I have shared insights with you about my youth, adolescence, and early adulthood. You’ve read along, as I told you how my father’s alcoholism and drug abuse wasted away his life and my childhood. We walked together through this journey, and the whole time you’ve never been clued in to what happened on that fateful day.
I was a sophomore in college, having caught my ticket out of town and away from my father’s problems. Milwaukee became my home, still a stone’s throw away from my mother and sister. Normally, moving away from the problem might be cause for relief, but I walked about campus knowing that the rest of my family was now on the front lines, alone to handle the cleanup and to restore order.
It was a Tuesday evening, February 2001. All was normal in the college cafeteria. Classmates’ chatter overlaid with random outbursts of laughter. The clanking of plates and silverware. The exhaustion of another day of classes wearing the students’ faces thin. Another Wisconsin winter rearing its ugly head, causing winter to seem like an endless prison and spring merely a mirage.
As students around me carried on with dinner and conversation, so did my girlfriend and I. Unbeknownst to me, something much greater had taken shape, something beyond my control and far from my little corner of the universe.
After dinner, she volunteered to walk with me back to my dorm. I should’ve suspected something at that moment because that deviated from the normal routine. She rarely frequented my dorm room, not because she was mean or rude but because she lived in a more-spacious apartment, where I was usually more than anxious to visit.
We trekked across campus, into my building and up the stairs. Just as we opened the door to my room, the telephone gave out a loud raucous (this was before I had a mobile phone attached to my body at all times). Hurriedly, I ran to pick up before voice mail could claim victory by beating me to it.
It was my mom.
“Hi, it’s Mom. Is Melissa with you?”
“Yes, she’s right here. We just had dinner together.” I was really thinking, “How did you know?”
“OK. Good. Your sister has something to tell you.”
Panic. Anxiety. Lump in my throat. Was everything OK? Maybe they were calling with good news. Think positively, Cory.
“Hey, buddy,” said my sister softly after taking the phone from my mom.
“I have some bad news …”
“… Dad is … dead,” barely managing to get out that final word.
Still on the phone, I glanced at Melissa. She had already known, forewarned by my mom so she could be there for me at my life’s sourest moment, to be my soft place to fall, to reassure me that everything was going to be OK even if I felt like it was all crashing down on me. The look on her face said it all. How had she remained so calm, steady, and courageous all day, even when looking me in the eye and seeing off in the distance the dark cloud about to descend upon me? Had she known all day?
“Cory, are you there? Are you OK?” said my mom after taking back the phone.
It took me several minutes to comprehend what was happening. This wasn’t, in fact, a joke or a dream. This was reality. My father had passed away. And then it hit me. It hit me with the ferocious blow of a ton of bricks.
The tears welled up in my eyes and an uncontrollable sadness overtook me. To this day, I have never cried so hard in my life, and I wondered what the other guys on the floor must’ve thought when they heard the bellowing from my room.
The rest of that night was a blur. I went to the chapel, then over to the solitude and sanctuary of my girlfriend’s apartment. No one knew what to say to me. It was too fresh, too sensitive a subject to approach. And so we sat, mostly in silence.
The next day, I skipped my classes. I missed work at the campus library. I managed to drag myself out of bed to pack a bag and then went to the campus chapel for the mid-morning service. On this of all days, I needed that little chapel more than ever. Its white finish. Its melodic tunes. Its consoling message. And the outpouring of support, hugs, smiles, and handshakes from classmates and professors.
After my girlfriend finished her classes, she drove me the 90 miles northward to be with my family and to make preparations for an inevitable funeral.
As we pulled into the driveway, my body sat motionless, staring blankly at my childhood home. So many memories had taken shape inside, many of them involving my father and his uncontrollable addictions. Before leaving for college, my father had been the catalyst for my anger and frustration. Now, only sadness remained.
The deepest sadness of my life was about to engulf me. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to admit that my father was gone way too soon, at the young age of 45. I wasn’t willing to believe that this man who had simultaneously caused us so much laughter and suffering was no longer. I wasn’t ready to admit that my reckless-abandon father, who had seemed to have nine lives, had been defeated. I wasn’t ready to concede that he had given in, that his vices had spelled his demise. I was devastated that I never had a chance to say my goodbyes.
Deep inside, I had always feared that day, that moment, and then I was living it. And so I stepped out of the car’s passenger side and into the throes of funeral planning.
In the days that followed, I would learn from my mom and sister how my dad’s passing was not only saddening but tragic, leaving me with an uneasy sense of helpless wonderment.
To be continued …