Breaking The Silence
By Lisa M. Zaran
After my father died, I had his body cremated. When it was over, I carried
him in the grip of one hand like a sack from the market. All one hundred and
sixty five pounds of him fit neatly inside a small, brown, rectangular
container the size of a child's shoe box. The box had been placed inside a plastic bag with the crematorium's name and insignia printed across the front. The picture was of a white dove taking flight off the face of a treacherous mountainside. "After life's climb," it read, "American Aftercare."
My father was Norwegian but, I guess that didn't matter.

I paid cash for him: $692.87.

He sat on the passenger side floorboard of my 1987 Toyota pick up while I
drove. A large, black wire belonging to some mechanical part of the vehicle hung
down and bounced against the side of the bag while I rode. Shwick, shwick,
shwick it went all the way home.

I put my father in the far right corner of the coat closet and took my four
year old daughter to our community swimming pool. While there she told an
elderly woman that her Papa had died and turned into a box. I shouted at
her to get back over in the shallow end. "Do you want to drown?" I asked
her. She shrugged but doggie-paddled back over anyway. The old woman
ledged her way to the deep end where my daughter could not go and serve as a
reminder of what was floating in that woman's future.

I told my husband that I wanted to buy a plaque that reads, "Final Resting
Place" for the closet door, but he said that that was going to far. "Think
of all the times you will have to repeat yourself by explaining to people
what it means." He cautioned paternally.

I had to repeat myself three times to the Director of American Aftercare and
he misspelled my grandmother's name on the death certificate request form
anyway. I partly wondered whether that would make my father's death not
legal. Or is that going too far?

I found my daughter standing in the open doorway of the closet talking to
her Papa. Frustrated, she slammed the door and shouted that all her friends
at school have grandpa's that can talk.

My sister-in-law's father died five days after mine, so then she got all the

My natural sister called me up and said that my father had been in her house
that morning because a shelf he had given her suddenly dropped off the wall
and broke. She said it was probably a sign from him that he was okay. I
figured that if he was really okay he wouldn't go around invisible and start
smashing things. I didn't tell her that.

My father's sister's husband called long distance from Norway to ask when we
planned on holding the service. I didn't want to tell him that there wasn't
going to be a service, so I said next week. I ended the conversation by
saying 'har det' which translated means 'have it' but in Norwegian really means
'good bye'. I wanted to hear him say good bye.

My father spends most of his time in the closet now except when I pull him
out to show my nieces and nephews what he looks like.

My husband says it gives him the willies. When I ask him what gives him the
willies, he just says, "All of it." then shakes his head as if to knock the
thought of all of it right off him.

My husband's worst fear is to die of a heart attack. Mine is to die from a
lung disease like my father, but I still smoke.

My father told me before he died that he wished I'd quit smoking. Then he
said, "But, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride." And I said, "If
wishes were nickels I'd be rich." We went on like that until my father fell
into a coughing fit.

My daughter told a perfect stranger that her mom does drugs because she
learned at school that cigarettes are a drug. The perfect stranger, who
happened to be the cashier at the grocery store, looked quickly at me and
quickly away. She probably thought I was an alcoholic because I was buying
a twelve pack of cheap American beer.

When I drink beer, I smoke more.

My father never drank. I never, in all my life, saw him drink.

My mother told me once that my father didn't want children. That he wasn't
meant to be a father. When I was eight I lost eleven cents on my way home
from the market. My father made me go back and look for it. When I was
nine my best friend made me drink dish soap by telling me it was lemonade.
It burned my throat and when I ran in to tell my father, he told me I
shouldn't have been so stupid.

Dr. Corey had explained the condition of my father's lungs like this: "your
lungs," he said, "are like balloons. They expand when you pull air in and
they retract to push air out, effortlessly. His lungs, on the other hand,
are as tough as the skin of a football." Then he asked me, "Have you ever
tried using your mouth to blow up a football?" I thought it was a really
stupid question. Of course not, I wanted to say, have you? My father
didn't tell his doctor that lungs aren't made up of skin either, so, the
comparison was really stupid.

Sometimes a death can make you stupid.

My boss' dad died. She told everybody. After telling me I overheard her
telling someone else using the same words she had used with me. I thought
it was really very bold of her to do that because then we had to go around
all day affecting concern and that takes a lot of effort.

I didn't tell anybody except my closest friend, Liah, and only then because
she asked me how he was doing. It would have been stupid to lie. Oh, not
so good, or something like that. Besides, people eventually found out

For twelve years before he died, my father lived off the land. What I mean
is, he never lived in an apartment or house or a trailer or anything like
that. He camped. It was like an eternal camping trip because he never came
home. Not that he had a home to come home to because my mom left him when I was fourteen. Everything he owned fit inside a Chevy van. I think he was
keen on nature and I think he grew close to God while he was out there. I
mean, wouldn't you if all you saw when you opened your eyes was the sunlight
trickling through pine trees and all you heard were birds and crickets and
babbling brooks? My father was someone who lived on this earth, not of it.

