This blog is not FDA approved
I got the call from my stepmom on March 9th at 6:00am. I can’t even imagine the strength it took for her to make that call – having to somehow find the words to tell me that my Dad had passed away the night before. She did the best she could…. tried so hard to be gentle. I lost my shit anyway. I didn’t hear anything she said beyond, “He’s gone.” The rest was drowned out by the sound of my own screaming and wailing.
After a couple of hours, my all-consuming grief was replaced with an eerie numbness that settled in around my head and chest. My brain, probably sensing what might be its only window of opportunity to get a few thoughts in before grief had the chance to take hold again, made the decision to get on a plane. I had to see him one last time.
I took a flight from New York to Chicago – it was the longest three hours of my life. I used an iPod playlist my dad had created years ago to soothe my jagged nerves. As Eric Clapton sung “Sweet Home Chicago”, I imagined my dad’s melodic tenor voice crooning along to the music, just like he always did. Though I was pretty sure that Chicago wasn’t going to be sweet this time around.
Once my dad retired down to Florida, he didn’t think he’d ever return to Chicago, and its cold, winter streets, but this was a special occasion. His best friend’s daughter, a girl he had watched grow up, was getting married – it was enough incentive to make him want to brave the snow again. I’m sure neither he nor my stepmom ever dreamed that he wouldn’t live long enough to watch her walk down the aisle.
Apparently, the heart that struggled to keep him alive since his triple bypass surgery six years ago, had finally had enough.
Since he was away from his home when he died, everything was rushed. There would be no wake, funeral or burial for him, but my stepmom invited my two siblings and I to come see him before she had him cremated. I thought that even though he wasn’t having a wake, the funeral home would still prepare him for his family’s viewing. I pictured him in the suit he would have worn to the wedding, laid out peacefully in a casket so that we could all say our goodbyes. My stepmom explained to us that he was in a small room, away from the hushed hustle of other mourning families.
“He looks peaceful”, she said.
That description went along with the image I already had in my head, so I walked into the funeral home expecting to see what I had envisioned. When the funeral director led us into the elevator and asked me to push the button for the basement, my guts started churning.
The basement? What the hell was my dad doing in the basement??
We walked into what appeared to be the employee coffee break room, and saw a door at the far end. The funeral director disappeared through the door for a moment, and then said we could go in. My siblings went in first, and I slowly made my way to the door, scared of what I might find behind it.
I should have gone with my gut when it told me to run away.
I peaked my head around the corner and then immediately recoiled back into the break room, shocked at what I had just seen. My Dad was in a small hallway, laid on a metal gurney, with a white sheet pulled up to his chin. From my angle, all I saw was the top of his head before I backed up into the break room. The grief I had managed to keep at bay since I boarded the plane in New York, now threatened to consume me once again. My tears fell, unwiped and unabated. I couldn’t breathe.
My stepmom came back into the break room to comfort me. When I had calmed down enough to speak, she asked if I wanted to go back in and see his face. Even though he wasn’t prepared the way I had envisioned him, I still thought there was a chance I would take some solace in seeing his face one last time.
Again, I should have gone with my gut.
My stepmom put her arm around me and led me back towards the hallway where my father was being stored like a pile of laundry the workers had forgotten about. As I rounded the corner and stood there by his side, what I saw was like a gory scene from a TV medical drama. There was no care taken, no effort to disguise the fact that he had been dead almost two days. His hair was sticking up in all directions, and his head and ears had angry purple blotches all over them. His normally full lips had all but disappeared, leaving a grim, flat line in their place.
This wasn’t my dad – it was a mound of battered flesh that had been molded into a gruesome facsimile of him. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing “peaceful” about this image. It was undignified and horrific, and he deserved SO much better.
I stood there, shocked and frozen in place, willing my feet to run. I tried desperately to find even a hint of the man I loved and admired. The man who never had a single hair out of place. The man who was well dressed and polished, no matter if he was going to work or lounging around the house. The man who always seemed to smell like he just stepped out of the shower. Where the fuck was he?? He was the one I had flown over 800-miles to see and say goodbye to.
He was nowhere to be found.
At that moment, I wasn’t thinking anything sentimental – like how this would be the last time I would see his face, be near him, or have the ability to touch him. There was no whispered I love you. No last goodbye.
When my body finally came out of its near catatonic state, all I was thinking was how badly I wanted OUT. I suddenly needed to put as much distance between this building and myself as I could. My family barely had time to file back into the break room before I blurted out, “Can we leave now?”
I didn’t wait for an answer before I headed back to the elevator that would help pull me out of the depths of my nightmare, back to the surface….. where I could finally breathe again.