Death by Installment: 1. Cold and Stiff

I will never forget the way my father felt when I touched him at his funeral. He was stiff and cold. He was lifeless. This should not have come as a surprise. My dad was dead. I knew this. Yet when I kissed his forehead, he was thick and heavy like a statue.

I had touched a dead person before this night. When a new community college opened very close to my family home when I was in my early teens, my family took a tour during the Open House. One part of the tour that fascinated me was the medical area, and therein lay cadavers. The guide explained that most of the bodies that were donated to the school for study were John and Jane Does. People who were nameless and claim-less. This made me think hard about who these people really were. They showed us one body that had already been carved up, the flaps of skins back where they belonged but incisions clear to the eye. This old guy with white hair was dead, and I had a morbid compulsion to touch him, so I did. He felt like stiff chicken skin. His white thinning hair and wrinkles showed him to be a man in his 50s. He was dead.

My dad was dead and felt like the dead John Doe. Less rubbery though. It was almost impossible to reconcile this body as my father, until I rubbed his head. My dad had a crew cut for 30 years from the time he served in the US Army in the 50s. He had two crowns on his head, and until he received his first military-issue buzz cut, he had a terrible time with cowlicks. 30 years of crew cut makes each hair on a person’s head very thick, like hair brush bristles. So my dad would joke when kids saw his hair, “Head rubs for a quarter” because everyone seemed to want to rub his crazy hairbrush-like hair.

So I rubbed the hair on his head as he lay out in the funeral parlor, and finally he felt like my father. Yet I remember very clearly next laying my hand on his chest and being upset by the absolutely lifeless quality of his body. No pulse. No breathing. Nothing. Dead.

My son was six months old at the time of my father’s death. I never got the chance to explain to my dad that I “got it” as in–

Dad, I get it now. I understand why you worked so hard and cared so much and were crabby sometimes and goofy others, why you just wanted to be with your kids, and how it must have hurt you so deeply when I treated you like an embarrassment, like a weirdo. Jeez, dad, you were just doing your best. And it didn’t help matters one bit that you and I were so fucking similar. We clashed mightily, you and I. And you hit me, and I wanted to hurt you, and I cursed you, and you lost your patience with me on many occasions, and I could only acknowledge after you died that you just did your best. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but you did what you knew. You were a good man, dad. I never let you know that. You were a better dad to me than I probably deserved considering the way I treated you. And I probably had trouble getting over your death because I never appreciated you while you were living. Not toward the end anyway. Sure, when I was little, at an age I cannot recall the events of my life, I must have treated you well. But as I grew up I gave you nothing but shit, dad. And I apologize for that. For I didn’t know any better. You passed your horrible temper on to me. And the bruises you left on me sank deep into me, dad, and colored everything after with that ugly green-yellow-purple stain.

I had trouble letting things go. I have trouble letting things go. It took me years–years–to forgive you, dad, because you scared me and generally made me hate living in our house. I wanted to run away so many times, and not the way I usually did, when I stormed out screaming “I’M NEVER COMING BACK!!!” and then showing up three hours later and going straight to my room and slamming the bedroom door shut, the room I shared with my younger brother.

Enough of this. There’s more to say later about my inability to let things go. More to say about my dad and about what a terror I was as a child. But for now, I just wanted to say that my dad was not the first dead person I touched, but he was the first dead person I touched who I knew. Yet I barely knew him.

[Note: I decided to post this finally more than a month after writing it. I probably won’t do any more in this series, but at least I wanted to mention that my dad’s name was Dean Matthew Caldwell and he was born on August 8, 1933 and he died on October 24, 1986.  TC, Feb 13, 09]

[Update: A friend pointed out that I entered my own birthdate for my dad’s. Ha. It’s corrected. I’m sure Dr. Freud would have something to say on the matter. TC Feb 27, 09]

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