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Nonfiction: The Day We Buried My Father


On the day of my father’s funeral, I wake up in a twin bed at his house. Liz is still asleep in the identical twin bed across the room. Dad and Penny bought these beds for Caroline and Cate, my nieces, but as usual, we make accommodations that negate the previous accommodations we’ve made for them, and so, at thirty-five years old, my pregnant wife and I are sleeping in twin beds in a room cluttered by toys that piss me off for reasons I’m still trying to nail down. People tell me I’ll get used to toys like that, but I honestly don’t think so. And the way they tell me pisses me off. They say things like, “Just you wait… You’ll see, come June, when you become a daddy.” And they say it with this all-knowing grin on their faces, and I wonder if my child will hate me some day for hating when people say well-intentioned things. Because it feels wrong, but I don’t want to stop hating people for that.

I try to guess what time it is, but I have no frame of reference beyond that it’s still dark outside. I don’t sleep well when I need to be marking things off my to-do list. Instead of sleeping, I recount the things on that list over and over, and I try to work out the steps I need to take to complete those tasks. What have I neglected in these days leading up to my father’s death? I try to remember if it’s the electric bill or the gas bill I haven’t put on autopay yet. I’ve been ignoring my work email completely. I think I scheduled a meeting with our wellness coordinator for this morning to look at my shoulder. I can’t do much with my left arm and it’s been this way since September when I moved a bookshelf down a flight of stairs, and I have to get it fixed they tell me: “You’re going to need that arm come June when you become a daddy, you’ll see.” As if a childless person is too mentally stunted to see the benefit of a functional arm. I know I need to get my shoulder fixed but my dad is gone.

I make a mental note to reschedule my wellness appointment, but that’s as far as I get on my to-do list. I’m too distracted by what the day will bring. We are putting my father in the ground today and I will never see his body again. I lie in that twin bed and consider my dad’s life until I can’t keep it all in my head at the same time, and I feel like if I can just write it down I can come to terms with it. So, I tiptoe out of the bedroom and walk in the dark to the dining room where the large table is covered with a smorgasbord of food the church ladies brought last night, and I have to move the dishes around a little to make room for my laptop.

There’s a tray of nine homemade cinnamon rolls. I start to cut one from the edge, but the one cinnamon roll in the middle looks so soft, and it has no hard edges because the other eight cinnamon rolls have protected it. I think about how my sister would cut the cinnamon roll from the center because it will undoubtedly be the gooiest. She always does things like that. She will run her finger along the bottom of a chocolate cake tray to get extra chocolate while I will insist on getting only the chocolate goo that is intended for my allotted piece. It pisses me off so much. I remind myself of how my sister strongly suggested Liz and I sleep on the twin beds instead of the room that was built for us with the queen-size, and I decide I won’t be able to handle seeing her get the middle cinnamon roll. And so, I put it on a plate and stick it into the microwave for fifteen seconds before sitting down to write about my dad.

To really understand who Dad was, a reader will have to understand the stock he came from and the heritage he was so proud of. And so, in explaining my dad, I begin writing about his grandfather, whom Dad will soon be sharing a patch of ground with. Maybe I get too into the weeds, but after a couple of hours of writing, I’m still ninety-some-odd years away from the part of the story where my dad is born. That’s when Liz emerges from the darkness into the light of the dining room. She has this look she gives me during the early morning hours, when she doesn’t know how long I’ve been up and she finds me at my computer. It’s a look that says she didn’t like me not being there when she woke up because she missed me while she was sleeping. Even if we were in twin beds. That look is a reminder of how much she loves me, and I take comfort there on this day that has already been committed to both formal and informal sadness.

Liz gets a cinnamon roll and laughs at the vacancy in the middle of the pan.

“You didn’t,” she says.

But I assure her I did. I am eating my grief, and it becomes clear to me that my grief warrants a second cinnamon roll. We heat them up and share a fork so there is one less utensil to wash later.

The others wake up and trickle into the kitchen for coffee and to survey the breakfast options. Penny, her friend Anita, my sister’s family. I sip my tea and watch my little nieces sitting at the bar eating cinnamon rolls that are the size of their faces. They’re still in their pajamas, cotton gowns with Disney princesses on them. Cate, the five-year-old, asks why my tea is in a coffee cup instead of a regular glass. Because it’s hot, I tell her. That’s not tea, she says. Yes, it is. It’s hot tea. No, it’s not, Gunkel. I don’t know what to tell you, Cate—it’s hot tea. She’s confused and embarrassed at the things she does not know yet because she is only five, so she changes the subject.

“Talk like St. Patrick’s Day!” she says. That’s her way of saying she wants me to use an Irish accent, but my Irish accent is terrible and I don’t want to do it in front of adults. When I tell her as much, she is unsatisfied.

“Talk like Mommy!” Caroline, the nine-year-old, says.

I can do that, I tell them.

