“That Got Me To Thinkin’…?” Chapter 15 “The Phone Call”
By Bruce Williams
I was at work when I got the phone call—my Dad’s wife was calling me in hysterics, barely recognizable through her rhythmic wailing and thick Korean accent. I paused her briefly to transfer the call to our back room for privacy, knowingly fearing my Dad’s heart condition and his procrastination in getting the stent put in—one that his doctor had advised after his last episode in his truck on the side of the highway.
Shortly after picking up in back and trying to make heads or tails of Kim’s gasps, a calm gentleman thankfully came on, introduced himself as the county coroner (my heart sank) and began to explain that my father had had a heart attack while fishing the Cowlitz River for steelhead, and unfortunately, had “expired.” “Expired?” I questioned. “You mean he died?” “Unfortunately, yes.” A local fisherman had passed him still healthy, and returning back by a half hour later had discovered him lying prone on the bank. Attempts to revive him were fruitless—he was pronounced dead under a grey sky there by the river at the age of 77.
I was able to gravelly whisper my departure to my kindly co-workers, and made it out to my car where I found a safe haven to deliver the news to my two sisters and my wife. These were some of the toughest phone calls I will ever have to make. We naturally gravitated to each other, and within 24 hours we were all headed south together in one car to make the necessary arrangements.
The first stop we had to make was at the funeral home for the “viewing”—what a morbid preoccupation this idea is—why is this still even a thing? Dad was being cremated, but the viewing is for closure (I’m told), but what you essentially experience is being placed in a dark room for some quiet time with a corpse. One look and you could see he had left and was now long gone, leaving behind only his organic material; the blood pooling languidly on the bottom half of his body as he lay face up on the slab creating a macabre fading effect from grey-white at the top to the crimson-purple on his backside. The funeral home director had asked us if we’d like him embalmed, but since we opted for cremation we had declined—but now I understood why he’d offered. My Dad’s wife, whom none of us was particularly close to—she had suggested at one point that my son-on-the-spectrum’s behavior might be explained simply by his just being “spoiled”—and had also screamed at my sister one Christmas Eve for leaving her out of a family portrait….she’d actually been invited to the sitting, but had bowed out once it had been scheduled—though that didn’t stop her from offering my sister, who was hosting that year, a full-throated “eff off” and storming out, taking my Dad with her (Jesus and the Magi be damned!) The ignorance of the “spoiled” comment had pretty much sealed it for me, but here we were, all together in the viewing room sharing in the magnitude of our collective grief. I had no doubt she did indeed love my Dad, even if the feeling she gave me was that if the three of us kids had been kittens, she’d have very likely thrown us into a burlap sack and tossed us into the nearest river. Sobbing, she moved forward toward the body, inexplicably pulling his lip up, morbidly exposing his teeth and gums—we three siblings quickly and simultaneously moving forward with a horrified, collective, “Nooooo…!”
Losing a parent immediately turns you back into that 14-year old kid—the pre-adult version of yourself that always seemed just a little lost and dependent on your parents for moral guidance. I remembered the time I flipped my dad off while playing baseball with the neighbor kids, and him chasing me down three houses away and spanking me in front of the whole neighborhood. I also recalled when he told my high school vice principal off during a parent conference, defending me against the scathing indictment he had offered as my “bio”. Now I was helping make the decisions of where and how and when, with old stealthy grief sneaking up on me when I’d least expect it, gaining control of my thoughts and emotions. I wrote the obituary—you don’t really realize how hard it is to sum up someone’s entire life in a handful of paragraphs…birth, school, college, career, wife, children, grandchildren. What are we, though, beyond that? A collection of hobbies and opinions? A handful of memorable sayings or humorous anecdotes? Faith and politics? When finally alone with my wife and contemplating my own mortality (and her likelihood at ten years younger of outliving me), I instructed her to cremate me and to have a short service where the kids can speak, if they’re up to it. Show some photos on a screen and play “Let It Be” by The Beatles, then roll out some platters of food and let everyone tell stories about what an ass, a fool, and a piece of work I’d been. Then thereafter try to speak my name at least once a year or so to keep my memory alive a bit longer on this big, blue-green rock.
My Dad had at least gotten to meet our kids before he passed, although Lou was too little to really remember. He’ll miss (and has missed) a lot of changes, as well as all the successes and heartbreaks. But he’ll always be a part of us, whether in the shape of my son’s head or in my daughter’s placement in advanced math, or in my quiet stoicism. I will forever have a lasting mental picture emblazoned in my mind of a snapshot of him frozen in time—hardily hoisting up a giant King salmon with his sleeves rolled up on a sunny Canadian afternoon.
-Love and miss you, Dad.