Two days shy of the six-month anniversary of my father’s passing I opened a blank Microsoft Word document in the spare bedroom of Matt Graunke’s house and sat there. My computer screen was like a crystal ball that portrayed foggy images of the recent past. A strange mixture of wet fear and damp curiosity rushed from the front of my brain and down, tickling my inner-most nose, scratching my throat with its moisture. As it ran through my upper torso my mind became aware of a frigid force field of stoicism that shielded my wounded heart.
Those first stages of mending had set in but it remained unclear when. It was evident it had been several weeks as the charge of imaginary liquid didn’t antagonize the injury; it didn’t pop open again or begin to weep. Instead some secondary or tertiary stage of definition had set in, acting as protective layers. Cells labored to construct outer shell upon outer shell, checking in on that primary cut with some sporadic measure. Those waters rushed past, though, like a herd of carnivores not noticing their hiding prey in the thick of the forest, a few mere oaks off the path.
On the blast traveled, across my lungs, piquing the outermost membrane with a loud, machine-like stampede that scarcely glanced, like a child with a new, dry paintbrush across her cheek. Into the area of my stomach and intestines it flowed, perhaps seeping in, the sensation of bloat leaving a trail. Down past my loins it ran and -- somewhere -- right around my middle-thigh region, the sensation vanished like a dense dew in the early-morning desert. As this emotional evaporation transpired I fell, lost in a trance of recent, clouded memories.
There had been the week after his passing wherein errands and visitors and out-of-town guests and drunkenness at Charlie Hooper’s and flowers and plants all sprouted like spring blossoms then vanished as though an unforeseen frost snuck in in the night, escaping before dawn. I’d gone back to work, walking numb through the motions of the shift, avoiding certain conversations, sneaking into the alley to hide my tears. But beyond those first two weeks was pints of all-nighters in America Online chat rooms, quarts of excessive binging, and gallons of disregarded responsibility, the whole mess of it all pulsed into some measure of chunky puree.
There were visits with nurses and phone calls with receptionists, rambling downtown chores, and before long, a self-ill-advised relationship with a perfectly nice girl I had no business being in a relationship with, regardless of my mental state. I had almost gotten to the point where I couldn’t smoke weed at all anymore because it made me so anxious, which probably contributed to the heavy boozing. That and the perfectly nice girl I was seeing liked the sauce quite a bit, too. I’ll never forget the (only) time I came to her apartment after work for dinner. In between the couch and the television set were two TV trays. On the floor sat a case of Miller Lite cans, and on each tray was an unopened pack of cigarettes and a dish of hamburger-tater-tot casserole.
When she wasn’t busy trying to pretend to sell linens to restaurants and hotels, or trying to give me a pre-30 heart attack, the perfectly nice girl had a weekend-night duet gig in dive bars. Her partner was an Elvis impersonator. I remember at one point, in the midst of all of it, an out-of-town buddy phoned me. We played a brief version of catch-up and then he dug in, tried to feel where I was. There hadn’t been much in the way of a previous opportunity to open up, and doing so had been much needed, so I don’t imagine it took too much prodding to get me talking. At the end of whatever I heaped on him, a brief silence occupied the line before he summarized.
“Panic attacks and lounge singers, huh?” This synopsis did not register as a favorite snapshot of my life, but it was clever enough to get a chuckle out of me.
Two days before I vanished into that blank screen, my youngest sister -- Dad’s youngest of four -- turned 19. The day after I felt that aqueous blast traverse my body, she took her last final exam of her first college semester and returned home for break, which puts me a day away from turning 28. Twenty-eight. Two years from 30, which means it’s Christmastime. The new year will be right behind it, and before long, we’ll be approaching the one-year mark without him, which can only mean one thing: I am in serious need of the traditional sort of crystal ball, the kind that looks ahead to the motion of things to come, the things you hope to accomplish knowing no part of anything will ever be the same.
My old man referred to himself as a transitional father. He shared the seed of this a few random times over the years, but it resonated with me one summer afternoon in his red Dodge work truck. He’d been on a recent bender causing a handful of missed work days and we sat, parked in front of a customer’s home in our Johnson & Johnson exterminating outfits, me prying in the driver seat, trying to understand his illness. We must have finished our last call of the day because it felt like a couple of hours passed, my skinny white legs roasting in those polyester blue Dickies.
I didn’t have a defined angle, but I peppered him with questions about why he drank, and mostly, why he would drink after long stretches of abstinent months. We didn’t so much delve into the why of bottle touching lips. Rather, the conversation took a much more psychological path. The genesis reached his childhood, the nature of his parents’ lives as he worked backwards beginning with adolescence. There was a thing, a hole in his heart, a blackness that stained him when his mom and dad left town mere moments upon his younger brother’s high-school graduation. My dad had only gotten his college feet wet, paid a handful of months’ rent in his new digs. It was as though they said they were going and then were gone in the same breath, retreating for the warmth of San Diego.
The tale paused in late eighth grade, grappling inside a dust storm of shame for having been kicked out of St. Peter’s just shy of graduation. He’d held a globe in his hands, and upon a dare, chucked it out the window. We didn’t spend much time there, though, already having covered that detail the morning we walked the halls of the school, spraying for bugs as we went. In the corridor where graduating class photos hang, we had paused at his year and my eyes shot for the Js. Finding a gap in the alphabetical slot where he should have appeared, he had let the painful truth out between clenched teeth. So the memory-lane excursion continued, stopping briefly again circa third grade.
It was an evening in their old home, the street on which it sat now escaping me, but I can picture the scene. It’s a den, post-dinner, and my grandfather puffs on a pipe in his leather chair, that morning’s The Kansas City Times clutched in the hands of his outstretched arms, shielding his torso and face. My eight-year-old father, for reasons that still elude me, stood on the other side of the ottoman on which his dad’s crossed feet rested.
“Dad,” he said.
“What.” His father turned down nary a corner of the paper.
“I love you,” he said.
It was the top right corner of the newspaper that folded inward, revealing the scrunched face of Bill Johnson. The man, whose hair had been sheet-white since age 21, gave his son a peculiar examination. Bill and his 15-year-old honey had eloped to La Junta, Colorado. He’d captained a B-24 bomber in World War II, a year older than eligible-enlistment age, sixth in line on the day of the Normandy attacks. Later that 1944 summer, he participated in the Italian offensive. After the war and after children, he flew planes for Trans-World Airlines out of Kansas City and had seen his record for youngest captain usurped by the father of the woman that would marry his son. But never had he heard such strange words uttered to him in his family room.
The comment had left him speechless. His only response was to peer at his son over the folded corner of the paper then extend it back to reading form, his face once again covered. The reaction hadn’t set well with him, though, and the following morning, as his son reached the sidewalk, headed for the school that would ultimately expel him, Bill Johnson flung open the front door and stepped onto the porch in his robe.
“Son,” he said.
My school-boy father raced back up the driveway.
“That talk we had last night,” he said. He looked down at his son’s face and then back to the street with a quick, precautionary scan of the neighborhood. “I liked that,” he said.
That day in my dad’s truck wasn’t the first time I heard that story, but I loved hearing it. I could have heard it dozens more times, and if my father were still alive today, I’d ask him to tell it to me again. There’s a piece of you, an intrinsic need to learn about your past and your ancestors, and in this particular piece, there was major catharsis at play. But the timeline shot forward after that, to the days just after my grandfather’s death. My father and his mom sat in the San Diego living room, a good ways into the evening’s Scotch. There are only bullet points from that somber night and they include my grandmother telling my father that they had never loved their children, that they had only gotten in the way of spousal affinity; my inebriated grandmother uttering the phrase, “The Captain has come home” with a high-ball glass raised in the air. The two of them -- my father and his mother -- sneaked off to a street fountain in which they scattered my grandfather’s ashes.
