The Family Sacrements: Last Rites (Part I)

By Last Updated: January 1, 2022Views: 2537

I did not cry. I hadn’t realized this until I stood over my father’s grave, staring down onto his coffin covered with single flowers and a light dusting of snow that had just begun to fall. Not one tear. It was cold. I flipped the collar of my coat and pulled it around my face gripping the corners in a tight fist at my neck. The other mourners were gone, filing away in twos and threes; slowly back to idling cars and warmth. I could hear them whisper as they left. “He needs a moment,” I heard them say, “Let’s give him some room, and “such a good boy. I ignored them. I tried to remember my father.

He died alone, collapsed in his bathroom one morning. His heart, never reliable at the best of times simply gave out. Years of smoke and alcohol, a sedentary life and a thick diet claimed him. He fell to the tiled floor his head wedged between the toilet and the tub. It was three days before the landlord, looking for the rent, found his body. I was told he died instantly. I was told he felt no pain. I was not so sure. I pictured him there confused, unable to move, struggling for breath, panicked. I imagined him calling out for someone, anyone to come. Not to save him exactly, just to say a soft word, to lay a hand upon his forehead and cheek, to feel the warmth of skin upon skin so to fade gently into the darkness and not be afraid. I hope he died courageous and with dignity. I don’t think that I could have. Or that I will.

The wind picked up. I became aware of the car waiting for me. I should just leave. But there was a man down there. Underneath the polished wood, in a silk-lined box, there was a man. A man I should cry for. A man I should love. So I stood in the cold and forced myself to remember, as if remembering were an act of contrition.
*****

The last time I saw my father he was drunk. I had arrived late, well past noon. It had taken nearly an hour to find his apartment with the vague directions he gave me in our rushed phone conversation the night before. I thought about stopping at a phone booth a half dozen times to call for help but never did. I just didn’t want to hear, ‘always had a bad sense of direction,’ or ‘never could find anything.’ I felt it would be better if I just drove in circles.

This meeting was to be our re-connection. It had been a little over two years since our last re-connection, which didn’t go well. Best intentions seemed to fall by the wayside the moment either of us opened our mouths. This time, I thought as I drove through the gray and frozen streets, this time it will be different. I’ll be on my best behavior I told myself. Best intentions.

He met me at the door in sweat pants and a Phillies t-shirt, he had already started drinking. I moved forward to hug him at the same moment he stepped back. In an awkward gesture I lifted myself out of my lurching half-hug position and thrust my arm forward to shake his hand punching my father in the chest as he leaned forward. My father grasped my hand and pulled me inside.

“About time you got here, he said, “What? You get lost?

“No, I stopped to get us some lunch, I held up a plastic bag, “just some sandwiches from a deli I passed.

“Mario’s? he asked. I told him I that’s what the place was called, “That place sucks. Well, wash a plate and set them up, I’ll be in the living room. He turned and walked away leaving me in the doorway. I heard the TV volume go up as he fell heavy on the couch. “And grab me a beer on the way in. Best behavior, I thought to myself, best intentions.

All the plates were in the sink, as were the cups and utensils as well. I washed the two closest to the top with a tattered sponge that I assumed was once blue and hand soap. The plates were red plastic with cows and chickens along the edge, the kind of plates you’d see at a picnic or barbeque. I opened the refrigerator to find three twelve packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a few loose cans of coke, a jumbo can of Maxwell House coffee and a carton of Tropicana orange juice. I grabbed a beer for my father and a Coke for myself.

In the living room my father was sitting on the couch smoking a cigarette watching NASCAR. I handed him his food and sat down next to him on the far side of the couch. He snuffed a cigarette out in the large overflowing glass ashtray on the end table. He opened his beer and drank in large gulps.

“You not drinking? He asked.

“It’s a bit early, I said.

“Early? It’s always happy hour somewhere in the world, right? he took another gulp of beer, “Besides, it’s never too early for a brewsky.

I took a few bites chewing slowly, deliberately. “You know you should get some food in the house, unless you’re on a liquid diet or something.

“I eat at the Moose a lot, he said. I nodded as if this explained everything.

My father’s apartment smelled of cigarette smoke and Pine Sol. As you came through the front door you stepped directly into the small efficiency kitchen pained a pale yellow. The dark brown cabinets did not quite match the blue speckled Formica countertop but since it was covered with various papers, magazines, unopened mail and fast-food wrappers it didn’t seem to matter much.

The living room was actually somewhat spacious. The walls were painted off-white and no pictures hung there. On one wall was a large faux-oak entertainment center. In it sat a 27 TV and an old bulky VCR. Several coffee table books were scattered throughout. There was a book on the 1980 World Series, one on famous race horses, chess and golf. There were two on Ireland, one on Athens and a battered oversized, illustrated version of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I remembered that one. I used to look through it as a kid.

