Eight Years

by irms

Almost exactly 8 years ago to the day and hour, I, tired from not sleeping and feeling outside of myself, got on a plane in Detroit to come home to Fresno.

I’d been at work when my brother first called. Dad was in the hospital, he said, but not to worry about it. Probably just the flu, he said, and dad didn’t even want him to call. He was going to get a shot in the butt of something strong and flu-killing and then he’d go home and sleep it off. That was January 12, 2003. Roughly 2 in the afternoon in Ohio, where I lived.

Last I’d talked to him was a week before. Sunday. I used to call every Sunday just to check in and make sure they remembered me. Dad was sick then too, had taken some NyQuil and was just staying awake long enough for me to call so he could say, “Hi, love you, baby,” and then fall into a drugged sleep. Dad took our Sunday calls seriously. It was important to him for me to remember, and important to me for him to be around those evenings.

Later, I would learn that my dad asked my mom to take him to the hospital the night before. Which she did. And I would learn that he hadn’t wanted to scare her. Which he did. I would learn that my siblings had spent that morning in the hospital. I would learn that many phone calls had already been made to aunts and uncles. I would hear about what it was like in the hospital with all the family around, and how they transported him to another hospital for more care. I would hear what his last moments were like with my mom in his hospital room, and how things went so quickly from bad to terrible, then from terrible to hopeful, and then from hopeful to devastated.

I don’t have any of those memories. I was too late. So these are mine from the time I got the first phone call to some time after when, long after the facts had been ingested, I realized my dad was dead.

Phone Call 1

When my brother called and told me dad was in the hospital, I asked him, quite directly, “Do you think I should come home?”

“No, we don’t think so,” he said, “we weren’t even sure we should call,” and in truth, my asking if I should come home was just a cursory question, and one I didn’t take seriously myself.

I took my break after that phone call.

I put on my long leather coat and stepped outside of the building into the snow covered parking lot. It was sunny and cold in Toledo. I’m not sure why I went outside. Only the smokers went outside on their breaks.

I guess I wanted to be in the quiet. I didn’t feel alarmed or otherwise bothered by the phone call I just had. I was abnormally calm about it, and that baffled me.  “Shouldn’t I be upset?” I asked myself, “Shouldn’t I be more worried?” I was pensive.

I stood still in the snow outside of Circuit City for long moments and searched inside myself to find the place where emotions are supposed to live. And for a second — for a brief second — I felt a lump in my throat.

But then it was gone and I went back inside to resume the business of preparing for a long night of retail inventory.

Phone Call 2

If you’ve ever worked in retail, you know that there’s at least one time during the year when the store calls all hands on deck to count and recount everything in the store. Preparations are made throughout the day, but the counting goes on long after business hours are over. That data is then compared to the “system”, discrepancies are found or resolved, and the data is sent to “corporate” where, depending on your store’s loss/theft rate, decisions are made to change policies and sometimes management. At Circuit City, where I worked, we made a big deal out of it. We bought soda and snacks and dinner for the entire team. Everyone was required to show. Managers from other stores pitched in and worked with the bigger stores to help it all go smoothly. Around 6 in the evening, the “plain-clothes” employees started arriving. Around 8 the food arrived. Around 9 I got the next call.

“Irm.”

“Hey.”

“You need to come home.”

“Serious? What happened?”

“Dad is on dialysis. They said… Do you think you can get a flight tonight?”

“Yeah. I’ll leave. I’ll just tell them I’m leaving. What happened?”

“They said he’s toxic. We are calling everyone.”

“Should I be worried? How fast do I need to try to get there?” (last-minute flights are pricey, I was thinking)

“Well, do everything you can. They’re saying there’s an 80% chance he won’t make it through the night. Do you think you can get a flight tonight? We can pool together some money, but we don’t know how to get it to you. The chaplain is on his way, they said you might be able to get a bereavement rate.”

