Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Whistling Past the Graveyard

There is a small rectangular table by Trudy’s front door. On it sit her keys, the outgoing mail, a blouse to be returned to Bloomingdales, and what looks like a large nylon lunch tote. But it’s not food in there. It’s my father.

We plan to spread Dad’s ashes in the San Francisco Bay, in accordance with his wishes, as soon as we can all bear to get together and take the trip up north. But for now, John waits patiently in the foyer, encased in a sporty, forest green snack sac, embroidered on the bottom right hand corner with the watchword of Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary: Dignity®.

I don’t know why Trudy parked her husband in that particular spot, but I’m guessing her motivation was at least partly shock value. A few weeks earlier when Karla stopped by the condo for a visit, Trudy casually gestured toward the bag and announced flatly, “There’s John.” Karla was horrified, and when Leo heard Dad had been offhandedly plopped down by the front door, he was disgusted by our mother’s lack of compassion and decency. I actually thought it was kind of funny. At least John is cooling his heels in a well-trafficked area instead of lying neglected in the trunk of Trudy’s car, the forgotten object of yet another bothersome errand she will never get around to running.

When I arrived to help sort through my father’s things several weeks later, his ashes were still next to the door. I pretended not to notice when I walked in, but as soon as our mom left the room, I gave Karla a meaningful look, patted the sack and cooed softly, “Hi, Daddy.” I did it to make Karla laugh, but the joke was on me because once I’d done that, I found I enjoyed it. I began giving John affectionate taps each time I walked by, even when Karla wasn’t around. It was comforting. And, it’s something that would have made John smile knowingly, raise one eyebrow and crack, “You’re a little spooky, kid.” Which is true, I suppose, if you are one of those people who thinks having inside jokes with your father’s charred remains is spooky.

After lunch and a lot of stalling, Trudy, Karla and I filed upstairs to sort through John’s belongings, take whatever keepsakes we wanted, and box up the rest for charity. There is nothing unique about the grief one experiences wading through the petty objects a loved one leaves behind. In fact, I’m embarrassed by how unoriginal my feelings were. Of course I sucked in my breath when I walked into his closet and was blindsided by the smell of him. And I wasn’t the first daughter to bury her nose in her father’s coat or plunge her hands into the pockets of his sweater, hoping to find something he had touched, if only a book of matches, or a cigar band.

Obviously, I cried standing there, with the stuff of his daily routine all around me. His clothes, his shoes, his robe, his slippers. The dresser on top of which sat his comb, his handkerchief, a gifted box of Cubans, and the jar, once full of Trudy’s bath salts, where he emptied his pockets of loose change each night. His wire rimmed reading glasses. His wallet. His watch with the frayed brown leather band that I wore whenever he was in surgery, the only times he was ever without it. The shoebox full of old walkmans and portable cd players, some broken, some in working order, but dropped on the cement in the backyard so often he had taped the sides together or the battery compartment shut. The pile of mixed tapes and cd’s I made for his birthdays and father’s days. The valet box where he kept his cufflinks, his money clips, a lock of hair from my first haircut, and a clump of Army Air Corps pilot’s wings, which had melted together during a plane crash during the war. (John always carried extra set of wings with him to hand out to “the girls” wherever they landed.)

I emerged from the walk-in closet holding up John’s watch and asked Trudy if I could keep it. She looked at me doubtfully, frowned and said, “Well, that watch was very expensive…I thought I’d give it to Leo.” After our mother left the room Karla advised me to pocket the watch, and anything else I wanted. “She doesn’t really care, anyway.” Of course, I already knew that. Trudy can be extremely generous, but rarely will she give you what you want. In fact, the more directly you ask for something, the less likely you are to get it.

Here is what Trudy allowed me to take: Four cashmere sweaters, a bunch of old family photographs, the lock of my hair, and a paper cocktail menu from the King’s X restaurant with my crayon scribbles all over it and a note in John’s barely legible cursive reading, “Daddy and Mary Patricia’s first dinner date, 1967.”

Here is what I stole: The watch, a money clip that reads, “Easy Come, Easy Go,” a key chain bearing the likeness of the Pope on one side and JFK on the other, and the melted wings.

