Monday, September 19, 2011

September 20, 2007 -- In a Castle in Europe, My Life Falls Apart

On my Dad's birthday this year, I made a dish I knew he'd be proud of. I did it because his birthday is a day to celebrate, be happy, and remember. For new readers to this blog: I only had 19 years with my dad. On September 20, 2007 something happened, and he died. It was probably a heart attack, but it's tough to know for sure because the events of that day don't add up--he'd been rushed to the emergency room for stomach pains and sent home. He was IN the HOSPITAL and they told him he was FINE and then he DIED. That makes it confusing and upsetting and I'm still very angry that so many people survive heart attacks and worse each day, but my 47 year-old father who I loved more than anything did not. I was studying abroad in The Netherlands when I got the news and immediately had to hop on a plane and return home for the worst week of my life.
The following is a piece I wrote for my Memoir class in college about that night and the events following. I couldn't write it in first person, it was too hard. So I wrote it in second person--half because writing majors like to prove they can write in second person effectively because it's very difficult and often comes off as cheesy (I may have fallen victim to that in this regardless), and half because it's the closest I can come to putting someone in my shoes.
His birthday is a day to be happy and remember. Today I think I have a right to be sad.
Before you get the phone call, you can’t sleep.  Facing away from the wall, you push your head under your pillow as you’ve done since you were little.  Something about the added pressure on your temples and the steady pulse in your ear against the fabric is usually enough to quell even the most restless sleep.  Not tonight though, not with the voices on the other side of the wall that make noise late into the night when they should be asleep.  Not with this lumpy pillow that smells like an old house and feels like sponges, in this loft bed with the high sides that feels suspiciously like a crib.

You’re just beginning to get used to this strange place, thousands of miles and an ocean away from home.  The Netherlands is just beginning to become familiar to you in the second week here in the brick castle that you realize is more like a dusty mansion than the stuff of fairy tales.  The overabundance of pork products and sporadic rain will soon be as comforting as clam chowder and New England winters, you’re sure of it.  How could it not be?  This is how it’s going to be: amazing.  The experience of a lifetime.  This is what everyone has told you.  Try not to miss your boyfriend, or your family. Try not to miss anything.  It’s never been an issue before—the homesickness.  Countless sleepovers and summer camps and vacations with friends have never resulted in missing home.  For the first time, you’re going to miss everything a lot more than you ever have, you just don’t know it yet.

Rolling over again, you reposition the pillow on your face, testing the added weight of the blanket over your head.  You can compromise your breathing for a little silence.  The walls here are thin, the quietest conversation reverberates off them.  You need to get to sleep but your brain continues to buzz along with the voices next door.  You have to get up early tomorrow.

Sinking down further in the blanket, the noises next door seem to be settling down.  Still, the brain refuses to rest.

Before you get the phone call, you think you’re going to Scotland.  The study abroad program was set up so that you and your seventy-nine other classmates could have long weekends in which to travel, with a train pass that will take you anywhere in Europe.  Last week you opted to forgo the marijuana-scented streets of Amsterdam to explore the quaint cobblestones of Brussels, a city you were only vaguely aware was in Belgium prior to your trip.  And tomorrow, you think, you will hop the 10 AM plane to Scotland and ponder the undergarments of its kilt-clad residents.

Instead, there’s a knock on the door.

Later, you’ll want to say that the knock jarred you out of a deep sleep.  It seems more appropriate that way, that the news that would break your world apart would come so dramatically.  But no, you’re still awake, pretending you don’t hear the knocking.  It’s a Wednesday night—or is it a Thursday morning?—either way, it’s three AM.  The only knocking should be coming from your friend upstairs who would like to tell you the tales of “America Night” at the bar down the street and how she made out with another Dutch teenager with too much hair gel.  She can wait. 

You don’t know it yet, but you won’t go to Scotland.  Or Germany.

“Who’s knocking?” You look across the room and realize your roommate, Heather, is awake.  In the darkness you can only make out her silhouette. 

“Ignore it,” says your other roommate, Jill, from her bed on the floor, “they’ll stop.”

But it doesn’t stop.  It knocks again.  And again, faster, louder, again.

“What the hell.”  You’re not sure which roommate says this.  But your heart begins to inch toward your throat.  You don’t know what you’re supposed to be afraid of yet, but the persistent knocking lets you know:  something is not right.

The door opens.  You begin to protest but hear your own name before you can make a sound.  A woman you’ve never seen before is holding a piece of paper.  On it, your home phone number.  The familiar numbers have never looked so utterly terrifying.

