Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Family: Chapter XVI- The Wake

In the middle of the night my cell phone rings. It’s my father, explaining in a resigned tone that his mother has passed. I can’t say I am surprised- she was 96 for God’s sake- but still the call catches me off guard. This is just the perfect way to end my week. On Monday I lost my job, on Wednesday my brother crashed a stolen car, and now…. Well, you get the idea. I stand for a second in the darkened spare room, wondering about the best way to tell my family. I seem to be developing a knack for delivering bad news. There certainly is plenty to go around lately. For a second I ponder the impact of this news. I may as well just spit it out.
I have a terrific headache as I walk into the living room.
“It’s my Dad…” I say.
“Oh no!” my wife replies. She knows, obviously.
“Well, uh, yeah, uh, I guess the funeral is on St. Patrick’s Day. We are going right?”
“Of course!”
“On the plus side I don’t have to worry about missing work.” I smile, she doesn’t. My wife doesn’t always find the humor in desperate adversity. My daughter starts crying. All the lights are out.
In the morning, while we load the car, I think of all the things that keep changing. The drive takes place in a blur and we arrive in New York in record time. I think of my grandmother. I picture everything happening to someone else.
After the Catholic mass, the funeral party agrees to meet at the nearby Phelps hotel. An Irish Wake is an interesting thing, if you have never seen one. It’s a little bit like a cross between a Church Service and a Frat Party, except with more drinking. I don’t remember much past about 1 o’clock. At around dusk we make our way back to my dad’s place. My wife drives me, I guess.

My father is hammered up. He is holding a martini glass filled with vodka. In a pronounced slur he launches into a story about my mother. I can the feel the weight of the years slipping away from him.
His story is compelling. I enjoy viewing the 1950’s through his distorted lens. He smiles and looks out the window. He talks about growing up poor, and the way that back then people did not know when they were poor. He talks about being Catholic. He tells us about his father. Then he tells a story about meeting a girl.

“She kissed me,” he says, “Twice.” He holds his fingers in a peace symbol to illustrate the number two, a helpful gesture considering my inebriated state.
He takes a deep breath but says nothing, and as I look at the film over his eyes, I realize he is far away.
As he finishes his sentence, my father faces me, and I can see my own face reflected in his glasses. He looks directly at me but is seeing something else for the first time clearly now, A beautiful young woman stands beneath a flickering porch light, waving goodnight as she begins to fall in love with him, delivering her kiss from beyond the forgotten corners of 1959.
I walk out on to the porch after everyone falls asleep. The stars wheel in the night sky. Suddenly anything might happen.
I forget this night until some months later, when my father has medical trouble of his own. He undergoes some serious surgery. We talk on the phone. He tells me how he cheated death, and he really means it. We laugh. The Doctors think he’ll be okay.
Come November I get a kidney stone; and damn it, I just can’t pass it. An ambulance takes me from the doctor’s office straight to the hospital. On a cold Friday the surgeon removes the stone and I go home late that same night. I am sore but glad to be home. As a matter of fact, I plan to take two days off work…. Just take it easy, and rest. I lay on the couch, thinking.
Suddenly my iPhone is vibrating on the table. My wife and I freeze. I look. The number is from upstate New York. Wait…
The phone vibrates again, more insistently this time; the sound of marbles being poured on a tin roof. I turn and look at her. There is a hunted look in her eye.
I imagine my childhood home, all of its rooms standing empty.
“You’d better get that,” she says.

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