Oh, and also, I took John’s dentures. I found them while I was cleaning out his side of the bathroom he shared with Trudy. I started with the drawers, which were full of Depends. I was going to trash them, but Karla told me Trudy wants to save them for long car rides. Mom watches more than her share of Court TV, so I’m guessing she picked up this trick from lovelorn astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak, who wore a diaper as she sped from Houston to Orlando to kill her lover’s girlfriend, so she wouldn’t have to stop along the way.

Next, I cleared out John’s medicine cabinet. After making certain there were no medications prescribed that might go well with a cocktail, I tore the pharmacy labels off of the brown plastic bottles and poured the pills into the toilet. With a flush, hundreds of dollars of Aricept for Alzheimer’s and Altace for high blood pressure were whisked away to eventually dissolve in the L.A. River.

In the cabinet under the sink, I found a plastic hospital container that had John’s name written on top in black Sharpie. I opened the lid and there they were, all yellow and brown, just like the actual teeth of a man who had smoked cigars for nearly 50 years. I held the open container out to Karla and mimed sneaking the dentures into my purse. Karla shrieked, “Oh, gross!” I laughed and told her I was only kidding. She shook her head and commanded me to throw them in the trashcan. So, I did.

But then I did a weird thing. After making sure Karla and Trudy weren’t looking, I dug the container out of the garbage, wrapped it in paper towels, stealthily carried it downstairs, and buried it in the bottom of my purse. The dentures are truly gross. I don’t even want to look at them again. But I couldn’t throw them away. Until a year ago I didn’t even know John’s teeth weren’t real. As far as I was concerned, they were a part of him. I couldn’t throw a part of him in the garbage. Instead, I brought them home and put them in my closet.

This, my father would have objected to. In fact, he’d be mortified and revolted and insist that I throw them away. And then wash my hands. Well, too bad. He’s dead. I can keep his dentures if I feel like it.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Wish You Were Here

Funerals on my father’s side of the family were usually long, formal and Catholic, inevitably culminating in a pathos-milking rendition of, “Danny Boy.” The ceremonies were always followed by a rowdy evening of drinking, story telling, laughing, crying, and singing. I’d say they were about as cathartic and life affirming as funerals get.

Funerals in Trudy’s family had a different feel. For instance, my Aunt June’s took place in a modest protestant church which she had never set foot in, and was conducted by a bland minister who had never met her and knew very little about her. After the brief, generic service, the mourners solemnly gathered in the rec room of June’s trailer park for punch and cold cuts. My cousin Joel, who was bailed out of jail for the occasion, sat in silence throughout the whole ordeal. (Joel is currently a homeless crackhead living on the streets of Sacramento.) His sister Sheri, on the other hand, became more boisterous as the reception went on. After a while, she brought me to June’s trailer, where we took turns sipping from the bottle of vodka she had stashed there earlier in the day. Once she was good and plastered, Sheri insisted I feel the soft spot on her head, which was left by the brain surgery performed to remove a tumor that was alleged to have caused her to run away to an Indian reservation and get a tattoo. I’m sure Joel’s and Shari’s behavioral problems had nothing whatever to do with their abusive abalone fisherman father, Al, who beat them and their mother senseless on a regular basis until the day he left them high and dry.

June’s was not the kind of memorial I had in mind for John. My idea was to mark John’s passing with the warmth and comfort of his family’s gatherings, minus the formalities and the God.

Trudy was wary about throwing a party at first because she was afraid people would be expecting a service. Also, she worried she’d start balling and never be able to stop, which is permissible at a funeral but not at a party. Once people started to arrive, though, she was in her element. If there is one thing Trudy enjoys, and is damn good at, it’s socializing. And the number one unspoken hostessing rule is: No crying once company has arrived. Dressed regally in a brand new black St. John Knit, Trudy greeted guests like a star meets adoring fans, her hairdresser Stephen and her colorist Marie among them.

