I don’t know what we would have done without Joe over the next few days. He carried our entire family. At twenty-three years old it’s a lot to ask anyone but he stepped up big time. My Mom was literally incapable of anything. That day when we arrived home she had been to the hospital morgue to identify my father. I cannot even begin to fathom how hard that must have been. I may tease and talk shit about Cheryl but that woman is a saint. She was right with my Mom the whole time. But that night my Mom went to bed and she refused to get out of it for the next three days. No matter how much, Joe and I and Cheryl all begged. She wouldn’t, maybe couldn’t get out. We brought her meals there; which she didn’t eat. She sipped water occasionally when we begged but mostly she just lay there, all day, in and out of bouts of tears.
So it was left to Joe and me to plan our father’s funeral. We knew this would happen one day but I thought we’d be older. I thought we’d both be married with families of our own. Actually that’s not true. I hadn’t thought about it at all. I had somehow been operating for the last twenty years under the false impression that my parents were immortal. In fact if I reflect more carefully everyone I loved was immortal. I didn’t know anyone that had died. One set of grandparents, but before I was born. So that made sense because in my head they were really, really old. But now that my dad had died or “passed away” as everyone was gently referring to it as I was suddenly terrified for everyone’s mortality. When my brother’s girlfriend flew in from San Francisco to support him I was terrified for her and then him as he drove to the airport to pick her up. My Dad had died in a horrific car accident. So anyone getting in a car began to freak me out. As screwed up as this sounds a small part of me was grateful that my Mom wasn’t getting out of bed. At least I knew she was safe.
I’ll never forget walking into that funeral home to see my Dad’s body. I clung to Joe like I was four years old. It reminded me of all the times in the playground when he had defended me from the big bullies, my solid, reliable, older brother. It was like his whole life had been preparing him for this moment. He wrapped his arm around my shoulder. His girlfriend, Kate walked behind us quietly, there to support him but careful not to intrude. I loved her already. Joe had already spoken to the funeral parlor on the phone after looking online about the kind of casket we wanted…I would have dry heaved at the thought. And here we were…as we walked into the chapel I saw that the casket had been placed down the center aisle at the altar. I felt myself shaking as we approached. I’d never seen a dead body before and the thought horrified me. And then I saw him, my father. The best man I ever knew. He wasn’t a dead body he was the man who had taught me to ride a bicycle, who had thrown me high up in the air, the man who had simultaneously laughed and punished me the first time he saw me drunk. And as sick as this sounds I wanted to get into that box and curl up next to him. I wanted him to wrap his arms around me and tell me everything was OK. But that wasn’t possible. So instead I dropped to my knees and sobbed. I sobbed for all of us. My father’s life interrupted, my mother’s broken heart, my brother’s too-early lesson in responsibility and my own loss. Our loss.
The next few days passed. I can’t say that I lived them. At some point I had gone to Nordstrom’s to try and find my Mom and I outfits. I’d never been to a funeral before. I didn’t think I had anything appropriate. But it hit me in the store what I was actually there for and I sat down, on the floor, in the middle of racks of clothing having a total panic attack. An older sales associate had noticed, but instead of calling security she sat down right next to me and asked me what was wrong. When I explained she whisked me to the personal shopper’s lounge and brought chocolate strawberries and two appropriate outfits. God and I hadn’t been on the best terms lately but I thanked him for sending her.
The morning of the funeral I helped my Mom get ready. She was wearing the outfit I had bought her. The dress was a little on the larger size since she had barely eaten in a week but she didn’t seem to notice. In fact I wasn’t sure she knew I was even there until she reached out and stroked my arm while I was brushing her hair. That small acknowledgement made me crumple. It was this tiny window into our past connection, the connection that had been shattered by his death. This past week she had barely noticed Joe and I. It had terrified us a little because she had always been such an engaged mother. Whenever I came home from college (which was a lot because it was so close) she made sure we had plenty of “girl time” so we could catch up. And I would unreservedly fill her in on every aspect of my life. We were that close that I barely felt the need to censor anything. But now when she looked at us it was like she looked through us. I don’t think she heard anything I said. This was all still new. We were barely a week into this new life. So when she stroked my arm it gave me hope and at the same time made me miss her and him even more all over again. When the dead go their death is final but for those they leave behind well we die a little too but we’re stuck in a limbo of grief. The way our family was at this moment certainly didn’t feel like living. I hugged my Mom and kissed her. I tried to stay strong. She would need me to make it through today.
