Dear Dad

Marlene Olin

Dear Dad,

I'm still in shock. I mean, one minute you were talking, telling us that great story about Uncle Mike, you know—the one where he bought a truckload of butter during The Depression thinking he'd score big, thinking everybody needs butter who doesn't need butter? But he didn't think it through—did Mike ever think things through? It never occurred to him that butter melts awfully fast in a hot truck smack in the middle of July. And before you know it, he has buckets, no bathtubs, full of liquid yellowish sludge.

Then the next minute, you grabbed the arms of your wheelchair and stared at a spot on the wall. I thought you were going to say something. You know, like what's that fly doing on the wall? The fox-trot? Or—for the prices we pay this fancy schmancy Boca Raton Retirement Village, you'd think they could throw in a fresh coat of paint every now and then.

But then your shoulders slumped and your eyes closed and you just kinda crumbled.

Mom was the first one to notice.

"Sam! My Sam!"

She whacked her fist against her heart as if whacking hers could somehow jump-start yours. Then she bent down and pressed her cheek against your face. Your skin got cold so quickly. I never knew how quickly a person's skin could get cold.

After that everything was a blur. The nurse, the ambulance, the social worker. Before I knew it they had whisked you out and shipped you off. Your bed was still made. Your Sunday puzzle was still half finished. It was like you stepped out to get a cup of coffee and forgot to come back.

At first Mom cried. She understood what happened. How many people have come and gone over the years? First Gramps and Memaw. Then Uncle Lou and Aunt Sally. Mom's shoulders shook and her eyes scrunched. She knew the pain for what it was.

But then an hour later, whatever happened was erased. Mom plopped herself on the couch and asked me to turn on her favorite channel. Before I knew it, she was laughing along to Ellen DeGeneres and blowing her nose with a sock. When the hall intercom chimed at 5 o'clock, she grabbed her purse and sweater.

"Sam, are you ready to go to the cafeteria?"  she yelled. "Sam, it's time for supper."

She looked in the bathroom and the closet. She peeked under the bed and behind the shower curtain, too. Then she walked up to me —playing with the button of her blouse, tilting her head the way she tilts it three, four seconds before she starts to cry.

"I have no idea where your father is. It's time to eat. Wherever is your father?"

***

Dear Dad,

The neighbors are sending their condolences. Gerty and Seymour Schwartz in 5G came over with noodle pudding. Seymour, as usual, forgot his hearing aids.

"We'll try to make the service," said Gerty.

"Is someone nervous?" said Seymour. "If you're nervous, I have a pill."

The noodle pudding must have weighed five pounds. Gerty's hands were shaking overtime from the weight.

"I'mmm so sorry for your loss," she stuttered.

Everything was shaking. Her chin. Her mouth. Like a compass needle, the shaking.

"Is Sam hitting the sauce?" asked Seymour.

They told me that their nephew was taking them to the cemetery. Isn't that thoughtful? Between the walker and the wheelchair, there's a lot of logistics involved.

"Did you need any help?" they asked.

"I never realized there were so many decisions," I whispered. We all side-glanced the bedroom where Mom was napping. "The casket. The plot. It simplifies things if you're cremated. Do you think Dad should be cremated?"

"Has someone fainted?" said Seymour. "I have smelling salts. Some Cherry Heering."

A few moments later, Mom emerged from the bedroom wearing the same outfit she had on the day before. Ketchup stains. Soup splotches. An entire history of yesterday's meals was recorded on her clothes.

Suddenly, the finality of it all hit me like a slap. You were the one in charge. You were the one who combed Mom's hair. You were the one who laid out her blouse and slacks every morning. Now who's going to lay out her clothes?

"Did someone die?" asked Mom. "Did I hear you say that someone died?"

***

Dear Dad,

Larry and I drove Mom to the funeral home today to pick everything out. It's sort of like buying a car.

"There's a two for one special right now if you hurry," said our Grief Specialist. "Buy one plot, get one free."

He took our elbows and gave us the full tour. The coffin room. The headstone room.

"Of course many couples like you and Larry consider our four-pack," he continued. "When you buy a four-pack, I throw in a perpetual bush." His teeth, when he smiled, were blindingly white. "It's a miracle bush. No water. No sun. No nothing."

Larry was sweating sheets. Slowly he retreated and started inching toward the door. He almost made it. Then like lightning, the Grief Specialist two-fingered Larry's sport coat lapel and reeled him back in.

Again, the gleaming teeth. "You know," said the Grief Specialist, "it's never too soon to prepare for the future."

"Buddy," said Larry, "it's too soon for me."

Ten different kinds of urns were lined up on a shelf. Everything from gold inlaid to Tupperware. Mom ran her fingers up and down each one like she was at Macy's furniture department, redecorating her home.

"Pretty things," she said. "Pretty pretty things."

Larry threw me a look. You know that look. The one where he arches one eyebrow and smirks. Then he grabbed Mom's arms and positioned her on the couch.

"Like we told you yesterday, Mom. And the day before. Dad passed. Remember?  He collapsed in your apartment. Remember they called the ambulance?"

One by one Mom's synapses started clicking. First her face contorted in pain, then she doubled over and clutched her stomach. Soon her head was nodding no no no while her feet pawed the ground. When she looked up, everything in the Afterlife Salon took on new meaning. She tried to walk but her knees buckled. The Grief Specialist caught her swooning just in the nick of time.

"Sam, my Sam!" she cried. "Whatever happened to my Sam!"

Then she glanced at me without a hint of recognition and squeezed my hand. "I think my husband died. Isn't that sad? Fifty years of marriage, and now he's gone."