The girls look at me expectantly with their big, little-girl eyes, waiting for my impression of their mother. “Caroline, Caroline—hey, listen to me for a second.” Caroline thinks I’m talking to her in real-time, rather than doing an impression and she drops her head down to listen to what I’ll say next. Chris, my brother-in-law, is listening and he laughs.

“That doesn’t sound like Mommy,” Cate says.

Chris assures his daughters it does sound like Mommy.

“Talk like Daddy!” Cate says.

I tell Chris to say something and then I mimic the line as best I can and the girls laugh.

“Talk like Penny!” “Talk like Aunt Liz!” “Talk like Nene!” I roll out my best impressions for my nieces and it’s fun, but I can feel the inevitable conclusion long before we get there.

“Talk like Papa!” Cate says.

I can’t think of what my now-deceased father sounded like. For years, when I thought of him, I thought of how he would say, “Good grief,” when something had completely exasperated his patience—quite often his son—but the girls wouldn’t know about that. Ever since that first brain hemorrhage three and a half years ago, Dad had all the patience in the world as he endured one thing after the other—the stroke and the physical therapy and the occupational therapy and all the rehabilitation and the shitty food and not being allowed to drive. The seizure while behind the wheel shortly after he got his license back, the wreck that it caused, the tumor on his brain that caused the seizure, the house fire in the middle of the night that nearly killed him because the medicine he had to take at the time made him sleep hard, the tumor that came back on his brain after they told him there was a 99% chance it wouldn’t, the four tumors on his spine they stumbled across by chance moments before they went in after the tumor on his brain, the sleepless days and nights in the hospital that Dad called the “beepin’est place he’d ever been in.” He had times when he could barely breathe, yet he endured the goddamned hiccups as a side effect for two years. And of course, there were the treatments, the treatments, the treatments, and there was the deterioration of the man who let me steer on the dirt road just before we reached our house when I was six. The man who told me to watch the ball and keep my elbow up. The man who took me bear hunting with a BB gun because he just wanted to go to a piece of land he loved and walk around there with me for a while. He just wanted to give me a life I would enjoy. And I hope I can do that as well for my son as he did for me.

Cate was two when Dad got sick and from that time on, so much of his communication was reduced to short but strained yesses or no’s—Are you cold? Yes. Are you hungry? No. I try to think of an impression of her Papa that she will recognize, but I can only think of the last words he gave me. Three days before he died, Dad lifted his head barely off the pillow, which required significant effort, so I knew he meant to tell me something important. I was alone with him, sitting at the side of his bed, and I leaned in so he wouldn’t have to speak any louder than he had to. “What is it, Dad?” I whispered. He had no medicine that day and so I knew he had his incomparable wit about him. I put my hand behind his head to help him lift it.

He looked at me through what became his foggy, gray eyes and he said, “Just. Shoot. Me.” And he looked at me with what I think was hope.

“Dad, I can’t do that,” I said.

“But maybe, you can,” he said.

“It’ll be over soon,” I told him.

A stranger might interpret Dad’s asking me to end his life as weakness, but I assure you it was a testament to the dignity with which he lived. Long before he ever got sick, Dad said, “Son, if I’m ever stuck in bed and unable to care for myself with no hope of recovery, just shoot me.” And now he was living up to those courageous and selfless words he’d laid out for me then. My father was strong and dignified, even in those final days—especially in those final days.

He looked cold and I saw his hand trying to pull the plaid blanket, but he was too weak to move it. I straightened it for him and tucked it around his body, up to his neck like he liked it. I asked him if he remembered tucking me in when I was a little boy. He nodded slowly. I told him how I remember watching him tuck my sister into her bed across the hall before coming to tuck me in. And how after he would tuck me in I’d watch him go back into her bedroom and turn on the lamp so they could check her for ticks. She always claimed to have ticks as a way to get him to come back in to see her. And when he’d finally turn out her lamp for good, I’d fear what might be waiting for me in the dark—a possessed Teddy Ruxpin, or an animal of some kind just outside my window, maybe—but I told him how I found security in the sound of the television coming through the wall behind my headboard. Because as long as I could hear that television, I knew my dad was awake on the other side of the wall and would ward off anything that might get me. And if they attacked, he would use his pickax to destroy them, just like he did that copperhead I almost stepped on in our driveway. And I’d be reassured by his strength and his ability to keep anything bad from ever happening to me.

A tear fell down my dying father’s cheek as I conveyed the memory to him. I wiped it with my hand and I told him I loved him and that he was a good dad to have. I sat with him until he fell asleep and I never saw him awake after that.

I don’t know how to do an impression of my father that the girls will recognize and I am stalling until finally Caroline says, with attitude, “Okay, moving on…” the way nine-year-old girls do. And we stop the game and I go to the bedroom with the twin beds and the toys that will hopefully stop pissing me off “once that baby gets here,” and I pull out the suit and tie I will wear on this day when we will bury my father.