In my head, at that moment, something detached. There were now three parts. One part was thinking of all the things that would need to be taken care of, or delegated, or simply left undone before I left and during my absence. This same part was calculating bank account and credit card balances. It was making assumptions about the cost of same-day flights to anywhere. Another part was public-facing, so to speak, and automatically behaving as one would expect a person who’s just received shocking information to behave.  That part, to this day, doesn’t even feel like me. It was like Irma the Actress was putting on a distraught, slightly-frantic, still functioning facade. The actress, I think, did this to deflect questions and invasion from outside parties. The Actress, I think, was buying time for the other two parts, because the perfect truth is that I felt neither frantic nor distraught. The last part was thinking about and analyzing what I knew of the situation at home.  It was already working on what it must be like, where everyone must be, how many phone calls were being made. It was, as it would for the next 8 years, trying to put together a picture of what it was like at home for everyone else. That last part also made it a point to tell me this:

There are two things to note here:

  1. The chaplain is there. That means business.
  2. Bereavement is a word you’ve never heard before. You better look it up before you buy a ticket.

You can imagine with all this happening in my head, things started to become less and less real. As a result, I remember only fragments of the next few hours. In the order that things happened:

  • I went to find my friend Beth and asked her to borrow her credit card. I gave her a brief update with the contents of the most recent phone call. I told her I didn’t have enough money to buy a last-minute ticket at the prices I could only guess it would cost. I told her I would give it all back to her and then some, but not until I went home and dealt with whatever I was going to need to deal with. Beth was a good friend, she looked only mildly worried and then said, “Let’s go to the back and look up prices.”
  • On my way back with Beth, I ran into Negean, my then roommate. From my face, and probably from the speed Beth and I were walking, Negean knew things were bad. She fell into step at my side and didn’t ask me any direct questions.
  • Now three of us, from the same department, were missing from the big inventory dinner and people were starting to wonder.
  • We looked at flights.
  • There was another phone call. This time, I spoke with the chaplain.
  • I called some airlines, they said no bereavement prices.

The next flight out was in just less than an hour out of Detroit, which, in good weather, was 55 minutes away. I was never gonna make it. My back was against the wall here. My only option was a flight at 5:30 in the morning from Detroit to Fresno at full price.

We bought the ticket.

The Flight

Feeling that I should pack up some stuff and try to get some rest, I told my manager that I was leaving and that I was taking either Negean or Beth with me. I told her my dad was in the hospital, and I had to leave right away. Negean and I left directly. Back at our apartment, Negean finally started asking questions, and in telling her what I knew, I finally found it in me to cry a little. It didn’t feel like a real cry. It was a cry from spent adrenaline and frustration, and from that weird feeling you get when you know someone cares about you so much they want to cry on your behalf. The situation at home still wasn’t a real enough thing to cry about.

At some point during the sleepless night, I got up and decided to pack some nice clothes. Something dark, just in case.

At another point, I asked Negean if she would fly out there with me, and she agreed. It’s strange to me now that her coming was an afterthought to both of us. There are a handful of things I remember that don’t seem real enough to be true. They feel like the eerie things in your dreams that can’t be there, and they make you wonder in your dream whether you’re dreaming. That it was almost left out of the story that Negean would come is so unbelievable to me that I question my memory of it.

At about 3 in the morning we drove to Detroit. We boarded the plane, and Negean fell asleep. Not being able to sleep on planes even under normal circumstances, I just sat still. I spent the time marveling at the three parts of myself that were in action. I wondered again at how calm I felt. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the calm was a gift directly from Heaven. I was being handled.

Sometime during the flight, something inside of me broke. Like a twig that snaps in two, but silently, and somewhere inside my body. With no reason, or change in information, with no explanation at all; I knew I was too late. The first part of me began to gather facts: My phone was off, as the law required during a flight. There would be no call if the worst had happened, that’s not the sort of thing one leaves in a message. There would be no way to to call and get an update before we landed. We, all three parts of me, were just going to have to deal with it when what I already knew to be true, was confirmed on the ground. The Actress put on a strong face. The other part of me wondered who and how they would tell me when we landed.

As we began our descent and Negean woke up to put her tray and seatback in the upright position, I turned to her and said, “What do you think?” She just looked at me. “If something had happened, they wouldn’t call me right?” “No, probably not,” she said.

While we taxied, I turned on my phone. No missed calls. No messages.

Home

My dad died sometime while I was in the air.

