Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Notes from Bizarroland 3: Letter from the HVAC Monster

During the week Dad spent in the hospital, I noticed an occasional buzzing sound coming from the ceiling intake vent just outside the bedroom my wife and I have been using since moving to Tucson. It first became audible one morning as an intermittent buzz…buzz…buzz when the thermostat prompted the system to give off warm air.

For a couple of days before and after Dad’s passing I lost track of the buzzing sound, being of course preoccupied with other matters. Yesterday evening the intake vent let out more than just that intermittent buzzing. From the grill covering the vent fell a clean white envelope containing neatly-folded letter-size sheets of paper, upon which was typed a letter. Paranoia seized me from the intestines up. Upon touching the crisp white sheets of paper I instantly had the premonition that a hideous creature, some malformed, shrunken, troll-like being had been living in the ducts of the HVAC system in my parents’ house. This goblin, this monster, had powers of clairvoyance that would boggle and frighten the human mind, and it had composed a private letter to me. The parcel looked like something that might be issued from a law office, so clean were the folds, so crisp the black ink. It is written in a stilted and somewhat pompous diction…

To the First- and Only-Born Son,
            Perhaps now you see that you are a fool. Perhaps now, after witnessing the emotional work of months and weeks, the preemptive mentations you erected to shield yourself against the eventual onslaught of the inevitable, hammered and quickly felled by the vicissitudes of an unknowing Cosmos, perhaps now you can truly perceive how foolish was your hubris, how ill-founded your sense of poise.
There are so many things I could tell you about yourself, young one. Yes, young, as you well see now, despite the recent occurrence of your thirtieth birthday, in contradiction to the feelings of weariness this milestone incited in you, you are still young.
            I can still see you standing in the hospital room after the abrupt utterance of a nurse new both to your family and your ailing father, “He’s gone.” And this said almost in haste, nearly blurted out, as if this nurse somehow knew the events of the past days and held the same expectation of at least a day or two in the relative comfort of hospice care that you had held. You notice the redness and gleaming of her eyes, creases of incomprehension upon her forehead as she tells all of you the news she ascertained not two fifths of a second before the speaking of it, “He’s gone.” I can see your mind digesting her words, then this same mind realizing that it had fallen behind just a bit, that your stomach had actually digested moments before her motions with the stethoscope over his body, the beginnings of worry in the skin and muscles of her face. And yet, in the next moment, as you relay the fact to your mother, who has already begun to weep because of the sadness of his being toted off to a hospice to perish and not because she has just seen the perishing itself, you cannot yourself understand it. And so as your mother immediately embraces the full thundering pulverizing truth in a forward swoon and instant wracking sobs, you offer the most pedestrian suggestion - “Come here, Ma” – and clumsily catch/lift her in your arms lest she fall face first onto the linoleum floor from an apparently pure grief that you cannot yet know.
            Yes, I can still see at this very moment into the cavern that looms beyond the opaque, obsidian lacquer painted by your words of a few minutes later, “I don’t understand.” I can see behind and beneath those sounds to what even they in their awkward inarticulation hide: raw fear. You feared not only the jarring closure, not only the grief and anguish to come, but you feared the dead body. You feared a foreign object in the room, a mass of protein, minerals, and water that stood in as a perverse doppelganger for what had moments before been your father. The seizure of your body and mind by fear was analogously sudden to the switch of animated being into dead matter – and, yes, I know and knew at that moment that your bloated, overanalytical mind was already spinning out myriad explications; I detected even from my lair back home the concoctions of a suffocating psyche gasping desperately for some whiff of knowing or being rather than gagging on its own production of putrid thought and theory. You feared the great mystery of this instant transformation of your father into notfather, as many others have. Your own ignorance confronted you from without – ignorance of how easily you slipped into the awe and dread about death that you knew had plagued human hearts for millennia, but which seemed to have been resurrected afresh for your own private torment. Not “death” as an abstract concept to be discussed round a table amidst vague friends and hearty drink, but death as the plain cessation of breathing, death as the sudden metaphysical flattening-out of a person with spirit and mind into a body with only volume and mass.
            I can look ahead, too, to see your bafflement at how the work of eight months seems to be erased in the passage of a day. I can peer into your embryonic questioning of Causality, Effort, Time, Memory. I can already hear the tiresome discussions you will hold about the meaning of a life, whether your father was reconciled to his death even as he perceived its coming, the stunning infinity suggested by the finality of his departure from a physical and apparently objectively-verifiable reality. I can feel my stomach turn when I listen to the pre-echoes of your pontifications about “anima” and “breath” and how “expiration” is a fitting word for death since it refers to the final irrevocable release of breath.
            I have chuckled quietly to myself over the past few days as I have listened to you repeatedly observe the habitual nature of Mind, surprised that you keep expecting to find him sitting in his usual armchair when you enter the house or to see a missed-call alert from his number on your mobile phone. And I know, perhaps more than anyone else, that each one of your verbal utterances to this effect hides countless more silent reminders whispered to yourself, that you will never see him AGAIN…

