**This is a personal story so there may be triggers involved**
Two days ago was officially my birthday and, for me, the official day the music died. On my 20th birthday, I got a phone call from a hospital that my father needed an emergency surgery. They didn’t explain over the phone what was truly happening, but they did tell me, “He said to call you because you always come”. It was true. Every time he had to go to the hospital for anything, he always said to call me because I would always answer the phone and show up (even if I drove over an hour from school or had to leave my full-time job to go). And I did. And I was the only one because, by then, we were all three kids grown, mom and dad were divorced, and everyone had turned away from him in his family when he got diagnosed as mentally ill. It’s funny how things turn out, isn’t it?
When he accidentally set a fire on the stove, the sprinklers were triggered in his apartment, ruining his things and most things of the people below him, the hospital called me then, too. I answered the phone with the intention of telling them that I couldn’t miss anymore school or work to come to the hospital again, but once they said “fire”, I immediately said, “I’ll be there”, and hung up on them. When I arrived, he was lightly sleeping in a hospital bed, clutching his cane tight to his chest. I lightly touched him to wake him and he only began sobbing. I held him until he stopped. When he was younger, he was changing the oil in a friend’s car and someone threw a lit cigarette down. He was burning alive, trapped beneath a car. It took him 3 months in a burn unit to heal and the screams of pain from the others still haunted him at night. I only know that because they haunted me at night through the sobs in his late-night phone calls.
With all he’d lived through, I guess there was still some part of me that thought that the music would live on forever. But, there came a day, one month and ten days later, when that music died, taking a part of my soul with it.
The coma was a bone of contention in my family, but, once he was gone, the relief of it somehow weighed on my skinny chest. I was answering phone calls all hours of the night, sleeping there at the hospital, going to school, going to work, and trying to pretend that I was unaffected by the loss. He was gone on my birthday. I knew it, but I’ve been the last of the anyone to accept it. It’s always that way with me. I’m the first to logically realize things, but the last to lose hope and lose a piece of myself when it’s finally over.
Technically, the music died on 12/14, but, after his surgery on my birthday, he never recovered. His eyes were pointing in two different directions, he didn’t respond to me talking, he didn’t respond to anything anyone said or did. After the follow-up surgery, they knew he wasn’t initially going to wake up, but the brain activity was “inconclusive”. It was conclusive to me. When my mom went with my brother, sister, and I for a meeting with the doctors (the only time she went), his machines went nuts. He KNEW she was there. “The love of his life”, he always told me. I believed until the very end, when they handed me my dad in a heavy box at the end of his memorial service.
I’ve written a couple of blogs about grief and loss from both a professional and personal perspective. I’ve explained how feelings about the loss can change back and forth over time. These last few years, I’ve realized that my birthday is the true day I’ve been mourning all along. I used to take off the anniversary of his death in December to mourn. I would look through pictures and try to focus on the good memories instead of the undertone of melancholy beneath the smiles.
He always said, “If people want to come see me, they’ll do it while I’m alive” (they didn’t) and didn’t want to have a funeral. I always told him that he would be dead so I could do whatever I wanted. So, with the help of my brother, we made a mixed bunch of songs, including “American Pie” by Don McClean. My siblings and I all wore one of his neckties. I wore the Pillsbury Doughboy tie with my pink shirt and pink pinstriped suit. My sister gathered pictures of him and made posters, and, perhaps most importantly, we brought his paintings and his woodcarvings for people to see. It was his own personal art gallery for a few hours and…it was magnificent. I know people came to me and told me that Dad promised them this or that, but I couldn’t hear them. I was busy listening to the music one last time.
I cried when I had to write a check to pay for his service. I cried on the couch when my siblings and mother leaned on me on the couch and I wrapped my arms around them. I cried when they handed me my Dad in a box. I cried with my Grandfather (my Mom’s father) while he wept and told me what a good man my Father was and told me that Dad bought him the leather jacket that he was wearing. The rest of the day was a bit of a blur.
Dad wanted to spoil his family because he came from so little. He was no Saint, but people everywhere loved him just the same. His last words to me were, “we didn’t have much left, but we sure had fun, didn’t we?”. He was damn right. He always said, “you can’t take it with you [when you die]”. He didn’t believe in saving money. He believed in spending it on his family, and, when we fell on hard times and had to beg and borrow money and take charity, it hit him like a punch in the gut. He was a traditional man with traditional values and not even being able to provide a Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas of any kind to his family, he only became more depressed.
Mom told me a story about Dad once. He was young and still in school (he dropped out in the 8th grade and began working). The only Christmas present he would receive one year was from his secret Santa at school. Unfortunately, his secret Santa turned out to be a girl whose family was just as poor as his, so his only present that year was a washcloth. That story always made my heart hurt. It’s the hard times that drive me to find the perfect gifts for everyone at Christmastime. And it distracts me from our painful past as a family at the holidays.
Things felt hopeless in our home. Mom worked cleaning hotel rooms and it hardly paid all of the bills. I guess that’s why I was so driven to go to college. My Dad always told us girls to learn to work hard and be independent “so you don’t have to rely on some man”. Maybe that’s why he was so proud to wear the University Dad shirt I bought him in the gift shop freshman year at the bookstore. I was the first one on both sides of my family to graduate college. He told everyone everywhere we went that I was in college.
He never got to see me graduate, both times. He didn’t get to walk me down the aisle the first time, and he won’t be here for the second, but I know, somewhere, he’s proud of the person I became, despite every single time I fuck up. And I’ve fucked up plenty of times. But, a painful past sometimes leads to young wisdom, even when I don’t hear the music.
Pictures are from Freepik and title pic designed with Freepik and Canva