Despite my leaving a precise schedule with my brother of my exact whereabouts hour to hour, complete with phone numbers, the Asshole left a message on my home answering machine saying "It's time to come home." I called him from school; his response was, "What did you expect me to do -- print it out?" DUH. YES -- and USE it. Had I not checked my home phone I wouldn't have gotten his message.
Not trusting him anyway, I called the hospital where my father was and got my mother. "Yes. He's dying. Come home." Having gotten false "come home" calls before, I wanted to make damned sure this was real before flying around 3,000 miles across the country at a moment's notice.
Luckily for me, this call was no surprise. I had already built up a strong support network and had carefully picked out my main classes and teachers for maximum sympathy value. The guy teaching my main class, a lab that ran 3.5 hours Mondays through Fridays, was around my age and had just done a major career switch from being a news anchor to a teacher so he could be closer to his recently-widowed mother. Needless to say, I knew when I got The Call he would be The Right Person to be around.
To say this guy was great would be an understatement. I took him alone into the hall; I could barely talk. I got out, "The Call -- it came." I had been scheduled to engineer the news broadcasts that day anyway; because of the nature of the situation, he excused me from all writing duties and even let me make all the phone calls I needed to make my travel arrangements.
A friend's mother had died the month before; her then-husband had told me about "bereavement fares." This was soooo useful. The travel agent was able to get me a decent rate for a last-minute flight out of San Jose to Philadelphia and even get the dog on the plane with me. Then came the hard part: I had to call work.
My boss also had a mother with terminal cancer, but he was The Worst Possible Person I could have to deal with. He was the oldest in a large (10 kids) Mormon family, and when he was ex-communicated his mother and he were no longer on speaking terms. From what I gathered he was barely on speaking terms with a few of his siblings. When I told him The Call had came, he said, "So what? What do you have to go for? Can't someone else make the funeral arrangements?"
I just kept repeating "I have to go" to his arguments. After school I went to work to a meeting with him and one of my lead writers on the project. The lead mostly sat there, silent, while he kept saying the same things. I just kept repeating, "My father is dying; I have to go." I explained how Jews have to be buried within 48 hours of death and how the family has to be there. He Just Didn't Get It.
After dealing with work, I went home and finished packing. A very nice and astute former boss had once warned me to "have The Suitcase packed in advance -- you won't be able to think straight." He was soooo right. I had already loaded all my black skirts, sweaters, and dress shoes into my main suitcase and had my toiletries and a change of underwear in the carry-on suitcase. Since the dog had just been back east for Thanksgiving there was no need to get an additional health certificate, so that was okay. My then-boyfriend drove Fuzzball and me to the airport.
The first leg of the flight was from San Jose to San Francisco. We all laughed as the attendants said, "Please prepare for departure" and then promptly followed it with "Please prepare for arrival." The next leg was San Francisco to Chicago, where I changed planes. I was told to call my Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Marty to let them know when I was arriving, so when it was as late as I could get away with, I called them. While I had Uncle Marty on the phone I asked him, "Did Dad die?"
There was a pause. "He passed away at 11:30 last night."
Aunt Charlotte chimed in. "We were going to wait till you got here to tell you, but since you asked, we told you now."
I then thanked them for telling me, explaining how I knew what it was like because I had to tell my mother when her father had died.
In Philadelphia Uncle Marty picked up Fuzzball and me and drove us to Mom's house. The conversation was very weird. Picture two "oldest children" each doing their own head trip over the situation with awkward variations. He was terrified of my brother being "the man in that house" because my brother, quite frankly, wasn't up to the task. I explained that it was more likely I'd fall into the "brains" role anyway, being the oldest by a non-trivial amount of years (6.5), but Uncle Marty's built-in sexism was kicking in, not expecting a "girl" to be that capable. When I got to the door, Mom and Asshole were waiting. We all hugged and cried, with me holding the two of them up.
Later we went to the funeral home to make the arrangements. Uncle Marty was there as The Lone Sibling, but I knew who was paying. There were no disagreements as to the arrangements. When the guy from the funeral home asked, "What kind of casket do you want," my uncle and mother started hemming and hawing. I knew the answer and blurted it out. "Cheap!" Uncle Marty glared at me while Mom showed instant relief. "Well, we are talking about someone who used to say 'Bury me in a piano box,' remember?" (Yes, Dad really did say that. Verbatim. I felt absolutely correct in my blurting.)
Then came The Trip Into The Showroom just to see what we were getting and what else they had. Had the overall tension level not been so thick I would have burst out laughing. Picture something that looks like a car showroom, only instead of cars, it contains caskets. It was perverse. The coffin we were getting wasn't exactly cheap, and the others were even more outrageously priced. My reaction to many of them was "what a waste of perfectly beautiful wood."
I barely remember the rest of the day (it was two days rolled into one), but that night the rabbi came over. He had been a patient of Dad's, so it was hard on him because for once he was doing a funeral for someone he actually knew. Trying to make a man who had no discernible hobbies except for his bar and gambling (he loved blackjack) sound appropriate for a religious service was tricky. We eventually all wound up telling stories about him. I noted how he always had to have his chocolate The Right Color or he'd complain vociferously, how he ate corn on the cob into a rectangular shape, and how he ate almost everything with a fork and knife (except pizza -- he folded that, lecturing us on folding it the whole time).
Many of the stories weren't exactly PC. Dad worked part-time as the senior dentist at the Bordentown Reformatory. It was a minimum security prison, but once in a while they'd bring him in an axe murderer-type ("one of those guys in for Murder One"). Knowing this guy who instilled terror on the entire prison population were terrified of itty bitty him (Dad was 5' 7 3/4" tall), when the axe murderer was in his chair, Dad would ask his assistant for "that book on the wall on 'how to do fillings.'" He would pull it out, start flipping the pages, and watch the axe murderer look on in horror.
Dad lived for his practice, though. He looked like the kind of guy you'd want to have sticking his hands in your mouth. When the NJ phone book people wanted a dentist for their cover with various occupations, they called Dad. Our house was filled with dentist paraphernalia. He also did damned fine work. This past Thursday when I was having a filling put in, the dentist was going to put in silver fillings, not realizing the ones I had were from the 1960s and early 1970s -- Dad's handiwork from before the days of porcelain fillings.
Rest in peace, Dad.