Monday, August 25, 2008

Memorial Day…

My mom and I hit the road shortly after 1pm on Friday. It was a long drive through early traffic that made you think everyone in the world had decided to hit Arizona through the SoCal route but it was actually just southern California being its own, obnoxious, damned self.

Driving my mom to my father’s memorial seemed like a stupid idea at first. Then, it started to look like the dumbest idea I’d ever had. She started talking about bringing our own water and packing trail mix and, sure enough, she brought the water and the trail mix – but I quickly talked her out of any idea of actually living off the stuff. (In truth, the trail mix went home with her, unopened.) It was important to me that I pay for this trip. My mom’s on a fixed income and it’s important to me that I help where I can. Talking her into that wasn’t easy; I kind of had to get in her face about it.

After a while, I even began to enjoy the drive a bit. We talked a lot about my father and my family history. I told my mom about things going on with Vicky and me. I told her about the new play. We avoided dangerous topics like politics or religion but without having to skirt the issue; we just had plenty of other things to talk about. We made very good time and arrived at our hotel before it was even dark.

By that time, my mom seemed to have accepted that I’d be paying for everything. So, she acquiesced when I checked in for us both, putting down my credit card. But then, I learned that my mom’s traveling experience is far less accomplished than my own. I don’t really consider myself a world traveler or anything but I found myself having to explain little things – things that are little to me, at least – to help her manage in her room, the first time in her life she’d ever had a hotel room alone.

As soon as I get into my room and began unpacking my stuff, after which my mom and I planned to go have dinner and stop at a liquor store for some zinc tablets (I was coming down with a cold), I realized what the one thing was I forgot. On every trip, there’s one essential thing I forget. I doesn’t matter how often I double-check, if I make a list, if I tie things down, there’s always one thing. So, I’ve learned to accept it as part of traveling. This time, it was my belt. I forgot my belt. I had my slacks and shirt cleaned and pressed, my tie, my shoes, socks, etc. But… no belt. Shit.

When I told Vicky about this, who was watching our sweet little mouth of teeth – I mean, puppy - back home, she told me in her most pragmatic way, “Why don’t you just buy a new one?”… which sounded a lot like, “How many times did your mom drop you on your head as a child?”

So, off my mom and I went to the Target we were directed to by the front desk clerk. Now, it might not look like it but I am very particular about my clothes. They have to be just right. Buying a belt at Target – or anything at Target – is, for me, like getting a haircut with NAIR. (Blame the Ex.) But we had to do it. Still, when my mom said, “Here are plenty of belts,” and I said, “No. No. No. No…” things didn’t look good. But we found one and got the zinc and went to Marie Callendars’ for dinner. Our waitress there, Holly, was nice, sweet, attentive… and wouldn’t leave us the hell alone! We couldn’t get our food in, she kept us talking! I have never in my life had a server so damned attentive… so I guess the next one who ignores me… I have it coming…

Nighttime. My mom and I went to our rooms. I fiddled with the SleepNumber (Uncomfortable at any setting) bed and passed out… for two hours. Son of a bitch. I woke up at 2am but, by 3am, Biden had been announced as Obama’s running mate. (A good choice, I think.) So, I had plenty of television to watch by the time 7am came around and my mom called me to see if I was awake.

I have the kind of mom who will never stop being a mom. To all of you with crack-whore mothers… appreciate it.

We hit the road before 9am, hit the church before 9am, hit the pre-memorial breakfast before 9am. You know, it’s hard to be fashionably late to something you want to get through with as quickly as possible.

I felt horrible entering that church. First of all, as an atheist, I thought about how much religious crap I’d need to listen to from other people and how much I was going to have to bite my tongue simply to keep the peace. Christians don’t appreciate how often we Atheists clam up to save their fragile feelings. (You want to become an Atheist? Just find one thing wrong in each major religion. Should take you... five minutes...) But, more importantly, I just didn’t want to be there. The last place in the world I wanted to be was another reminder that my father was dead.

But I was fortunate to see Mitch and Sherryl out there, waving me in. They are both wonderful people and Mitch always makes me feel like things are all right. You want some irony? Mitch used to be a priest. Hey, I don’t think all religious people are hypocrites. I just really appreciate the ones who aren’t.

