Thursday, December 23, 2010


"Hi, honey. Would you like a glass of wine?"

Kathie is offering me a glass of wine as if this is the most natural thing in the world. As if this is just a completely normal December 23rd. I take the offered glass, even though the current situation is so far away from normal that normal would need a street map and a really good set of directions to find us.

Two hours ago, things were, indeed, normal. Jason and I were in our apartment in Lexington, trying to get our heart rates down after a nail-biter of a UK game. Today was my first day of Christmas vacation from my job as an education librarian at EKU; we were happy, just talking and laughing, gearing up to travel to Erlanger and Fort Mitchell tomorrow morning to spend Christmas with our families.

The phone rang; Jason just knew it was one of his brothers. After particularly stressful basketball games, one or the other always calls.

"Helllooooo! What did you think of that game?"

The look in Jason's eyes changed when he heard the voice on the other end of the phone. I don't know how to describe it; they were just blank. He stood unblinking, and the only clue I could gather as to what could possibly be going on on the other end of that phone was this, which he kept saying over and over and over:

"Mother, are you sure? Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure?"

The call ended and he looked at me.

"Mother says Steve's dead. They're waiting on the ambulance to get there."

My response echoed Jason's:

"Are you sure? Jason, are you sure?"

I should have gone to him. But I found myself frozen. The back of my nose and throat began to burn and ache as if I'd been hit in the face and the little part of my brain that was still rational piped up and told me to take a deep breath and focus because this is what shock feels like.

Another phone call, and this time Jason spoke to one of his brothers. Jason is the type of person who, whenever me or his mom or anyone else he knows looks up and screams, "The sky is falling!", takes off his hat, glances stoically at the sky, tests the wind direction with a wet finger, and sends up a hot air balloon.

When he talked to his brother, I could tell he was sending up his hot air balloons.

I don't do that; when someone around me yells, "The sky is falling!", I go grab some umbrellas. Just in case.

So I threw some random crap in an overnight bag and got the car keys and called my sister, who I knew would help sound the emergency alarms to my mom and dad.

An hour and a half later we crunched through a crust of fresh snow into the drive of the house with the pink neon star on the roof. There's a lot more neon now, too, as Steve adds a new piece every year. Candles. A huge Santa. A wreath. Carolers.

Added. Steve added new pieces every year.

By the time we had hit Georgetown, we knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Steve had died. My sister drove over there and arrived just after the ambulance left to check on everyone and let them know that we were on our way. She called us on our emergency cell phone to tell us; he was gone. It wasn't a hilarious misunderstanding we would all talk about every Christmas hereafter; it was real.

We would get the full story later. Steve had come home from work and wasn't feeling well; he went to bed. Out in the living room, the family had gathered to watch the UK game and, later, do the annual Christmas wrapping frenzy (I usually partook in this; in a family that big, it's all-hands-on-deck to get all the presents wrapped.)

When Kathie went into their bedroom to get wrapping paper and presents hidden in the closet, she could tell even by the weak light coming into the bedroom that he was dead. She said she knew immediately. I put myself in her place and I cannot imagine the horror.

The paramedics suspected a sudden massive heart attack. He just...died.

Kathie hands me a glass of wine and I look around. The house is full; several of her sisters have come out, as well as some of Steve's many, many siblings and in-laws. If you didn't know any better, you'd think this was the annual Christmas Eve party. Wine is flowing, voices are raised, plans are being made. My mind can't wrap itself around it. Jason's brothers and sisters are there, and we all sit there wondering the same damn thing:

How? How could this happen?

We're there for hours, giving and taking what comfort we can. We learn that Kathie is still planning on having all of Steve's family over for Christmas Eve since it was her year to host; she says Steve would have wanted it that way.

"Christmas has to go on," someone says.

It feels that nothing can possibly go on right now. It feels like the world should stop spinning. How can we think about Christmas at a time like this?

But we do.

The crowd clears and I realize it's so late that it's early: it's now Christmas Eve. I leave Jason; he's going with his mother tomorrow morning to the funeral home to make the arrangements. More snow has fallen and I am conscious of the slipping and sliding under my tires and of the uneartly quiet the snow has made, muffling everything but the thoughts in my own head.

