Friday, November 6, 2015
My dad died twenty-two years ago this week, in Lubbock, Texas. Growing up, I associated Lubbock with trips to mall, family restaurants, and a small airport, but for the past two decades, it's also made me think of hospitals and dying.
Lubbock is one of those places people hear bad things about and have no desire to visit. But it is not so bad if accepted on its own terms.
Born many years later, my kids sometimes speak of their "granddad" who cannot visit them in person. They know that he (1) came to America from India, making them one-quarter Indian, (2) was a teacher at a college, and (3) was my dad when I was a kid with parents and a brother and sister, long ago, in New Mexico.
On questions of the afterlife, I have been vague. My style, on this topic, is to take the children to the cemetery and engage in open-ended dialogue: "Some say . . ." And: "No one really knows, but . . . "
Unsatisfied with this mealy-mouthed approach, they have developed their own ideas. Let us call these The Terrible Joke and The Morbid Preoccupation.
1. The Terrible Joke
How does one discuss the Hindu religious practice of open-air cremation with a small American boy without the conversation going off the rails? I don't know.
All I remember is that one day, when my son was about six, I found myself matter-of-factly describing the ritual of putting a loved one's corpse on a barge, setting it on fire, and sending it down the Ganges River, vividly aflame, until nothing of it remained. It was called "cremation," and it was more or less what they did to my dad, per his wishes of course, and his dad before him.
Stupefied, my son took this in.
Cut to a few months later, as we walked out of the local donut shop one Saturday morning. My son lingered by a trash can with some cigarette butts in the top.
"Stop playing in the ashes!" I said. "Don't put your hand in there. It's filthy. Come on."
As we neared the car, he lifted up a sooty index finger, E.T.-style, and said in a gnarled voice: "I'm Grandpa!"
This time, I was speechless.
"Don't tell me what to do, Daughter! I'm your dad! I'm gonna get my gun!" The ashy finger waggled imperiously at me. "Yeah, that's right. My gun!"
"Stop doing that," I managed to say in a scandalized whisper. "That's just . . . You can't . . . "
His sister was catching on now. "Is that supposed to be Grandpa?"
"Yes, I'm your Grandpa, little girl! Bring me a cookie!"
Having lost the capacity for speech, I drove the children to their dad's. From the backseat, "Grandpa" continued to provoke and threaten us with wicked glee: a tiny patriarch back from the shadowlands to show us who was boss.
"What?" said the kids' dad, surveying the three of us.
"You won't believe what he just said." I described it. My son held up his sooty finger.
"Oh my god. What the . . . ?"
The zany genius of this joke began, finally, to sink in. To date, I think it is the most our post-divorce family has ever laughed.
2. The Morbid Preoccupation
For months now, every mention of death has made my daughter sad. She is six.
"Don't talk about it!" she'll scream at us, as my son and I innocently discuss ghosts or heaven or a lost pet. "It reminds of me of . . . you know."
"What?" I'll say.
"We were just saying that, if it ends up at the pound and no one claims it, they may have to --" my son will reasonably begin.
"I SAID DON'T TALK ABOUT IT!"
"It reminds you of what?" I'll say again.
And she will whisper forlornly in my ear: "My granddad. You know? Who . . . before I was born . . ."
That is a very sad moment. "Oh, right. We're sorry."
Sometimes she will start crying. "I never even got to meet him!"
"I wish he could have met you," I say helplessly. "I know he would be so proud of you. Maybe, in some way, . . ."
3. The Tooth Fairy
My mom sent my daughter a skeleton dog for Halloween. His name was Bones.
Despite the ghoulish associations, my daughter was delighted with this dog.
One day, my son saw that Bones was sleeping on one of his shirts. As he tried to take the shirt back, his sister grabbed and held it with her teeth. My son yanked on the shirt, and as he ripped it out of her mouth, her two front teeth (which had been slightly loose) came with it. There was some blood. The babysitter sent me a text . . .
So: Two teeth lost unexpectedly, in dramatic fashion. This was a job for the Tooth Fairy!
Except I didn't have any cash.
After she fell asleep, I remembered that I did have two $10 bills up in a closet. I had been saving them so long, I barely remembered where they came from. Did my dad send them to me in my 21st birthday card? I think he did.
I found the box and fished one out. It was printed in 1988.
The Tooth Fairy put it under my daughter's pillow.
Days later, as we decorated for Halloween, my daughter somehow got the idea that my dad had sent her Bones. She had been talking to Bones and learned that he had known my dad in heaven. And my dad sent him down to her, to be her friend! Wasn't that great?
She wrote my dad a thank-you note and tucked it into the suit of a Frankenstein hanging in our yard, confident that he would receive it.
It said "To Granddad" and showed him, her, and the dog, standing together, smiling.