Nobody was killed in the school shooting we recently had over at Noblesville West Middle School. Two were wounded seriously: the hero teacher who disarmed the shooter-kid, and a girl, who was shot seven times. Seven times. Hold out your arm and count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.
My son was over at the high school, sitting in film class, watching Guardians of the Galaxy. Because middle-schoolers were being bussed there, eventually a SWAT team appeared and they had to switch the movie off, black out the windows and barricade the classroom. When my son got home he acted ultra-casual about it all.
How did he really feel? Unknown.
Finals were optional. Since nobody died, the whole thing kinda blew over—I think kids had confronted the horror already, during frequent active shooter drills: a teacher wandering, making popping noises and yelling, students and staff keeping track of him, choosing to hide or run.
The world can be a horrible place.
Around this time our dog was on his last, poorly-attached-at-the-hip legs. The week it got really bad I was out of town, so my wife and daughter took him to the vet “for the last time.” They had to pin him down for the first of two shots. His hips hurt, so he yelped.
The world can be a difficult place.
Dad died just as winter was turning to spring. We told stories at his open-casket funeral, where they did a good job making him look asleep. Everybody enjoyed reminiscing, I think, as always happens.
While I was delivering a family-photo-slideshow-based eulogy, a memory of Dad’s stubbornness or inconsiderate nuttiness would occasionally cause Mom, sitting down front, to mutter, something like, “Gates!” (He used gates to construct temporary corrals.) Sometimes she’d continue, “Every time we got a little extra money, he’d buy more metal gates…!” It all went smoothly enough. Various people spoke, and after his co-workers literally said the only word they could think to describe Dad was “kind,” my wife wryly whispered, “When is the in-law rebuttal?”
The world can be a complicated place.
Everybody’s complicated. Dad especially, though, I think.
At his interment a couple mornings later, it snowed and turned cold. Sun came out later and it was fair that afternoon—classic “Springtime in Indiana.” Everyone sat shivering as my sister read a poem and eulogized Dad thoughtfully.
I spoke of how he hated goodbyes—man, he’d introduce endless new topics as you stood with the door open. We learned to get car keys out, for jingling. “Okay… okay, well, we’re leaving…[jingle]… goodb—okay … yep [jingle]… yes … will do … [jingle jingle] we’ll be on our wa—… uh, things ‘down at the office’ are fine…[jingle]…” On the phone, you could say, “Dad, I need to hang up, supper’s re—I have to go.” “How are your cars? Checking the oil?” “Yes, I really—…” “Not just the idiot lights on the dashboard. Do you actually pull the dipstick?” “Okay.” “Do you pull it?” “No, I … I don’t. I have to go, Dad.” “You can’t trust the idiot lights. Do you walk around your car and check the tires? I always walk around before I get in, to make sure all the tires are up…”
Anyway, graveside I ran down a list of assurances—Dad, I’m watching the weather, paying off credit, cleaning gutters, making sure my tires have tread, eating well (but not too much) and keeping up with the news.
Changin’ the oil.
This is true: as I considered what to say at the graveside, I employed Nashville songwriting advice I’ve had drilled into me—be meaningful quickly, make it catchy, move from the specific to the general, employ concrete imagery.
Since it was so cold, my speech could only be about as long as a country song.
Y’know, the eulogy might actually make a decent start to a song. Hm, is that crass? [reaches for notebook]
I will say that we buried him deep in the soil of Trumpland, where country music plays on every radio. That I will say. That I can tell you, believe me. All the best radios. Believe me. [sighs, sets down notebook]
For ten-fifteen years Dad was lost to Fox News. He’d memorize their talking points then badger me with politics he knew I found offensive. Wouldn’t let up. Ugh. At the end he lost interest, escaping into his shelf of Louis L’Amour paperbacks and Churchill biographies, thankfully. Maybe he could never defend someone like Trump. I like to think. Who knows.
Recently I was at my sister’s dining room table, helping wrap loose ends. “Are you sad?” I asked.
For me, I think sadness got built in a while back. I was pre-saddened, like the student body of Noblesville after the practice-horror of active shooter drills. Once the actual event arrived, I merely coped.
Coping Becomes Electra.
Privately I’d grieved last summer when a prostate cancer nurse told me Dad had about a year. Putting a calendar on it gave me a pang. More recently I maintained quiet mournfulness several days after caregivers showed us a chart that looked like a business doomed to imminent bankruptcy, gently preparing us, saying Dad probably only had a couple weeks.
Then it was all decisions, contact lists, action plans and last-minute shopping for nice black shoes, which I hadn’t owned in a while.
I wrote an obit.
Now life is back to normal, pretty much. I get choked up thinking about the dog more easily than Dad, hate to say. Me and the dog had a simpler relationship, I suppose.
I wondered how my sister was feeling.
“Well, I’m sad for him,” she said. She’d been the one who went to the nursing home when they phoned, and found him untouched, mouth agape, looking as if he’d been struggling for air at the last. “I’m sad that it didn’t look like he went peacefully in his sleep. Like he was gasping.”
