Death and inheritance

What was your first death experience as a kid?

It’s winter. 1968. A school day. Breakfast was over and I was supposed to be getting something ready for school. Instead, my spacecraft had just touched down on an ice planet that wasn’t on any of the space maps, and I set out to search for signs of life, blaster at the ready.  Stow the school talk, boys. Stay alert! Behind me, our craft ticked loudly as it cooled in the hostile environment.

It's colder than Reverse Hell, which my friends and I had hypothesized just the other day, sort of a counterbalance to the Regular Hell, the fire one. If we had followed our cogitations to their logical conclusion, we probably would have seen that if there’s a Regular Hell and a Reverse Hell there probably had to be a point equidistant from both hells that would be as pleasant as a Spring Day. Purgatory. But my friend’s mom came in with a plate of cookies right then and we were distracted. During consumption of the cookies, we argued about which was better, Oreos or Chips Ahoy! Many claims were asserted and many crumbs jettisoned from our mouths as we debated. When the cookies were gone, we had forgotten about our theological innovation.

Careful, now. There could be an alien creature behind any of these snowdrifts.

I turn the corner and there’s our cat, Ozzie, laying on the freezing cold garage floor—and I’m back to reality, assailed by facts and data. It’s a Tuesday. Outside the garage door, my dad has started his car and left it running while he finished getting ready for work at his law office. I remember the thing I was supposed to be getting ready for school was to bring in a book for the book drive.

“What the heck?” I say, narrowing my eyes at this strange sight.

My sister had named the cat. She was ga-ga about The Wizard of Oz. She named our dog—what else?—Toto. I watched the first part of the movie, but the second part? When the flying monkeys dressed like pants-less bellhops come bounding onto the screen (as if suspended from elastic straps)? I bolted from the room. My dad good-naturedly teased me about it the next morning at breakfast. “You were scared like a little baby!” Laura added, providing color commentary.

The circular barbecue grill is laying on Ozzie’s tail. His eyes are open. I touch him with my foot and he doesn’t move. Then I shake him, at first gently. He’s stiff as a board. Alarmed, I pick him up and take him into the house immediately. I see my mom and cry, “Mom, Ozzie’s frozen,” assuming she knew how to unfreeze a cat.

“OhmyGodthecatisdead!” she exclaims as if she’s blurting out an answer on a game show.

“Dead?” I cry, erupting into tears.

The next thing I remember, I’m standing outside in a corner of the backyard with Laura and my dad. Faithful Toto is by our side, unaware of the import of the moment, just glad to be on the team. My dad’s leaning on a shovel and now Laura’s crying. I was cried out. Dad—my dad—offers a benediction of sorts, the world’s most irreligious man. The Reverse Pope.

Another thing about my dad. He didn’t show too many emotions. Locked up tight. He did anger and sarcasm—and angry sarcasm, for which there’s probably a German word. He was a funny guy.

I’m sure he felt other emotions. He was a human. I’m just not too sure he recognized what they were. They passed before the event horizon of his consciousness as he looked on uncomprehendingly, like an idiot at an opera in a long-dead language.  In all other ways, he was incredibly adept.

“Dear Lord,” my dad began said, tugging on the knot of his tie. He had just exited the front door of our house when this misfortune befell us. My mom ran out to the car waving her arms. This was one of those things where he had to be involved. Mothers don’t shovel dead animals into the frozen earth. Not mine. He leaned over to roll down the passenger’s side window and said, “What the hell?”

“Ozzie was a good cat and we all loved him,” he continued at Ozzie’s gravesite. “He lived a full life. He liked to sleep. We’re sure he’ll enjoy being with you there, up in heaven with all the other wonderful cats who were good cats and loved by their families.”

At an instinctual level, my brain realized this was an opportunity, so it made me wipe my nose on my sleeve and look up at him: “I don’t think I can go to school today,” I say. I’m sure now—sure—his first inclination was to say, “Don’t try to pull that one!” He wasn’t born yesterday. But, due to the solemnity of the moment, instead, he lays his hand on my shoulder and says, “It’s what’s Ozzie would have wanted,” with exaggerated sobriety.

It’s comical now. A dead cat’s wishes from beyond the grave. He had to say something comforting to me, but no example had been set for him. So, he ad-libbed.

