Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Fall

The sudden loss of a loved one is a lot like abruptly being unable to breathe. Every moment, of every day, we perform this essential but automated function without ever thinking much about it. It is only when some form of misfortune seizes this ability do we truly understand just how wonderful it feels to draw breath into our lungs. Much in the same way, when a loved one dies unexpectedly we come to understand that we may have loved them deeply, and even wholly, but we did not realize how truly special it was to have them in our lives. We took for granted the gifts of being able to see and talk to them so regularly. Now that access is revoked, we are suffocating in our grief, and we would give almost anything to breathe.

It was this harsh lesson the world thrust upon me at the age of 12 when my father was murdered.

On the morning of the funeral, I had to drag myself out of bed. The entire time I felt broken and fragmented while getting dressed, like pouring shards of a shattered mirror into a suit shaped sack. As my mother, siblings, and I drove to the mortuary the sky was a funeral cliche if there ever was one. It was gray, cold and raining with dark, heavy clouds sluggishly floating above the city like a wounded armada.

Upon arriving my sisters, and second-oldest brother all climbed out of the car to go inside. Perhaps they were each far braver than me that day because as I went to follow, I instead hesitated, then simply remained seated. Suddenly the courage to face the indisputable evidence of this awful truth had fled me. My mother noticed this of course and instead of immediately going into the funeral home with the rest of her children, she walked around the car and sat with me. We did immediately begin speaking. Maybe she was gathering her thoughts on what to say. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult that must have been for her.

I am not trying to push you.” My mother began gently with some noticeable hesitation that seemed uncharacteristic for her. “But he was,” She paused as if to reconsider her words. “, is your father, Walter. I know you said you do not want to see him this way. That you want to remember him the way he was... before he died. But if you do not come in to say goodbye, you may regret it later for the rest of your life. Just think about it.”

Perhaps a majority of parents and children would have exchanged a hug at the conclusion of such a statement. However, after saying what needed to be said, she climbed out of the car and went inside. We were not a very emotional family that displayed physical signs of affection. However, I never felt less loved in spite of this because she constantly demonstrated how much she loved us through her constant sacrifices that held more power than any words ever could.

I am uncertain as to how long I sat outside alone that day. I only remember I did not want to go in. I did not want to see my strong father, a man I believed could do anything and could survive anything, lying there in death. So, instead, I sat there staring down at my hands for a long time. I thought I would cry. I wanted to cry. But the pain was so intense it felt as if it was somehow inhibiting something deep within me.

The funeral home was on International blvd. A busy area constantly buzzing with activity. The garbled conversations of passing strangers on the sidewalk, and the constant sloshing of tires traveling across the wet asphalt, mixed with the non-rhythmic strumming of the rains falling against the car. But despite it, all my world was just my hands on my lap, that uncomfortable suit, and the gray shadows filling the vehicle.

How did this happen?” Is a question that haunted my mind again, and again. The world never felt as harsh, and heavy as it did on that day.

Occasionally I found myself unwillingly picturing the way my father must have died. I imagined what his murder must have looked like as the knife went plunging into him. It was a painful and infuriating train of thoughts with no brakes. Each time I allowed myself to think about it for too long a swell of primal, raw emotions howled from the darkest depth of my being and consoled the hurt with visions of potential, bloody revenge.

How did this happen?” The question repeated itself again as I lifted my eyes from my lap to stare at the building containing my father's remains. I was a child but I also was not completely naive. I knew the answer. His death was as violent as his life. But while I understood he was no saint this knowledge did not reduce the love I felt for him. It did not make the loss hurt less.

It was while staring at the large pair of decorative doors of the funeral home's entrance, that a new question occurred to me unprompted. “Where has he gone?” I firmly understood he was dead. I knew his body was lying inside. But that all felt like only part of an answer to this new, puzzling question. I was raised Baptist so of course, I knew and partially believed the teachings concerning the possible fate of souls in the afterlife.

But at that moment, while invisibly writhing in pain, at the bottom of that emotional impact crater, those teachings did not offer complete solace.

Was my father in Heaven? Hell? The purgatory my catholic neighbors sometimes spoke of? Or what if it was none of these. What if he was simply gone? Or wandering Downtown Oakland as some unfettered ghost? I was painfully desperate to know. I found myself wishing I could see where he had gone for just a second. But from the bottom of my heart, I urgently wanted to believe and hoped that maybe my father was finally with his mother, and brother, both who he loved so much. I briefly wondered, if there were such a place as heaven, would he have to walk there. My father loved walking and wandering from place to place.

I closed my eyes, and for a short while, it was all so easy to picture. I could see him walking with his hands in his pockets, a cigarette in his smiling mouth, and that brown hat he often wore resting on his head. He was walking down a path, surrounded by trees, through hills made gold by the summer, with the warm afternoon sun hanging overhead. My father was happy there. I think I finally began crying for a while.

There was a doubtless morbidity accompanying that sweetness. If even briefly, I found myself thinking that if I could just die at that moment, then maybe I could catch up with him, and we could walk together. It felt so profoundly real. Those hills, trees, fields, path and sun were all just a little ways away.