My mom and I walked into the church and a woman standing in the foyer looked at me. She was in late-middle-age to my middle-middle-age. She had a kind, welcoming face. The face of a church employee. Oh god. “You must be Ken,” she said.

Uh oh, I thought. “Yes, I am.”

“Well, I am your father’s sister by your grandfather’s second marriage,” she said, and everything felt better. Her name is Pam and it’s nice to know I am related to a nice person on my dad’s side of the family. I always thought of that as the “prick side.” Turns out I was wrong.

But stepping away from her after we’d spoken a little, I felt my nerves dancing frantically across my skin. Everything about this was wrong – I mean, how are you supposed to remain in denial? But Keith moved happily through the crowd, who told him he looked and sounded just like dad. Dwight and Monica were showing off their baby. Blanche was miraculously holding it together. We all awaited Richard and Teri, having not yet arrived from an insane drive from Kirkland, Washington.

After a while, I realized I’d had five cups of coffee and no food. I took my jittering body to a familiar face. Keith was getting ready to film the memorial and when I said, “I feel terrible,” he said, “I know. I’ve got two cameras to man and I don’t think I’ll be able to handle it myself.”

“… no, Keith. I feel terrible because it’s dad’s memorial.”

“Oh. Right. That too.”

My legs buckled. I hadn’t really been sleeping for a few days, either. “I should get something to eat,” I said.

“I should, too,” Keith answered. “I just… can’t.” And I realized that the sorrow I felt, Keith had been trying to mediate through keeping busy. He’d used his denial to turn my father’s memorial into a project. I’d just used mine to somehow convince myself that my father’s death wouldn’t affect me.

So, I put my arm around my brother and we both walked to the food… and ate little.

Then, Richard and Teri appeared and I felt a little better. Richard is my youngest brother and he had faced down so much adversity with so much courage and tenacity that seeing him always lifts me up a little bit. I mean, I’ve been lucky, end of story. Dwight planned for everything. Keith barely catches a break sometimes. None of us are fighters like him. I’m very proud of him.

But that meant the service was starting… dammit. We took our seats. Blanche, Dwight, and Richard took the first row. I sat in the second row with my mom and Keith’s wife, Julie. The minister spoke. There was prayer and singing and more speaking. I let it wash over me like creationism classes at a public school, just hoping they’d see the light one day. (Do I think Atheists are superior? No. Just right.)

Then, the time came for the kids to speak and Dwight was first. So much for chronological order. Keith’s the eldest… oh well. Dwight had something prepared, like me, and when he choked up Richard was there with some water for him. I was next. I don’t know why. I can’t really tell you how I did but I can tell you that halfway through – I lost control of my throat. It began to clench up and words escaped me. Thankfully, I’d written a script! When tears came, I pushed them aside and moved ahead. But this made me weak and I began to shake – I was just glad when it was over. Next up was Richard. Richard leaned against the podium like he was born to it and spoke unprepared. When I later told him how cool he looked, Teri responded, “That’s because he hasn’t slept.” Last came Keith. Keith isn’t a public speaker or a performer, like me. Crowds make him uncomfortable. But he walked up and he spoke with humor and a little eloquence – though his “Dad is here with us” made me want to smack him.

The service closed with a photo montage of my father, moving chronologically through his life. A 15-20 year break made me realize: that’s when he was with my mom and before he remarried. So you didn’t see me or Keith or Audrey, my sister. But I did pop up later, with a picture taken from a Thanksgiving back when I was alone, pre-Vicky. My beard looked scruffy and my waist was thinner… dammit. I was ready for that. I knew they had that shot. But then, they put up a shot from my wedding. There, Vicky and I stood with my mom and Joe on one side and my dad and Blanche on the other. And I felt a punch in my gut and I just wanted to bawl my eyes out.

I still do. I just haven’t had the time.

The weekend kind of ended there. From that point on, it was all about getting home, finding some place familiar, trying to breath through the pain of having someone taken from me as if carved out of my gut with a rusty soup spoon.

I wish I could tell you more. Maybe later.

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