He did take mercy on me and drive me the six blocks to school. That he could do. As we drove, I saw the other kids coming out, house by house, and making the trudge to Woodridge Elementary.

I thought, my dad’s going to have a talk with me about death.

“How you doing, champ?” he asked me as we drove.

What’s with champ? my brain thinks but I say, “I’m okay, I guess,” betraying my brain.

When we got to my school, he patted me on the shoulder and said, “You can do this, champ!”

I looked at him for a moment. “Okay,” I said, as if I’d only been issued so many words that day.

I got out of the car. When I was on the sidewalk, I looked back and my dad gave me a thumbs up, as if it were Our Sign. I responded in kind.

A friend walked up, eating the last of his breakfast. “Wa-du da wuff buff omay?” he said, which I knew meant, “Why did your dad drop you off today?”

I looked at him. “I’m grieving,” I said.

“Wuf?” he said.

“My cat froze,” I said.

My dad’s tires squealed as he accelerated out of the parking lot to zip in front of the car that was coming up fast.

That same year, my dad’s dad died from an infection in his heart. We would go to the hospital now and then and Laura and I would have to wait in the vast, harshly lit lobby for some reason. Irradiating. I can see now that my dad’s dad didn’t want us to see him like he was. Part of him, a big part, feared we’d say no thanks when offered the chance to see him. At an instinctual level, his brain knew that no one could love him.

When my grandfather finally died, everything was quiet in the house. The only sound was that made by my mom’s heels as she rushed back and forth, gathering things to pack for her trip to my grandma’s. She was going to be with my gramma in her Time of Need. It didn’t seem odd to me that my dad wasn’t going. That wasn’t something men do.

My dad never talked about his dad. “My old man always said . . .” or “That reminds me of my dad” or “My father gave this to me, John, and now I’m giving it to you.”

I remember my Mom making an off-hand comment about my Dad’s dad once: The man wouldn’t even hold his grandchildren! My Dad’s mother used to tell me the story, which she thought was funny for some reason, of how her youngest son, so, my dad’s little brother, one of three boys in the family, came in past curfew one night. He made it to the top of the stairs, where he encountered his father. His father knocked him down the stairs. When he landed on the first floor, his father said, “And turn out the lights!”

Through reverse engineering—stories I’ve heard, things my dad did, things my dad didn’t do—I’ve come to a conclusion about my grandfather. Here’s how I explain it now to my grown son: “Matthew, my grandfather was a 100 percent asshole. My father was a 75 percent asshole. I’m a 50 percent asshole and you’re a 25 percent asshole. The good news is your son will be a saint.”

“Be a good boy, John,” my mom said, kissing me on the head and turning to go out the front door. The house was dark and quiet, except for a faint sniffing sound so I went toward it like a detective dog.

I came around the corner in my PJs and I saw my dad sitting in the dark in the living room with his white bathrobe and yellow toenails. I came into the living room and sat in his lap. Looking back, it amazes me. We weren’t a touch-feely family.

My dad didn’t really acknowledge my arrival. He just accommodated my presence as if it neither gladdened him nor irritated him, taking me into his loose embrace almost reflexively, the way one shifts to make room for one last stranger on an elevator.

I did it without thinking. It came from a deep place I couldn’t control, like when the beloved family dog growls at you when you try to take his bowl. Something ancestral.

My dad was crying so I cried real tears, the same way I had learned to be instantly pissed off at something some dumbass did—pulling in front of me, for example. Instantly pissed off for real, like a switch was flipped. Anger was my dad’s most familiar emotion. He was pickled in it.

“They said he was going to get better!” he sobbed. I know that sounds cliché, but that’s precisely what he said.

I leaned my head into my dad’s chest and cried with him—but not for my grandfather. He was part of my family only technically speaking. A voice in the other room. I have no memory of him. Just a photograph my gramma had taped on her dresser mirror of him in an armchair. There’s a mirror behind him so you can see my gramma taking the photo and the flash of the flash bulb. He looked slightly alarmed.

“What am I going to do?” he sobbed.

I can see now that taking me into his lap was the closest my dad ever got to asking for help in his entire life. My dad lived life by himself. That was how he coped. The alternative, reaching out, was too frightening. I don’t blame him. I’m just glad I’m less like that every day. I was just collaterally damaged. He didn’t let anybody in and hoped they would mistake it for strength and go away.

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