It’s late August, so my family is starting to have the holiday conversation. With divorces on both sides, my husband’s parents and mine, it’s always been that rickety “we made plans to go here…you already have other plans, right?” discussion. Nobody wins when the parents are divorced. Every holiday leaves someone sighing in the hallway.
Last year was easy to plan — my aunt got married Thanksgiving weekend in North Carolina, so that’s where we went. It was a typical wedding for two widowed people in their 70’s: early ceremony, guests with facelifts and tattooed makeup, and that weird drinky couple who brags about swinging with other retirees. We’ve all been there.
My dad was with his girlfriend and her family in New Jersey. So he should have been fine. Except that the next day she called us and said he was acting really weird and thought he should go to the hospital. It didn’t make sense. He was only seventy-two, and always said, with his eyebrows up and his childlike smile,”all my friends are on pills — I don’t take any pills!”
There are lots of kinds of deaths — sudden accident ones, slow gradual ones, and this one, which was like whoops — wait a minute — what? Like someone throws you something and you try to catch it and its slippery and you don’t know what it is and you almost have it and you drop it and you realize right when it hits the floor that it was a fish, but it doesn’t matter now. It’s gone. In January he got officially diagnosed with bile duct cancer, got hospice set up at home, then couldn’t talk, then eat, then open his brown eyes all in six days
He died at like 2:30 in the morning in his girlfriends arms, with my husband and me on couches nearby. And then a weird hospice nurse rolled in an hour later who seemed like she had COPD and had to keep sitting down before she could pronounce him dead. Then she absentmindedly pulled out his PIC line, which is where the morphine went in, and realized she had pretty much poked a hole in a blood balloon. She squeezed and wrapped and finally duct taped it or something. We called the undertakers, who looked like a 50’s cartoon of undertakers. One was five feet tall with dyed black hair and a dyed black mustache who said “yes, ma’am, YES ma’am” like an old school waiter, and the other guy was like seven feet tall, completely bald and never spoke.
They rolled his body away at 3:30 am, my husband flew to Utah for a job at 10, and then, just when we had made the majority of the terrible calls you have to make to friends and family after someone dies, it got quiet, and the sky began to release an unholy blizzard upon us. Tons of snow fell and pushed down all over the house and driveway, pushing, pushing for hours. I sat with my father’s girlfriend, eating chocolate covered pomegranate seeds from a gift basket, and tried to remember how to watch TV.
I’ve lived in California for eight years now, so snow is thrilling to me, thrilling! I was very excited to wake up Sunday and more than glad to start shoveling and to have some physical job to do that wasn’t grim loads of hospitalish laundry. Shovel, lift, pitch. Shovel, lift pitch. The snow was cleansing. No more community theater friends singing Amazing Grace, no more lemon mouth swabs. Just snow.
We made little paths. We made little patterns. We took turns attacking the new smooth snow and shouted in accents. It was deep as hell and bright, clean white. It was a grand old time! For an hour!
By the time we got down to the cars, it was a little less cute and fun. We stopped making jokes and started getting practical and efficient and then overwhelmed. And just when I really started to be aware of my left shoulder, down the driveway came a tall, loping smiling guy, about 6 feet, who looked like he sprang from the woods of Oregan. He had a shovel. And offered to help.
Dad’s girlfriend took him up to the back porch so we would have another exit cleared, and I dug, swearing now, and sweating, around the tires of the Audi parked near me.
Ooooh, Audi! Oooooh!
Don’t be fooled. My father drove this car to work at JC Penny’s. My father, who had once been a very successful stock broker, had lost all of his money in the last six years. And the giant driveway we were shoveling wasn’t even his. It all belonged to Chase Manhattan. Bankruptcy. Foreclosure. Any day the Sheriff’s Department could show up and evict him or his girlfriend now, and give them only thirty days to clear their entire lives out.
I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. I was thinking about how snow feels so light but is heavy. I was thinking about which of the two lasagnas — Basking Ridge or Bernardsville — I would eat for lunch, how silly my California boots were in real weather, and then that guy came back out.
I thought, that was fast for help.
And he didn’t say I’m so sorry about your dad. He didn’t say how are you. He said “what are you going to do?” and he nodded his head toward the house.
And I said, “oh, the foreclosure? Yeah, I don’t know. Have a garage sale or something? I don’t know?”
And he said “Yeah let me know if you need help with that”
Which was nice, and then
“It affects our property value”
Lightheartedly sauntered back up the driveway toward his own home. And I was fooled by his tone and thought he really had been helping, he even said the word help. Helping and curious. It just didn’t occur to me that someone would — twenty four hours after a death — come sniffing around to see if their property fucking value was intact. People are amazing. People are amazing.
I went inside and up into my father’s “study” where I was staying. I was so pissed that my father had kept so many things from so many people and just left it for everyone else to clean up. I thought of Brenda Blethyn crying “Secrets and lies, secret and lies!” in that movie. I started to go through things that were none of my business. I went through his credit card bills to try to make sense, saw letters, sketches, proof of lies about him leaving my mother twenty years ago. I suddenly felt a need to read every single thing in the room, to know once and for all who my father completely was.
Why had he lost jobs? Why a second mortgage? When did his affair start? I knew it wasn’t my business, but I kept going. Photographs he had taken on secret trips, unpaid taxes, and later that afternoon I found his pornography.
I remembered finding these same exact old Playboys and Penthouses when I was a kid — reading them, wide-eyed, cover to cover. All of it unveiling this secret adult world of semi-surprised women who kept forgetting their pants and panties all the time. I would have never dreamed, eleven year old me, that someday I would see these very same images again as a grown up.
One of the lawyers I spoke to had said “get all of the valuables out of the house and just walk away.” That advice was repeated about filing the will and everything. “Just walk away.” “Walk away.”
Well, I had found some valuables here, and I was ready to take them home, cash in, and divide up the spoils with my sister and dad’s lady.
I packed them in my suitcase, feeling only just slightly gross, and when I got back to Los Angeles, looked them up, rubber my hands together, and saw they were worth four dollars, two dollars, five dollars, four dollars. They were only valuables to him.
Maybe he thought they were valuable, like all of the worthless stamps he whispered about in his last days. Maybe they were just his favorites, or he liked the James Bond excerpt, or maybe he just forgot to throw them out. I’ll never know. I had to let go of physical dad a day ago, and I was just beginning to let go of knowing him. Nobody ever knows anybody. The fish slipped to the floor and…ew never mind. Why fish? Nobody throws people fish.
This Thanksgiving we will cook here in California. Where it will likely be sunny and 75 without the slightest hint of snow.