The place was packed. There was such a big turn out that Karla worried we’d run out of food. People who we thought would only want to stop by briefly to pay their respects stayed for hours. Friends and relatives we hadn’t seen in years turned up. Even old neighbors from Ladera Heights were there, including Leo’s buddies who used to hang out in the driveway in front of his black van, getting loaded while listening to hard rock on The Might Met and waxing their surfboards, and Karla’s high school boyfriend who knew that if he couldn’t smell cigar smoke when he brought Karla home from a date, John had gone to bed and he’d probably, “get some.”

Kimmie, my best childhood friend, cried throughout the entire party. She adored my dad, who was endlessly good natured and patient with us. He chauffeured us to the movies and to Baskin Robbins for ice cream, kept an eye on us while we played freeze tag in the street, and dutifully served as the sole audience member for our frequent talent shows in the backyard. And, he didn’t seem to mind too much when we insisted on changing the channel to UHF to watch, “The Adams Family,” or, “The Little Rascals,” while he was trying to catch up on highlights from the Watergate hearings on the nightly news. (John loathed Richard Nixon, admired FDR, and always complained bitterly that Adlai Stevenson was cheated out of a bid for the presidency.)

But as much as Kimmie loved John, she worshipped my mother. To the extent that she nearly named her only daughter Trudy. That’s because Kimmie only knew Fun Trudy. When Fun Trudy was around, it was like hanging out with the most popular girl in school who associated with you, even though she didn’t have to, because she was just that nice! She’d lead us on spontaneous bike rides to the beach! She’d take us to the Japanese Village and Deer Park, on a whim! She taught us how to win at blackjack!

Kim’s mother Tanya, on the other hand, was rail thin, beautiful, and as icy and aloof as the three Siamese cats who prowled around their dimly lit house. We weren’t allowed to speak above a whisper early in the day at Kim’s because Tanya was always nursing a hangover after a late night out at chic Beverly Hills nightclubs such as Daisy’s, or Pip’s, the backgammon themed disco. Once she emerged from the master bedroom, Tanya could usually be found lying in one of the His and Her Barcaloungers positioned in front of the television set in the den, manicure kit at her side, remote control in hand, cucumber slices over her eyelids.

When she wasn’t recovering from the night before, Tanya was sitting at her vanity, preparing for the evening to come. Kim and I would stand behind her and stare while she carefully applied layers of make-up. It was Tanya who taught us how to blend several shades of eye shadow to create the perfect, “three dimensional eye” effect.

Kim’s stepfather, also named John, passed away a few years ago. John was a big, fat intimidating man with a deep, booming voice who owned a card club in Gardena and always carried a giant roll of cash in his front pocket. In the summertime, John would float on a raft in their pool, watching Kim and I shoot hoops a few feet away. Every time we made a basket, he’d give us a dollar bill. The story my father liked to tell about John took place one evening during the holidays. Kimmie was playing at our house and John had come to collect her for dinner. When my father answered the door, John wished him a Merry Christmas and handed him a flat containing 100 of those miniature vodka bottles they serve on airplanes.

An old friend of my parents named Little Red arrived at the party on the arm of a nurse, who sat her at a table and then went straight to the bar to get her a cocktail. Little Red’s hair was unkempt and no longer red, but grey. She wore wide sunglasses with yellow lens. I didn’t recognize her until after I had walked by and heard her complain, “Isn’t it bright in here? Can’t someone turn those goddamn lights down?”

I don’t know that much about Little Red except that she had been Ruth Roman’s stand-in, and was with her aboard the Andrea Doria when it sank. My parents knew Red because she was the long time girlfriend of their good friend Mimi, a very butch lesbian who swore like a sailor, wore men’s suits and had a vague career in entertainment. I think she produced movies, and I know she owned a restaurant/club in the 1970’s that went under after about a year. My mother met Mimi in Sacramento during the early 1960’s when she worked as a secretary for Governor Pat Brown, and Mimi had only recently transformed herself from mild-mannered Jewish housewife to mannish lesbian lobbyist. John and Trudy loved Mimi and Little Red because they were such “characters,” and “a lot of fun.” Also, Mimi could usually be counted on to buy a few shares in Trudy’s latest money-making venture.

