Who ChoosesTara Atkinson
After my father died, I waited for his ghost. I waited for him in the church that held his body and in my uncle’s house in Indiana where we stayed until the funeral was over. One night a powerful thunderstorm woke me, loud and bright. It reminded me of what summer is in the Midwest, and that I don’t live there anymore. When I returned to Seattle, I continued to wait. He did not show up in my dreams. He did not appear in any of my doorways. His face did not reflect up out of the coffee mugs I took from his house.
One night the motion-activated light in my closet flipped on of its own accord, in the middle of the night. It was a very blue light, the same blue light as always. I was certain this was my father and I was frightened. I asked my husband to get out of bed and turn it off, and when he did, I knew my dad was not the light in the closet. He didn’t show up for Halloween. He didn’t show up for Christmas. Then I was out of ghost holidays.
I wondered if my father was able to appear to me and was, maybe, just choosing not to. If he were truly at the feet of God, for example, would he really want to check in on his daughter always slumped over a computer? In life, my father rarely did things he didn’t want to do. He didn’t go on our vacations to amusement parks or the church family camp. He didn’t see Disney princess movies in theaters. He didn’t play Mall Madness on Christmas morning. Why start dropping in now that he’d transcended life?
Sometime after my mother divorced him he left town without saying goodbye and we didn’t hear from him for months. When he did call again he had remarried. I was 16. I recognized him for the first time in an adult way, as a person like I was a person, full of wanting for a different life, and I knew for the first time that all the grappling for love and acceptance I felt then wouldn’t end with adulthood or parenthood.
I didn’t dream about him until nine months after his death. In one dream, he toppled over onto some grass. I rushed to his side but he dis-appeared. On the ground, I found a brown laurel leaf I thought his hand might have turned into and I grabbed it, but right away I knew the leaf wasn’t my dad after all. I went running down a path calling for him, calling “Dad.” He called back to me, “Are you ok?” I found him sitting up on a cliff, looking happy. I got the impression he was there with other people, having fun. Then he disappeared again, as if following a party. He didn’t wait for my response. I wanted to follow him but I couldn’t find a way to climb the cliff. He was gone.
In the other dream, I was sitting on the couch beside my mom in the house I grew up in and he walked into the house, past the couch and into another room, without saying anything. My mom saw my reaction and said, “Did you see your dad?” with the same tone she used after their divorce on the very rare occasions when she’d ask if I’d heard from him lately. She was crocheting something and didn’t look up.
He had wanted to be cremated, because it was more affordable, and when my uncle and my sister called me with the funeral director, I said “Ok, yes, let’s do that”, but I hadn’t seen my father in a year and half, so thirty seconds later I said, “No, I want to see him,” so he was not cremated after all. Seeing the body, they told me, would bring closure.
When I first saw his body, prepared for burial, my sister and I were sitting in the sanctuary of the church waiting for him to arrive, even though we didn’t need to be there. We sat on the pews in that calm and heavy room while the bright summer light diffused through the stained-glass windows and over the green carpet and wooden pews, right there in the front row, staring at the place at the front of that room where the casket would soon be. The funeral director looked uncomfortable that we were there, and I tried to talk to my sister to make it obvious to him that I wasn’t there to make sure he did a good job. I was there because it was impossible to do anything but wait in a sanctuary to see my father.
His face had been made to look a little fuller, as it looks in the photo-graph we selected to run with his obituary, he was wearing a suit, and he looked dead. That’s what I said to my sister: “He looks dead”. He looked to me more dead than any of the other dead people I’d seen at funerals. It was obvious at a glance that his body was a body and he was no longer in it. Not only was his face just a signifier for the person I knew but that’s what it had always been, because here was his face, and he was not in it. And yet I still thought of the body as him. The sight of his face filled me with pity that I wasn’t expecting, like you might feel when seeing pictures of starving children. I told him I was so, so sorry this had happened to him. I felt terrible that we couldn’t do anything more for him than put him in a suit and put him in a box and bury him.
