Christmas of 2009 was one that will never be forgotten.
I was living in Gig Harbor, Washington with my family at the time, recently having moved home that past Fall from a few years in Seattle and working at a clothing boutique and readjusting to life at home. Christmas that year I recall my dad looking dashing in a navy blue henley as he smoked the box of cigars with a tumbler of whiskey I bought him, my little sister gifting me my favorite pair of Chucks now worn out and boxed away, my mother filming the morning with patience and grace and that we were all together and that it was perfect and that it was beautiful.
Sixteen days later my dad died.
It was unexpected.
The morning I last saw him he had, per usual, gone out to my car and started it for me so it would be heated by the time I drove to school. We were discussing over excessively milked coffee on my part the trip he and my mom were going to take to Portland later that day for a funeral of a friend’s brother and his plans for the rest of the day. I clearly recall being repulsed when he told me he would be finishing his Will and passing it on to their financial advisor. Although at 76 this was a necessary, smart, regular ritual that he had probably been doing for the past 10 years of his life, if not longer, I felt like it was just as ridiculous as putting pajamas on a monkey: completely unnecessary. He had just been to the doctor’s a week before with a clean bill of health and played tennis with a friend 35+ years his junior, been working full time and dealing quite successfully with two adolescent daughters…this man simply could not die any time soon.
We hugged goodbye like we did every week day morning and I drove off to the community college that I gained nothing but a small bill from, feet warm from a car engine running 15 minutes before departure.
School, of course, was terrible and I can’t remember a thing other than leaving for work. My shift wasn’t so terrible, just accepting exchanges of Citizens of Humanity denim and Diane Von Furstenburg dresses, until I checked my phone. Strange, four missed phone calls from my mom and a two from my sister. When I listened to my voicemail I felt my breath leave.
“Annie, I don’t want you to worry but dad had a stroke. He’s okay, just please call.”
Are you shitting me? I know Mom was trying to keep me calm, knowing my typical reaction to any sort of detrimental news is to go off the chains and it was smart of her to say “he’s okay”, because at the time he was. I can only chalk it up to shock but I finished my transactions at the register, tearless, drove home to my sister, and called my mother to find out what on Earth was happening.
They had made their way to a hospital in Portland, he by helicopter and she by a speeding Subaru, and he had been coherent as he went into surgery. He had suffered from a stroke, ironically during the funeral they were attending, but nothing massive they said, he would be home possibly that night they said. Rachel and I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and after much talking to, we were advised to stay at home and wait for their call. We ventured out, sister and sister, to rent Final Destination and picked up Taco Time to hold us over until our parents got home. Our parents, who would take care of us, who would tell us things would be okay, our parents who we would hug and cry with and be forever grateful that they were there with us. The first alarm went off inside me when Tiffany, a long-time family friend showed up at the door unannounced to check to see how we were doing. This isn’t what people do when someone is coming home from the hospital within a few hours. The concern on her face did not reflect the state in which we thought Dad was in. I dismissed her visit as something my mom had called her to do just to console us just in case we were in hysterics, but at the time we were just trying to eat a few tacos and watch a lame movie.
We didn’t get far into the film and our appetites were soon gone. Another call from my mom, her in tears this time, told us our other friends who have acted as second parents to us over the years, Chris and Jeff, would be picking us up on their way down from Seattle and we needed to get to the hospital. In my selfish, pathetic way of dealing with anger I started screaming at her. I felt like I had been lied to, like they had smoothed things over the surface to calm these little girls knowing that things were going to turn a sharp corner towards death. I’m still ashamed at the way I acted, that my inability to deal with the news came out as rashly as it did. My older sister, Hilary, had to get on the phone and firmly yet patiently told me that the doctors weren’t aware of the conditions they were dealing with, to quit being a bitch, gather things for the night and be an adult for my little sister, mother, and myself. Thank God for her firmness, her ability to deal with an irrational 18 year old. Angrily I thrust a pair of jeans, sweatshirt, and pack of cigarettes into an overnight bag, at that time thinking it would get me through the night and we would all return home together the next day.
I slept the entire way to Portland, maybe I pretended to, I can’t be sure. I just know I didn’t want to talk about what I was feeling. I felt no sadness, I felt only anger. I felt anger that this was happening. We were too young, too inexperienced and too immature to understand what to do. Maybe it was only me. I suspect no one ever really does, regardless of their age or time in life.
I remember the lights of Portland as we drove into the city. The bridge you cross from Washington into Oregon and how cold it felt. I don’t remember the voices in the car. I don’t remember the time. I remember getting lost and being angry about that. I remember getting stopped at the front desk of the hospital to check in and receive a sticker for the day we arrived, Sunday. I was angry about that. That sticker is in my passport, I don’t know how it got there or why but it will stay there. What a useless waste of time, stickers, checking in, the elevator rides. The hallways. The drinking fountains. The paperwork. I don’t even quite remember first seeing my mom, Hilary, the family and friends that had already gathered in the hospital waiting room. I don’t even remember first seeing him in his hospital bed. I only remember the wails emitted from my younger sister as we first stepped into his room. I remember the alien sound of the breathing machine pushing false life into his cold body. I remember how smooth his face was because of all the liquids being pumped into his body, thinking “Jesus, Dad. You look amazing.” I remember the antiseptic smell of all hospitals in the United States, the smell that permeates every sense, the scent that has made me feel ill during every doctor’s visit I’ve had since.