The funeral was a blur. I know I got up and spoke but I couldn’t tell you want I said. I think I held it together but I’m not positive. Other people spoke too. Many people. There were many tears. After the burial, which was easily one of the most traumatic moments of my life, we went back to Cheryl’s house. Her and her husband Gary were hosting everyone. Thankfully they had a fully stocked bar. I made a beeline for it. I wanted to wash away the visions of my father’s coffin being lowered into the earth. I wanted to un-see my mother clutching to Joe as they began to shovel the dirt. The way Joe had held onto her I wasn’t sure if she had been grasping on to him or if he was gripping her, preventing her from following my father into his grave. It was all too much. And I knew it was a crutch and probably a very bad idea but I went straight for the vodka. I’m not going to lie. It helped. Or at least it felt like it did. I spent the next forty-five minutes accepting the condolences of everyone who knew and loved my Dad. The vodka helped me through it. And strangely enough all those people helped me too. They made me hold it together. If they hadn’t been there I would have been in the fetal position somewhere. I think they were having the same effect on my Mom. Although she remained seated in the corner of the room. She looked engaged. She conversed, gave hugs and even occasionally smiled. Maybe we would survive this. When my close-knit group of friends from high school arrived I just about lost it. My friend Blake had flown in from New York to be here. Just for this. It was amazing, heartbreaking. They were all here to support me but I barely wanted to talk. After an hour or so I wanted to escape. I think Jordan began to sense this.
“Why don’t you go get some air?” She suggested. Maybe I looked really pale. I certainly felt queasy. That’s when I realized I had been drinking vodka on an empty stomach. I had eaten anything today. In fact I’m not sure I even had dinner the night before. Fresh air sounded good. It sounded great. I snuck out into the backyard seeking quiet refuge. Fortunately the reception was being contained inside so I was alone.
Cheryl’s backyard had been an extension of my own growing up. Cheryl and Gary had two sons who were a couple of years older than Joe. I had spent a lot of time in that backyard trying to play catch up to the boys. Most of the time I had been left to myself hatching my imaginary games while they played baseball. So as I walked outside I headed straight for my favorite spot, way in the back hidden under a weeping willow to Cheryl’s “thinking” bench as she liked to call it but it was my “imagining” spot. I had spent hours there as a child inventing games and dreaming up my future. I lay down on it, a remembrance of happier times. Most of my college friends had shown up today. Even people I wasn’t that close with had carved time out of their lives to show their support, kids who hadn’t even met my Dad. OK God, I’ll give you that one too. That was nice. The one person who hadn’t bothered to show was Dylan. My ex-boyfriend. I pulled up my phone and checked out my Instagram feed and there was Dylan on a boys’ booze cruise to Cabo. I felt sick again. Here I was at my father’s funeral and he was on a booze cruise not even pretending to care. I know we were broken up but we dated for two years. He met my parents. He knew my Dad. We were supposedly still friends. Occasionally I’d still get a late night booty call from him. I’m so glad I’d never answered. I suddenly hated him, violently. The image of him frolicking, shirtless and drunk was too much. I tossed my phone in rage.
“Hey…” I looked up to see my Uncle Donovan had narrowly avoided having his skull imbedded with my phone.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you…I thought I was alone.”
“It’s OK. I came out here to get away too. I can go back inside if you want.”
“No stay.” He comes and sits next to me on the bench. Donovan or Dono as we called him was my Dad’s only sibling. Although my Dad was six years older they were still close. I could see his eyes were red and swollen. For a moment I forgot my own grief and realized just how hard this must have been on him. Dono had always been our favorite relative. He was that super-fun Uncle as kids who let you have unlimited treats and wasn’t afraid to get down on his hands and knees and really play. But he was never allowed to babysit us alone we didn’t realize as children but Dono had a pretty serious drinking problem. He and my father had struggled with their relationship for years. Despite the numerous fights my Dad never gave up on him. Eventually Dono got sober and he stayed that way for the last fifteen years. He and my Dad were closer than ever. And suddenly I felt really guilty about indulging in vodka, relying on it to get me through.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispers. Not trusting his voice to say it aloud.
