by Christopher Cooper
The day after I sold my novel was my father’s funeral. And while I should have been looking forward to promoting my book, all I could think about were the numerous chances I had over the years to see or speak to him while he was still cognizant; the days that I could have went over and had dinner with him but chose to just go home straight from work to watch TV, or the many instances where I could have picked up the phone to see how he was doing but instead opted for scrolling through mindless memes on my tablet. The night before his wake, I sat at my desk; fighting heavy eyelids and fixated on the fact that I’d never have to dial his phone number or have another conversation with him again, I struggled to string together the words for his eulogy.
Derived from the Latin word “elogium”, which translates to “inscription on a tomb,” I inherited the daunting task of giving my father’s eulogy. It was an easy task to assign to me from my brother and sister: ‘You just wrote a book, Colin. How hard could it be to write Dad’s eulogy?’ The recent dichotomy of joy and poignancy had left me in a state of ambivalence; every time I wanted to feel excited or joyful about attaining my goal of being published, an overwhelming sense of guilt overcame me. How could I be happy about anything when my father was dead?
My 2 bedroom apartment hadn’t been cleaned in months now; the mess was almost metaphorical for the current state of affairs. My desk was cluttered with literary works; from Camus to Chaucer, there was no shortage of inspiration within reach. But all of these quintessential ‘must-reads’ were rather extraneous when it came to fathoming the loss of a parent. A Google search produces a myriad of articles about the difficulty of having to bury a child but almost nothing about putting a parent to rest and how to deal with it. Probably because it is the normality, and it’s expected for everyone to outlive their mother and father, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
I had already dealt with the death of my mother almost 12 years prior, and while the affliction of losing a parent is heartbreaking, it isn’t like the typical desolation of parting from a significant other. Both losses come with initial pain, but while the hurt from losing a lover pacifies after time and eventually diminishes once you find another suitor, the anguish from losing a parent never appeases. On the contrary, it persists; the sorrow grows tenfold with each passing birthday and each anniversary of the death. Each special occasion in your life is dimmed with a permanent veil over the moment, knowing your loved one isn’t there to experience it. The wound from the passing of a parent is something you just have to learn to live with.
I glanced over to the couch where my father spent the last remaining months of his life. His red vintage rosary beads he grasped tightly every day still lay on the coffee table. The murky blanket I had washed almost every other day due to his uncontrollable bowel movements was still sprawled out, hanging on the back of the couch. The TV was still on, which I had kept on every day to fill the room with background noise and give him something to gaze at while he slipped in and out of his Alzheimer episodes. From lassitude to maniac, each and every day was a plight on sanity. And while the death of my mother was quick and painless, the slow, steady demise of my father was like the peeling of an onion; layer after layer torn away while I watched helplessly with tears in my eyes, until eventually all that was left was the rancid, decaying core of a carcass. It was going to be hard to erase the recent memories of my father crying out in terror as he begged for his deceased mom, his dead wife, and some sort of clarification on all of his confusion. Some nights I would find him sweating profusely, curled up in the fetal possession. I possessed a certain animosity for my brother and sister for having laid the burden of caring for my father. And while it made sense that I take care of him since I wasn’t married or had a family, witnessing the suffering my father had endured at the hands of his own mind was something that would stay with me the rest of my life.
The day of the wake came in a flash. Staring into my bathroom mirror, I tediously tied my tie; extending my neck upwards, I slowly looped the wide end of the tie around my neck and pulled it through the knot tightly as I gazed at myself in the mirror. And for the first time in my life, I saw the resemblance of my father looking back at me; the same translucent blue eyes, wide mouth and teeth, and stern face. I whispered the words of the eulogy to myself, practicing the 2 minutes of content I had stayed up the entire night drafting. It was crazy how crafting over 100,000 words of fiction was a breeze and penning together 300 words about my father was like the Manhattan Project. And it wasn’t until around 2 A.M. that morning after I smoked a joint did it dawn on me, that maybe the swarming ominous feeling surrounding a eulogy wasn’t as brooding as it really was. And maybe life was just a series of delivering eulogies; saying goodbye to your childhood, bidding farewell to old friends and lovers, and coming to peace with the culmination of certain times in your life. Maybe life was all about burying things you love and keeping them close to your heart to live on only in your memory.
The funeral home was filled with nauseating, charnel fragrances from the array of flowers. The outdated, garish wallpaper and popcorn ceiling permeated the feel of the 80’s, a time when my father was healthy and very much alive. I recalled my childhood home’s basement with its popcorn ceiling above and the countless nights I spent sneaking out of my bedroom to play Space Invaders on Atari with my younger brother Keith in the basement. We’d tip-toe like stealthy ninjas down the stairs to avoid waking mom and dad. And at some point we had snuck down the stairs for the last time, and we didn’t even know it.