Something my parents turned a blind eye to was Mimi’s love of illegal substances. I believe that’s what led her to become friends with fellow cocaine aficionado Billy Idol in the early 1980’s. (Mimi once gave me an autographed picture of Billy that he had signed, “To Marry, Rock On!” Who misspells “Mary?”) During that same period, Mimi and Little Red appeared in a Twisted Sister video, wearing black leather bondage gear and holding riding crops. They were probably in their mid-60’s then.

One night, when I was about 16 or 17, I was out with my parents, Mimi, and Little Red at a supper club featuring a then-popular drag act. Half way through dinner I felt something on my leg. Mimi was trying to pass me a vial of coke under the table. I shook my head no in disbelief. Mimi laughed drunkenly, and loudly shouted so that the entire table could hear, “When your mother was young, she was a real cherry. Just like you.” Mortified, I tilted my head forward, in an attempt to disappear behind the dyed black bangs of my asymmetrical haircut, but Trudy just blushed and giggled, “Oh, Mimi!…What’s a cherry?”

As the years went on, Mimi and Little Red’s partying escalated. Eventually, John discovered that Mimi had been dealing coke out of his office, so they had a falling out. The women kept up their dangerous habits and lost everything, finally ending up in a tiny apartment in West Hollywood, living on public assistance. Every once in a while Mimi would come to John for a loan. Always a soft touch, John would take her to lunch and pay off her household bills.

Several of John’s nieces and nephews came to the party, including Steve, my uncle Fran’s son. Fran died before I was born, but I was told he had been an intellectual, a bohemian, an alcoholic and a Lamplighter. Karla says he was weird. Steve lives in San Pedro and had visited John often throughout his illness. John always got a kick out of Stephen’s radical politics and pugnacious demeanor, and Steve has never forgotten the time his uncle drove all the way to Santa Cruz to bail him out of jail after he was arrested for throwing rocks during a demonstration against the war in Vietnam.

In lieu of planning any formal service or eulogies, Karla had the club set up a small podium at the back of the room with a microphone, in case anyone had remembrances of John to share. My cousins were the first to get up.

Lisa spoke of her Uncle Johnny’s death as the end of an era. My father was the second born of his five siblings and the last one to die. Lisa’s mother, Mary, passed away only two years ago. She was my father’s favorite, and I am her namesake. Mary danced on a table at her 70th birthday party and played tennis nearly until the day she died at 80 years old. When we flew up north for her funeral, John was already pretty feeble. It was difficult for him to walk the long distances through the airport terminals, but he stubbornly refused to ride in a wheelchair. As he stood by Mary’s open casket at the viewing, I heard him whisper, “You left me all alone, Sis.”

Lisa and her sister Karen both nostalgically recounted our parents’ get-togethers that always went on late into the night. Those days were all about highballs, cigarettes, loud arguments and laughter. Kathleen, my Uncle Bobby’s daughter, described John as a bon vivant and, “the whole Rat Pack rolled into one.” She thought he looked like a movie star. “And then he brought home a movie star wife! And she showed up with a movie star daughter and a movie star son!”

My cousin Christine, Uncle Fran’s daughter, told a story that well illustrates my relationship with my father. Christine was probably a teenager and I was about six at the time. John was sitting in the living room of our grandmother’s house in San Francisco, when Christine ran in to report that I had been cheating at cards, expecting her uncle to discipline his bratty child. Instead, he looked up, laughed and said, “Good for her! How’s she ever gonna get ahead in this world if she doesn’t learn to cheat!” John’s biggest concern while I was growing up was that I wouldn’t cheat, because I didn’t understand what a cold and dangerous place the world could be. He wanted me to realize that you had to take care of your own, however you could. He was afraid I was too much like him.

I didn’t think I’d have the composure to speak, but I knew if I didn’t say something I’d regret it. Instead of trying to come up with something profound, which would have ended up sounding mawkish and inadequate, and surely would have made me cry, I decided to tell a brief story that took place at the first nursing home we put John in.

Dad usually refused to take his meals in the lunchroom with the other patients, and would instead eat from a tray in his room. He was never much of a joiner when he was well, so he certainly wasn’t going to start attending the depressing luaus and sing-a-longs the nursing home was always throwing at this stage of the game.