She doesn’t say “emergency,” or “urgent,” or “dire,” or any word that would suggest to you that your life has suddenly become very different without you even knowing it.  Instead of giving any sort of clue, she says “it’s important,” her Dutch accent makes it sound like a question.  Important is okay, important does not mean your life has changed.  Important means your mom is calling to ask you what time your flight gets into London in two weeks, or where she’s meeting you and she’s just forgotten about the six hour time difference.  You try to calm your frantic brain with rationale, but the heart won’t listen and continues to move steadily up your throat: a throbbing, salty ball.  It’s hard to breathe, everything’s getting dizzy.

You pick up your laptop from the desk under your bed and bring it into the hallway.  You don’t want to keep your roommates awake.  The woman follows you and stands awkwardly in the hallway.  She leans on the old wooden staircase and crosses her legs at the ankles.  Her shoes are black, her entire outfit is black.  You don’t know if it’s the uniform of the castle night staff or an eerily fitting fashion choice.  The telephone program in your computer starts up, the one your parents insisted you get so that you could keep in touch from far away without costing too much money.  Earphones are plugged in, resting on the curve of your ear, positioning the sound down the canal and the phone rings across the ocean.  Your heart must be beating at least ten times in a row between each trill.

When your stepfather answers the phone his voice betrays no sign of distress.  It’s calm, even, as it always is, even in a crisis.  “Let me get your mother,” he says.  He could be saying something as simple as “we’re out of milk.”  You allow yourself to breathe.  You bring your hand up to brush the hair out of your face and it’s shaking.  The hallway is suddenly very cold.  You take another, slow breath.
There are a few seconds of peace before you hear your mother’s voice.  Any relief you’ve accumulated dissipates immediately.  It’s as broken as your stepfather’s is steady.  Her words sound almost soggy.  She’s been crying for hours.  There is bad news, terrible news, the experience of a lifetime, on the other end of the line and you don’t want to hear it.  You want to stop time and crawl back into bed and pretend nothing ever happened and run blissfully away to Scotland.  But you can’t.  Your heart leaves your throat and sinks to your stomach with lightning speed.  It hits the walls of your insides and makes you want to vomit.
And in that moment, two thoughts come into your head.  The first: Oh my god, the stupid cat died.  This is what it has to be, of course.  Captain Jack, the escape artist housecat, though fearless against foxes and possums and even horses has finally met his match with an SUV.  Your mother’s favorite pet is no more.  This is it, you think.  That’s what it has to be because you don’t even want to think about the other thing it could be.  That other thing isn’t you, it isn’t your life, isn’t your destiny, it’s years and years away and you are in no way prepared for it to happen now.  Let it be the cat, you pray to no one, because you’ve been quite sure that no one has been listening for years now.  But it’s the thing you want most in the world right now.  
The cat.  Not Dad.
But of course, that’s what it is.  You knew it, you realize you must have known it when you couldn’t sleep, or when you felt sick to your stomach at dinner, or the feeling you had when you bought the plane ticket to Scotland and somewhere deep inside you, something knew you weren’t going.  It wasn’t the voices on the other side of the wall, and it wasn’t the pork burgers or the excitement of traveling to another country that kept you from sleep.  It was because your life was breaking into a million tiny pieces three thousand miles away from your body and that’s why the universe suddenly felt so wrong.  
The words your mother chokes out in between sobs are as good as gibberish to you.  After “it’s your dad,” words that sound like accident, sudden, heart attack, hospital, ambulance, tired, dead, gone, passed away—none of these make any sense.  He was not healthy, he hadn’t been for a long time, but it was always simple things, things that could be fixed with the right motivation.  Weight gain, thyroid problem, bad habits, a bad back.  You were ready for a hospital visit, more than ready for a medical scare, but you weren’t ready for it to be over.  Done, gone.  So many people survive heart attacks and worse every day, and are home within a week: warm, well, alive.  How could this have happened to him?  How could this happen to you?
By this time your roommates are on either side of you, you don’t know when they decided to follow you but now they’re holding onto your arms and looking at each other.  They don’t know what’s happened yet, they can’t hear the noise inside your headphones, they can only guess, hold on, and prepare themselves.  The woman in black sees your distress and asks if you’d like some coffee.  Later you’ll find out that she’s the mother of the boy who flirts with you at the bar down the street, the one who tried so hard to kiss you so many times but couldn’t because you had a boyfriend.  You’ll find this out weeks later and hug him—not because you want him but because you’re connected in some weird way, his mother played a part in your fucked up story.  They are the walk-on parts in this movie, the characters that stay in the storyline for only a few minutes but are important nonetheless.  His name is Mickey, and his mother’s name is long and Dutch and you will never remember what it is.
You’re still on the phone, crying to your mother while your roommates hug you.  She tells you she’s going to get you home.  Your stepfather calls the airport and gets you a flight direct from Amsterdam to Hartford.   It’ll cost a thousand dollars but in less than a day you’ll be home.  The roommates keep whispering, “what happened? Are you okay?”  All you can say is “what?” and “how?” and in your head you scream, why, why, why?
You type three words on the screen of your computer because you can’t say it.  Not because you’re talking with your mom but because you can’t say them out loud.  Your fingers trembling:
My. Dad. Died.
“Oh my god.”  The pressure on your arms increases.  They lean over you, holding you, pressing you to them and saying they’re sorry, they’re so, so sorry.  Jill jumps up and tells Heather to stay with you while she goes to get help.  But who can help?
