The Cold Ground

“We must be patient, but I cannot choose but weep to think they would lay him i’th’cold ground.”

Ophelia, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5

I got the call from my sister on a Friday afternoon. “Dad’s gone, Sharon.” This fact wasn’t a shock – my father had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver three years prior. He was housebound for the last year and essentially an invalid for the last several weeks. At Thanksgiving, my mother had called to tell me that she and the doctor had decided to place him on hospice care and to cease his regular peracenteses, medical procedures that drained the fluid pooling in his abdomen. They had made the decision only when it had become impossible for my increasingly frail mother to get him out of bed and into the car for the trip to the hospital, and when the trips had become excruciatingly frequent: upon diagnosis in 2012, he went in every three months, but by the end he had to go in almost every week. “I feel so guilty,” my mom, whose main goal on the day of the funeral was not to cry, whispered. “For pulling the plug.”

“Mom,” I said. “He did it to himself. He made himself sick, not you.” Some part of me was thinking, He finally got what he deserved. “You can’t take care of him anymore. It’s too much for you. It’s too much for the doctors.”

My sister described the morning of his death: his labored breathing, his unconsciousness, the way he had seemed soothed when she played the flute. “And then he stopped breathing.” They were waiting around for someone official to come and pronounce him dead. I was glad to be in the sunny piano room of my southern California bungalow and not in that snow-choked house.

What followed was not a backcountry hike, but it was a trek, and one that led to the frozen dirt of a prairie grave, my waxen-faced and crater-chested pére closed in a polished box placed into a clay vault set in a cold hole on a rise overlooking the Rock River. A one-thousand, nine-hundred-mile road to me alone the morning after his funeral, running in clothing too light for an Illinois December, but keen for the wind’s sharp absolution, its “sweet edge dividing me through heart and marrow” (Thoreau, of course) and dissipating the heat built up by the press of the hands and bodies of mourners offering condolences; the heat of a small house packed with the bags, breath, and voices of three generations of my father’s survivors. As I ran towards the cemetery, I tried to even out my inhalations and exhalations. I had to breathe hard and slow, and I could feel my lungs expelling the poison of the beers and too-salty pizza and the gummi bear martinis my cousins had pressed upon me at the kitchen table as evening wrapped the little house in its thickening cocoon. The dregs of the adrenalin of the three-days’ road trip, the West Texas blizzard we faced in a snow-virgin Prius. “To think they would lay him i’th’ cold ground,” I thought, crumbling a clod with an ungloved hand. Standing there as the low morning sun flashed on the river, heat poured from me, and I pondered being left in such a place, alone in some plot of unsheltered, windswept ground. For a second, I felt an equilibrium – not peace exactly, not acceptance, not joy in his or my someday “having gone to glory,” as one of the martini-mixing cousins had put it – just a thrilling, liquid equilibrium. I returned home with some of that windy sunshine caged in my chest.


The line from Hamlet kept popping into my head, despite the fact that the comparison of my father to Polonius is not apt. Where Polonius’s talk twined loops around his own feet, my father lived in snowy silence; where Ophelia’s old man lay traps to test her beau, my father seemed not to notice much of what I did or whom I did it with; where Polonius schemed for his family’s advancement, my father sat on the couch, listless behind the covers of a Western or spy thriller, having drunk what my siblings later told me was a nightly eight or nine beers (which explains his loyalty to a cheap beer like Schlitz). Both my sister and I remember having to escort friends and boyfriends past his form prone on the couch, accoutered in only a sagging pair of tighty-whities, maybe snoring, maybe ignoring us in favor of the latest Dean Koontz novel. I could never have sailed through the living room those nights without annealing my heart in a fire of rage.

My mother’s church was between ministers, and I was told that the pastor who would officiate – filling in from a nearby parish – didn’t know Dad that well. He asked all the survivors to write memories that he could use for the eulogy, and one afternoon shortly before the Husband, the boys and I began our drive east, I sat down and pounded out two single-spaced pages (for which I received no small amount of ribbing from my family). It was my first attempt to come to grips with Dad’s death, and I wrote it in what felt like a blaze of honesty, of trying to say what I really thought, despite the fact that one of Dad’s biggest legacies to me was a stubborn slowness to form and voice opinions. It felt like a small victory to articulate the strange mixture of admiration and resentment, recognition and incomprehension I felt. I attached it to an email and sent it to the minister, cc’ing the family. I thought maybe someone else had had some of these complex emotions about him, or might have had similarly complex emotions about someone else in his or (more likely?) her life.