One day Karla and Susan were visiting and they noticed the home was screening Elvis movies in the lunchroom in honor of “Death Week.” “Death Week,” is the seven day celebration of Elvis’ life that takes place in Memphis every year on the anniversary of his alleged demise. The taste in celebrating, “Death Week,” at a nursing facility is questionable to my mind, but none of the patients seemed to notice.

Now, John didn’t care about Elvis, but Karla and Susan managed to convince him to get into his wheelchair and let them roll him down the hall to watch, “Love Me Tender,” for a change of scenery. In this picture, set during the Civil War, Elvis plays a character named Clint Reno whose brother Vance is a confederate soldier. While Vance is off fighting the north, Clint falls in love with his brother’s girlfriend, Cathy. When Vance returns from battle, he discovers that, thinking Vance had been killed in combat, Clint and Cathy have married.

At this point in the action, John pointed at Vance on the screen and said, “We used to date the same girl.” In the car on the way home, Karla and Susan called to tell me that John was becoming so confused he now thought he was Elvis Presley, or at the very least, Clint Reno.

They also told me about an old lady at the screening, whose companion had asked her if she wanted to be moved closer so she could get a better view of Elvis. She nodded, so her friend wheeled her to the front. When she got there, the woman looked up, squinted and complained, “Oh hell. I thought I was gonna meet him.” It made me sad to think that John’s dementia had led him so far afield that these people were now his peer group. That he had become just another sad, decaying lunatic. But then again, at least he thought he was Elvis and not Pol Pot, or Ted Bundy.

Out of curiosity, when I got off the phone I looked up, “Love Me Tender,” on the Internet Movie Database. Richard Egan is listed as the actor who played Elvis’ older brother, Vance. I went to Richard Egan’s page and was surprised to read that he was born in San Francisco, in 1921. John was also born in San Francisco, but a year earlier. When I opened Mr. Egan’s biography, I learned that he had attended at St. Ignatius High School, the same school John attended. So, my father wasn’t one of them yet. He was telling the truth. John and Vance Reno had dated the same girl.

I didn’t cry once at the party. I convinced myself that day marked the end of my crying over John. I was wrong, of course, but at least for that one afternoon, I was finished. The next morning, I woke up relieved that it was all behind me. But after a year of worrying what the next phone call might bring, and six months of spending nearly every day at a hospital, I was at a loss as to what to do with myself. I needed to get out of the apartment, so I decided to pick up some flowers that were waiting for me at a florist in Glendale.

On the way, I called for directions. A cheerful woman named Ivy told me how to get to the shop, which turned out to be farther away than I expected, at the foothills on the far edge of town. I parked on the street and walked toward two aging hippies who were chatting out front of an old gas station that had been converted into a quaint neighborhood florist. One wore what looked like an African print pajama set and sported dreadlocks which hung down to her butt. The other one was heavyset and had two grey braids coiled into buns on either side of her head. She wore a layered, loose fitting, cotton dress, had fair, freckled skin, and bore the permanent, glazed grin of a Manson girl. This, I realized, must be Ivy.

Blocking the sun with her hand, Ivy looked in my direction and called me over by name. She led me inside the garage, where I waited while she retrieved my elaborate arrangement from a back room. She brought out a tall glass vase half-filled with water, which held fragrant white and pink flowers accompanied by tall blades of grass and twigs. We made small talk about my sister’s stepson, who had ordered the arrangement for me, while she secured the flowers in a cardboard box stuffed with newspapers for traveling. Picking up the box, she smiled at me, and in the exaggeratedly empathetic whine usually reserved for small children and the mentally retarded, she asked, “So, your Dad died, huh?” I nodded and told her he had. With that, she tilted her head, pursed her lips into a clownish frown and cried, “Bummer!”

With one hand on the steering wheel, the other alternately shifting gears and propping up the precariously positioned vase, I laughed all the way home.

Friday, December 28, 2007

At a Loss

Karla and I flew home from West Virginia two days before the party, which was to be held on Saturday afternoon. I’ve read that some people call this sort of event a, “Life Celebration,” but to me that sounds more like some precious New Age gathering where vegan finger foods are washed down with eco-friendly fruit juices after a ceremonial release of 87 white doves. Taking to heart our father’s aversion to the maudlin and his caution to, “never trust a teetotaler,” we were throwing John a cocktail party.