I think the reason he hardly ever came to visit was because he thought he
had failed us somehow. Did he? Or that maybe we wouldn't understand. We
didn't. I still don't, but I am not cross about it. He did what he had to
do. Once I told a lie about not being home when the phone rang so I
wouldn't have to talk. My daughter overheard me telling my husband, "I'm
not home!" I wanted to explain myself to her but she said, "Sometimes
parents do what they have to do."

When my father came to live with me we were as separate as sticks are from
one another, but, we were of the same tree, so we made do. Finally, he
comes home, I remember thinking, just to die. I have been trying to branch
out ever since.

My daughter said that when she dies she wants to come back as a duck because ducks can fly faster than cheetah's can run. Her teacher said.

My sister called me up and she was crying. She said, "I'm having a bad dad

I've had some of those.

I am going through the guilt process now. Sometimes, while my father was
here, I would call my sister to complain about how hard it was taking care
of him. And sometimes I would get irritated at my father for being so
helpless all of the time, and I think now, looking back, I could have loved
him better, had I not been so caught up in the dependency issue. His on me,
I mean. Or mine on him.

I can't imagine how it feels not being able to breathe. The only thing I
have to compare it to is pneumonia. I had that once and it was horrible.
But I didn't require purified oxygen twenty-four hours a day, and I didn't
require breathing treatments, and I didn't require steroids to open up the
lungs, and I didn't turn completely grey like the color of ashes and die
with my mouth open.

Cremated ashes are not grey. They are tan with flecks of grey and black and
brown. And they aren't soft. They are hard and gritty, like sand, with
pieces of bone mixed in. And they are heavy, about the weight of a sack of
potatoes. My father's are, anyway.

I imagine that when my father was cremated, the fire entered first through
his open mouth.

I heard once that when a person is cremated you don't necessarily get that
person's ashes. If I found out that I had been saving someone else's ashes,
that I had touched someone else's ashes, I don't know if I could find it in
my heart to forgive the crematorium. I would be pissed and then, I'd
probably get the willies.

Forgiveness takes work. Like love takes work. Like marriage. It isn't
something you can be talked into because it's the right thing to do. It
isn't about feelings or emotions. It's work. And it takes a lot of courage
and strength to forgive. Some might say that forgiveness occurs gradually,
in steps, but I would have to disagree. Like my father used to say: You
can't please all of the people all of the time and you can't please some of
the people all of the time, you can only please some of the people some of
the time.

Sometimes I can't please anybody.

My father was a pleasant person. He pleased everybody. Except my mother.
She was displeased and so she left.

My mother never said good bye to my father when she left and so he didn't
say it to her either, when he left. Although now that I think about it, he
didn't say it to me or my sister and we didn't say it to him.

A nurse at the hospital told us to say good bye and to tell our father
everything that had made us angry and everything that had made us sad and
happy and especially everything that had made us proud. We never did. It
seemed kind of silly at the time because you just don't know. When someone
dies, even expectedly like my father because they are very sick, you are
still so surprised. A death is gradually happening for months and months
and then it finished and you are still shocked. Wow, you say, I can't
believe he died! You are kind of relieved because it killed you to watch
them suffer, even though my father was very stoic all the way up until he
died. He always put on a brave face for me and my sister. Always. But
still. I can't imagine his thoughts. Or whether he knew he was actually
dying. Acceptance isn't so clear cut either.

So there we were, my sister and I, both sitting on these ridiculously
uncomfortable vinyl chairs, me on one side and her on the other. Our
father's body between us with the sheet pulled up neatly to his chest and
his arms at his sides, each of us with a hand in our hands. He had just
died and so he was still pretty movable, or flexible, I should say, like he
was sleeping, except my father snored and the silence told us otherwise.
And she was crying and I was crying and the whole world just kept going as
if nothing remarkable had happened, and the nurse was being really helpful
and really nice and she was the one who called American Aftercare to come
pick up the body and she was the one who made the arrangements and spoke to the funeral director, so I didn't have to. Outside it was just beginning to
turn grey because it was 5:30 in the evening and it was Superbowl Sunday and
of all the Superbowls this one just happened to be playing right down to
road in Tempe, Arizona, and we could kind of hear the noise. The nurse had
the game on television. My father probably didn't tell her that he didn't
care for football. Football to him was really soccer, but he was dying
anyway, so what did he care what was on television.

And then my sister said, "I can't believe he's gone." Breaking the silence.
And I said, "Me either." Keeping it broken. Then I said, "Maybe he just
forgot to stay."

Previously published in Black Dirt


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