But my dad also shared a few other memories that day, realizations he’d made in the stretch in which he made his best effort to get help. He was hitting it from all angles: opening and closing Alcoholics Anonymous most days of the week, being sponsored and sponsoring; participating in individual and group therapy; and taking Zoloft. Somewhere in the mix of all that, a memory had surfaced, and it revealed to him that he could not remember his mother ever holding him or telling him that she loved him, both of which are likely to be true.
I looked at him there in the passenger seat of his truck and he stared out the windshield, his face, neck, and upper chest red, like they usually were after a binge. He smoked a Merit Light with determination, ashing through the smallest crack in the window. We sat there in the Kansas City heat, in a vacuum of reflection, and I looked at his hands. They were good-looking hands, evident of a lost tally of work hours, dry from harsh winters, familiar in a sense I could not yet place. As I stared at them, I drifted to memories of my own.
It was the early 1980s and my dad was somewhat of a hotshot salesman for Celebrity China Company. Most of my time was spent trying to figure out why my dad had to go to work in the mornings and again at night, and since he and my mother had separated, confusion now weighed heavier: If I only got to spend a few days a month with my father, shouldn’t he be excused from work on our targeted days together? I’m not sure if my voicing had been the impetus, but regardless, Dad took me to work with him one day, and putting images with those hours in which he was gone from the house was like traveling in a foreign country.
There were people at his office, and in his office were offices, one of which belonged to him. There was a secretary at the front of the building that greeted us and said some polite things to me, and on her desk was this wood-carved name sculpture that announced that space to be hers. Each capital letter of her first name was sanded, tilted to the right, and her full name appeared profound in that all of the letters were in caps; only the initials stood taller. The specific letter sequence, however, never registered, as next to them sat a jar of suckers. My delight in this observation did not go unnoticed. She smiled and reached for the jar, walking around to the front of her desk to fully greet us. They were the same kind of suckers my sister and I would get from the Valley View Bank drive-thru window on Friday afternoons when en route to Dad’s for one of our two weekends a month.
What stuck with me beyond the seized opportunity for a green sucker from this woman was how excited she was to meet me. She was kind of the foreign-country tour guide, eager to offer directions and hospitality with no advanced notice. We moved on, however, and made our way through a sea of half walls until we got to an office door with glass walls on either side of it. At a desk inside, a man smiled and stood. He waved with one hand and with the other, fastened the top button of his suit coat.
I felt a gentle hand on my back as my father urged me past the threshold. In a quick glance, I saw “Bruce K. Montrose” carved in the same wooden, slanted letters at the front of his desk. For a moment, confusion set in, as though the letters were printed inside the pages of a book I’d read before, one that had been bound with a different cover and different illustrations. When my dad said, “Morning, Bruce” it was like leaves in a fall gust, a swirl of recollection, and all of the times I’d heard my father speak to this man on the phone brought my mind to attention. A sense of awkward set in and I scanned the other desktop contents. Picture frames flanked his name carving but faced the seat, leaving me curious if they were photographs of children and if so, what they looked like. It occurred to me that the secretary lady had had pictures, too, their presence diminished due to the sucker jar.
“It sure is nice to meet you, Blair,” Bruce K. Montrose said.
Perhaps it was that morning that I christened a still-employed habit of stuffing my hands halfway into each pocket and looking around the room. I remember glancing at the primitive office cubes around, hearing the sounds of other people at task. One man’s head and shoulders popped up from beyond a partition and he came out of his desk area looking intently at some piece of paper he carried. In his other hand was a leather briefcase that looked much skinnier than the sturdy, combination-lock one my dad toted.
My father’s hand again came to rest in between my shoulder blades, bringing my attention back into the room, and I realized that the extended hand of Bruce K. Montrose rested in midair, awaiting my response. My dad’s voice appeared behind me in a whisper.
 Bruce K. Montrose began his employment with Celebrity China Company in 1971, and for 30 years -- beginning in 1974 -- he served as its president. He directed the Celebrity China Run in Lenexa, Kansas for four years and was a member of the Kansas City Track Club as well as the Kansas City Road Runner Club. On August 28, 1991, he was running near Portland, Oregon and struck by a falling boulder. The father of two was instantly killed at age 47.
“Shake his hand,” he said, “and tell him your name, Bud.”
I did as I was told, and Mr. Montrose (I was told to address him as such after saying, “Nice to meet you, too, Bruce.”) took a knee, resting his right arm on the edge of his desk.
“You know your dad is so proud of you and your sister,” he said, then rose and patted my head. He and my father spoke about something uninteresting, which seemed to be the perfect opportunity to shoot my dad a questioning glance with green sucker in hand.
When we got to my dad’s office, my mind nearly exploded. There, front and center, was his own name carving, mimicking the style of the previous two, only 10 times handsomer, since it boasted the coolest name on the planet. Mr. Montrose followed us into the office, continuing to talk to my father about the things of disinterest, and, having spotted the obligatory, flanking picture frames, I rushed around to find familiar professional shots of me and my sister. They just sat there, warming the desk, casting hospitality into the office. On the wall behind his desk hung a series of ancient Japanese cloth scrolls that reminded me of the ones that were fastened to the wall along our staircase at Mom’s house. The one in the center was a calendar of sorts; the two on either side boasted elegant markings and symbols that were complemented by an assortment of colors.
I don’t remember anything else from that day. The morning’s work, the midday lunch, the visits to customers are all things I imagine occurred, but after seeing that space, the work area that belonged to my father that had hints of home, my mind had become the just-filled gas tank of a vehicle, spewing back any top-off efforts. Sitting there in his truck that day, listening to him talk about alcoholism while he smoked a Merit Light, I recognize that that morning had become the foundation of my understanding of my father’s work habits and ethic. I wasn’t conscious of it then, but I realize, having carried much of him into my own work world, that that was the first time I really saw my father’s hands in action, opening doors and greeting people, sipping coffee and making telephone calls.
It had been a root experience for what would become a fascination. They were strong, healthy hands with that ever-present dryness around the knuckles, hands that had been many places in the world, grasped many things. They had held me as a newborn, as a baby, and as a child, then done the same with my sister. They had closed many deals on sets of china, lifted many a can of beer to his lips, and they had, for as long as I could remember, adorned a wedding band on one ring finger, a class ring on the other. Something piqued me there on that hot summer day in my old man’s driver seat, and I examined my own hands. It was something I’d done many times in cold weather, frustrated when the cracks around my knuckles began to bleed. But today, I looked at them, struck by similarity.
The Monday evening of his visitation there at the front of the church, I felt further from the point of knowing what to do with myself than I have ever experienced. I wore a handsome, borrowed suit and my hair was slicked back, crisp with gel. Nothing had started yet, but one of those bizarre feelings came over me. It was the kind where you know you’re not sad to the point of crying yet, but you know that that point lurks, that it’s hiding in the shadows, prepared to startle you sooner than you expect, and when it comes, it will be good for you. I stood there in front of the first pew with my three sisters and my father’s wife. We’d only been there for about two minutes and, probably for want -- or need, rather -- of something to do, I studied the walls of St. Peter’s, perhaps in search of an answer.
Candles flickered on my right. The Stations of the Cross -- each on its own pillar -- sung in that lyricless soprano chant that oozes spirituality. I scanned incessantly, always coming back to my left where my family wept. Seeing them pierced my chest, and the walls, the candles, the Stations began to frighten me, but I couldn’t retreat down the aisle and exit the church. If I turned around, I would panic, frozen by the reality that lay in an open casket with thinned, salt-and-pepper hair that had once been thick like fog, black like the night. Every time I looked he was still there, his face adorned with make-up, those hands folded neatly across his waistline.