We sat quietly for a moment.
“But I guess,” she said more slowly. “I guess I don’t feel sad like ‘a little girl who lost her father.’”
He provoked her constantly. They argued, loudly when she was a teen and more subtly when she got older—she wouldn’t allow him to say things that weren’t fair, or correct, or called for. I mostly let him babble on and called him out only on major provocations.
She couldn’t bear his b.s.
Me, I bear b.s.
To a point.
Oh, he knew how to push my buttons, too, push until I was yelling at him, the kids silent and wide-eyed in the next room. He provoked everyone, but I think my sister healed more slowly than I, if at all. In the end, he required blind-eye-turning. She turned only sighted eyes toward him. Any warm feelings she might have were probably refrigerated years ago.
That’s my take.
Of course, the dramaturg consulting on the scripts of our lives, whoever He or She may turn out to be (Albee, that you? O’Neill?), would absolutely require her to be the one wading in to manage his final years. Which she did cheerfully if wearily.
He’d always thought his wife would tend his elder years. But he drove Mom away. She never ceased to be fond of him from a distance, specifically the 759 mile distance between South Carolina and Indianapolis. But any closer made her nervous. I think her main emotion at his passing is relief.
Again, that’s my take.
But why aren’t we all more sad?
Well, it’s hard to be sad.
Is that true?
I think it might be hard to be sad.
People get depressed. But that seems different.
To get through a normal day, most of us generally train ourselves to ignore sadness. Then when it’s time to use it, it’s all rusted.
For me it’s sort of the same reason I have trouble writing a truly emotional song to sell Nashville. Big emotions make me nervous.
Also—part of the “Hey, Where’s My Sadness?” issue is that Dad is never far from our thoughts. He never leaves. His advice is as persistent in my mind as whatever song I heard last.
Here I am right now, headed to the restroom at work recalling that Dad was obsessed with how each of us walked—were we pigeon-toed? Knock-kneed? “Chas, I see you have what they call a ‘rolling gait,’ where your feet point outward.” STOP WATCHING ME WALK, DAD.
In his last couple days, my sister kept vigil. He wasn’t responding much, but did move his hands and feet. We think he could hear us. We brought grandkids in to say goodbye, went through family photos and told stories.
My brother-in-law brought a CD player and I provided, at my sister’s suggestion, music from Dad’s youth. On what became her final visit, before she went home, she selected Songs of World War II and played it at low volume, on repeat, during his final hours. It’s not a long CD, just seven or eight songs. “As he breathed his last” (Dad often phrased things melodramatically), odds are good he was hearing the Tommy Dorsey version of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” Sinatra singing:
I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces all day through
In that small café, the park across the way
The children’s carousel, the chestnut trees, the wishing well
I’ll be seeing you in every lovely summer’s day
In everything that’s light and gay
I’ll always think of you that way
I’ll find you in the mornin’ sun
And when the night is new
I’ll be looking at the moon
But I’ll be seeing you
Yup. I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be hearing him re-tell how, as a child, he’d always try to find the outline of an entire person instead of a face when his mother spoke of the man in the moon—a story he retold every time we looked at the moon together.
My sister had the funeral director play the song during the service.
We’ll be seeing/hearing/getting advice from/resisting further advice from you in all the old familiar places, Dad.
We’ll keep checkin’ the oil.
Instead of feeling sad.
Post Script—a recent email from my sister:
“After numerous phone calls and resubmission of the information to ‘legal,’ we are finally [DETAILS, DETAILS]. Our new main contact is Haley.
“We also got [DAD’S OLD EMPLOYER’S] information and have to submit two pieces of paperwork and the bank account we’d like the pension to go into, so that’s almost done. And [MORE PAPERWORK AND DETAILS WHICH SHE AND MY BROTHER-IN-LAW CONTINUE TO HEROICALLY MANAGE] needs a little attention. So I think we’re getting close to wrapping up the main things.
“I dreamt that Dad came to life and showed up at [THE NURSING HOME] as if all was as before and he needed the ongoing care. I kept saying how weird it was that we had buried him and yet here he was (later in the dream my brain corrected it further when I said, ‘We actually cremated him’ to one of the caregivers, and ‘Isn’t that strange that he’s here even after that?’). The nurses and aides agreed it was strange, but then shrugged and got to work. I mean, there he was in the facility, as before, in the same room (which had been emptied, so we had to put it together again), so everyone started helping him again like it was perfectly normal a totally dead and buried—cremated—man was back in his room.
“I felt bad we’d gotten rid of all his furniture, so we pieced things together again with what we had. The big thing I couldn’t replace was the desk, but I decided to grab the big painting of the ocean and put it over a table to help him feel at home. And I returned to that caregiving phase, confused but willing to step back up and do what had to be done, since he was back and needed help.”
Cue Sinatra: “… The chestnut trees. The wishing well. The nursing home.”
The world can be a difficult, complicated, wearying place.