I wasn’t surprised when, the night after the funeral, my brother chastised me for having pilloried the old man in my writing. For many of the mourners who had expressed their condolences to me that day, his standoffishness was a kind of strength, an endearing character trait: “He didn’t follow the arrows,” my sister-in-law said. And it’s true, he didn’t. In the spring of 2013, he’d had kidney failure, and the doctor told us it was the end, that it would take a miracle to save him. So I shelled out seven hundred bucks to get my butt to Sterling the next day; my brother flew out from Virginia; my sister hightailed it down from Wisconsin. The first day was somber, business-like: we discussed inheritances, executors, the car.

But by the second day, Dad rallied. He flirted with the nurses. We sat around his hospital bed eating candy from the vending machine and watching a basketball game. Even though we had a hospice representative talk us through that route, Dad just growled after she’d left, “I ain’t dead yet.” We were talking about music for the funeral, and when Gary found a recording of Frank Sinatra singing “My Way,” Dad chuckled. “Yeah, that one,” he said. “I like that one.” And so at the luncheon in the church basement following my father’s funeral, I found myself belting out the old jazz standard as my brother played the piano behind me: “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention. I’ve done what I’ve had to do and seen it through without exemption.” He didn’t follow the arrows. Much of my life, I’d seen that quality as a downside, especially when one of the arrows of life apparent to me was a father’s duty to talk to his children and openly – hey, even lavishly – to express affection for them. Everyone I’d talked to that day seemed to see it differently, and I was starting to turn that idea over in my head – that my Dad’s refusal to do what he was supposed to do was a kind of strength.

But not before things got real between me and my siblings that night. I explained my anti-eulogy to my brother by saying that I hadn’t expected (correctly) the pastor to use everything I’d said, that I’d wanted to paint an honest portrait. That everything I felt about Dad was tangled up. When he countered that I should have taken it up with the old man when he was still alive I said that it would have been pointless. He wouldn’t have been able to give me what I wanted, which was some explanation, some words that traced out the nuances of his interior life. It was my own way of respecting him and protecting myself not to push him into some sort of deathbed confrontation, which would have only enraged or disappointed me.

But somehow this opened a kind of truth-telling. My sister said she was sorry for not having been there more, for not having looked back much in her own eagerness – having found a husband who satisfied her top criteria of being talkative (and many other criteria to boot) – to get married. Her words threw into relief an assumption I had always had, that my trials as a ten-year-old were insignificant and unmentionable beside my siblings’ adult-sized dramas – getting married, going to college, moving into the big city (Chicago). In fact, their precipitous exits were at least partly a symptom of the household’s vexed emotional flows. It was just unfortunate timing that the moves happened within the span of two years, the same years during which my adult brain – self-conscious, reflective, literary – took hold and during which my father’s career as a breadwinner suffered its most serious setbacks.

I can still remember hearing him tap-tap-tapping on the old-school typewriter behind a closed door. I later came across a cover letter he’d written for some job or another. It was unreal to see my father frame himself in writing, trying to shape the way a potential employer would see him. Still, that memory always fit the narrative I picked up from passing comments and personal observation to explain his life: that he had not quite finished high school but was intelligent and capable beyond his education level. That he had joined the Air Force when the call had come during the Korean War, and somehow or another had been awesome there, learning airplane mechanics, bravely fighting as a tail gunner and coming within inches of getting shot out of the sky once because the plane was in a radio-silent zone and he couldn’t betray positions by informing the pilot of the enemy planes drawing within range behind them. That he’d worked crazy hours at the slaughterhouse to pay off the mortgage within a few years of his marriage to my mom. That he’d gotten a great job at a small manufactory in Sterling only to storm out and quit when the boss proved himself to be a bigot and an idiot. This narrative started to fail at the point when my mom got part-time and then full-time work at the library to supplement his unemployment checks, when I had to bear the ignominy of his getting work as a school bus driver while I was in junior high. And then that ended, and he drove a mail route.

What my siblings told me that night changed the underpinnings of the story of my father’s life as I knew it. As far as the manufactory went he was overmatched, not possessed of the attention to detail the job required. As for the bus driving gig that I hoped none of my friends noticed, he’d lost that because of a DUI. He was pulling out from the Legion and backed into something. He got onto the mail route because my aunt needed a sub from time to time. My dad was a functional alcoholic. Functional enough for his life not to crash and burn completely. Functional enough that there were no interventions.