His cheeks and his eyelids didn’t look like his own, and his mouth had been drawn into some kind of partial smile that maybe people make in other parts of the world. His body rested there in a suit I knew very well to be his own, though it too seemed borrowed, like the one I’d stepped into an hour ago. I fought the tears harder than ever, the occasional victory drying my mouth like a fire-ban summer in the Colorado wilderness. A nice young lady kept bringing us miniature bottles of water, and I would take one and pound it, enjoying brief respite until aridity took over once more. This pattern of avoidance continued in both high-speed and slow-motion cycles of seconds until my legs weakened beneath me; I knew that if I didn’t abandon my post for a moment, I would faint.
Stepping away tilted the fight against tears in the direction of a loss. But I could not stand there to the right of the casket, facing the altar and crying, for more than a few seconds, so I turned back to the empty pews in search of something. Anything. I tried to look at the back of the church, at the main door, the one we’d come in moments ago. It would have been a strange thing to look at from that vantage point because of the parish’s endless beauty. Only, I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see anything, really, as the door, the aisle, and everything in between was now flooded with people.
My whole body joined my knees in the faintness, transferring the entire load to my feet, which now, too, weakened inside the shoes I’d borrowed to match the suit. My eyes took in the thick pack of people who’d come in noiselessly, and I found myself getting lost deeper in my own confusion; the lot of them was entirely faceless, save one. One man stood in front of them all, and it was none other than beardless Ken Beard, barber to many a Kansas Citian, my father and I included.
For a split second my eyes tried to pass over him, but my brain stopped them short. He was too familiar, too amazing of a man to not stop and make eye contact with, whether I’d wanted to or not. He stood there in that same blue shirt I’d seen him in for over 20 years, his graying hair neatly done, his pudgy cheeks revealing a wonderful human being, a tremendous relation to and understanding of the nameless panic that inhabited my mind. When our eyes met, he tried to smile at me. He put his arms out in shrug-like fashion and I could only do one thing: run to him.
Unaware, I had needed to see him first, and when we embraced, the battle against the tears ended.
“Oh, God, Blair,” he said, and I saturated the shoulder of that blue shirt. He spoke into my ear but I could only decipher phrases from all that he said. He apologized for not being able to stay, but as I watched him hug my stepmom and three sisters before vanishing into the facelessness of St. Peter’s, I became transfixed with the certainty of my sadness, and within it, found a strange source of strength and stability to make it through what would be the longest three hours of my life.
Sometime around the point when I’d gone to my dad’s work and recognized the Japanese scrolls that also hung in what used to be my parents’ home, my mom had instructed my father that he was no longer allowed to give me bowl cuts. One of the framed pictures on his office desk showcased my sister and I perched stop some fake snow in front of a fake wintry background taken in an Olan Mills studio. The hairline across my forehead was about as straight as a jack o’ lantern’s toothy, Halloween-night smile, evidence of what our mom did not desire.
So Dad began taking me to Gary and Bob’s Barber Shop. I remember my first visit. They seemed to know my dad even better than his secretary and boss did, and as I watched Gary cut my father’s hair, I listened to my dad make the first of about 400 jokes about Gary’s eyebrows being so thick he’d need a weed-eater to trim them. Next to Gary was Bob, who cut some stranger’s hair. Behind him, on the wall above the mirror was a framed sign that read, “Bald is Beautiful.” Being but five or six, the level of sarcasm in play was above my head, but the words were apropos of Bob’s dome.
The sign next to that one confused me even more: “We may pass a lot of bull but the buck stops here.” I reread it numerous times hoping to make some sense of it, and eventually dismissed it as something meant for adults. Irony was also a concept unfit for my young mind as the notion of a bald man and his bushy-eyebrowed partner co-owning a grooming establishment was something I realized only in hindsight.
When Gary was done with my father, he swept the chair and placed a wooden slab across its arms. I climbed up there, quietly thankful that the bald and bespectacled would not be in charge of my first professional ‘do. I remember the motions of the brush across my skull, the mist of the spray bottle, the sound of shears closing around my bangs, and the tickle of trimmed hairs landing on my nose. All of it made me sleepy, but their boring questions about school and my sister forced me to remain awake, as did the occasional joke about my old man. My second visit -- a Saturday -- made for a long wait, and in the end, I didn’t like the haircut that Gary had given me. I remember being embarrassed to tell my dad that but eventually, I mustered up the courage and he took me in to have it fixed.
Gary and Bob had a part-time partner, an elderly gentleman named Lloyd, who seemed to spend half the afternoon sitting in his own chair reading the newspaper. Every now and then a peer of his would come in and Lloyd would get up and cut five or six of some old man’s 13 hairs and then shave his face. It seemed so odd that a person with seemingly so little energy would exert themselves to get out of the house and pay another person to trim a few hairs then shave him. I guess I was just accustomed to the ritual of my dad lathering up in front of the bathroom mirror.
But anyway, Bob cut my hair that Saturday, not much more to my liking than the last job Gary had done, but the on-the-house part pleased my father enough for me to keep my mouth shut about the whole thing. I think I visited their shop once or twice more before -- one afternoon -- Dad took me in there and Lloyd was gone. And not just not there that day, but gone. His empty chair sat in front of an empty section of countertop, which rested below the vacant spot on the wall where Lloyd’s name plaque had been. The time after that, a new guy had moved in next to Lloyd’s old space. He had a customer in his chair, utensils on the countertop, and a new plaque on the wall. It read “Kenneth Beard” and this new hire wore a friendly smile beneath the whiskers that matched his name.
This time I was the only one getting a haircut because Dad’d been in sometime since our last visit, and I could not contain my curiosity, so I asked my dad what had become of Lloyd. At the same time, Kenneth Beard concluded a transaction with his current customer and brushed off his chair. I heard him speak my name and when I looked in his direction, he beckoned toward his empty barber seat.
“Dad.” I turned to him with what must have been a look of trepidation. I stood on the floor between my seated father’s legs and smelled his aftershave as he squeezed me. My dad informed me that Ken had cut his hair on that last visit. Upon inspection I determined the cut to be suitable work. Dad smiled and said that if I asked politely, Ken could probably tell me what had happened to Lloyd. So I climbed up into the chair and sat there as the large, black hairdressing cape was spread over me, then fastened, just before the neck strip was attached. He was quick to let on that he’d already gotten to know my dad, and so, feeling comfortable, I asked.
“Well,” Kenneth said. “He retired.”
I had a few questions about that term, and Mr. Beard -- who then instructed me to call him “Ken” -- answered them all with patience and sharpness, and as he wet my hair and cut it, we got to know one another as well. When he was done, he brought out the blow dryer and a brush, which banged against my scalp with every stroke. But I liked the haircut he’d given me, and a couple visits later, Ken must have observed the discomfort on my face as he brushed my hair. Upon confirmation that it did in fact hurt, he promised to have a new brush for me by my next haircut. For my fourth haircut, he held true to his word, and wore a new look on his face as well; he was clean-shaven, and has remained that way ever since.
Over the course of the 20 years that would ensue, my father and I got to know Ken very well. We learned that Ken was a small handful of weeks older than my dad and the latter would tease the former about that every time they saw one another. We also learned that he had two daughters, one of which was my age. She would be killed in a head-on car collision around the time we were 19. I don’t remember when I first learned that, but it shook me hard enough that I didn’t ask about it or bring it up for many years. I stuffed that information down in a dark place where things that frightened and mystified needed to be stowed.