The couch where we sat was oversized, battered black leather; two bulky end tables flanked each side and seemed to match the entertainment center, but not quite. In the corner was a Lazyboy recliner draped with a red throw blanket. Next to it sat an adjustable reading lamp. I could picture my father sitting in that chair reading magazines until late in the evening; Popular Mechanics or Reader’s Digest. Behind the chair was a window that I assumed overlooked the rest of the apartment complex, it was however covered with heavy drapes that were closed tight. Just as well I didn’t want to look out on the gray afternoon anyway. I was startled by the sound of my father crushing his beer can.

“Why don’t you grab me another, this was not a question. “You know, just bring the whole carton, it’ll save time, right?

I brought back the opened twelve pack form the refrigerator and sat it on the couch between us; my father pulled out a fresh beer and drank half in one gulp. He belched loudly and exclaimed, “Ah, the good life! he lit a cigarette. Pointing to the TV, asked, “What’d you think of this?

A pit crew was busy replacing tires on the screen. “I really don’t know much about it, I said.

“You see that guy there? That’s Gordon; he’s a real prick isn’t he?

“I really don’t know much about it.

“Do you want to watch something else? he fumbled for the remote and began flipping through the channels. “I know what’s good, he stopped on a golf match. “Here it is, the sport of kings!

“Isn’t horse racing the ‘sport of kings’? I asked.

“Guess it depends on what king you ask. He opened another beer.

With the prospect of watching golf I decided it was time to open a beer. The TV showed me two men marching down a manicured fairway. One smartly dressed in a yellow polo shirt and shiny red cleats, he waved to the crowd. The other, sweating, carried the golf bag full of clubs. The announcer was saying something about the poise the man in yellow was showing today but I was more impressed with the caddie.

I remembered the endless, excruciating days I spent on the golf course growing up. I carried my father’s clubs from hole to hole and searched the woods and tall grass for his ball whenever it went astray. My father’s ball went astray often. Every bit of profanity I knew was learned on the golf course. Golf is a four letter word.

The game on television progressed from player to player and the day wore on. I eventually moved to the books on the shelf absently flipping through the pages. These were old books. My father had owned them for years. They were more decoration now than anything else. I picked up the mythology book; it was full of line drawings of Pegasus and Cyclops and Centaurs. He used to read these stories to me as a boy. There were only two things my father and I ever connected on, mythology and baseball. I guess in a way there both the same thing. He used to talk to me about going to Greece, seeing the monuments, touching history he would say.

“You should go. To Greece, I said holding the Athens book.

“All the way over there? his eyes still fixed on the TV, “I don’t have time for that, he reached for his drink, “You going back to school this year?

I nodded reading the book, “I might sign up for night classes at the Community College.

“You gonna try to finish this time? he flipped though channels.

“I’ll give it a shot, I thought for a moment, “You know you could probably get a package deal or something, maybe a senior discount, all kinds of ways to get cheap flights.

“I’m fifty-five years old, he said, “I’m not a fucking senior. What are you gonna try to study this time?

“Business classes, maybe, I studied the back flap, “How about a cruise, you could do a cruise.

“My biggest regret, he opened another beer, “Is not making you get your degree. You never did well in school but I should have made you buckle down.

“I heard in Tennessee there’s a full replica of the Parthenon. That would be cool, I wouldn’t mind seeing that. Tennessee’s not far you could go there, I said, “See Elvis while you’re at it.

“I don’t have time to travel, he said, “I have too much to do.

I shut the book, “Like what exactly?

“I’m active, He stood up and stretched, “I gotta take a piss, He gestured in a circle with his hand, “Clean up these plates? He walked off down a narrow hallway toward the bathroom and what I assumed was his bedroom.

I took the empty plates and gathered as many cans as he could carry to the kitchen. As I did I glanced into the carton of beer on the couch and noticed how many were left out of the twelve. I thought, not for the first time, how does he drink so fast? I set everything on the counter. For a moment I was about to continue to clean, then thought better of it and returned to the living room. My father was walking back lighting a cigarette.

“You not smoke anymore?” puffs of smoke billowed as he spoke.

“I do. Just tryin’ to cut down.”

“That right? Good for you,” he took a long drag and blew out a long plume of smoke, “Waste of time.”

I thought for a moment, “So what do you want to do now Dad?”

“Do?” He reached for another beer, “I thought we were doin’ it.” He laughed.

“I was thinking about a game of chess, I said.

For the first time since I had arrived I saw a genuine smile stretch across my father’s face.

CONTINUED…

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