The menu was set, the obituary had been published, friends and family had been invited. The only thing I had left to do was prepare something to handout to the guests. I had all of Thursday and Friday to create a simple booklet. On the front was to be a picture of a young, smiling John in uniform, with the dates of his birth and death beneath it. Inside I’d include a brief yet poignant anecdote, which I had yet to write, and an insightful poem by some wise and well-respected literary figure, summing up what John meant to us and how much we’d miss him, which I had yet to choose.

By six o’clock Friday night, I hadn’t started working on it. Restless, I went out for an early dinner. When I got home I still couldn’t face it, so I laid down on the couch to do some thinking and rest my eyes for just a minute. At midnight, I woke up in a panic. I had no idea what to write. It was too soon. It seemed an impossible task to express in only a few paragraphs what an extraordinary person and a caring father John had been. I realized that composing the obituary had taken all I had in me at that point, so I decided to include a modified version of that in the booklet, and move on to choosing a poem.

A few days prior, Karla had forwarded some memorial poems she grabbed randomly from various websites dedicated to grief. I hadn’t bothered to read them until that night. They were all painfully sentimental and cheesy, but I tried to keep in mind that I wasn’t making the pamphlet to impress my jaded, over-educated friends (as one of my jaded, over-educated friends pointed out). Why I was making the pamphlet, I couldn't really say. In any event, I had to select a poem from the bunch Karla sent because I didn’t have time to come up with anything else.

The first one was called, “Weep Not For Me.”

Weep not for me though I am gone
Into the gentle night
Grieve if you will, but not for long
Upon my soul’s sweet flight.

There is no need for tears.
I am at peace, my soul is at rest
There is no pain, I suffer not,
For with your love I was so blessed.

I am in a place of comfort
The fear now is gone.
Put those things out of your thoughts,
In your memory I live on.

Remember not my fight for breath
Remember not the strife
Please do not dwell upon my death
But celebrate my life.

Apart from the faulty rhymes, precarious meter and gruesome final stanza, what most disturbed me about this poem was that it was written in the voice of the deceased. I imagined John reciting it to me from beyond the grave in a ham stage actor's cadence. I was intrigued. Karla hadn’t included any of the authors' names, so I googled, “weep not for me though i am gone.” Oddly, several sites about pet loss popped up. Come to find out, a woman named Constance Jenkins composed this verse about fifteen years ago, “to comfort her sister, whose beloved cat had died.”

Karla also included a traditional Irish blessing, an old Irish toast, and an inscription supposedly etched on an Irish tombstone. All too corny and too religious. Another poem claimed the dead walk beside us every day, “Unseen, unheard, but always near.” I thought that was creepy.

The one I finally settled on was entitled, “He is Gone.” It’s not a very good or a very graceful poem, but it does the job. The poet suggests that rather than dwelling in the miserable knowledge that your loved one has died and will never return, one should feel glad to have known him, cherish his memory, and carry on with life. In other words, as John would say, “Cheer up, kid. Life is short.”

A google search revealed that this poem, originally entitled, “She is Gone,” first gained popularity after it was read at the Queen Mother of England’s funeral. It was written by David Harkins, a former factory worker and gas station attendant who now earns his living as an artist, primarily by selling nude paintings of his wife over the internet. I wanted to include this biographical information in the pamphlet, but no one in the family except John would have seen the humor in it.

It was 3am when I finally pulled up to the 24 hour Kinko’s in Glendale. It was pretty bleak in there. The only customers were a couple of drunk guys making yard sale signs up front, a chubby actress in frayed jazz shoes duplicating her composite headshots at the color copier, a depressed ne’er-do-well slumped before a pay-by-the-minute computer at the back of the store, and a sullen, disheveled woman with puffy eyes standing by the door, shuffling papers and muttering to herself. (That would be me.)

I had noticed a spelling error in the booklet, so I sat down to correct it on one of the only working computers, which was right next to the ne’er-do-well, who kept glancing at me nervously as he surfed the internet. In all fairness, he may have been anxious because of my faux casual attempts to sneak peeks at his screen. I only wanted to know what was so interesting that he drove to Kinko’s in the middle of the night to research it, but every time I looked he blocked my view with his shoulder or switched back to the Yahoo home page.