You can’t look at Heather.  When you found out her mother died last year you felt sad, and thought “poor Heather, you poor thing,” and imagined how sad it would be to lose a parent.  Before you got that phone call, you had no idea what it could be like.  You’ve suddenly entered another plane of existence, a new level of empathy.  Now you are Someone Who Has Lost.  Someone Who Has Grieved.  No longer on the outside looking in at people who you thought you could sympathize with, now you are empathy, you are understanding, you know what it’s like to have someone you love forcibly ripped from you.  The core of your being has been changed forever and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.
The next few hours are like minutes, they could even be seconds.  Time has never gone by so quickly before.  Jill finds one of the teachers, the assistant director of the program.  Your mother sends you the flight information.  You take the bag you were going to bring to Scotland and your roommates check to make sure you have everything you need because you’re having trouble moving now.  They hug you and hold you and say they’ll miss Scotland to take you to the airport but you say no, I can do it myself.  This is obviously not true, as your eyes are nearly puffed shut.  By the time you get to the airport the lids will be bruised from the rubbing and crying, a grotesque purple eye shadow, and your upper lip will swell as if someone has punched you in the face.  The teacher drives you in his own car to the train station, buys your ticket, and stays with you all the way to the airport, making small talk the entire trip.  Suddenly it’s not three in the morning, it’s ten, and you’re sitting in the cold plastic chair in front of the gate and waiting for the plane that will take you home.
Of course now you try to remember the last time you saw him.  It hurts everywhere but it’s the only thing you can do.  It was in Boston, the day you left for Europe.  He was supposed to meet you at a restaurant but he was so late, you thought he wouldn’t show up. He was late to the restaurant, but you shouldn’t have doubted him—he wouldn’t miss this.  Just like he never missed one of your performances in the annual high school play, your voice recitals, band concerts, or anything that made you feel important.  He may have missed the first act sometimes, or the other songs, but he was always there for your shining moment.  You could always find him in the crowd, smiling so wide with tears in his eyes.  The tears used to embarrass you to no end.  
You were about ready to leave, and then there he was in the restaurant.  He was pale, patched with red and out of breath, but his famous smile was as bright as ever.  He couldn’t find a parking spot nearby and had to walk on his bad knee and bad back for a block or so.  You cringed as he sunk slowly down onto a chair that looked awkward and small under his large frame.  It hurt him to even sit down, and it hurt you to watch him wince.  His knee must be getting worse, you thought.  You poked at your salad and feigned annoyance that he was late like always, but he knew you were just glad he was there at all.  Then he smiled wider, happy to see his daughter one last time before her “adventure.”  In between deep breaths he gushed about how excited he was for you, how you’re doing what he always wished he could do.  Going overseas, seeing the world…but of course keeping your grades up and not partying too hard—this he said with a touch of his room-shaking laugh.  He smiled, winked, and you were reminded of the times he snuck a bottle of vodka into your dorm room last year, hidden in a Perrier bottle, winning the adoration of your college friends.
Being a young parent at age twenty-four, he never had the money to leave the country.  And now, single again at forty-seven and living with his elderly father as he paid off his various debts, he had no one to go with even if he had the time and money. “Send me postcards,” he said, “I want one from every place!  Maybe I’ll go with you when you go back some day.”   
You only had fifteen minutes together.  He left you with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.  He’d always been overweight, but in recent years he’d grown even more. You couldn’t remember a time when you could fit your arms around him.  Every time you spoke to him you dropped hints about healthy eating habits and what kinds of exercises are light on the knees and back.  
“How about you lose ten pounds by the time I get home?” you wagered.  
“I’ve already lost thirteen,” he said, “I’m at my best weight in five years!”  But you insisted, ten more before Christmas.  He agreed.  Another hug and kiss, and you both turned in separate ways.  You, towards the bus that would take you to the airport.  Him, back to work in the city, and only fourteen more days of life.
Now, in the airport, you begin to sob again.  It’s impossible to remember it all.  You need more conversation, you want word-for-word but your mind won’t let you.  You’re forgetting him already and you can’t, you just can’t!  This is all so impossible.  Without the arms of your friends around you, holding it in, it all comes out again.  Crying until your eyes are dry and red, your body continues to sob and shake.  You have never felt so alone in your entire life.  Not even that time you got lost in Toys R Us when you were six, because in Toys R Us, Dad was only one aisle away.  Now he’s not even three thousand miles away.  Now, he’s gone.
People walking by stare at you, but it’s worse when they don’t.  It’s like the time you broke your arm snowboarding when you were twelve.  You were small and broken, screaming for help as people just skied by you, pretending they couldn’t hear you.  Can’t you see how much pain I’m in? Can’t you help me?
An elderly couple sits across from you.  The wife is wearing a sequined sweatshirt and too much makeup.  She seems mildly interested in your tragedy but you don’t tell her much.  In return, she tells you how wonderful Rome is.  The old man looks at you with soft eyes.  When his wife leaves to go to the bathroom he asks if you were close to the family member who died.  “It’s my dad,” you say, which makes you sob harder.  When you look up, the man has tears in his eyes.
“I lost two granddaughters this year.” You look at him, open your mouth, and close it again.  You nod.  His luggage tag says Antonio.

