The date on my father's death certificate is March 9, 1999, the night his body was found, and the Cause of Death box says “cardiac arrest.”
Dad would have wanted to argue with the coroner. He had emphysema from a lifetime of smoking and was nearly blind, but he was proud of his heart. “This old pump's strong as a horse,” he'd wheeze, knocking his breastbone with his knuckles, oblivious to the mea culpa implied by the gesture. “Only thing wrong with me is my eyes and my lungs.” I flew down to Playa del Rey from Seattle the morning after an LAPD officer phoned from Dad's apartment, where he'd been found on the bathroom floor.
My father had wanted a party thrown in his honor after he died. Part of his small life insurance policy was earmarked to pay for a secular sendoff, one that would reflect his rejection of social and religious conventions. His favorite Sinatra ballad was (you guessed it) “My Way.” Behind Sinatra's boast is a certain faith, of course: that the paths the individual takes along "each and ev'ry highway" are free choices. Such freedom would be logically possible only if the highways he traveled along had never been built.
My father’s faith reminds me of G.K. Chesterton’s remark that people who don't believe in God will believe in anything. This would include a belief in the inherent originality of non-religious funeral observances.
The celebration for my father was, I concede, unusual in that it was held at the Prince O'Whales bar, with one or two uninvited customers wandering in and out, as people had wandered in and out of his drinking days. But refreshments were served, and there was a book for guests to sign. My younger brother, who like me had forgiven our father's tendency to forget — for decades at a time — that his six offspring existed, had flown to California for the occasion. So had our Uncle Herb, who kicked off a round of amusing anecdotes about his brother Jack.
Then Charlie Q and Charlie, the two men who had helped my father most during his last years, told how Jack in his prime backed his car into the carved mahogany door of an upscale Marina del Rey restaurant after breakfast and then drove away. It had been too early in the day for inebriation; he was just so preoccupied with ideas for a new invention that he didn’t realize he'd knocked the door off its hinges.
Despite his sometimes damaging recklessness, my father inspired gentleness in others. During the previous decade Charlie and Charlie Q had taken turns writing checks for my father, driving him to doctors' appointments, finding items he'd lost somewhere in his one-room apartment, and taking him golfing after he could no longer see the ball. Charlie Q is built on a massive scale — a well-dressed oak stump comes to mind — but watching him with my father on a few occasions I had witnessed extraordinary tenderness.
Still, at this commemoration nobody cried. We ate and talked, and we downed a lot of booze.
My father didn't believe in a life after death. But like all of our lives, his developed an arc, a trajectory, a path in time and space from birth to maturity and old age. In describing this path we turn it into a story, and it's when a person's story becomes part of a larger narrative that the individual life can take on meaning. The larger story may be about the family or clan. Or it may be a religious story, as when the patrons who commissioned a painting for an Italian church during the Renaissance appear kneeling in the foreground of the work, making themselves part of the story of Christ's birth or death, or when you sit in a basilica frescoed with scenes from the life of St. Francis and your story is pulled into his.
My father didn't want to be pulled into a narrative that might have given his life meanings over which he felt no personal control. He got good at things he chose to be good at: golf, fishing, dreaming up absurd inventions, gambling, drinking, theorizing, womanizing, and attracting admirers into his orbit. He’d spend occasional time with “the guys,” but not with children, or with women unless romantically. His was a loner's story, really.
So I'm folding my father's death into my own story. Of course I can't call mine a larger story. It consists, like his, of unremarkable moments, and of as many questions as answers.
From LAX I took a cab to the mortuary that had picked up Dad's body at his apartment and had saved him from an overnight stay in the county morgue. His cremation was scheduled for later that afternoon and the farewell party for a couple of days later. But the mortuary director was taking no chances that the daughter of an impoverished deceased might fly in for the purpose of paying last respects, then fly out without paying the tab: Only after handing over my credit card was I led into a bare room and allowed to see the human shape that was my father lying on a metal gurney.
The shape was covered by a sheet with a wide blue stripe along its length that said “Angela's Linen Service — Rental Only — Never Sold.” This was as close to an angel, I thought to myself, as he was likely to get.
The mortuary director pulled back the sheet. Dad was unshaven and unwashed, his clothing rumpled, his collar awry — it was clearly the mortuary's Economy Package — but his eyes and mouth had been closed and his hands folded. Through my tears I could see that his shirt was a loud purple polyester number I didn't recognize. Without thinking, I asked the mortuary director if he had dressed my father in the shirt. The man stared at me as if I were crazy to imagine he'd have put anything so wild on a customer. Then I remembered that purple was my father's health color, a notion he had acquired from a certain Dr. Tony (described in these pages about a year ago).
Dad's expression as he lay there was surprised and a little vexed. He looked normal, in other words, except for a bruise on the cheekbone from his fall in his bathroom. The skin around his eyelids appeared stretched with effort, as if tightly shut eyes are unnatural on the human face, and his body was cold from spending the night in the refrigerator. His hatred of being cold was one reason why he'd refused to come live in Seattle with me and my husband. “The climate would kill me,” Dad used to say. I pointed out the irony to him as he lay there, which wasn't exactly fair since he couldn't talk back.
When the director saw I wasn't going to faint, he patted my shoulder and whispered that most people couldn't stand to see a person who had “passed” unless the body had been groomed, made up, and pillowed in a coffin. “That's why businesses like ours survive,” he confided as if to a colleague, then glided out and left me alone with my father.
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