In the days following a death, there is no time to grieve. An obituary needs writing. The casket needs selecting. Funeral preparations need making. And a host of other laundry-list items too many to count. For that reason, the reality of what had just occurred — death — hits everyone at different times and in different ways.
An acquaintance once approached me, saying that her father’s death didn’t register until the one-year anniversary. For most, it happens in the quiet after the funeral, when all the hubbub and hype has settled down, when the crowd has dispersed, when the potluck food has been put away, when all that is left is the nothingness of the night. To some, reality may set in sooner, not later. For me, it was the day I walked into my father’s apartment to pick out the clothes in which he’d be buried.
Because my father was alone and living a life in disrepair, he had no will, money, or a funeral wish list, resembling a poor man or beggar’s passing. And it would be up to us to reverse that perception, banding together with funds, favors, and cooperative planning.
The lack of preplanning on my dad’s part, as you can imagine, only intensified an already stressful situation and detracted from the already minimal grieving time on our part. And with no Sunday-best suit indicated in funeral arrangements that didn’t exist, something had to be pulled from his closet.
I volunteered for the task. My family didn’t want to go back into his apartment, and I certainly couldn’t blame them after having discovered him dead just a couple days prior. Pulling up to his place and parking the car, I stared out my window and exhaled a deep breath. This was it. I didn’t want to be there — that much was true — and nothing could prepare me for the level of difficulty that awaited me inside.
In the front door. Up the stairs, bypassing the first level. Slowly turning the key. Unlatching sound. Gliding open the door.
There it was: my father’s place exactly as he had left it, little reminders that he had been there not so long ago. The room still warm like he had just stepped out, for the heater hadn’t been turned off. Sparse traces of food still in the fridge, ready to be consumed. His bed still unmade from the day my sister discovered him drunk. The place still wearing the scent of his cheap, overwhelming body spray, which, in that moment, didn’t seem so bad; in fact, it made me feel sorry for him and cause me to miss him more, wanting so badly to reach out and hug him.
I fumbled through every cabinet, every drawer, in search of answers. I looked for anything that might rationalize his death, making it all make more sense to me. A suicide note. One of his poems. Anything.
Delving into his notepad journals, I skimmed months’ worth of entries to learn of his desolation leading up to death. But when it came to my father, those types of letters were commonplace; I was looking for something written to my sister and me, apologizing for his behaviors, reiterating his love for us, and letting us know, once again, that he was sorry, albeit just one more sorry in a long line of apologies.
I found nothing. And I lost my emotional bearings. In that moment, it hit me: My father was really gone. All the stuff in that apartment, his just a few days ago now had become just stuff. That apartment which had been graced by his presence would become someone else’s before too long, erasing from physical being all proof of my father’s life. Soon, all that would remain would be the memories etched in our minds.
For his funeral clothes, I selected a common pair of khaki-colored dress pants and a button down. He had never been the suit type, and I believed he should look as he always had. He should be comfortable for eternity. If it had been his choosing, I’m sure he would’ve opted for something even more casual and representative of his life, perhaps a pair of his stone-washed jeans and a worn-out Beatles T-shirt.
Fighting back the onslaught of grief, I grabbed the clothes and looked about the room one final time to take it all in. Then, I made my way out the door, the last time I’d feel my father’s spirit so alive, so warm, so close, so welcoming. In that moment, it was as if he had been in the room with me. It was as if he had been watching me, like he had been guiding my hands in selecting the right clothes to adorn his cold body.
As the door closed behind me, I mentally prepared myself for an emotionally draining funeral ahead — my second encounter with the reality of the situation.