On the plane you don’t eat the food.  You look out the window and stare at the clouds underneath the plane.  They look like the snowy hills that broke your arm.  Long ago, people believed heaven was in the clouds, that God and heaven were both there and when you died you became an angel and you lived with everyone you’ve ever loved and you couldn’t go any higher into the sky.  Then they discovered that clouds were nothing but chemicals and smoke and particles of things, and there was so much more sky beyond the Earth.  Clouds were science, not spectacular.  They never were.  So where is Dad? Is he here, somewhere between the science and the sky?  Somewhere else?  Nowhere?  Faith is hard for you these days.  There’s nothing to believe in right now.  You close your eyes and wish for sleep, but they’re too moist.  Eventually sleep does come, but only for a short while.
When you finally land you see your mother, brother, best friend, and boyfriend all waiting for you.  They enclose you in a circle of their arms and chests and it’s so warm but you’re still shivering.  And so begins the hardest week you will ever face.  You are the next of kin, you are over eighteen, and this is what you have to do.  Sign these papers, which flowers?, do you think he would have liked this?, what do you think?, what should we do?  Too many decisions you never thought you’d have to make.  That you shouldn’t have to make.  You can’t remember what his favorite flower is…was…or even his favorite color.  It might be white roses, it might be blue, but maybe you never asked.  The reality of this, that you’ll never even get to say “hi, dad,” let alone ask him all of the things you never thought to ask him hits you across the face.  Every step and every sad epiphany breaks your heart.
The tears left you in the terminal.  Now you can only stare, dry-eyed at the world.  At the funeral, people tell you you’re so brave.  You even sing a song at the ceremony, accompanied on guitar by your boyfriend who only met your father once.  This is the last performance you will ever give to your dad.  You don’t cry.  And you don’t feel very brave.  Inside you’re screaming at everyone who tells you you’re so brave not to cry, how can you not cry, can’t you see? Don’t you know? My tears are spread over 3,000 miles of ocean, there’s none left for you all to see right now.
On the plane ride back—because you do go back, you have to, your dad was too happy for you to have that experience, you couldn’t let him down, and besides, it was so expensive and the experience of a lifetime and maybe, just maybe the escape will help the grief be a little easier to handle, though you doubt this—you stare out the window again.  The reds and yellows and purples of a sunset seen from above the clouds suggest to you that there are beautiful things up here in the air.  You realize you wouldn’t mind, if you forgot science for a bit.  Give in to religion or fantasy or whatever it’s called these days, the days where fate is hard to find and even harder to believe.  You’d like to think Dad is up here, somewhere in between the purple and the red, flying high above everything, seeing the world as he never could in life.
Later, in the snow crusted tips of the Swiss Alps you’ll remember something your dad said once.  That heaven, as he sees it, is whatever your mind’s idea of heaven is.  You’ll remember the days before he lost his body to illness and obesity, when he used to swim and hike mountains and ski with his old college friends.  The white mountains of New Hampshire, the stretches of beach on Cape Cod, the endless hiking trails of Maine, these were the places where his spirit could be free.  “I’ll lose the weight,” he used to say, “I need to climb Mount Washington again.”  If there ever was a heaven for your father, the gorgeous Swiss Alps is the kind of place you’d imagine him resting forever.   
It’s nice up here, you know he’d say, I like the view.  
In the airplane you find your tears again, they fall silently into your lap, and you imagine them spread across the ocean, mixing with the purples and reds of the sky as they make their way back to Earth.


  1. That's just beautiful, Bee. Beautifully written and perfect. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. That was such an emotional and well written piece. It was captivating and heart-breaking at the same time. Thank you.