My sister has filled my mom in (she was on the phone when we were still in Lexington, and since she's the last person on the planet who doesn't have call waiting my sister had to go tell her in person) so she's waiting up for me.

I talk about it as much as I can and Mom makes up my old bed for me with fresh sheets and tells me I should try to sleep. I haven't brought anything to sleep in; my quick and dirty packing left a lot to be desired. Mom finds an old nightgown from back when I was in high school; it's snug and I try so very hard to quiet my mind and rest. Sleep eludes me tonight and, an eternity later, the sun is up and I hear Dad shuffling around the kitchen.

He's been working overtime and got home even later than I did. I can hardly believe he's back up.

He offers me a weak smile.

"Hey, kiddo."


"Are you and Joanie leaving for Lexington?"

And now I know why he's up; Mom has filled him in, and he knows Joanie is picking me up to drive me down to do a better job packing for what will now be a lengthy stay, and he feels the need to do or say something to me. Suddenly I am touched by his concern and feel like crying all over again. But I am not sure anything is left.

"Yeah. I didn't even pack a change of clothes. She should be here in a few minutes."

"Well, you know your sister..."

I manage to laugh. Joanie hasn't show up on time for anything since roughly 1983.

He reaches into his wallet and unfolds some bills.

"Here, take this. You all need money for gas, and stop and get yourself and your sister something to eat. You need to eat even if you don't feel like it."

"Oh, Dad. I don't need your money."

"Yes, you do."

His eyes meet mine, and I know Mom has told him everything. About how our finances are hanging on threads and we couldn't even get each other anything for Christmas this year. About how my new job is barely making ends meets while Jason is still a full-time student, and about how until Jason's student loan check comes in we can't even afford to buy ourselves a carton of Cokes.

I take his money and think about how much he's changed. Yes, he still falls off the wagon every so often in such a spectacular fashion that it defies everything we've ever learned about alcoholics. Once or twice a year, he slips, and from the first drink he takes to the day he's admitted to the hospital he doesn't draw a single sober breath. He's getting older now, and his body can't take that for long, so that old familiar cycle of sobriety to drunkenness to rehabiliation only lasts a few weeks. He has been near-death in an ICU more times that you would think possible. But when he's sober, he is this surprising, wonderful person who I have finally gotten to know. A man who can be devilishly funny, and smart, and hard-working, and loving. The man who looks at me now from across the kitchen table is not the same one who made my childhood a living hell.

We thought we were going to lose him for good last spring. He was diagnosed with stage I lung cancer from years of smoking. It was caught early; it was operable; he was told with intensive surgery and radiation, he could be one of those rare souls to beat it.

And he has. But not before pulling a spectacular drunk right smack in the middle of his month of radiation. The day of his last treatment, he got carted off to the Care Unit. We could have killed him for taking such a stupid risk if he didn't seem to be doing such a dandy job of killing himself.

Jason lost a father yesterday, and the emotions I feel looking at mine, who somehow is still here, well up and I have to look away. If I cry, he will be uncomfortable, and this little moment we're having will pass. I saw last night that when we have those moments with someone we love, we should appreciate them for the little miracles they are. You never know when that person will be gone from your life for good. It could happen, quite literally, in the blink of an eye.

We aren't huggers in my family, so we sit in silence until Joanie comes. We make the drive to Lexington and into an apartment where you can tell life suddenly stopped in its tracks: the ornament I was cross-stitching for Mom sits on the arm of the sofa with the needle just dangling from a thread; my water glass is half- full (half-empty?) on the coffee table and the TV is still on. I pack for both of us, and pick up the pieces we've left behind, and lock up. And before I step back out into the cold I say a little prayer:

Lord, give me strength to get through this Christmas.

Be with Jason, and his brothers and sisters, and give them comfort.

Be with Kathie and give her the guidance she needs.

And Lord, please, please do not take my parents away from me for a long, long time.

I thought losing a parent was something that happened to people a lot older than us, and I thought you got a lot more advanced warning. I am shaken to my very core to know that our parents are, after all, mortal. And they can go in an instant.

There was a time when I thought the best thing that could happen to me was to be far, far away from my father.

Now I am so grateful that when I go back home today, he will be waiting for me in the kitchen, saying,

"Hey, kiddo."

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