A few weeks after the funeral, I browsed cards in a bookstore. Along with the cards featuring flowers, witticisms, and romantic sentiments, there were a few featuring smiling skeletons. They were the usual depictions of smiling skeletons, like many I’d seen before, but now I could not comprehend them at all. For months after his death I thought about the decomposition of my father’s body, because I still worried about that body he wasn’t in. When winter arrived and it snowed I felt bad that the ground around him was cold. I remembered a Facebook app showing the growth of a fetus and imagined one that would tell me how far along my father’s body was, as if one day, at the end of the process, he would be gone. But of course, he will never be gone. His bones will be there, and his coffin.
There is a video on the internet of a Barney parade balloon being ripped open by strong winds. The balloon handlers try so hard to keep Barney from blowing away. They lie on the ground with two other people holding them down to keep the ropes from being ripped from their hands. Then a great gash opens in Barney’s belly. Inside he is pure white and empty. His expression doesn’t change. He keeps smiling and waving as his opened abdomen ripples through the parade.
I remembered this video after I saw my father in his coffin. A friend had sent the video to me years before, for no particular reason, just because it was a morbidly fascinating image, and we laughed at it at the time. This friend’s mother had cancer, but she survived, and his father is alive and healthy, his grandmother, too, all living. He can still laugh at that image. He is not in the club.
Two days after my father died, my best friend’s father died. He texted me to apologize for not picking up when I tried to call him, because his father had just died. I had entered a new phase of life. I thought to myself, ‘Now everyone’s dads will start dying,’ the same way you might say after the first of your friends get married, ‘Now everyone is going to get married.’ And they did. All year dads died.
I saw people with dead fathers everywhere. One day I was running through Pike Place market with a coworker looking for a gift for my boss’s birthday. In a fudge shop a man was sitting at a table crying silently, while a woman beside him patted his back. They were tourists on vacation who had stopped into a candy store to browse sweets. The man had received some bad news and the woman, likely his partner, was not affected by the news; you could tell from her face and her sympathetic patting. This large man with a cut-off tank top and a mustache like Hulk Hogan’s in a busy fudge shop for tourists, sitting and weeping silently on a little round café table: I looked past him. When we were out of the shop, my coworker said to me, “I don’t think that man was feeling very well”, and I shrugged.
Another day I was riding the bus home from work, when a man announced his father’s death. When he boarded the bus, he loudly tried to shake hands with the man seated behind me, who brushed him off. So he changed seats and struck up a conversation with some young women. He said, “I have a good job, a good girl, but no ambition.” The group discussed the nature of ambition. Then he said, “My dad died two weeks ago”. “I’m sorry,” the women said. The loud man said, “It’s fine, we weren’t close.” Then he and the girls started making fun of my jacket, a purple windbreaker.
Whenever I scrolled through Facebook and saw another person with a dead dad, I said nothing to them. I scrolled past, looking for parties and funny videos, but what found me was a video of pelican very suddenly capturing a pigeon in its mouth. The pigeon is just pecking away with other pigeons and seagulls on some mowed lawn when the pelican snatches the pigeon up, who knows why. The other birds do not even seem alarmed, keep pecking away, as the pigeon thrashes inside the pelican’s baggy throat sack. Feathers fly from the pelican’s mouth. The pigeon keeps thrashing. The video stops before the pigeon either escapes or goes still.
He had a heart attack after a knee surgery. He wanted to be able to walk my sister down the aisle. He died weeks before the wedding. He was sixty. One of the last conversations I had with him was about buying him a new suit. He couldn’t fit into the one he owned anymore and he couldn’t buy a new one. My sister and I planned to buy it for him as a gift. I made a joke, to a friend, that I would rather buy him a suit for the wedding than for his funeral. So when I first saw him in his coffin, I told his corpse, “We got you into your old suit after all”. I told him he looked handsome.
He did not have very many things when he died. He had a hard time getting around, a hard time getting work. In his cupboards, there were just a few canned vegetables and a box of instant mashed potatoes. The only checks he’d written were for rent and pizza. In his wallet, he had ten dollars and a gift card to Outback Steakhouse. The only thing he had a lot of were shoes, custom shoes paid for by his insurance, one shoe built taller than its pair to accommodate his uneven legs. In his small closet in his small apartment, two dozen shoes like new. We could not donate them because of their uneven build; no one else could wear the shoes. I threw them in a dumpster.