During that span we learned that Ken and I have similar tastes in food and beer and that he’s visited the town in which I went to college and even eaten a food feature I executed there. We learned that his current wife is from northern California’s wine region where I’d done an internship, and we learned that we’ve been in some of the same bars in a few of those towns. We learned that when Ken and his wife fly back there, Ken likes to fly first class. He does so for the comfort, but he also takes joy in seeing customers of his board the plane after him, the I-can’t-believe-my-barber’s-flying-first-class look on their faces.
We also learned that Ken had finally begun to develop a quality relationship with his father just before he died and that he would come to learn over the years how much he had in common with his old man. He would point out that the same was true about me and mine each time I -- as an adult -- came in for a trim.
“’Bout the usual?” I would nod, and he would say, “Clean up the neck, block it high in the back, and make sure the sideburns are even?” I would nod again and he would tell me I was just like my old man. And we would both smile.
My moment with Ken in the church that Monday night started what was the most massive filing of people I could ever have imagined. The 6:00 visitation was slated to pause at seven for a rosary, then continue until eight. I have no idea how many people I spoke with, how many hands I shook, how many stories through which I feigned a smile. Some friends made their way up to my family and I right around the time my legs exceeded their capacity for exhaustion. Seth and his brother Bryce hugged me and told me they were sorry. And looking at them, I sensed this powerful thing in each of their eyes. It was a thing that read that they were feeling for me and my family and imagining themselves in such a position. I could tell they’d probably be as lost as we all were if it had been their father.
I felt for them, but could only think about the fact that their father’s car with the personalized “JOG” plate would be started in the morning and driven to work by a man still very much alive. Sharing some emotion with the brothers Gilman was nice, though, albeit balanced by a brief moment of awkwardness on my end after we spoke.
“Blair,” Seth said. “There are so many people here. The street is just packed out there. I hope you’re ready to be standing here for a while ‘cause we’ve been in line for like an hour.” The two boys filed on like the others only they moved quickly past my father, unable, unwilling to look at him, affirming the statements I’d seen in their eyes. Selfishly I’d wanted them to look. Not to kneel, necessarily, or pray. Just to look. To see the hard truth at rest there in that box and for it to be a morsel of inspiration to try for something better with their own father, even if it was already better than I knew.
People continued to come and talk and share stories of when I was “this big.” They spoke of my father and offered their condolences, and I managed to contain myself pretty well until I saw Ralph and Carol Canning, parents of my best friend Mike. I’d seen Mike’s dad several people away and was very unsure of how I would act or what they would say. When it was their turn to greet me, I saw Carol and she was sobbing uncontrollably. When our eyes met, an “Oh, Blair” fell from her lips. When we embraced, I fell apart, crying harder than I knew was possible. She shivered with a violence that spoke to me of life’s delicateness.
We stood there, holding one another, and a moment later, Ralph gently put his hand on her shoulder and looked at me. He gave me a hug and spoke to the unique knack of not quite knowing what to do with words at times like this.
“I know you loved your dad,” he said, “and he was a great guy. And you’re a great guy. And you just gotta keep on keepin’ on and that’s all I know to say to you.”
And like all of the others before them, they were gone.
It took me some time to recover from that moment with Mike’s folks, but the people continued on by just the same. I remember feeling like I’d just gotten it together again when I saw my ex-girlfriend, Jill. She had this awful look of pain on her face; she’d been crying for some time. Seeing her standing there in sorrow made me shake in a strange way, and it took me back to the morning he died. I’d driven my stepmom and sisters home from the hospital just as the sun crested the building tops of downtown Kansas City. In a city that had not yet awoken, my Rodeo traversed its streets, both filled with silence.
At my father’s house we all lay there, still silent, on the floor. Before long, Tiffany, the oldest of the three girls, couldn’t fight sleep any longer. She rose and announced she was going home to our mother’s house to go to bed. My brain thwarted what their conversation would sound like. I’d eventually gone home, too, and once there, I couldn’t figure out what to do. My need for sleep was dreadful, but the thought of it intimidated. So I sat on the porch instead and tried to read the newspaper but it didn’t work.
Whether the front page or the sports section, my eyes -- behind tears -- could only revert back to the date at the top of the page, staining my mind with significance. I tried again on the back porch, attempting to make sense of the meaningless jumbles of words. I smoked a couple of disgusting cigarettes and called Mike in Denver. We talked for about half an hour and again I was alone, unsure. Matt and I’s friend Nate had spent the night. When the two of them arose, they knew I was not right, and -- upon hearing the news -- they hugged me repeatedly before inviting me to breakfast. I declined, and they departed, leaving me still hesitant about the world.
When my mother called and begged me to come over, I told her I would but didn’t know when. I needed some time to get stuff together. After some reflection over a long, hot shower, I was ready to go see her when I picked up the class ring my father had gotten me as a college graduation gift. It was attached to the watch he’d gotten me a couple of Christmases ago and it reminded me of Jill and how she’d stolen it from me in Colorado, promising its return upon my return to Kansas City.
Although I didn’t want to and didn’t know if I could physically handle the task, I felt obligated to call her. She and my father had loved one another. They’d formed a strong relationship based on their relationships with me and together they were eager to have me back in Kansas City. They’d gotten to know one another over lunches and shopped for a house for Jill and I to live in upon my return. The one they’d chosen was just two minutes from my dad’s. Their fondness of one another continued past our breakup, my father taking the initiative to show up at her work just to tell her they wouldn’t lose contact or friendship just because she was no longer dating his son. When she answered the phone in laughter, it reminded me how much he’d loved her spirit.
“Hello?” She giggled some more. I tried to speak at normal volume, but emitted only a whisper.
“Jill.” She recognized the inadvertent disguise in my voice, that something was awry.
“Umm.” The pause felt like it lasted for a minute and-a-half. I bit my lip, fighting for any ounce of composure I could get. My throat remained tight, and in what felt like an oxygen shortage, I stuttered, able to eke out the shortest of sentences.
“My dad died last night.”
The commotion on the other end of the phone alerted me and I came out of the communicative paralysis long enough to piece together that she’d fallen down where she’d stood. I could only flop on the bed and sob with her, eventually ceasing enough to share with her the details that had transpired. Near the end of our conversation, I told her I was heading to my mom’s house. She was waiting for her sister to pick her up to join her family “down in the country” as they always called it. It always made me laugh because they meant just south of Harrisonville, which, actually, is very country. She had to see me, though, she said, and would do so shortly at my mother’s house.
Seeing Jill struggle to move towards me there in St. Peter’s that Monday night let me know that she was probably running on the same amount of energy that I was. Her sister Jennifer hugged me first and told me she was sorry. Then her father Orville did the same. Her mother Linda, though she could barely remove the handkerchief from her face, also hugged me, and then Jill and I embraced, barely able to hold ourselves up. Her eyes and nose soiled the shoulder of my borrowed suit coat, and a number of times, she took in deep breaths, trying to speak. Instead, she cried and trembled, holding onto me as though she may fall.
The Henderson family took a moment to let me know that they were there for me if there was absolutely anything I needed. I thanked them and we stood there in a brief silence. Jill’s parents stepped aside to console my stepmother and I moved to greet our friend Melanie who’d been standing in quiet patience. I remember the look on her face just before she hugged me and patted my back. It was a look of terror and discomfort. Her lips formed, poised to offer one of the signature sentences of such matters, but she surprised me instead.
“Wow, Blair,” she said. “There are so many people here. The line to see you guys goes out the door, down to the corner, and wraps around the building.”
In my exhaustion I could only smile and thank her for coming. Then they too were gone.
