The phone woke me early, in those hours reserved for bad news. It was my Aunt Doris.
"Joey, your father has passed," she said in her simple southern voice.
There was more. There had to have been more, but those are the only words I remember. Jesus was mentioned more than once.
And all at once my life changed. I began making the obligatory calls.
I'd made a commitment to meet my friend Barry at the gallery that morning to help him load some books. Barry grew up in Chattanooga and his southern dialect gives comfort against the flinty background of the north. I naturally gravitated to him when I moved to Massachusetts and he became a friend and mentor.
So when I saw him I broke down and cried. I told him about my dad, and of course he yelled at me for not calling to cancel with him. But he was the person I wanted to see more than anyone else right then. So we talked about fathers, and dogs, and losing both of them. And in the end I was ready to get on the plane to Florida.
The next day I flew down and stayed at my mother's house in Ormond Beach. She and dad had gotten divorced several years before and she was in Michigan at the time. Dad had lived the last year or so of his life in Palm Coast, just a little north of Ormond. The funeral home was located in Palm Coast as well. I drove up to make the arrangements for my father. Jeff, the funeral director, was an earnest guy. He took me into a room to discuss the procedure and was treating me with kid gloves. He had no idea what he was in for.
My father was matter of fact about his death. He had his stroke in 1997 and wasn't expected to live. I assumed he would ask me to end his life, rather than linger on attached to a machine. Through sheer determination on his part, he recovered quite a bit of his mobility and his ability to breathe without a ventilator. From this point on, there was an understanding that if he should ever have another stroke or health crisis, nothing should be done to prolong his life. In a sense, I became resigned to his death many years before, and his life after had been on borrowed time.
So when it did come, it was with a mixed sense of sadness and relief that it was finally over. He had been trapped in that numb, unresponsive body far too long.
Jeff was a little taken aback by my disposition. I informed him that my father had requested no service. He wanted to be cremated and no fuss made whatsoever about his death. It was an interesting experience being the person to make these decisions for my dad that he could not make for himself.
"What kind of urn would you like?"
"No, no urn."
Jeff grimaced a little and took me into the "showroom" so to speak, where the caskets were kept. There he showed me three containers. One was a cardboard box reinforced with plywood, one a simple wooden box, and the last a finished wooden box.
"These are the cremation vessels." he explained. "They hold the body when it goes into the crematorium."
"The cardboard one," I said without hesitation.
This was, after all, what they intended on burning him up in. My dad would have haunted me if I'd chosen one of the wooden ones. As it was, I was afraid he'd appear like Hamlet's father to hector me for spending $85 on a cardboard box.
Then Jeff asked me about the container for the ashes.
"We have several options for transport of the cremains. You can purchase something here or bring something from home."
"Bring something from home?" I asked, "What do you mean?"
He said I could bring an appropriate container. I got the impression that when he said appropriate, he meant one of sufficient volume to contain the ashes. Now the only cremains I'd ever seen were those of his patient, Erna, but she was a tiny Italian lady. I wasn't quite sure what would be appropriate for the average man sized cremains.
"Would a five gallon bucket be ok?" I asked.
He looked at me a little funny.
"That will be fine," he said, before he realized I was kidding. He told me I would be surprised by some of the things that people brought in. I told him that the simple wooden container that they sold for $180 would be suitable. After getting shafted on the service, grave, gravestone, casket and cremation vessel, I figured I should throw him a bone. $180 for a $2 box still stung a little.
So he took me back to the room and began adding everything up.
"Would you like to see your father?"
It was the question I'd been anticipating.
"Sure," I said.
He left and informed the person that prepares the bodies for viewing to get him ready for me to see him. He said it would be a few minutes and after a little while he came for me. He took me to the doorway of a room where the bodies were placed for viewing. He cracked the door and told me to take as long as I wanted. Then he left me alone.
I entered the room. Frankly, dad looked pretty good. Or maybe he just looked that bad alive, but still. I didn't have that sense of uneasiness that arose when I'd seen other people I knew who had died. They never quite looked like the same person. I took a few minutes with him and then went back and opened the door. Jeff came out of the office when he heard the noise.
"That isn't him... That's not my father," I told him.
"I'm just kidding," I told him.
Poor Jeff. He was a good guy just trying to help a kid get rid of his dad's body in the most expedient manner possible. I'm sure he had to deal with a lot of horrible, untimely and tragic passings. And here I was being an ass, while he was making final arrangements for my dad. I'll never forget his patient assistance and good humor.
When I left, I visited the Bulow Sugar Mill Ruins, just south of the funeral home. It was there that many years ago, my father and uncle waded neck deep into Bulow Creek in the middle of the night. They were trying to feel with their feet for the 19th century bottles tossed in in the creek by partygoers at the plantation. He loved to tell the story how, as he and my uncle shuffled their feet in the muck to try and find the bottles, a six foot alligator slowly passed between them within arms reach, eyes blazing with the reflection of their headlamps.
I sat there for a long time. An egret fished along the edge of the brackish water through which he'd waded those many years ago. And on the bank of Bulow Creek, under a sky more holy than any church, I said goodbye to my father.