I was the first one there at the wake, which was typical. We had all agreed that we would hold a private viewing for the immediate family, and then we’d close the casket for everyone else. My father’s sunken face and brittle appearance was not how he was supposed to be remembered. His fragile form was a mere shell of his former self. He had been a burly, respectable man who carried himself with confidence his entire life; his loud, imposing voice always commanding attention.
I walked up to where my father lay and looked up at his picture that sat on top of the casket; it was his navy photo. A youthful, accomplished man sporting a visor-less sailor hat with glassy eyes stared back at me. I stood abreast the dark mahogany casket with my father lying below me. His salt and peppered hair lay restfully over the side of his head while his vacant face peered straight ahead. The cadaver resembled my dad, but he wasn’t really my father. He looked more like a doll, and I guessed at that point, that’s all he really was; hollowed out and pumped with chemicals in order to preserve, so we could show him off one last time.
I stood over my father and looked down at him; he was finally at peace. The haunting images and voices that terrified him at night were finally over. I thought back to one of the earliest memories I had of him; I remembered gazing up at my father after I had fallen off of my bike when I was 5 or 6 years old. Crying hysterically, I laid on the pavement, overdramatically holding my knee as I rocked back and forth. My father swooped in and picked me up, clutching me in his arms as I yelped. Placing me back on my feet, he encouraged me to get back on the bike, “It’s okay, Colin. Everything’s going to be okay,” he cooed. His words were always comforting, and his thick mustache and wide neck made him look superhero-like; he taught me how to get back up whenever I fell, no matter how much I hurt.
“Col,” I turned around to see my sister and my brother with their kids. “Hi guys,” I whispered stoically. My sister Meg was with her generic husband, as they held the hands of their 5 year old daughter. Meg smelled like she bathed in eucalyptus oil, as the aroma fumigated my nose. She still looked overtly emaciated from the years of battling her eating disorder. Her makeup was overdone in attempt to thwart people from guessing her correct age. My brother Keith followed behind, holding his 4 year old daughter Lacey in his arms; his wife had run off with his best friend only a year or two prior. The obtrusive shine from the overhead lights bounced off of Keith’s balding head, blinding me momentarily. And while my sister had been withering away, Keith was expanding. He looked uncomfortably bloated; his buttoned down shirt was riddled with gaps as it struggled to remain closed, while his blazer constricted his protruding torso like a straightjacket. I could tell he had been eating his feelings for a while now.
“This place is big,” my brother said as he surveyed the room. He wasn’t much of a conversationalist; all he ever did was make glaring observations.
I nodded my head.
“He lived a full life,” Meg’s vacuous, vanilla husband said an effort to provide some sort of solace. “Congrats on the book by the way,” he added. “Thanks,” I replied.
“God never gives us more than we can handle,” my sister uttered, speaking in her typical platitudes.
I felt an incredible bitterness swim over me and an unceasing urge to snap: ‘You fuckers got off scot-free the past few months. I had to wipe the man’s ass, spoon feed him, sleep on the ground next to him in case he woke up bewildered. While ya’ll were out living your best lives, I was by myself caring for him.’
“Why don’t you guys go up and see him before everyone gets here, and we close the casket,” I nodded towards the casket in the front of the room. My brother handed his daughter off to Meg’s husband and then proceeded to walk hand and hand with my sister up to where my father lay. My sister and brother both lowered themselves down on the kneeler and took in the sight of what was left of our father. Simultaneously, they began to weep uncontrollably. And while I had felt a deep, dark, caustic antipathy for them lately, those sentiments subsided.
“Col,” they both remarked, turning towards me with their arms outstretched, as tears fell from their eyes.
I looked over towards my brother and sister, and for a moment, I envisioned them as children; free from their flaws and traumas. Meg with her adorable chubby cheeks and wide eyes, and a slim, tiny Keith with a full head of bushy brown hair; just how I remembered them when we were all kids. I walked over and embraced them both. While we all comforted each other in a collective cry, I felt relieved. I felt relieved that they didn’t get to see the rapid, harrowing deterioration of our father the last few months. My brother and sister weren’t equipped to deal with life’s vicissitudes, and I was glad I was able to shelter them from that; I was grateful.
“We’re orphans now,” Keith uttered.
“It’s okay. Everything’s going to be okay,” I whispered, pulling my sister and brother close.
About the Author:
A 2010 English literature graduate of James Madison University, Chris Cooper currently works full-time as a Senior Copywriter and part-time as a freelance copy editor. He was the recipient of the 2010 “Future Writers of America” award his senior year in college, and his work has been featured in Across the Margin, Scars Publications, and the Minds Journal Magazine. Chris is an avid health and wellness advocate, and enjoys skiing, golfing, competing in strongman competitions, and of course writing.