A little while longer, more shuffling of people, more stories, many more miniature bottles of water, and countless Kleenex later, the short woman with the water made her way up to the altar. She’d come by moments prior to tell us we had to get people to sit down soon as it was nearly 8:00. She said the priest had to say his rosary and be on his way for other commitments, that there were still many people waiting in line.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said. “If you all bear with me for just a few moments, Father Charbell would like to lead us in saying a prayer and a rosary and we will then open the microphone for anyone who would like to share a story or a memory with us in remembrance of Jeff.”
The priest did his bit and then and some friends and family members made their way up to the altar. Then the shuffling of the people began again. By this time, though, the line system had deteriorated. Some folks cut in line and made their way up to us, citing homes and families awaiting them. Some came around the outside of the pews and walked down ours for hugs and condolences. Then, a seeming eternity later, the people started to leave. St. Peter’s grew quieter until only groups of friends of my two youngest sisters remained seated on either side of the church, separated by coincidence in an almost bride-and-groom-sides wedding fashion. The five of us -- trembling on fumes of energy -- didn’t really know what to do with ourselves.
Each of us had a moment of good-bye with Dad. I’m not sure what I said to him when my time came. I remember thinking I’d only cry, but when I stood before him I discovered that there were no tears left. I remember thoughts forming, thoughts that urged me to tell him how much I loved him, that this was so unfair. I remember being struck, in one instant, like I’d been zapped out of a scene demonstrating surrealism. This notion came over me that I was on the cusp of waking up from all of this at any minute. I remember watching my stepmom and two of my three sisters take their turns alone with him but what I remember most is our youngest sister Jessica taking her turn.
She gazed at him with her thumb and forefinger clasping the bridge of her nose, her other arm across her waist. Her shoulders sobbed with ruffled intensity while tears fell fast from her beautiful eyes like a fall afternoon’s raindrops down a windshield. Jessica had been the last of all of us to see him alive and now she began telling him in veiled fashion of how she was going to fix it. Her presence and her words cascaded an energy around us that hinted at the doing of something different and doing it now so that the five of us would no longer have to stand up there in that church at that moment looking down upon his false smile, his make-up-covered face.
“Dad.” Her voice was a tiny whisper, quieter than mine had been on the phone with Jill. “Dad,” she said again. “I just want you to wake up. Please, Dad. Wake up. I’m sorry, Dad. I don’t want you to just lay there anymore. Wake up.”
She leaned in over him in the coffin and having said these last words, she noticed her tears were falling onto his tie and suit coat. This upset her even more and she tried to dry them off and brush away some invisible debris. Before long she was hugging him and speaking in tongues of such sorrow that I had to fight off the urge to pull her away from him. When I reached the point of no longer being able to resist, her mother stepped up, comforted her, told her we should go. Jessica took Baby Doll -- the first doll Dad had ever bought for her -- from her purse and laid her down next to him inside the coffin. She arranged the way she laid a couple of times and then with a sigh, kissed them both and turned away.
We gathered our things and, for a moment, this strange sensation came over me. This feeling that everything had been authentic, that none of it had taken place in a dream sequence seized my time-to-go mind state and convinced me that we must stay, that we couldn’t just leave Dad up there by himself. I was wrought with the urge to have another moment with him, and as I faced him and told him how much I loved him, I felt a presence at my side. Elaine put her arm around me and rubbed my back, and when I turned to face her, we joined hands, uncovering new sources of tears within us.
She rubbed my hands and in doing so, a peculiar look came over her face. She looked down and I felt her body heave a sigh. When she looked up at me and began to speak, the words came out crackled.
“You have his hands,” she said as a lone tear streamed down her cheek. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve always loved your father’s hands, and now I’m noticing for the first time that you have his hands."
I had needed something. I had needed comfort and she had provided it. She had given me an opportunity to not feel isolated and lost, to feel a connection with her, and perhaps without knowing it she had given me one more reason to feel proud about being my dad’s son.
When Jeff spoke of himself as a transitional father, he had a line that was always his build-to point, and it was ironic that he told it to me so often, because I remember him acting out the idea almost as much as I remember him telling me.
“I tell you what, bud,” he’d say. “Since the day you -- and each of your sisters -- were born, I’ve told you that I love you. And I say it as often as I feel it. When I say it as you leave, or when we hang up the phone, I don’t want you to feel like you have to say it back. You say it whenever you feel it, if you want to. But I want each of my kids to know that I love you guys and that I’m your friend, too. That’s why the first day you were able to stand, I got down on one knee so I could be eye to eye with you. And I told you that all I ever want is to be your friend. I’m your dad. I’m supposed to love you. But I want you to know that I’m your friend.”
In June of 2002, three things transpired, but first, a May foreword.
My dad, for as long as I can remember, loved golf. He would spend beautiful weekend days inside with some Open or fill-in-the-blank Invitational on TV. And he would be into it. I never got it. I liked Major League Baseball and the National Football League and college hoops where there was action. Okay, there’s not really any action in baseball, but home runs are way more exciting than sweet fairway shots or an intense putt. He always worked too much to really play anywhere close to as often as he desired, but he’d be out there in the yard taking practice ghost swings every chance he got. I think he even played some rounds with Elaine on their honeymoon, but more to the point is that he was always trying to get me into it.
And I wasn’t havin’ it. It seemed so boring and dull, such an old man’s game, so devoid of action, but he was relentless. When it finally dawned on him that I was never going to be into it, he backed off a notch. But just a notch. The adjustment he made to his pleadings just meant that he would include the phrase, “One of these days, when we get you out on the golf course” in every opportunity that developed to talk golf with me. There was a weird bug in the air that May, though, and that bug took the form of a date. A travel date. A travel date circled on the calendar, which always spelled trouble.
I don’t know the agreement or any details associated with it, but circa 1986 Dad was hospitalized with an ulcer that required some pretty invasive repairs and the word was that the doctor told him he needed to knock off the drinking and smoking if he was expecting to enhance his health. Whether it was that or some medical episodes that arose a few years later or a come-to-Jesus with Elaine or some combination of all of the above, it was decided that he could no longer drink. This doesn’t mean that’s what he did; it was just decided by somebody, or some people, or maybe him. Maybe everyone.
So from then on he didn’t drink. Except for when he did. Specifically, he no longer kept a stash of beer in the fridge or wine on top of it. He drank a ton of coffee, had ice cream after dinner, and would call his wife on her lunch break every day. This became the new norm. Except for when it wasn’t, in which case Dad would get the itch, knock off early, hit a local dive, and pass out on the back-room couch in the late afternoon. At some point the frequency of these episodes dwindled, but the duration of which they would last expanded. All of this I gleamed from approximately zero days inside this home and from a vantage point of roughly 840 miles away.
Once I was back living in Kansas City was when, in my estimation, the frequency/duration spectrum shifted to a dangerous balance. Dad would, for the most part, abstain for considerable stretches. Mostly, I think it was measurable in months; I think his greatest (and maybe last) length was 16. But again, I didn’t live with him and would never want to speak for anyone who did. The caveat, though, was always travel. Whether he was going on a trip or Elaine had travel plans, a date on the calendar might as well have been marked with a ticking time bomb, and in late May of 2002, Dad was planning to fly out to San Diego to help his mom move.
I’m not even talking hindsight here. I think that heading into that trip, everyone knew it was trouble for him the minute he hit the Kansas City International terminal. It was really only a matter of damage control. I have no idea if it was discussed under his roof, but I know I had a fine ball of anxiety about it in my guts. I wanted to call him out on it, too. I wanted him to have his mom hire somebody to help and I wanted to tell him why I was afraid, but there was a big problem getting in my way: I was chicken. I didn’t want him to go, period. I wanted him to continue on his journey of help. He had, if memory serves, a really good streak going. But I wanted to tell him.
Instead, I played golf with him.