“It just fucking sucks,” I respond. “It’s the absolute worst. It sucks so bad that I wonder if it can be real? I didn’t know this kind of sadness or pain existed,” I tell him. The grief was twisting my insides out. Dono watched me carefully as if sensing the turmoil he pulls me into his chest and lets me sob into his crisp white shirt. I supposed I’d led a pretty sheltered life until now. I mean I’d faced the usual disappointments; some teenage unrequited love, missing a spot on the varsity basketball team, the first serious breakup, flunking a final…all of that seemed a world away. Like that was the life of a different person. A person who had truly never felt pain and now I had become all too familiar with it. Dono held me quietly, giving me the support and at the same time the space I needed. He had known pain. Although he had kept it hidden from us as much as he could there were times it had been impossible to hide the pain his addiction had caused. I remember some of the terrible fights they had had to get him to rehab when he wouldn’t want to go. Or the fights they had after he relapsed. I wonder if Dono is thinking about those fights? I’m so grateful that they had been in a good place for so long.
“I drank vodka,” I confessed. “When I got home from the funeral. I’m sorry.” I’m not sure why I felt the need to apologize.
“Kid, your Dad died. You get a pass.”
“Does it make you feel like drinking?” I had never ever asked him about his alcoholism before. I don’t know if it was death or booze that was making me so bold but when one of your parent’s die too young it makes you forget about social conventions. For a minute I’m worried that I’ve made him angry but he smiles down at me instead.
“I just realize that alcohol isn’t going to take away the pain. Not matter how much I drink or how much I want it to. I have to feel it and hope that one day I’ll be able to live with it.” I can’t imagine living with this pain for the rest of my life. Death was a permanent thing and so would be this grief.
“Mom’s struggling,” I tell him. “I don’t know if she’s going to be OK.”
“She’s a strong lady. She’ll make it. It’s just going to take a while.”
“Will I make it?” I wonder out loud.
“You owe it to your Dad to live a wonderful life. He worked so hard his whole life so that you and your brother would have a great life. Your job is to be happy. That’s the best way to honor his memory.”
“Happy…” I muse, wiping away tears. It felt like such a foreign concept.
“You will be one day. Doesn’t mean the grief will go but you’ll be happy in spite of it.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it.”
“If you need anything, Lani,” he used my childhood nickname. I hadn’t heard it in a while. It’s what my Dad always called me. It stabs my heart. “I’m here for you. There’s always a spare room at my house if you need to just get away.” I nod brushing away a fresh set of tears. I didn’t realize it was possible to cry this much. Didn’t your body need the water for other more vital purposes? Dono lived up in Lake Arrowhead. He moved there when he finally got sober. He said the peacefulness supported him. I wonder if it ever drives him crazy. I remember staying there years ago for a family vacation. It had been beautiful but very quiet. Maybe that was a good thing.
“I better go back inside…” I sigh, as I stand up, desperate for this day to be over.
“Don’t be a stranger Lani…” he says. That name again. I return to the house. Thankfully people are starting leave. I find Jordan. She hands me a drink. Despite my discussion with my Uncle I accept it.
“I could use some food…” I mumble.
“Come on.” I follow her into Cheryl’s kitchen. She’s put aside a plate for me of sandwiches and salad.
“Thanks Jordan. This is amazingly thoughtful.”
“Don’t sound so surprised,” she scoffs.
“I didn’t mean it like that…” I try to reassure her.
“I’m just teasing you. Am I not allowed to do that?” She asks suddenly worried she just made a funeral faux pas.
“Yes, please tease me. Anything to feel normal again.” I manage to eat a few bites of salad and half a sandwich. It wasn’t much but it was more than I’d eaten in a while.
“Do you know Dylan is on a booze cruise to Mexico right now?” I ask her.
“Fuck Dylan. And why the fuck are you checking Instagram?”
“Because for five seconds I want to escape the reality of my life. Only it seemed to have the very opposite effect. It made me feel this new reality more intensely and I feel worse.”
“Sister you just said a mouthful. I think you just nailed social media dysfunction.”
“Does he know the funeral is today?” I wonder. Jordan looks away. Of course he knows.
“There’s a reason you broke up with him, Alana.”
“It still hurts.” Not to have him even acknowledge today. I’d given the fucker my virginity!
“I know it does.”
“But everything hurts right now.” We sit silently a minute nursing our drinks.
“Stop me if this is a bad idea but maybe we should go out tonight? Blake is in town for the weekend and he wondered if you would be up to hanging out. Not a club, just something casual.”
“I don’t know…I don’t want to leave my Mom.”
“OK.” She sounds disappointed.