Larry tucked in his neck and examined his feet. He knew he was in trouble. Big trouble. I narrowed my eyes. If looks could kill, he'd be dead.

"What did I do?"

"You know what you did."

The Grief Specialist slinked over to a desk and started shuffling some papers. Larry latched onto my wrist and pulled me into next room. The Prayer and Meditation Chapel was mercifully empty. A beautiful stained glass window threw prisms of light. The plucking of harps played from discreetly placed speakers.

"How long are we going to do this?" said Larry. "Every day your mom wakes up all sunny and happy, and every day we lower the boom."

I tried to move but Larry just tugged my wrist tighter.

I'm drifting at sea, Dad. Don't you see? You were our anchor. You were our glue. You were the one that held everything together.

"Day in. Day out," said Larry. "Every fucking day we break your mother's heart."

***

Dear Dad,

Instead of springing for a service inside the funeral parlor, Larry suggested we do it all at the grave site. You know Larry. He goes on and on about how much easier it'll be to have everyone at one location, about how your friends would get lost negotiating their way from the chapel, finding every excuse in the book just to save another buck. But your friends know this cemetery inside and out. If this were Beverly Hills, they'd be giving guided tours to the tourists.

The Schwartzs, the Levines, the Greenbaums. Everyone was there. Sure, the Rent-a-Rabbi got your name wrong. He called you Sammy three times and if there was one thing you hated was being called Sammy. But they draped a flag over your casket and a few guys showed up from your old platoon.

The night before, I found some family photos and pasted them on a piece of poster board. So there, front and center, sitting right on an easel, was your wedding picture, those funny Polaroids we snapped at my Sweet Sixteen, a shot of you and Mom celebrating your twentieth in St. Tropez.

I looked at Mom and waited once more for the synapses to kick in. But there she sat, a vision in her best going-to-synagogue suit, humming a song, and inspecting her nails.

"We're saying goodbye to Dad, Mom. Don't you want to say goodbye to Dad?"

With fifty of our closest friends and family bunched together, hunched over that hole in the ground in the ninety-degree heat, Mom got up from her folding chair and left. We watched as she walked down rows of grave sites, stopping every few feet to read a marker. There were loads of familiar names. Neighbors. Women from her mahjong group. A few of your poker buddies.

Though the specifics still escaped her, the sadness remained real. We watched as she collected pebbles and one by one laid them at the feet of old friends.

I looked over at the crowd. Half of the people were wilting from the sun. The other half were scuttling toward their air-conditioned cars. Mom ignored all of them, walking farther and farther away, making her way toward the little stone house with the restrooms.

"Pretty soon she's gonna need a chip in her ear," said Larry.

I forgot to eat that morning. Remember how you always reminded me to eat? So I'm a little dizzy and a little hungry and a lot mean. The claws unfurled.

"You think this is funny? You think this is a situation comedy, Larry? You think our life is some ha! ha! ha! laugh track? Well, I could use a commercial break about now, Larry. I could use my father back and my mother sane and around five minutes of normal."

Once I started crying, it was difficult to stop. Snot dripped down my nose and my chin. I was gulping air and hiccupping sobs and basically falling apart. And if we didn't act fast, Mom would be straddling the cemetery fence and hightailing it toward I-95.

Larry “there there'd” me. Then he leaned over and kissed the top of my head. "Every day we tell your mother the truth and every day she forgets. What we're doing is cruel. It's hard on us and cruel to her."

"So what are you suggesting?"

And that's how it all started.

***

Dear Dad,

First thing this morning, Larry and I showed up at Mom's doorstep with a plan. I helped her shower and together we picked out fresh clothes. When it was time for breakfast, as usual she looked for you.

"Where's Dad? Has anybody seen Dad?"

Larry winked at me. We had rehearsed our script in the car driving over.

"We just dropped him off at the airport, Mom. He's heading to a convention."

"A convention?" said Mom.

Remember all those meetings you went to when I was a kid, Dad?  Back in the 60's there were no cell phones, no Internet, no email. People could disappear for hours.

"Yeah," I said. "A business convention. He'll be flying home in a few days tops."

Mom scrambled over to the couch and sat down. "That's odd. I usually help him pack. Did anyone help him pack?"

I was improvising now. The lies came easier than I thought. "He didn't want to wake you. Remember the brown suitcase? He took the brown suitcase."

I could practically see the gears spinning in her head. "Maybe he'll call," said Mom.

I sighed theatrically. "Don't count on it. Those long distance charges can cost a fortune."

"And believe me," said Larry, "this particular convention is a long, long distance away."

***

Dear Dad,

So that's how it's playing out. Every day we tell Mom you're on a business trip and every day she expects your return. Each afternoon she puts on a dress. Draws on some lipstick. Clips on a pair of earrings. There's a spring in her step and a smile on her face. Then she turns the channel to Ellen DeGeneres and waits for you to pass through the front door.

Of course she's disappointed sooner or later. When that five o'clock chime rings on the intercom, she looks around and realizes you're not there. But instead of being crestfallen, she's just a little sad. Dad's in Philly, we tell her. Or Chicago. Maybe one week it's Des Moines.

Then, arm in arm, Larry and I walk her to the cafeteria for supper. And we talk about you, remembering bits and pieces, trying to bring you back in some small way, trying to hold onto whatever we can.

Author Portrait

Marlene Olin's short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Prime Number, Upstreet Magazine, The American Literary Review, and Arts and Letters. Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart as well as the Best of the Net Prizes, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award.