget sometimes that you need someone to lean on as well. I’m sorry for that.”
She wiped her face with the tissues he handed her. “It’s okay, baby. I understand. Do you still have a key to your sister’s place?”
“If she’s not answering the phone, there’s a good chance she won’t open the door. You know how she gets. We may need to use your key so that we can get in. She needs to be told, but she shouldn’t be alone when she is because you’re right. This could send her over the edge.”
After calling his older brother and explaining the situation to him, they headed over to his sister’s place.
When they got to her apartment, they knocked and rang the bell repeatedly. No one answered. Her younger brother keyed them in. His mother followed him, closing and locking the door behind her. A few steps in and her brother stopped so abruptly that his mother bumped into him.
“Honey? What--,” she began.
He held up a hand to silence her. She noticed his head was bent down she stepped back from him and looked down as well. It took only a moment to see what he was looking at. Dirty footprints and it looked like something had been dragged through them. They both turned to look at one another.
“What in the world?” His mother said.
“I don’t know.”
They were both confused. Even at her worst, her apartment was never dirty. She had a habit of letting things pile up in her bedroom when she was what they referred to as ‘hibernating’ and admittedly it could get rank. But she never let it go beyond her bedroom. Her apartment was always clean. Most of the time you could eat off of the floor.
“Let’s just find her.”
They called her name as they walked deeper into the apartment. She didn’t answer. They unconsciously followed the dirty trail leading down the long hallway and back towards her bedroom. As they passed the kitchen, his mother grabbed his arm to stop him.
“What?” he asked as he glanced down at her.
“Do you smell that?” Her voice quivered.
“What?” he asked, with a puzzled look on his face.
“How can you not smell that?” she whispered urgently.
He opened his mouth to speak but stopped almost choking on the breath he’d inhaled. His eyes began to water and he sort of choke–coughed.
“Oh, God, what is that smell?”
“I don’t know, but it’s horrible. I’ve never smelled anything like it,” she said, wiping at her watering eyes.
“Wait here,” he told her. He strode into the kitchen and grabbed a couple of dishtowels. He handed one to her, and they used them to cover their mouths and noses. Their eyes met and held for a moment before looking warily down the hall. After glancing back at each other again, they seemed to come to a silent agreement and started slowly down the darkened hallway. The closer they got to her bedroom door, the stronger the smell got. The dishtowels were barely helping. Thank goodness they hadn’t had dinner yet.
When they were about three feet from her bedroom door, they could hear the faint strains of music coming from the room. The door was closed, but they could see light coming from under it. Her brother reached out and knocked on the closed door, calling her name. He was so freaked by everything, his hand shook and he could barely get his voice to work. He cleared his throat, gagging on the smell and tried again louder. Still no answer. He looked back at his mother who gave the faintest nod of her head. He stood there for a long moment. He didn’t want to open the door. Everything in him screamed turn around and leave now. He didn’t want to know what was on the other side of that door. But he couldn’t leave. He knew his mother wouldn’t until they found his sister and told her what happened. He only hoped she had her medications on hand; because as much as she was going to need them, he was contemplating asking for a couple for himself.
Turning the knob, he slowly opened the door. The wider he pushed, the stronger the smell. If he thought it was overwhelming before, it was nothing compared to now. He didn’t realize his eyes were closed until he heard his mother’s stunned voice beside him.
“Holy mother of God,” she gasped, quickly covering her nose and mouth. He opened his eyes at her outburst, turning to look at her before his eyes could register what was in front of him. He watched as she slowly backed away, doing the sign of the cross and muttering to herself.
“Mom, what are you doing? Where are you going?” He reached towards her, but she kept backing up down the hallway. She shook her head, her face the color of chalk. She kept crossing herself and mumbling. He started to go after her when the sound of the song ending and beginning again caught his attention. He recognized the song as it started over. He gasped and then promptly gagged again so violently he dry heaved for a few minutes before regaining control of himself. He pulled himself upright and used the wall for support until his knees stopped trembling. He walked to the open doorway and looked in.
What he saw before him rendered him beyond speechless. His mind was unable to assimilate and make sense of what it was seeing. He seemed to take everything in at a glance but couldn’t quite convince himself he was seeing what he was. He felt the blood drain from his face, as his hand that held the towel over his nose and mouth fell with his other arm limply at his sides. He opened his mouth to speak. Nothing came out. The scene before him too horrific for words.
The trail of dirt continued into his sister’s bedroom. It stopped on the left side of the bed. On the bed was his father’s corpse. Even without the phone call his mother received earlier informing her that her husband’s grave was robbed, his body missing, he recognized the suit. He picked it out. It was his father’s favorite. Now it was decaying along with what used to be his father. Lying with her head on what was his chest, was his sister. Her arms were wrapped around the body and somehow she had the arms wrapped around her as well. As still as she was, he thought she must be sleeping. He noticed how her clothes were covered in dirt and mud.
The song continued to play. It was her favorite. Butterfly Kisses. He became conscious of how long he’d been standing there just staring, when the song started yet again. That galvanized him into action. He walked into the room, not really sure what he intended to do. He made it maybe three steps in when his sister sat up and turned towards him. Her eyes were dazed and she seemed to look through him rather than at him. He noticed one hand stroking the top of their father’s head. She didn’t seem to notice the hair coming off with each pass of her hand. As he looked at her, he didn’t even want to imagine what was on her face and clothes besides dirt. It appeared that she’d been lying with him for a while. Before he could say anything, she blinked once and centered her gaze on him. He’d never seen her look so out of control. Her eyes were wild. Her hair was a tangled mess with small sticks and leaves sticking in it. Her clothes were torn in places.
The guttural yell sounded nothing like his sister. His knees began to shake.
“Get out! Get out! GET OUT!!!” She sounded almost demonic. She waved her arms around wildly. “He’s mine! He’s my Daddy! You can’t have him!” She wrapped her arms around herself and started rocking.
“Sis, please—,” he stopped when he saw her hand come from around her body and stretch out towards him. He almost pissed his pants when he saw the gun she was holding. Her other hand moved quickly, releasing the safety.
“I said he’s mine and you can’t have him. I can’t live without him. I’m Daddy’s girl. I’m Daddy’s girl. Without him I have nothing. Without him I am nothing. So I got him back.” She said calmly and with conviction as if it were the most logical thing in the world.
It was more chilling than when she was yelling. The song started again. She looked at her CD player and then back at him.
“Why are you still here?” She tilted her head, puzzled and raised the gun a bit until it was centered on his forehead. “You need to leave so Daddy and I can listen to our favorite song.”
He looked into her eyes and realized his sister was gone. He didn’t know the person looking at him, but he recognized it wasn’t his sister. At least not the sister he knew. He started to back slowly out of the room. He needed to get help here as soon as possible and check on his mother. She started yelling as he left.
“Daddy’s girl. Daddy’s girl. I’m Daddy’s girl. Together forever. We’ll be together forever ‘cause I’m Daddy’s girl. Daddy’s girl. Daddy’s girl…”
He raced for the door as soon as he was in the hallway. He could hear her voice calling after him. He needed to get some help. He was reaching for the front door knob, when he heard the shot.
Her voice stopped.