An Atheist Grieves
I open my eyes and my first coherent thought is, “It is Monday. My dad’s been dead for three days.”
I need to email my professors. Let them know what happened. Be sure to use the word “unexpectedly” so they understand. So they can more accurately calculate my allowable allotment of grief. Let them know I didn’t complete the homework they assigned over the weekend. Let them know I won’t be on campus today. I won’t be on campus tomorrow either. Ask for more time.
I had 41 of his 62 years… but I’d kill for more time.
I wonder how long I’ll measure the passing of time in days since his death. He would have been amused by the thought that his death might spawn the birth of a new calendar. Just like all those people who think A.D. means “After Death”; Jesus crucified to kick off the Gregorian calendar.
I should really write this shit down.
Is staccato a thing that thoughts can be? Mine are. Staccato. Sharp and subtle and brief. Pizzicato. Plucked from the air for a flash and them gone. No… pizzicato was Friday. Sitting at the bus stop. Screaming into the phone.
“What? Oh god… I’m on my way. I’m on my way!”
Mom just kept repeating, “Oh god, Tanya… he was so cold… he was just so cold…”
It should have been me that found him like that. Not mom. Slumped over on the couch in his pajamas. Cold. It should have been me. Not mom. Anyone but mom. I’ll never forget the horror in her voice. The sound of my name choked in panicked sobs.
“Oh god, Tanya… he was so cold…”
How long had he been there like that? A body where a person used to be? Where my father used to be? Academics kick in. His face was ruddy, color fairly uniform. Finger beds, purples and blues. Didn’t see his legs or feet. Livor mortis. At least two hours, maybe three. His fingers moved easily when I pulled aside the hospital blanket and held his hand. Rigor mortis. Less than ten hours, maybe as few as six. What time was it when I went in to see him? Had to have been at least four-thirty. Five? So… sometime between six-thirty and ten-thirty that morning? Am I doing the math right? Does it really fucking matter?
That was the first time I had held my father’s hand since I was a child.
I should really send those emails. There’s no way I’m doing homework today. No way I’m going to campus tomorrow. I need to start that project with Cross though, that’s just what I need now. No thought. Just lettering. Backward. Every line from end to beginning. One tiny brush stroke at a time. Precise. Exacting. Repetitive. Numbing. I should really send those emails.
Boot up the 360. Stride into Skyrim. Empty my character’s holdings. Store each item in its designated home. Item by item. Chest by chest. Cabinet by cabinet. Floor by floor. Organized. Repetitive. Numbing. I prepare to shut down and then stop. I pause and activate the shrine of Arkay. Seems appropriate.
This is as close to prayer as I get.
On the way to the mortuary, my brother reminds me of the night mom and dad bought our Nintendo 64. He got up in the middle of the night to get a drink and found dad sitting on the floor playing Super Mario Brothers.
“I’m just testing it.”
“Right… what level are you on?”
The memories come in flashes and then fade. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Mom kicked the chaplain out of the trauma room. “We’re not a religious family” she said, “and he wouldn’t want you here.” Dad would have been proud of her. She used to be polite to a fault. Not any more. She tells my grandmother we won’t be having a funeral. We didn’t haphazardly ignore dad’s wishes when he was alive. No point in starting now that he’s dead. He didn’t want a service. Certainly not a religious one. Light him up and be done with it.
I remember mom telling me that dad had dropped to his knees when he got the call that my uncle had been shot. All that strength, sapped in an instant. I couldn’t imagine my father that frail. Couldn’t imagine grief heavy enough to break him. Not even temporarily. He was always a giant in my eyes. Steadfast. Unflinching. Granite. Steel.
I don’t have to rely on imagination anymore.
Tuesday. My dad’s been dead four days.
I don’t want to get out of bed.
My brother said he knew dad was dead when he heard me sobbing in the background. I couldn’t call him. Couldn’t talk. Couldn’t breathe. My husband made the call, but it was apparently me who broke the news. The sound of my sobbing just as clear as my husband’s words.
“He didn’t make it.”
The 911 operator made my mom drag his body to the floor. Instructed her in the basics of CPR. He was already cold for fuck’s sake. What exactly was the point? Couldn’t chance her not feeling like she might have saved him? What did she go through in that futile half-hour they spent compressing his chest and forcing air into his lungs? Did they really think they might save him, or were they just going through the motions for legality’s sake? Did dad’s ribs crack under the pressure? Did they hear it?
Whenever I focus on how surreal this all feels, the image of him lying on the trauma table sort of drifts into my mind. Tubes down his throat, monitor wires disappearing under the blanket that covered him, cotton pads covering his eyes.
Dad was an organ donor, but his eyes were the only thing they could use. We couldn’t narrow his time of death to the point they could be sure his vital organs were still usable. Seems eyes are a bit easier to keep fresh than livers.
His heart was obviously useless regardless of the timeline.
We opted out of an autopsy. He had a heart attack at the age of 45. He’d gained back the weight he’d lost. He hadn’t been exercising regularly. Hadn’t been taking his medication. No point in cutting him open to investigate. His heart stopped.
Damn it, dad.
Wednesday. Thursday. Friday. My dad’s been dead a week.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
We’ve decided to have a party celebrating dad’s life on his birthday. He would have been 63. 21 years my senior. 21 fucking years. It’s odd how 21 years “my senior” seems so short, but “half my life” seems so long. 21 years from now, I will be the same age my father was when he died. Assuming I live that long,of course.
21 years ago, I was a fundamentalist christian. 21 years ago, I would have said that Jesus was the only man I loved more than my father. 21 years ago, dad and I debated the evidence for and nature of god. 21 years ago, tears filled my eyes as I prayed for his lost soul.
Much more recently, dad talked about how proud he was of my religious journey. “She’s been just about every religion there is. No one can say she didn’t try.” I loved the sound of his laugh. The wink he gave when he was kidding with you. I loved knowing he was proud of me. I loved talking about him in the present tense.
My daughter stood next to me at the mortuary. Waiting for her turn to see her Pappy. Waiting for his mother to say goodbye. When I got my mom’s text that Friday, “call me 911”, I thought it was grandma that had died. For fuck’s sake, she’s 88. She has low blood pressure. Out of 11 children, she’s one of only two left. Nope, wasn’t grandma. It was dad, and here we are listening to her crying over the body of her only son. Saying his name, over and over again. Telling him she knows he’s in a better place.
I hear my daughter chuff quietly at the sentiment.
If the god my grandmother believes in exists, my father is not “in a better place.” Going by the good old King James, the Paulian doctrine they hold holy, inerrant, definitive… if that god exists there is absolutely no doubt that my father is roasting contentedly in hell. He couldn’t be forced to believe, and that alone keeps him from my grandmother’s concept of heaven. Even if he could have believed, he wouldn’t have worshiped that maniac god. That’s two strikes against a zero tolerance policy.
“I know you’re in a better place”, she says.
What the fuck?
Cognitive dissonance is one thing, but this bullshit is ridiculous. Is there another term that better describes a contradiction that fucking extreme? Doesn’t she believe all that crap she and grandpa fed me? That they tried to stuff down dad’s throat?
I believed it.
Standing next to my father’s body, I’m damned sure glad that belief is past tense.