Come on, Walter.” My father would call out while patiently waiting along that mythical trail. How I wanted to feel my hand in his as we walked along, while he told me one of the seemingly endless jokes he remembered, or what he thought of a Stephen King book he had recently read. There would be the sun on my shoulders, and him at my side.

The wailing of a passing ambulance yanked me out of my head and away from the Elysian fields I was trying so hard to see. My fantasy was dashed against the rocks of life, stranding me once more in a reality of rain, wet cement, dim shadows, and sadness. I watched the ambulance speeding off towards whatever emergency or hospital it was trying to reach. As I wondered if the person they were responding to was dying, or dead, I truly hated Oakland for instance. I hated all the violence my city had shown me. I hated all the death I had witnessed. And I hated every selfish soul that helped usher in our collective misery.

The anger quickly abated. I was alone with my grief again. I began feeling sharp pangs of guilt about not going inside. It now felt terribly wrong just to sit outside while my father was lying in that building. Somehow, I finally managed to climb out of the car and close the door behind me. But even then I did not immediately begin my approach. I just stood there in the rain staring at that funeral home. I was realizing that more than just my father was being laid to rest. My dreams of having him around, of hearing his thoughts about my own writing, of being able to have him in my life more often, all of it was dead now.

Finally, I did go inside to face the awaiting reality. Low, yellow-orange lights, like the sad imitation of candles, lit the dim place of whites and dark browns. Orchestra music-- something heavy, slow, and sorrowful-- was playing over the speakers. I paused at the entrance leading into the chapel. I even considered turning around and going back outside. Then I opened the last door and entered.

There were not many people at my father's funeral. Perhaps even describing it as an intimate gathering would be an over-exaggeration of numbers. Most of his real friends had all died violently long before him. The only two members of his family that loved him, his older brother, and his mother were also gone. So it was just a few of us. My mother, sisters, brother, a couple of relatives, and a family friend. We all stood there around his white and silver casket. The truth is the casket was not remotely as fancy as it appeared. That was just an illusion. My family could not afford much so the funeral home opted for a sort of casing to make the plain wooden box appear more elegant for the ceremony.

I felt like I was floating on the air made nauseatingly sweet by some sort of incense. I finally stood there before my fallen hero. How utterly broken but peaceful he appeared to me as I looked down upon him with everything from love, to hate, to regret, and so many other things I could scarcely understand.

My father was dressed simply in a nice suit. The funeral home tried to make it appear as if he was only sleeping. But I understood that was as big a lie as the fake casing over his casket. He was dead and gone. As I stared down at him I remembered the last time we were together. He was laughing, joking, and talking. He gave me $5 dollars to go to the arcade but was gone before I returned. My mother relayed that he explained he had to go but would see me later. Later never came. I felt a terrible pain as I realized none of that was going to happen again.

Once more, I thought I would cry but nothing came except a grim epiphany in the form of understanding perhaps life would always be painful. Despite it all, I sincerely hoped my father was somewhere better than the hard life he had experienced. I hoped it was peaceful there. I wanted people who loved him to greet him as he arrived.

I thought about reaching out to touch my father but I dared not. It just felt inappropriate. So, instead, I settled on being able to do nothing more than stand there motionless as he waved one last time, then left down that long road.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

That Awful Drug

That Awful Drug

Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
--Dante Alighieri, the Divine Comedy

The classic depictions of Cupid are nothing but a lie. A clever PR job meant to soften the image of an otherwise ruthless opportunist. There is no winged infant firing off heart tipped arrows like a seasoned sniper. Or beautiful goddesses granting blessings to ease longing. The real Cupid is a drug pusher and pharmaceutical executive. A man with a charming smile, and an expensive suit, that both distracts from his cold eyes.

Despite a majority of first loves eventually hurting like a thousand sonsofbitches wielding rusty chainsaws, most of us will remain hopelessly addicted for the rest of our lives. Gay, Straight, Bi, all just arbitrary nonsense to Cupid. He only sees returning customers.

Do you remember your first love?

You most likely never asked for it. Cupid simply spiked your drink while you were distracted by life. Suddenly you were this crazy person wanting nothing more than to attach yourself to another crazy person, so you could both enjoy the high together.

That is how it began for me. I was 16 at the time. One moment I was minding my own business, the next I met this girl, and we both traded a shy smile. It began just as simple as that. From that point on, whenever I looked into those big brown eyes logic abandoned me, and in its place emerged a blinding desire that clouded my thoughts with want.

Her name was Puriel. She was a girl who normally kept her black, waist-length hair tied back in a braided bun. Always dressed conservatively in dark slacks or ankle length skirts, and blouses that were never brighter than earth tones. She watched the world inquisitively from behind a pair of thin framed glasses, and her full lips had an incredibly expressive way of either forming the most motherly of disapproving frowns, or the warmest of welcoming smiles.