He had tendency to exclaim things like “Would you look at that!” with a child’s fascination. He’d say, “Oh, lookie there!” and pause a few seconds, regarding a spectacle, then appraise it with a “Wow!” or “Neat!” He only made the expensive trip to visit me in Seattle once, a year and a half before he died. I took him to the Ballard Locks to see the boats passing through. When we saw a yacht, he turned to me and said, with pure wonder, “That guy is rich!”
Seattle has these amphibious vehicle tours called Ride the Ducks that I used to see nearly every day. My dad had mentioned the Ducks to me as something he would like to do when he came to town. But when he arrived I didn’t bring them up. I could imagine exactly how much he would enjoy them and I was too embarrassed to Ride the Ducks with him.
That trip was the last time I saw him alive, and after I returned home that summer, I was haunted by Ride the Ducks tours passing me, day after day, downtown. He’s riding them now, a friend told me. I imagined my ghost dad Riding the Ducks instead of visiting me. The next summer the tours stopped because of a terrible accident. When I heard about the accident, I imagined my ghost dad cheerfully welcoming the people who’d died to the afterlife.
I did not want to leave his body at the cemetery, but we had to leave: we the living, into our cars; my father, the deceased, into the ground, where he would be alone. I sat there until everyone else was waiting for me, then I took a last appraisal of the flowers that would be his company and followed.
After the funeral, ladies from the church brought hams and pies for the family. They lined up with their husbands to say goodbye to my dad. They told me he was a good man, that he’s with Jesus now, that we’ll see him again soon. They post the same things to his Facebook wall, letting him know they miss him, asking him to say hi to Jesus for them, and so forth.
When he announced my father’s death, my uncle said that my father had left the land of the dying to join the land of the living. That this is a land of the dying is obvious to me. I struggle to imagine a land of the living.
My husband reads a lot of Buddhist books, but of the wisdom he tries to share with me the only concept that’s stuck is samsara: suffering. I think of samsara while I watch myself in the mirror in the morning, putting on makeup. When I first wake up, every morning, I do a quick inventory—I am in my bed, it is morning, my husband is here, my father is dead, it’s time to get ready for work.
When I go downtown to my office, I pass a man with a Jesus sign. He is the only person in my daily life who talks about Jesus, the only person in my daily life in any way connected to my father and the place we’re from, so I have a special attachment to the man with the Jesus sign, and if he says, “God bless you” to me, thousands of miles fold up for an instant. Then I am in the lobby with fresh flowers. Then I am in the elevator with people in suits.
I pay my bills on time, earn a salary, keep in my wallet little cards for the grocery store, the library, my health insurance. I live in a nice apartment with a door code and neighbors who have get-togethers, still married, sometimes praised by my peers, exercising daily for my health, with a hook for my keys by the door, and still I feel like a child lost in the grocery store, separated from my father, with this gnawing feeling that he is not hearing his name on the overhead speakers, that he will not find me.
When he died there were voicemails on my phone that I had not listened to. They said “Happy Valentine’s Day. I’m glad you had fun in Hawaii. My blood pressure is the lowest it’s been since I met your mother. Probably it was high because of her, she had my heart working so hard from the moment I met her.” They said “Hey, this is your dad. Happy New Year. I hope you have a good year. I’ll try to see you again this year. Love you. Miss you. I’ll talk to you later.”
I loved his voice. I saved his voicemails so I could play them for my friends and coworkers. They delighted in his Midwest accent.
After he died the leaves turned and fell. The grass was brown and branches bare. Then crocuses, then daffodils. Cherry trees filled the gutters with the pink confetti of their petals. The heavy pompoms of peonies bowed over, gave way to dahlias. On the anniversary of his death corpse flowers bloomed in several cities. In the city I live in they called our corpse flower a dud. In my sister’s apartment, the peace lily she took from his funeral bloomed, too.
Who chooses these answers.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Four.