It wasn’t quite that pretty, though. Nor was it that simple. It wasn’t my idea, but he painted me into an impressive corner about a particular day off of mine and then sprung it on me.
“Just nine holes,” he said. “If you hate it, I’ll never bother you about it again.”
I have to admit I was pretty excited. This was going to be a thing. It was going to be a christening, an introduction to the game, a bonding moment. We would use this portion of an afternoon to put aside our political differences, our Leno v. Letterman debates, his flair over the Royals against my passion for the Chiefs. We would leave it all out there, and who knows -- maybe it would be the stepping stone to the next stage of father-son friendship. I was pretty excited. Well, at least I thought I was excited. Turns out I was just kind of looking forward to it, because when Dad picked me up, that guy was the excited one.
It was really cool, though. I can’t say I’ve ever seen my old man that geeked out about something, and it made me feel pretty good to be his son. We talked about golf the whole way to Minor Park Golf Course, and we had this corny exchange in the parking lot as we put on windbreakers. Inside the pro shop, he couldn’t have been prouder to put his money on the counter. He probably introduced me to 11 total strangers before we were even hit the driving range and the putting green. We had sort of moved for most of an hour inside this nerd cloud. We were full of ourselves, literally high on life.
Then we got to the driving range and a man’s voice rang out.
“Jeff!” My eyes scanned, looking for someone familiar, but half-expecting a stranger. My dad waved to a stout fellow in a dark polo with thin, white, horizontal stripes who, as I saw him, began to do the fake jog toward us. This was no surprise. There was nowhere in the city my dad could go without running into someone he knew, so I thought nothing of it. Naturally there was an immediate introduction.
“Bud,” my dad said. “This is Kenny Shopin.” I stuck my hand out, just as I had done so many times since that day in Bruce K. Montrose’s office. “Kenny, I’d like you to meet my son, Blair.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said, nodding and smiling through all of the obligatory heard-so-much-about-you stuff. I didn’t hear any of it, though. I’d checked out, upon the release of our hands meeting, ready to get back to that world of dork with my father. To our thing. To our golden moment together on the course. And then Kenny Shopin went, with four simple words, from some other guy my dad knows to worthless turd.
“So, you guys ready?”
Many words could summarize the state I was in for the next 10 or 15 minutes. Hurt, shocked, stunned, pissed, bummed, confused, disappointed. But hurt probably more than anything. I couldn’t believe I had finally caved, finally committed to doing my dad’s thing with my dad. I couldn’t believe that I’d been so juiced and so eager to share this moment with him, so relieved to have a distraction to the idea of what might happen to him on his trip, which was now less than a day away. And to think that it didn’t occur to him to tell me that it wouldn’t be just the two of us, that I’d have to share him not even with a long-time friend, a guy I’d met before and known, but this…stranger.
I was frazzled. It was my first time playing golf and any possibility of focusing on hitting a golf ball was out the window. To make things worse, Kenny Shopin was a damn good golfer, even compared to my dad. He had a set of nice, fancy clubs. They were new and made of graphite and fit handsomely in his sleek bag, not wooden and tired-looking inside my dad’s faded satchel of leather. My dad, who was sharing his clubs with me, had to lay his bag down for every shot, unlike Kenny Shopin, whose bag had a fancy kickstand mechanism.
It took me a couple of holes, but I found a way. I dug deep, tapped into the reserve tank and found a subterranean method of trying to enjoy this outing with my father, even as I whiffed and hooked and sliced and sent my father’s money (in the form of golf balls) into the woods with almost every stroke. On the third tee box Kenny Shopin made another transition, one I would not get over for some time. He set his bag down and propped it up with its fancy kickstand and unzipped one of the pockets. This time it only took one word, and this time he went from worthless turd to fat piece of shit.
The thing happened in slow motion. I had heard the zip sound. I had seen his hand go into the pocket and come back out. I watched the word come out of his sinister mouth. It was a test, a moment for the ages, my first sober dip into the sea of make-believe. I stood there staring at Kenny Shopin as he presented my father with an offering from his plastic bottle, a half-pint of McCormick vodka.
I’ve never been a scrapper. I’m not a violent person. But I’ve been in a few scuffles, and I’ve been on the verge of a handful that never materialized. I know the feeling of surging adrenaline and this was not that. This was rage. This was not, however, beyond-red, seething, white-hot rage. No. This was a rage bronzed with fear. Fear for how my father would respond, for how I would respond. Would my father accept the bottle? Would he unscrew the cap and take a pull? Would I remove a nice, new, fancy, graphite club from Kenny Shopin’s bag and bash his skull in with it right there on the third tee box of Minor Park Golf Course?
“No.” My father barely spoke the single-syllable word, but he emphasized it with a shake of his head and a wave of his hand.
“Suit yourself,” Kenny Shopin said, helping himself to a huge pull of room-temperature McCormick.
I remember exactly five things after that: 1) On the fourth tee box my dad gently instructed me to select one blade of grass behind the golf ball and to not take my eyes off of it as the head of the club made contact with the ball. Even today, when I allow myself to get in the zone, I can hear him saying this to me; 2) I remember this odd combination of pride and hope as we finished our round. I was proud of my dad for not indulging, and I hoped it hadn’t been just because I was there. I also had new hope for the potential for will power on his trip; 3) I remember at the end of the round that fat piece of shit Kenny Shopin approached us in the parking lot. He’d had a few more pulls off of the vodka bottle, but he offered me his sleek golf bag, and in doing so, insisted. Once he’d removed his clubs and tees and balls from it, he chucked it into the back of my dad’s truck, leaving the empty booze bottles and score cards for me to remove at a later date; 4) I remember Dad telling me on the way home that he’d known Kenny Shopin for a long time, that Kenny had had some serious substance-abuse struggles; and 5) I remember that that was the last time I saw my father alive.
 For the record, Kenny Shopin could very well have been a fine human being. Not long after Dad died, he called the house and left a message looking for my father, pleading for his help. He repeated this act a few months down the road, only this time Elaine had been home and answered. He was one of the men my father had sponsored and upon hearing the news, was devastated. Some time after that, he contacted Elaine and asked that I call him. When I did, he asked for his golf clubs back, a request I obliged. The last I heard, he too had passed away. I don’t still think of Kenny Shopin as a fat piece of shit, but for a spell there, I hated his ass.
The first June thing went down on Saturday the eighth. Jim Rome was in town to kick off his world tour, and the aforementioned Nate and Matt and I had tickets to see him at Municipal Auditorium. We left the house early for what would be a wild show downtown. The three of us had a couple of cold beers before we left the house and drank en route to the venue. We were in line for almost two hours as I recall, and we drank for that stretch, too. Inside, we had a couple more, and to call the show rowdy would be an understatement.
Needless to say, we were a little hazy by the time we got back to Matt’s house, and I’d been pretty fired up by both the beers and the show. But that wasn’t all. I had some other stuff going on in my head and in my heart that the beers were numbing. Dad had gone to California to help his mom move, and he had not abstained. Unlike previous incidents in previous stages of the development of his alcoholism, he had not sobered up after his return. Unlike previous incidents in previous stages of his alcoholism, he had not had a few-day forgive-but-not-forget grace period. And not unlike previous incidents in this stage of his alcoholism, things looked bad. Things looked bad enough to say that he was beyond the missing-a-few-days-of-work portion of this bender. Things looked bad enough to say that he was officially on the lam.
Matt’s house has an open garage. That is, there’s no door on it. On the back side of it, lattice walls flank a storm door. The south wall is an exterior wall to the kitchen, and the top half of the north wall is a series of beams that interrupt negative space. This design works because his driveway is really long and the opening to the garage doesn’t face the street, so nothing ever gets messed with. The point is that if you wanted to steal something from it, you easily could. You could also drop something off in it with even more ease, which is what happened while we were pounding Miller Lite at the Jim Rome tour stop that Saturday.