Walking through the hall of the airport, I saw a group of my family. None of them were actively looking for me, but rather waiting for me to come close enough that they had to look. I saw faces that were carefully empty of telling cues. Glancing around to make a quick note of who had come, I finally looked directly at my mom. Her little lips were pursed, and her little chin was quivering. She didn’t say a word. She just shook her head. Just the slightest movement to the left and right, barely noticeable, and it was confirmed. I shook my head too as in confirmation that I understood. She shook hers once more and just said, “No.” I said, “Okay,” and wrapped my arms around her where she cried. Not the first time, and far from the last time she would cry for my father over the next several years.

Red-rimmed  and glassy eyes all around. I hugged every one of them that came to greet me and support me at the airport where I would hear the news for the first time. I had questions, but I didn’t want them answered. I just wanted to go home.

My sister was holding down the fort when we arrived and already there was a houseful of visitors. Everyone was crying. Everyone was laughing, and then crying some more. Everyone brought food. For days and days the house was full of family and food and people visiting. That first night, when the house was finally empty and people were going to sleep off some of the trauma, I remember lying in bed and I said out loud, “This is the day my dad died.” Sometime after that, I fell asleep.

Day 1

I don’t think anyone slept well that first night. I woke early, and the house was still quiet, but I don’t think people were sleeping. From somewhere in the house I heard crying. Not crying, but the aftermath of crying. The part when you’re trying to calm yourself before someone finds you out. And thinking that someone was suffering awake, I went looking.

I found my mom curled up on the bed she shared with my dad. The blankets were still made and she’d clearly had no sleep. She was leaning against the headboards as if she couldn’t hold herself upright and crying like I’ve never seen her cry before. I didn’t know what to do, I was frozen. Utterly rooted to the ground.

When my body would respond to my brain once more, I crossed the room to the head of the bed and finally noticing me standing there she said through her tears, “Weenie. What are we going to do?”

It was the most heartbreaking moment of my life. Nothing before or since has ever made me feel as helpless as I did in that moment. Laying on the bed beside her I said, “I don’t know, mom. But it will be okay someday.” And we both lay there and cried.

A bare minute or two later, she sat up. She began the process of wiping her face free of tears. She started breathing the breaths of a person who’s told themselves to stop crying. She sent me out of the room for something unmemorable, maybe to wash my face, but the message was clear: that was all the helpless we were going to be. Now we would begin to fight.

After

We buried my father nearly two weeks later at St. Peter’s Cemetery in Fresno. The funeral procession was so long, CHP’s had to shut down streets and highways as we crossed them, leap-frogging in front of each other to close the next one in time. The chapel where his viewing and service was held wasn’t big enough to keep all the people that came. They stood along walls and in the yard outside. Everyone was in tears. Not a dry eye to be found.

I lost the iron-clad grip I had on myself when a U.S. Army Officer knelt in front of my mom at the burial site and presented her with a folded up flag saying, “On behlaf of a grateful nation.” When Taps was played in the distance by the buglers, I lost it again.

Several more times, and for several more years the smallest thing would set the whole thing in motion and I would stop to cry and to remember and to relive everything again.

Everything was different. Nothing was normal, and no one was safe.

Many times in the following days, we would stop to wonder that the whole world was still going on all around us. News channels were still reporting news. Sitcoms were still airing shows. Other people’s lives went on and were completely unaffected by our loss. It was surreal.

Then. One night. Months later. I had a dream.

My dad was in it, and until that time, I hadn’t realized that he had been missing from my dreams. Yet, there he was in my dream, sitting on the couch in front of the fireplace. And for some reason, I knew that he was there telling me it was ok to keep going, which was weird because I hadn’t realized that I was unsure about that.

In the almost eight years since then, I have — we have — fought. Because it really is a struggle. To find that balance between remembering and honoring him, and moving on. To find a new normal without forsaking the lessons of the old normal. To find a way to show our love and our longing for him without living in the past. To stand on our own two feet while nodding graciously in the direction of the man that taught us to do so. We fought to find a new way to live. We accept that it is an endless battle.

I pray, with all the hope in my heart, that he is proud of how we’ve handled his death. I pray that eight years have not diminished our memories or our love. And I pray that I live in such a way that, even just a little, other people may know him through me.