Short Story: Two Fathers

I came across this in my files while working on a related post.  I’d kind of forgotten about it, to be honest.  I wrote this back in November, after the sudden death of a good friend’s father.  The names have been changed to protect the innocent, and I didn’t actually get to go to his funeral.  I had a bad case of strep throat and didn’t want to infect everyone.  (In fact, the whole bit at the casket was directly inspired by my experiences at my grandfather’s funeral a few years ago.)  I guess this was my brain’s way of coping with the fact that I couldn’t physically be there for my friend.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy it.

Two Fathers

I shifted as covertly as possible in my seat, unfolding a wrinkle in the fabric beneath my thigh.  They can’t ever seem to make these benches comfortable, can they? I thought to myself, followed immediately by a pang of self-reproach.  A few rows in front of me, Alex sat silent, tear after tear rolling from her wide blue eyes and down her cheeks.  She’d lost her father, and here I was complaining internally about sweat sticking my skirt to the back of my leg and the hard wood of the bench against my back.

At least I’d known Alex’s dad.  I’d never even met Emily’s.  She said I had, at some show or another, but I didn’t remember it.  That was the singularly weirdest feeling, being at a funeral for someone I didn’t know from Adam.  But Emily was my friend, so I went; just part of being an adult.  That was only eight months ago.  I remember thinking, all through his funeral, that this would be the first of many.  And that at some point, one of these dead-dad funerals would be for mine.

I just never would have expected another one so soon.  Emily’s dad had been sick for a while before; Alex’s was a total shock.  A heart attack, out of the blue, right in the middle of the grocery store.  They were both in their mid-fifties, the same age as my dad.  My stepmom made Dad get all his checkups and eat healthy and stuff, though.  He’d gotten his heart checked after Granddad died, and everything was fine.  The biggest health problem my dad had to worry about was arthritis, thank God.

Well, maybe not God.  Who do agnostics and atheists thank for their families’ wellbeing, anyway?  I guess old habits die hard.  It’s not like my break with the church was recent or anything; it had been years since I’d stepped foot into a church for anything but a wedding—or a funeral, come to think of it.  I’d finally stopped muttering “amen” at the end of prayers, though I still bowed my head politely and took my dad’s extended hand while he blessed every meal I ate at his house, even breakfast.  And when Emily talked about her dad and Alex’s having a beer together in heaven, I did my best to smile in sympathy.

I’ve never really understood what comfort people find in the idea of heaven.  It’s certainly never comforted me.  When I was a kid, I remember sitting in my room on more than one occasion and trying to figure it out.  I didn’t dare tell anyone this, but I always figured it would be kind of lame.  Jesus might be a pretty cool guy to talk to, and it would be nice to see my grandfather again and listen to my Granny Julie tell stories about the time she went to Hawaii.   But not forever.  That was a concept I could never get anyone to explain to me:  what would you do in heaven, forever?  Wouldn’t it get boring after a while?

Not to mention the whole Christians-only thing.  It never sat right with me that just because I said one little prayer when I was ten I would get to go to heaven, but anyone who didn’t would spend all of eternity burning in hell.  Buddha and Gandhi were awesome guys, but would they be in heaven according to my parents?  Nope.  Neither would Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and probably John Lennon.  Plus a lot of the Christians I knew were jerks; I wouldn’t want to be stuck in the same place as them forever.  Give me hell any day, if all the decent human beings are there.

Maybe it’s not that surprising after all that the idea of reincarnation, or even death being the final end, was so much more appealing to me.  Why my family couldn’t at least try to understand that, I’ll never know.

The people in the row behind me stood, rousing me from my self-centered musings.  Oh goodie, I thought, my favorite part.  The row behind me filed one by one out of the pew and into the wide aisle, marching slowly and solemnly toward the front of the funeral home.  I stood with my own row, quietly waiting my turn to parade past the open casket and glimpse the trussed up dead body of my friend’s father.

I need to write a will.  I’d been thinking that since Emily’s dad died—actually, since my grandfather died two years ago.  If I didn’t lay out my wishes to the letter, this is how my family would treat me after I die:  pickling me so I won’t rot, putting me in a steel box so the bugs can’t get me, making me up to look a little less dead, parading all my friends past my body as someone sings “In the Garden” slightly off-key.  No thank you.

I wanted a funeral like Nate’s from Six Feet Under.  No embalming, no chemicals, no box.  No show.  Just wrap me in a shroud and bury me under a tree, so my body will break down and feed bugs and plants and give back to the earth like it’s supposed to.  And maybe do it while someone’s reading Mary Frye’s version of Transitions or playing “Life is Wonderful” by Jason Mraz or “Dead and Lovely” by Tom Waits or something my parents would equally hate.  No mention of God, or heaven, or rapture.  No pretending to know what happened to my soul.

It was my turn.  I stepped up to the coffin and glanced at the body, wondering how long I should remain there.  Alex’s dad was shriveled, like a raisin or an old potato.  They’d tried too hard to make his skin the rich tan it had been in life, and he just looked orange instead.  Like a dead Oompa Loompa in a suit.  Not the boisterous, burly mad I’d known.  Not the man whose plate party I’d been to at the Flying Saucer.  Not the man who laughed with his daughter and made dirty jokes and never stopped smiling.  I don’t think I’d ever seen Alex’s dad in a suit; it would have made more sense to bury him in a t-shirt and jeans.  It would’ve looked more like him.  Staring down at him like that, I realized I didn’t even remember his first name.  He’d always been Alex’s dad, or Mr. Johnson.

The words of W.H. Auden came to mind:  Let airplanes circle moaning overhead/Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead.  I’m not enough of a snob to pretend I’d ever read or heard those words before Four Weddings and a Funeral.  Even now, I always hear John Hannah’s voice in my head when I read it.  But that didn’t make it any less applicable.  Alex’s dad was dead.  He’d never laugh again, never brew beer with his daughter again, never tell another off-color joke.  Never go to work.  Never drive his car.  Never smile.  Never kiss his wife.  A whole human life extinguished in the space between two heartbeats.  Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone…The stars are not wanted now; put out every one…

I’d been standing there too long.  I’m always doing stuff like that; being awkward or inconsiderate without meaning to.  I just get lost in my own head sometimes, I guess.  I hurried away from the casket, trying to keep my gate to a respectful promenade.  My other friends were waiting, gathered toward the back of the room in their blacks and greys and long faces.  Emily was there, too, in the same black dress she’d been wearing another Sunday eight months back.  Quiet tears streamed from her chocolate eyes, and I knew without asking that Alex’s dad wasn’t the only dead father who could claim them.  I couldn’t keep a few tears from my own eyes when I looked back to the casket.  Alex was standing there now with her mother and little brother, saying one last goodbye to the man who had been their North, their South, their East and their West.

And someday, it would be me standing up there.  It would be my father in the big steel box, my friends standing in the back of the funeral home, waiting for me and my siblings and my stepmom to say goodbye.  I looked around at the faces of my friends and felt a little less of a narcissist; their eyes all said the same thing.

When I got home, I called my dad.

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