The three of us got out of Matt’s truck and I don’t remember what order we walked through the garage, but I remember walking in to the garage at normal speed. A few steps in everything shifted to that Reservoir Dogs-y slow-motion speed all because of an item on our left. I was only in slow-motion stride for a second and then I stopped and faced the north wall, the afternoon sun coming through the top half, warming my cheeks. There, arranged in a precise line, evenly spaced and leaned against the bottom half of the wall, was every last one of Kenny Shopin’s nice, fancy, made-of-graphite golf clubs.
“What the fuck?”
I heard the words come off of Matt’s tongue and Nate pitched in.
“Who the fuck did this? Where the fuck did these come from?”
I wanted to say it but couldn’t speak. My throat was dry, my tongue tied, and inside my head I could only imagine my father driving drunk around Kansas City in his red Dodge, endangering his life and others with every passing minute. And above everything, I couldn’t understand why he would leave a symbol of his presence, why he would choose to do this instead of going home. On the back porch I dialed his cell and home numbers, but got no answer and could only retreat to the garage to stare at the clubs again.
“Dude, do you know who did this?” Nate embraced the mystery, eager for an answer.
“Yeah,” I said. “My dad.”
The second thing came the following Thursday. The 13th. I was closing the restaurant that night, so I was off in the morning, sitting at the kitchen counter over coffee when the phone rang. The caller ID read “Truman Medical Center.”
Dad had been every bit of three weeks into this binge which, for an abundance of obvious reasons, is dangerous. But for selfish reasons, for reasons specific to our family’s concern for his well-being, it was really bad because it meant -- if and when he decided to pull the plug -- seizures. This was not going to be a sans-episode drying out; he’d never gone this long. This was measures past any rug sweeping. This was above and beyond worrying about the company. This was no longer about patience and guessing, hoping and waiting. This was no longer about his loved ones’ choices. This was rock bottom.
None of the chronology of the whole episode added up until after the fact, but my father’s illness forced a decision upon his family to obtain, with legal help, an order of protection on him and the one place this applied was in his own home of 10-plus years. None of it had been easy and that forced decision was no different. Neither was facing the fact that, were he to come home, the authorities would have to be notified, which is -- in the abstract -- an easy notion with which to concur and nod. It’s when that abstraction becomes a reality that the going gets tough, and yes -- you guessed it -- the tough get going.
He came home in what could be assumed was a calculated move. It was a time of day when the stakes were potentially less high than others, but the decision had been made; my family members were steely with resolve. He was, I was told, escorted from his own home and adorned in the silver bracelets of shame on his own front lawn.
Some elements remain unclear and will forever stay that way, but what’s important is that at some point after being booked, he did in fact seize, and as a result was taken to the hospital. It could be simple coincidence. Perhaps it was meant to be. Maybe it was, as Bob Dylan said, “a simple twist of fate” that I was there in the kitchen that day when the phone rang. I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up the receiver, but I know I was not prepared to hear Dad’s voice on the other end.
I won’t try and recreate the conversation with much dialogue, but there were two things in which his words were entrenched: fear and sadness. My dad was emotional -- in my estimation -- because he was ashamed of what he’d done. He felt bad for having hurt his family by leaving in them in the dark and worried about him. He felt remorse for having disappointed his wife and I know that by calling me he was trying to get to her. It’s possible that he loved her more than anything in the world and I’m fine with that because I know how much he loved his children. But he was in pain because he couldn’t reach her. He was hurting because she wouldn’t call him back, as he kept saying.
“Tell her I’m sorry,” he said, and it was with those words that I first realized that we were dealing with some serious stakes. I didn’t know exactly, but I could tell he was scared. I could tell that some source of fear was controlling his thoughts in that moment, that his need to tell me these things was beyond imperative.
“She won’t answer,” he said. “And she won’t call me back. I just want to tell her I’m sorry. I just want to tell my bride I love her.”
I’ve never had an exchange like that in my entire life, and I hope I never have to have another one. It felt random and eerie and it scared the living shit out of me. But not unlike that feeling on the golf course that day with Kenny Shopin, I walked away from the experience filled with some strange sense of hope. I had hope that this would be an impetus for new healing and help, for happiness and a heraldic fresh start. But not unlike that day at Minor Park Golf Course, that would be the last time I spoke with my father, which leaves the third thing.
It was late Saturday night and Nate was over again. We were on the couch in the den trying to stay up for some World Cup match. We’d both dozed off and in the back of my mind I heard the phone ringing and then I heard the answering machine pick up. After the beep there was a familiar voice and I remember opening my eyes and looking at Nate. He was looking back at me.
“Dude,” he said. “Did you hear who that was?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think it was Elaine.”
“Yeah, man,” he said. “I think it was, too.” My eyes stayed heavy, ignoring the flashes of soccer on the screen.
“Blair,” he said.
“Yeah.” I looked at him again.
“Man, it sounded like she needs you,” he said.
I don’t remember standing or walking into the kitchen or dialing, but I remember Elaine being on the other end of the phone.
“I just got off the phone with the doctor,” she said. “Jeff slipped into a coma and passed away.”
I can’t remember my response. I wasn’t even awake, really. It was the most surreal sequence of words I ever heard. It’s possible I didn’t say anything. Maybe I asked her what to do.
“I’m heading down there,” she said. “I need you to come to the house and be with the girls.”
When I got there Jessica was up. I could tell she was a little bit upset, a little bit confused. We were probably not dissimilar, each our own apple: shiny and red, visible stem, a sturdy outside protecting an inner core, the seed of truth at our center. I sent her upstairs to wake Megan and continued to try and reach Tiffany on her cell. Somehow we acquired her location and went to her. She was confused, screaming a little bit, crying even more. Everybody had questions, myself included. Most of them were being asked of me, even my own. But I only had one answer.
“We’re going down there,” I said. “I have to see him.”
That we got in to the hospital was a small miracle, disheveled lot that we were, some of us needing assistance in the identification department. I signed some sheet on a clipboard and took directions I immediately forgot from a lady. We paced around on the fifth floor, my sisters following me as if I knew the way. But it didn’t take long for us to find his room, and inside of it stood Elaine. She gave me a surprised, understanding look.
That was the first time I ever saw a dead person. His funeral was the first I ever attended and I’ve been to a number of them since, but I’ve never seen another person lying there, torso elevated, hospital gown in place, eyes closed and mouth open, no longer alive and breathing in the world the way we do. And I don’t know why, but I had had to see him. There were no words I could hear or read that were going to suffice. There was but one means of delivering that cold truth and I knew it -- even though I really already knew it -- the second I saw him.
A peculiar thing resonated with me in that second and has stuck with me for most every week in the near 12 years since that early-morning moment and it has to do with language. It fascinates me how many phrases we use in every day -- and frequently multiple times daily -- life that literally don’t mean what we mean them to mean when we say them. Our vernacular has become remarkable. When you ask someone what’s up or what they’re up to or maybe you ask how it’s going. Perhaps you tell someone you’ll be around or that you’re on the fence. I’ll bet someone has asked you to sign up or you’ve been encouraged to stay tuned. And I imagine you’ve wished that a particular person in a particular circumstance would try hard.
None of those things really mean what we mean them to mean. But the two words that I spoke when I stepped into that hospital room and saw my dead father lying there meant precisely what I meant them to mean. The meaning they were given as individual words made them like elements from the periodic table. They mean one thing separately, and when you put them together, there’s only one way to interpret them, especially given my level of volume and emotion.