During that conversation, something shifted, and I’m still trying to figure out what it was. Like I said, just that afternoon, I’d gotten up in front of a room full of people and sung the following verse in his honor: “For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels. The record shows, I took the blows and did it my way.” It had exasperated me that my father had chosen this song, when his insistence on doing it his way had meant, from my perspective, ignoring the needs of his wife and children. I sang it anyway and tried to love him for it, for having himself and for doing what he truly wanted, as the song would have it, something of his I could maybe learn to take as my legacy. The conversation that night made me imagine him unable to meet to his responsibilities instead of choosing to neglect them. For the first time, I saw glimmerings of a more nuanced person, one trying to keep going but getting in his own way: someone who liked to think of himself as independent and defiant but who in fact didn’t have enough of a toehold to rise above the addictions that had turned his liver into a useless log of bologna.

The preacher showed up at the church towards the end of the viewing (for the family), about ten minutes before the visitation (when everyone else offers the family condolences). He gathered us in the front pews and began a breathless speech about bodies. “He isn’t in there, you know,” he said, gesturing towards the coffin in the chancel. “That’s not him. If you take away my hand, I’m not gone. That’s not me. Take away my arm, my other arm, my leg. You can see that the body isn’t us, it’s just a vessel. The real him, the person you knew and love, is with Christ. What you know as your father, or your husband, or your grandfather is not his body and is therefore not gone.” I beg to differ. Without his body, my father is gone. Gone to glory, maybe, but gone nonetheless. True enough that the waxen heap in the next room – touched up just as the black and white photos of him in his bomber jacket had been hand-brightened with color – was not my father, but it was all that was left of him.

And then the bodies began pouring in, extended family, childhood friends, church members, drinking buddies from the Legion. I stood up next to my siblings and shook hands, let myself be gathered close to brittle skeletons, melting flesh, eyes blurred with cataracts, teeth stained, breath cellar-musty. I warmed myself by the slow fire of their blood’s combustion. After the burial, I lined up at the folding table replete with Midwestern casseroles and salads: bright orange tiles of cheesy potatoes, baskets heaping with fried chicken, petal-pink drifts of Jell-O mixed with marshmallow fluff and canned oranges: food I had forgotten people made. I warmed myself up, eating.

It had been cold at the cemetery, just as it would be the morning I ran there after he’d been buried. The sky was the peculiarly bleak white of Midwestern winters. My mother, siblings and I sat in folding chairs under the blue canopy. It was dark under there, and my sister-in-law began passing out tissues. Dad’s uniformed Amvet friends stood at attention on two sides of the casket. Dad had always been part of this color guard, keeping watch as another soldier was lowered into the ground. “Funeral today,” he’d tell mom, getting off the couch and suiting up, fixing the boat-shaped side cap at his signature jaunty angle. Seven men fired three times, a twenty-one-gun salute that echoed over the river, the sound wheeling skyward with the black birds that rose from the trees like ash from a fire. My nephew played taps, and two old-timers dignified by their stiff uniforms came forward to lift the flag draped over the coffin. They prepared it carefully, tucking the ends just so and pulling it taut. The one by Dad’s feet folded over a right triangle of cloth and took one step towards his partner, and like that closed the distance between them, handing off the bundle to the other man when he was done. “Well done, fellows,” my brother, himself a soldier, commended them under his breath.

This man stepped in front of my mother and leaned close to her. For whatever reason he whispered, an intimacy that surprised me: “The United States Government gives you this flag in remembrance of your husband’s loyal service to the nation.” Behind me, another of my nephews cried. I cried too, for the first time that day overmastered by an unambiguous emotion. Overmastered by the strange tragedy of a life lived in a human body, so fleet and so finite. The tragedy of a life aspiring to bravery, duty, independence, and yet so humble, multidirectional, divided against itself. My father, in his sagging underwear on the couch. My father, in his uniform, folding flags for friends felled by the flesh’s always untimely expiration.

And so I run in the cold, with a spendthrift morning sun gilding the underbellies of the low clouds. I run over the broken sidewalks and through the half-acre parks of my childhood, along the river’s wide bend. I run to the cemetery, on whose lichen-spotted monuments I used to sit and write angsty, pre-teen journal entries. I run past the scabrous oaks to that fresh-turned mound of dirt. My hands seek clods I can crumble, one day hard as metal ingots, the next a sticky clay. I pound the ground under which he is laid, in search of some balance between the cloistered heat of the house and the cold of that exposed knoll, in search of ways to spend this heat before it is nothing but drifting ash.

(photo, “Holographic Universe,” by Alex Markovich, whose work you can find here: http://photo-art.me/)