The police officer greets me in the driveway, his cruiser parked neatly on the side. There was no urgency to get here, no life hanging in the balance. He’d probably taken an extra few seconds to reverse and pull forward, delaying the inevitable scene awaiting him inside the peaceful villa on the lakefront. Outside, the sun was setting over the water, nothing disturbing the scene but an elderly couple chain smoking in the driveway waiting on him and me.
By the time I arrived, he’d seen the corpse we’d all come to mourn, but his face showed no sign of the horror. Maybe he was masking it for me, maybe he’d been called to so many of these by now that decomposition had become routine. The scent of menthol hit my nostrils shortly after we clasped hands and I searched his perfectly stoic face for the Vicks Vape O Rub I knew would be under his nose if he’d been called to a death scene before. There it was, shining ever so slightly beneath his nostrils. The tool used my law enforcement to drown out the stench of a long dead body.
This scene replays itself in my mind as I shower. While my family sleeps, I navigate this memory from years ago. I want to push it away, to start what will be a long day, but it hovers at the edge of my mind, begging me to join it there in the past. To come all the way into the scene. It’s a feeling I suppose mostly reserved for detective novels, where the hero gives himself over to the memory and by doing so remembers the single detail that breaks the case wide open, but this is no novel. This was no murder. This was a death a long time coming. One I’d raged against, and despite it’s inevitability, never truly expected, but not one of foul play. The only mystery of this day was exactly how long I’d spent calling the phone of a dead person.
Ten days it had been since I had spoken to my father. He’d called to apologize for sleeping through the family Thanksgiving. It was a phone call he’d made for three years running. The day my stepmother died, my father fell into a bottle and never fully came out. He tried, valiantly for the first six months or so. Fought for me and the son I was raising on my own when this misadventure began. He’d even gone to rehab once, but left early to climb right back into the bottle and after he’d only peak his head out in small bursts. Long enough to cuss me then give me a drunken apology weeks later. The last time we’d spoken was one of those times. The last words I ever said to him were “I love you,” but not in that beautiful way that you can hold to your heart, but an angry, passive aggressive “I love you” meant as much to evoke guilt as convey emotion. I wasn’t always good at this. I had my shining moments and massive failures. Our last conversation went to the failure pile.
I stood there, in the driveway, begging to go inside, but friends and a very kind police officer holding me back. It was bad, I knew, but I wanted to see him. I don’t know why. I know it would have been vile and I’m thankful this force of friends blocked my own yearnings, but honestly, he’d survived so much I honestly couldn’t even believe he was gone. Dozens of doctors had looked me in the eye and tried to prepare me for losing him, but each time he pulled through, miraculously no worse for the ware. If I recounted them all to you now, you wouldn’t believe me. They’re too far fetched. The time he drank so damn much he passed out in his car (where he stored his booze) with the door wide open in near zero weather in the middle of January. A neighbor found him. His BAC was so high they thought he’d drank antifreeze and his body temperature so low they had to bring in a special machine to take it because the thermometer wasn’t calibrated to go below 89 degrees. The combination saved his life. With more alcohol than actual blood in his body, his blood didn’t freeze and his body temperature being so low slowed the metabolism of the liquor. If he survived that, there had to be purpose didn’t there? That’s just one story, and honestly it’s not even the craziest of them. If he wasn’t supposed to live, why hadn’t that killed him?
I tried to push those thoughts from my mind as I stood in the driveway. They were the childish thoughts of a little girl afraid of losing her daddy. I was standing here now as a brave woman and mother of two, one who lost his favorite grandfather long before this day and another that would never meet him. There was no time for thoughts of what could have been. We were living in what was. Honestly, I was living in an answered prayer. Only days before, I’d been listening to David Sedaris on This American Life talking about how the “recluses keep the funeral industry in business”. It would have been a hilarious story if my father was not a recluse. The images flooded my brain and despite my three month old sleeping soundly in his carseat in the back, I screamed “Dear Lord please make him better or let him go home!” I should have known the answer I would receive. My knees bled from praying for his recovery to no avail. There was only one possible outcome.
I guess that’s what keeps pulling me in: The mystery of my Schrodinger’s Father who was simultaneously alive and dead as I desperately called to hear his voice. Sometimes angry, sometimes at the height of depression. Many times, I thought about driving out there myself. It was only six miles from my front door to his, but I knew I couldn’t. My family wouldn’t let me. My uncle on more than once occasion drove all the way from Pennsylvania to save me that six mile drive in the hope of saving me from that sight. We’d all had so much taken from us, I couldn’t bring myself to take that, too. So, instead, I called. Incessantly, annoyingly until it got to be so much that I was going to head out the door but a family friend, my father’s best friends and my second parents, jumped in the car at the mere thought I would do it. “He’s gone,” she said when she called minutes later. Her husband had bared my burden, that final sight.
How long had I rung his phone, unknowingly begging a corpse to answer. “At least one day but not more than three,” the Medical Examiner would tell me a few weeks later. The same medical examiner who wrote “chronic alcohol abuse” as the cause of death on my father’s death certificate. The sentence is as burned into my eyes as the question is burned into my soul.
Why it bothers me so much that I don’t know when I lost him, I couldn’t tell you. When the anniversary of his death approaches, it burns me that we’re remembering the day we found him, not the day we lost him. I try to picture his final moments. Was he scared, as he was so many times when we thought we were staring down the barrel of the end? Did he need me there? Did he want me there? I don’t know. I never will. But, I like to imagine when these episodes take hold that he was asleep, which is probably true. He was on the bed, laid out like someone sleeping, at least that’s what I’m told.
I imagine that his soul awoke for the first time in months, maybe even years, and he saw an angel waiting for him. Confused, he looked down at his lifeless body, beaten and broken from the numerous trials this world put on him. “Not yet,” he might say to the angel. “Not yet. I’m happy to see you and I’m ready to go, but I can’t just yet. I’ve got to apologize to my daughter and grandson. I’ve got to let them know…” and then maybe my stepmom comes stepping out from behind the angel, arms outstretched, healed of the cancer that riddled her body. “I’m so sorry,” he’d say, breaking into tears. “I know,” she replies, “they know, or they will someday. There’s nothing more you can do for them here honey, it’s time to go home. She can do this.” And with that, he let’s go. Knowing that while I sucked at this whole thing sometimes, I loved him, and while we might all be a little beaten, we’re not broken. Our love was tested, pushed to the brink, but never broken. The man that lived beneath the alcohol was never forgotten, his love surviving still today, his light shining in the face of his grandchildren. Addiction stole a lot from us, but it will never steal that.
This was a very emotional post written because I couldn’t keep the words inside. Please excuse any typos as I am pushing publish before I chicken out of doing it. I don’t know why I feel like I have to let this into the world, but I do and if I try to read it again I will back out. If you have stories of addiction, please feel free to share them here. I spent too long hiding from it and lying about it to be silent about it now. I’m not embarrassed of my dad’s addiction. I never talked about it because it embarrassed him, but it shouldn’t have. It is a very real mental disorder that is ABSOLUTE HELL on the sufferer and the people that love them. He may have lost, but I am damn proud that for at least a little while he tried, and while I’m still sometimes very angry that I feel like his story was stolen from him, I am IMMENSELY proud of the husband, father, and grandfather that he was and the love that he put into this world.