Today marks the three year anniversary of discovering my father’s death, and it’s the little things, really.
I try to fall asleep the night before the anniversary. My wife types on her computer in the other room peacefully. Here, it’s dark. I know, I just know, that if I roll over, face the even darker spot, I’ll see the corpse there, behind me. And my body shifts uncomfortably the way it does when you just kind of want to roll over, but I ignore it. Nope. Not today. It’ll be there. I know it.
But, like a child told not to peek, I can’t help myself. I glance behind me. Within the split second, shadows take on shapes—an arm here, a leg there. No. I turn my head back, heart pounding. I can still feel the maggots on my skin, but only on my back, and I know, I just know, that if I glance again, they’ll be everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.
In the morning, I almost forget, somehow. I have WiFi and cellular turned off at first; my laptop is off off; I haven’t adjusted the building toy like number blocks in my little Wizard of Oz calendar in my office yet, and I almost forget, somehow.
I’m tidying, when I come across the notecard I left out for my wife last night. Among other reminders, I’d added a dry, Happy birthday, Farrah.
Farrah—my schizophrenia tamagotchi, my recurring puppy hallucination—let me know—in the way that imaginary dogs let you know things, like when you realize something in a dream—last year, that July 6th was her birthday. The anniversary. She’d appeared for the first time around the one year anniversary, with the collar whose bright red color hovered over it, with the name tag I saw as a mental flash that read Farrah for reasons I still haven’t figured out. So the timing was about right.
But what do you do for an imaginary dog? I try to telepathically beam her some imaginary biscuits, in the bright white void stored in my brain I imagine she retreats to when she’s not out here with me, projected onto the real world.
I whisper it out loud. “Happy birthday, Farrah.”
I don’t own a lot of memorabilia items at this point. But one of them is the purple dress.
I think it’s noble, to keep it, really. I mean, you can’t just donate cursed items to Goodwill, or let them run free in a landfill. Some innocent child could find that, Jumanji style, you know.
I was wearing the purple dress when I found my father. I was wearing the purple dress when I scrubbed my hands raw next door. I was wearing the purple dress when I scribbled a police report. I was wearing the purple dress when the coroner said, “You look really young.”
I only wear one thing at a time for various reasons, and at the time, I was wearing that dress, for about a year. It was a simple v-neck, short sleeve, knee length dress. I owned it in many colors. When even the color choice seemed like too much, I cut down to just the green, because it was my wife’s favorite, because it brought out my eyes. I wore just the green dress for another year.
During that year, my grandmother died. When the end was coming—weeks after the beginning of a pandemic—I headed over to her house—the one I’d scrubbed my hands raw in, written the police report in—wearing the purple dress, and having packed other colors, because I didn’t want the rambunctious dog in the house to ruin one of my current, green dresses.
Grandma was unconscious, had been for a while, and I’d said what needed to be said, made my peace, but I was ready to simply be there, as I told my mom when I was heading there.
Grandma died while I was in the car, driving there from my house a mile away.
I wear something else now. I donated all of those old outfits eventually. Except for the purple dress.
I think I’ve grieved my father twice, really.
I remember this dream I had in which my best friend died. It was a form of a PTSD dream after my father did die, and the striking thing about the dream wasn’t the death or the gore—there was none; they died off screen, so to speak. I was worried about them, in the dream; I was at a family party, and many people who are deceased in the real world were with us without question, but I just kept noticing their absence. They were on their way, from work, across town, which they usually commuted to via electric bike. But they were late.
In the dream, I finally thought to check my phone, to look for them on Find My. Even though it wasn’t real, I’ll always remember the way my stomach sunk when I saw their phone’s location was a funeral home. There was an accident. They were gone. It was being processed as evidence.
The dream, after that, was a montage. Days, weeks, months, years of unimaginable grief. Talking to their parents. Going through their things. Therapy. Anniversaries. Grieving.
I woke up with a lifetime of trauma I hadn’t endured, of grief for someone who had never died.
I did the same thing with my father, in a way; I grieved his death once before he died, in the waking world. In a way, I grieved him when my parents divorced and I went with my mom, too—just his presence.
But, the grieving his death.
It was October 2nd, 2017. I woke up in a dorm in Cambridge I wouldn’t live in long and checked my laptop half awake. By the time my eyes opened fully, I was in the hallway, desperately searching for someone who could help me, even though no one could.
It was everywhere.
Deadliest mass shooting in American history.
Blocks from home. Blocks from home, thousands of miles from where I was, pleading for help.
My father wasn’t a big selfie kind of guy, but he’d sent me one just two days before. Working this stupid country music festival all weekend, he’d texted, grinning widely for the camera in a spotlight basket high over the ground. Behind him, Las Vegas Boulevard. Behind him, a window in Mandalay Bay. Most haunted image I’ve ever seen.
It took hours to get a hold of him. In those hours, I lived a lifetime of grief. I worried for almost everyone I knew, remembering how to breathe every time someone marked themselves safe online, then forgetting again when I realized how many people hadn’t.
I forgot to breathe sometimes for weeks, until I landed in a psych ward, and then, finally, back home.
Home, where my father had been, fast asleep.
He had, impulsively, taken that night off.
I don’t watch TV, really. But not long ago, I got the urge to rewatch Wall-E.
I didn’t get far. But I thought about the movie a lot.
Dad loved Disney. One of the last texts I ever sent him, one of the few that sat on his phone, undelivered forever, after he wasn’t there to see it, before I realized I was texting the void, was that my then girlfriend, now wife, had finally seen Wall-E.
She was drunk, after a friend’s housewarming party, and to sober her up, a friend and I sat her down in front of the TV we owned back then, with food and Gatorade and Wall-E, which is, I must say, still captivating, darkly beautiful. It has no real dialogue for most of the movie, but there is so much story, and new things to look at every time you see it. New items grab your attention from the endless landfills Wall-E explores (but there’s no cursed purple dress). It’s probably good to watch drunk, but I’ve never been drunk.
Dad loved Disney. He loved Wall-E. The movie, the adorable robot. So I told him that she’d finally seen it, because he considered it a crime otherwise.
He never heard the news, though.
Mom and I talk sometimes about the things we wish we could say to Dad, to Grandma. We’ve both made our peace with certain things. Do we really need to say I love you one more time? No. It’s, I finally found the water shutoff we were always looking for, or, She finally watched Wall-E, like right after you died. Also, we’re married now. By the way.
Later, my mom takes her car in for a tuneup, and I give her a ride home. We talk about the date. I lit a candle for your dad. Happy birthday, Farrah.
We stop before I continue on to my house, and we get out of the car to hug.
And I appreciate every moment we have together, but today, especially, I hug her one second extra long and one squeeze extra tight. I go home and hug my wife one second extra long and one squeeze extra tight.
And, for the people you love, I really hope, today, not tomorrow, you do the same.