“Oh, no,” I said. It wasn’t but two or three steps, but I ran to him. I put my arms around him and sensed a trace of warmth, a hardness that told me the life had gone out of him. My brain didn’t want to believe it, though, and I felt the air in front of his mouth and nose, hoping to feel a hint of breath. When there was none, my face fell to his chest and wept into that hospital gown, oblivious to the presence of my family women-folk and their pain, their confusion, their needs. I grabbed one of his hands and held it in mine. I tried to look at it but the wetness in my eyes, the salt on my tongue clouded whatever reason I’d had for doing so. I shook my head and moved away from the bed, allowing for some space for the girls.
On the way home, in the silence of the Rodeo, the only thing I could think about was the way in which we’d begun to build an adult friendship, the way he’d hoped for things between us to be different than they’d been with him and his father, how I’d seen hope in him that day in his work truck, how I’d felt it that day at the golf course with Kenny Shopin. These things and a ton more -- like an old reel-to-reel film in fast forward -- ran through my silent head, an undercurrent to the swelling wave of seeing Kansas City for the first time without Dad in it. The world felt quiet, like it knew.
Sitting in that St. Peter’s pew the night of the visitation I felt tremendous self-imposed pressure to get up there when the mic’ had been opened by the water-bottle lady. I had to summarize Dad’s life in a paragraph and seamlessly transition into a second one that represented a shoe filling, an attempt to match honor and pride, the announcement of the new alpha male. The pressure, as I said, was tremendous, and there was a weird part of me that knew that if I could find the strength to stand, the rest would be natural flow. If I could plant my feet in those borrowed shoes and convince my legs to rise once more, my stride to the altar would just happen, the words from my tongue would just fly.
But I was frozen.
Maybe because there was no way to fill those shoes, that honor and pride would forever go unmatched, that it wasn’t an alpha-male situation, that he had been him and I was still just me. Or maybe I was intimidated by not getting the words right, that I wouldn’t do him justice, that I would forget something. Or maybe I was just scared. I sat there, though, my butt cemented in that pew while a war of a million words and emotions was waged inside my mind. And there, in the midst of all of the insanity in my head and in my heart, a nearby figure rose from the congregation and went up there. I watched my sister Tiffany -- small piece of paper in her hand -- in admiration, listening proudly as she addressed the parish without a quiver, a tear, or a crack of her beautiful voice.
“Dad, I’ll bet you’re having a blast up there with Grandpa,” she said, closing her speech and returning to our pew.
When the Muehelebach limousine came for us the next morning, a light rain fell. It was one of those bizarre rains with fat, heavy drops that fall on one half of the house but not the other. There was only one or two clouds in the sky. The sun shone enough to warrant putting sunglasses in place just for the walk to the car, and I could feel its warmth. It was a funny enough rain that it had stopped falling all together by the time we were again at St. Peter’s, a drive of maybe three minutes. But either way, I’d forgotten all about the rain. Instead my mind had again traveled down a canal of silence, perplexed by the fact that the driver knew all of our names, having unwaveringly addressed each of us by them.
It makes sense that this is how this would go, I remember thinking. You don’t get a second chance in this business to address a clientele by name. They’re only going to be together as this precise group of grieving humans this one time, so there’s no room for error. The reasons, though, hadn’t mattered. It had worked. I felt like we mattered, like the ringing of our pain did not go unheard by any. Inside St. Peter’s we again hovered as a group, only this time we were in the northwest corner of the church foyer, being spoken to by somebody. I could hear music beyond the closed doors of the church and I wanted to look to see who all was inside, how many had come, if any -- or all -- of the faces belonged to bodies that hadn’t been available the night before.
They shuffled us down to the center of the foyer, to the closed center doors of the parish and someone was speaking to us -- Jeff’s four children -- about a portion of the Mass in which we would stand and drape a white cloth over the coffin. I couldn’t pay attention, though. It wasn’t because the person speaking to us was ugly or mean, or because I wasn’t interested. I tried. But I couldn’t listen or focus. I was somewhere else. I remember thinking that the four of us could pull off a cloth draping, though, so I wasn’t worried.
Then the main-entrance double doors behind us opened, and turning to look, the Muehlebach staff entered with Dad’s closed coffin on a cart. To this day I have never fainted, but I’d come close, out of exhaustion, the night before. Reality almost did it to me this time. Instead, my shoulders began to quiver, and someone ushered us to the side. In one fluid motion the coffin was wheeled up to the interior doors, which opened to reveal a packed parish, flowing music. We were shuffled to the back of the coffin, and in that instant it occurred to me that we were going to follow it all the way down the aisle to the altar in front of a full church. I think I was still wiping my eyes as we took our seats.
As one might imagine, the Mass said that morning was spiritually charged. For me at least. The words spoken were not necessarily profound, but the purpose of our presence there, with the coffin and all of those present with us in the church made it so. And the music, too, moved me in a way I’d never known possible. It was as though the words to “Be Not Afraid” had been written in the early hours of that morning, that no previous funeral had ever had “On Eagle’s Wings” sung in it.
Before I could process any of it, though, we were back in the limousine, back in the silence the world knew. This time we were part of a procession, the kind you see out there on a regular day, full of motion and noise. Motorcycle cops led the two limousines; a couple dozen cars and a few more motorcycle cops brought up the rear. It was mostly silent in our limo, but there was a little bit of chatter, perhaps in the form of relief. Once or twice someone cracked a joke and, between sniffles, we laughed. We traversed the winding roads of Swope Park, about halfway to Mount Olivet Cemetery, and encountered a piece of construction. The workers, all clad in orange vests and helmets, ceased to watch. As we passed them, a black woman with dreadlocks and sunglasses gave us an earnest look and flashed a peace sign.
The priest said a prayer at Jeff’s grave site and Elaine poured holy water over his coffin. We went back to the church for sandwiches in the basement, I think. Afterwards Elaine had people over. I was off work for the rest of the week, but when the things -- as things are wont to do -- demanded that we get back to them, I moved through the motions of life, numb with sadness and pain, confusion and shame. The first two, I presume, are self-explanatory. The third, though, a bit less so. I didn’t understand why my dad was taken from me, from us, at such a young age. There are, of course, countless other forms of loss in the world, some of which might feel we have had a good life and had a nice run of his presence in it.
I didn’t get it, though. It was unjust, unfair, unexpected. At least at the time. But those feelings were all shrouded by the shame piece, the embarrassment that came in the form of admitting -- to myself and others -- what killed my father. I know not everyone agrees, but it was decided at some point that alcoholism is a disease. So, as the son of a dead alcoholic, that’s supposed to be something to hang my hat on, that it wasn’t just stubbornness or a lack of will power that ended my dad’s life. It doesn’t really, help, though.
When you hear someone say that their loved one died of cancer, there’s an unconscious human reaction to that news that’s universally identical, an empathy that transcends culture and language. When someone is murdered or perishes as a result of injuries sustained in an accident, it’s the same thing; the survivors get unconditional treatment. Substance abuse, however, is perhaps akin to suicide, in that the lives that are taken by those two forms of suffering tend to generate phrases like, “His struggles are behind him now,” or “She’s in a better place now.” And I guess the intentions behind those expressions are genuine, but they leave a little bit to be desired.
It’s okay, though. It’s never easy to come up with words to say when someone dies, and death, in whatever form it takes, is never easy. It’s up to us as individuals, with our networks of friends and family, to be at peace with the friendships we had with those that have left this life. It’s up to us to recognize and appreciate how they’ve molded the hands that we have and to put them to good use in taking what they taught us and using it to make our world a better one. It’s up to us to celebrate them, to pass on their good values and morals, their funny stories and familial legacy, their nurturing love, their celebrity.