Many others frequently described Puriel as being stand-offish, aloof, or guarded. Such views of her were not completely unfounded. But they were only half truths. These aspects of her personality were just a shield she constructed to protect herself after experiencing years of hurt at home, and rejection by her peers when she was younger. I knew and loved a side of Puriel that she rarely revealed to few others. The vulnerable, intellectually curious, passionate, and adventurous spirit that greatly desired freedom.

I saw this side of her when we sat alone together after school, and she would finally let her hair down, then rest her head on my shoulder with a quiet sigh. Or those times when things were so increasingly turbulent at home that Puriel had moments when she temporarily lost that strict control she kept over her emotions, and briefly ranted about how much she hated growing up with suffocatingly religious parents.

I especially loved the days we sat together talking about our dreams concerning the future. She frequently spoke about wanting to go to college someday and leaving home to see the world. Anytime Puriel talked about these subjects she would get this small, hopeful smile while looking off into the distance almost as if she could see those aspirations waiting for her on the far horizon. We were head-over-heels for one another. Deep in the throes of that youthful naivety, and passion, we more than once entertained the dreams of getting married and starting a life together. It all seemed so possible then.

An hour before classes began, every lunch break, and even two hours after the school day ended, we tried to see each other as much as possible. We were constantly stealing time from all our friends to make this happen. Our addiction reached such heights that more vocal friends began to complain about not seeing us. So-- despite it feeling like murder-- we both began trying to alternate days where we separated to hang with our individual social circles during lunch.

It was not all bliss. Constantly looming over our relationship was a tremendous issue we both tried to ignore. Puriel was absolutely forbidden to date. If her father had ever discovered she had a boyfriend he would have immediately demonstrated his immense displeasure to her with his fists. Of course, he would only beat his daughter to keep her safe from the evils of the world. A solution as loving, and effective as a relative burning down your house to defend it against burglars.

Learning this ugly truth locked me into a constant internal struggle. On one side was that achingly powerful want. I loved Puriel and did not want to lose her. On the other was my always scathing conscience. I was not only deathly afraid for her. I also felt increasingly selfish for continuing to pursue a relationship while being fully aware of the possible consequences.

We were together for nearly two years and as time went on the close calls only multiplied. The closest of these near misses occurred one day after school. I was leaning in to kiss Puriel but caught sight of her father's truck approaching from down the street. So, I instead embraced her close to myself and quickly turned until my back was facing the street. I prayed this would be enough to keep her hidden.

“What are you doing?” Puriel laughed in surprise.

“I saw your father's truck,” I said as calmly as I could but she tensed in my arms. The immediate fear that seized her was palpable. “I don't think he saw you. Just stay still.”

I looked over my shoulder to discover his vehicle slowed to a crawl. This was quickly seeming more and more like a worst-case scenario. Just as I was considering how I could protect her from her father, a great sense of relief washed over me when his vehicle picked up speed to continue searching for her.

“He's gone.” I released her.

“Oh god. That-- that was close.” Puriel's voice took on a noticeable tremble as she quickly hurried away from me. “I better go. I love you.”

“I love you.” I replied solemnly while watching her leave with this sinking feeling at the very core of my being.

From that day on my fears only multiplied. Even when we were together, no matter how truly happy I was to see her, the dread hounded me. There came a point where I could no longer reasonably justify the risks to myself. Even trying to reason that she was a willing participant in these possibly dire circumstances did little to soothe my conscience. In the end, no matter how much my heart begged, my more rational, guilt-ridden mind made what felt like the best choice. I decided to break-up with her.

It is still difficult to find a proper way to fully describe what that bleak moment was like. I can never forget Puriel's expression. It was something between crestfallen, anger, and disbelief. It was the look of a soul that had just been deeply betrayed. I do not blame her. I sincerely felt like I was standing there holding the still bloody knife that had just been used to stab her in the back. When I looked into her teary eyes I felt my resolve threatening to leave me. I was forced to avert my gaze least I change my mind.

I tried to explain why I was doing this. Why I was doing this awful thing to someone I claimed to care so much about. The multitude of ugly, spindly, inky fears I tried so hard to contain all spilled from me in one clumsy admittance. I confessed to being constantly frightened for her, of being unable to bear the weight of guilt if she was ever hurt because of me, and how exhausting it was trying to be together under constant subterfuge. But I could see none of that mattered. She was deeply hurt. I was the bad guy that day.

Puriel watched me for a few moments longer. It was some of the longest seconds of my life as her eyes searched my face with that questioning gaze. Then she turned and left. Just like that our story together was over.

I still occasionally wonder whatever happened to that mysterious girl with the bright smile and big dreams. I hope she grew into the woman she wanted to be and broke free of the shackles her parents tried forcing on her. I hope she went off to college and then found the courage to see the world. I want that all to be true. A few years ago I heard snippets of rumors concerning Puriel. People from back then claim to have heard she wandered to the east coast to live out many of those dreams. Others say she experienced more than one broken marriage, abuse, and stagnation. I wonder if any of what has been said about her is true? Then again, a lot of people say a lot of things.