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Notes from Bizarroland 2

My mom and I went to the funeral home yesterday morning to "make arrangements" for my dad's cremation. That was what my mom said the funeral director told her the appointment was for: "to make arrangements." I had wondered what it meant. Ma already told him over the phone that we wanted a basic cremation, no service, no urn. (At some point we'll decide where to scatter the ashes.) Besides paying, what "arrangements" needed to be made?

There was a bit more, but not much. A few forms to verify and sign; some minor details to confirm. Then the funeral director asked if we had any more questions. Ma and I looked at each other, she shrugged, she asked, "I don't know, Matthew, is there anything you wanted to ask?" 

I paused and began to simultaneously shrug and shake my head "no." But a number of questions demonstrating an idle curiosity about the mortician's craft had shot through my mind. 

"When you got the body from the hospital, where were they keeping it? Was it a morgue? What does the morgue look like?"

"Do you keep the body refrigerated at the funeral home until the time of cremation? Or since it's going to be burned anyhow, do you not bother? Let it begin to decompose?"

"What about all the smoke? Is there any environmental regulations?"

"If we wanted to, could we see the body now? Not that I do want to, but...if I wanted to...?"

I decided it was better to just leave than to ask these questions.

Dad and I had once had a conversation about a sleazy funeral director somewhere in New York that tried to guilt-trip him...I think it wasn't pertaining to a relative of his, but a friend and work associate - but I really can't be sure now. I think it was something about how the undertaker tried to convince my dad and the other person he was with that the deceased deserved better than a pine box, how the deceased should be honored with something more noble or elegant or dignified - and definitely a shitload more expensive - than an unadorned wooden box. My dad had related the story so that we could share a feeling of contempt about the inappropriate behavior of the undertaker, and so we could share a meditation on the grotesque humor of a hard sell taking place in an awkward moment where stale grief met tedious bureaucracy. 

I was glad that my mother and I were not subject to any hard-sell techniques, even if we inevitably had to spend a few absurd moments acquiescing to a compulsory bureaucracy.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Notes from Bizarroland 1

I’d like to tell Dad that a cool spell came to Tucson in the past couple days, the kind of brisk weather he’d had been eagerly awaiting.

The specific circumstances of his death were the kind of thing he and I would have discussed at some length. We would have hashed it out, talked about how odd it was that he died at the very moment he was about to be put on a stretcher to be driven from the hospital to the in-patient facility at TMC Hospice. Just as he had told me a bit over a year before that he kept wanting to call his mother and tell her the news – that she had died – I instantly had the feeling that once we left the hospital and drove back home I had to let Dad know that he had expired, and that it was bizarre.

My uncle and I had a laugh about the fact that within a few moments of Dad’s passing, I had the inexorable urge to take a dump. The lavatory in Dad’s hospital room had run out of toilet paper sometime recently – possibly that morning, possibly the night before, during the many hours that we all spent in the room with Dad, occasionally pissing and shitting as one must do. Uncle Michael ran out to the nurses’ desk to procure a roll while I sat down to begin my business with the toilet. He handed it to me through the slightly ajar door.

At home the following day I realized that the need to defecate must be my personal manifestation of grief. Following a wave of anguish and a welling-up of tears I once again got a heavy feeling in my gut. That was yesterday. 

Today is the second full day in this reality without my father.