“I’ll talk to her.”
“Maybe going out would be good.”
Three hours later when it was just our immediate family at Cheryl’s left Jordan was still by my side.
“She should go out!” Cheryl was insisting about me. “Your Mom is going to stay here with us for a while anyway.”
“I’ll be here too.” Joe interjects. “I’ll take Mom home. Kate and I will be here. You should get out a little Alana.” I’m torn. Staying home and wallowing in the grief sounds completely unappealing but somehow going out feels wrong.
“OK, just for a little bit,” I tell Jordan. We head back across the street to my house to change.
The house is eerily quiet. My home was always so full of life and energy. Now it was empty. Another reminder of what we were missing. How on earth could my Mom keep living here alone?
“I think I need to move back home for the rest of the semester,” I tell Jordan.
“Really? But finals are like two weeks away?”
“I know but could you imagine walking into this alone everyday?” Jordan nods. Once again she gets it. I hurry upstairs and make a quick change into jeans and a tank top but I keep to the all black theme. Jordan primps in my mirror, reapplying make up.
“So did you and Blake ever date?”
“Blake? No we’re just friends. I think he would have made a better boyfriend than Dylan though. He actually showed up today.”
“So you do like Blake?”
“No, no…wait why are you asking?” But she doesn’t answer she just shrugs her shoulders and blushes. “You have a crush!” I realize.
“Come on! I just met him!”
“And yet somehow you planned for us to meet up for drinks tonight.”
“He wanted to see you,” she says defensively.
“I’m teasing you…” I smile at her. She smiles back.
“It’s good to see you smile.”
“It feels good to talk about something lighthearted like this.”
“You’ll have more moments. More things to be happy about.”
“I guess.” I wondered if that were true. “Blake is a really good guy though.”
“Well I guess I’m gonna find out!” She pulls me off the bed. We head downstairs and out the door to our awaiting Uber.
We meet Blake and some other high school friends at a local bar. Not a stuck up too cool lounge/club but a genuine no frills bar and burgers place. It was just Blake’s style. He was a straightforward, no bullshit kind of guy. Just Jordan’s style actually. It made total sense that they had connected. It felt strange walking into a bar given the fact we had buried my father a few hours earlier but it also felt good to be out and around other people. Not stuck in the house, which had become a den of grief. Blake hugs me tightly when I walk in.
“I’m so glad you came,” he says. There is a line up of hugs that follow: Blake’s best friends Nick and Tom and a girlfriend of mine, Shauna. They had all been at the funeral and they were all here now supporting me. All of them knew my Dad. We had all been close in high school and my parents had always had an open door policy of having friends stop by. My father was the kind of parent other kids loved. He was fun and supportive even if at times a little intimidating to the boys. But the fact that they knew him brought me comfort like they understood my loss. Even if it didn’t have the same impact on them we would still have that connection. They knew me pre-his death. I wondered what I would be like post-his death. My life would forever be marked by this event. Like BC and AD on the calendar. I chuckle inwardly at my own joke. My Dad would appreciate the Jesus reference. He liked to thing of himself as a martyr to handle all the shit us kids threw at him. I smiled. My Dad had the best sense of humor. I would miss that. And as much as his teasing annoyed me at the time I would miss it…I needed a drink. I wanted to get through the night without collapsing into a bucket of tears. I don’t know if it’s possible but I would try. We order a round immediately. And I couldn’t help but notice that when we sit at our table Jordan quickly finds a chair next to Blake. I smile inwardly. I’m a little envious. Not because I’m interested in Blake in the least bit but because I wished I had something other than the overwhelming grief to think of. As we look over the food menu I suddenly felt ravenous. A bacon cheeseburger and French fries sounded amazing. My appetite has returned. Did that mean I was starting to heal? I feel relieved and guilty at the same time. As if this horrific state of grief I was living in was a way of honoring my father. But I knew he wouldn’t want me to live like that.
The boys were just the antidote I needed. They joked and gave each other shit, although they did treat me a little with kid gloves but it was OK. I was glad I could laugh at their antics. It was also fun to watch the brewing romance between Jordan and Blake. They flirted and I couldn’t help but laugh to myself as she performed her signature hair flick. A great local band started to play and Nick dragged me off to dance. I didn’t resist. It felt good. It felt good to lose myself in the music, to lose myself in the moment and not to think. The key was not to think. If I could remember that then maybe one day I would be fine.