I found out, somehow, someone told me, I can only assume it was my mom, that they had found a clot in his brain and had tried to remove it. During the procedure, something had been severed and he was in a coma, on life support. At the time, I had full faith that he would come right out of it. When they removed the tubes and needles he would return, eyes jolting open. They wouldn’t flutter open delicately, he would sit upright like the man I had known him to be and we would pick up cheeseburgers and drive us home to sleep, maybe read me some Emily Barrett Browning to soothe the nerves raw. I was disgusted by the television playing in the waiting room and the hipster reading glasses I had chosen to wear instead of contacts, by the loudness of the children not belonging to anyone we knew running around at 1am disturbing my fake sleep across three chairs. I was disgusted that I still had want for cafeteria foods even though I couldn’t be less hungry and I was disgusted that we were just waiting for something to happen. Time was nonexistent, I don’t know how long I laid across the plastic chairs, how many people came in and out, who spoke to me, what I said. I know that my closest friend, Brooke Miller, had driven down from Tacoma to be with me and she was next to me. I recall the moment that Chad, another amazing person us Mischkes are lucky enough to know, who happens to be a doctor asked for our attention, all thirty or so of us in the waiting room.
Details are vague in my memory along with most else from that night, as if I were watching a television show heavily sedated on Valium until the moment I heard him say “we need to take him off life support.” I had been standing between my sister and my mother at that point, waiting for the news that he would be alright, that it was just a misunderstanding, a slight overdose on sedatives and that we should all go clean ourselves up because who wants to come out of a coma to see a bunch of sickly looking individuals waiting for your consciousness to return. I lost all strength, resolve, or fight when he uttered those words. My legs went out, my little sister screamed, and my mother looked as if she wanted to join him on the parade of death.
The goodbyes are personal, and I can’t remember most of them. Only the little sister, all 4 foot 8 inches of her, curling into his bed next to him begging him to wake up. Me whispering to him that I love him and a song sung to him around his bed. I don’t remember the sound of the machine flat lining, I don’t remember a second where I felt his soul leave the room or a pivotal moment where I felt any sense of the end. I remember wandering down the hall into the waiting room, waiting for my mother to bathe him and spend her last moments with the man she was married to for 32 years.
We went to The Old Spaghetti Factory, the most terrible idea ever, even though I know whoever planned that were only thinking of us, what could take our minds off this…event. Throwing up in the parking lot and going back to my older sisters and falling into sleep on the floor wearing his Member’s Only wool sweater.
A gift that no Christmastime will ever give me is the night vaguely a week before Dad’s death of he and I sitting in his study, listening to “Hallelujah”, comparing Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley’s versions for hours. It was played at his funeral and this memory, luckily, lives stronger in my psyche than his last artificial breath leaving his body.
Since then, Christmases have felt jilted. Never unenjoyed, but never complete. In 2010 I spent it with my older sister and her husband and Chris and Jeff at our house in Gig Harbor, ate steak and King Crab and was in the hospital by 11 that night after developing a deathly allergy to crab and undergoing treatment for an anaphylactic reaction. Little sister drove me there and we didn’t tell my mom how my heart had nearly stopped and my throat had closed because a Christmas in the hospital for her would have been offensive. In 2011, I celebrated with my boyfriend, little sister, and mother at my older sister’s in Vancouver with her lovely family. It was special, it was different, it was full of tears-both joyful and sorrowful. Each year I spend at least one evening or morning with The Miller family, my second family, and the immense comfort I feel from them, the acceptance, love, and ease flow so freely and I truly have missed that this year.
In 2012 I had a different Christmas experience. Without family, without lover, without home-whatever or wherever that may be.
Christmas Eve was spent tuk-tuking mother to the airport, nearly crying with my dear friend Allison at the difference of an expatriate holiday, then staying up until 6am with friends after a night of Long Island Iced Teas, Black Russians, and smoking. I had the pleasure of Skyping with a best friend, Jesse Morrow, at 5am listening to a recording of his and my nephew’s Christmas song first played for me two years ago at the peak of my depression.
Christmas Day was filled with more laughter than I’ve experienced since my last trip with friends in Washington to The Rolling Huts, a semi-failed attempt at biscuits and gravy, Wham! on repeat to the annoyance of a certain Frenchman, and several naps on a communal bed formed from mattresses on a living room floor. We watched Drive and Moonrise Kingdom (two favorites from 2012) and part of Ninja Assasssin and ate cheeseburgers and hot dogs and fishy ribs on silky sheets and drank mimosas out of dishes like cats. Allison and I put together the worst Christmas stockings ever known for our friends Richard and Nico, filled with polaroids of strange people from back home, $1 sushi coupons, cat iPhone cases, fans smelling of incense and bandanas. The strangest Christmas in the books for now, but entirely necessary. I remember looking around the table as we all ate our Oliver Twist-like slop of gravy, eggs, and burnt biscuits and couldn’t help but take a proud mental image of those around me. Nico from France, aka Finn, full of energy reserved for those with ADD and/or an unlimited supply of Red Bull and passion for life unrivaled, Richard from Scotland who understand my completely inappropriate and ill-timed comedic humor with a cat iPhone case, Giacomo from Italy completely sloshed from a morning spent playing pool and surprised at how good “The Mischke Gravy” tasted (no one trusted it) and Allison, confidant and friend of a lifetime, all gathered around a table in Cambodia on Christmas day.
After a Skype session with Mom tonight, I realize the typical family Christmas I have reserved in my memory will never be again. As they never will be for those of children of divorce, those married and splitting their time between two factions of their lives, those who have lost someone, those who have gained someone; things change. Although I look back on the mornings waking up in the same bed as Rachel (little sister) as our tradition was to sleep in the same bed or room no matter how old we got and traipsing down the stairs greeted by a grand tree and a mountain of presents with Sheila and Hal sitting on our red couches, coffee in hand, and realize it will never be again I can accept that the 25th of December can be good. It can be absolutely lovely and that one day, I’ll have a family where I am Mother. Where there is a Father. Where a family will be complete.
Until that day, I can be happy enough with mimosas, ab aching laughter, and memories shared over weird meals.