After fixing the typo, I stepped up to the counter to order my copies. There, I discovered that the late shift clerk at the Kinko’s in Glendale is no Gutenberg. First he couldn’t open the file I sent him, so I had to rename it and send it again. Three times. Next, it took him a while to figure out how to copy a two-sided document. And then, after we had spent at least 10 minutes discussing what shade and thickness of stock to use, he ran 200 copies on the wrong paper. I didn’t get home until almost 4:30 in the morning.

My alarm rang at 6:00. Suddenly, my only concern was what I would wear. I knew John would want me to look nice, smile, and be a charming hostess. And, after all, despite our many differences, I am my mother’s daughter. Somewhere in my psyche lurks the hope that no matter what tragedy befalls me, if I just brush my teeth and throw on a little blusher, I will feel better.

I pulled several dresses out of the closet, but nixed them all on the basis that each one was either too casual, too dressy, too little-girlish, or too cleavage-y/clingy to wear to my father’s memorial soirĂ©e. I finally settled on a 70’s inspired, navy and white geometric print shirtdress that reminded me of something Mary Richards might have worn to an important lunch date.

At my 8:00am therapy appointment, we started to discuss how I could best get through the day and how I should respond if Trudy went nuts, but I kept coming back to the fact that I didn’t have any navy shoes to wear with my dress. “This is how navy dresses screw you. You can’t wear black or brown shoes with them. You can only wear navy shoes, and there are no cute navy shoes. Who owns navy shoes?” In the end, my therapist gave in and indulged me by offering suggestions as to where I might find a decent pair of dark blue heels.

Totally unhinged at this point, I was prepared to spend any amount of money if I could get my hands on the right shoes. Against all odds, I found them. There, in the second shoe store I visited, sat a pair of navy blue Joan & David pumps with a delicately squared toe, low heel and simple rectangular silver buckles that echoed the pattern on the dress. And modestly priced. They were perfect. I paid for them, got in my car, and cried all the way home.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

In John's Honor

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t use the word “cunt” to describe my mother, but she had just been particularly vicious, and my father had died only an hour before, so I considered it a special occasion. I believe my exact words were, “I don’t care what that cunt thinks of me.” Karla’s heartbroken expression said that she didn’t want to either.

I refused to return to Los Angeles right away. Trudy wasn’t answering her phone, and if she did I’d probably say something I’d eventually regret (see above), so I resorted to email, once again. I wrote that although I wasn’t there at the end, “Dad knew how much I loved him and that I did my best to spend time with him and care for him while he was ill.” I went on to say that I was distraught and wasn’t ready to come home yet. Instead, Karla and I would organize John’s memorial from West Virginia and fly home together at the end of the week. I continued, “I know we all want to figure out the best way to memorialize Dad, so I'm sure we can come to some decision that will satisfy everyone. I would love to hear your thoughts.” I also informed her that, while I respected her desire to have an open casket viewing before the cremation, I did not want to remember John that way so I would not attend.

Trudy answered, “I'm sorry you are having a really hard time. I am having a terrible time dealing with this also, plus being sick with a bad sore throat and an earache. I'm glad you have each other there to lean on. I had to face this all alone. I was going to the mortuary tomorrow to take your Dad's clothes, but there is no need to do that now. Just go ahead and plan what you want. I will make arrangements for the insurance company to pay them directly. Love, Mom.” Realizing she had lost control and exhausted all other avenues of manipulation, Trudy was taking her threat level to red. I left it to Karla to appease her.

For a couple of months I had been telling Trudy I didn’t want a formal service for John when he died. He hated all things, “depressing,” and I am convinced that his own funeral would have been near the top of that list, right under spending a year lying incapacitated and incontinent in various hospital beds. Karla and Leo agreed with me that what Dad would have wanted is a party. At first, our mother balked at the thought of bucking tradition. But once my sister offered to hold the event at her very fancy country club, Trudy came around pretty quickly.

While Karla paced the kitchen floor, debating the merits of various hot and cold hors d'oeuvres with the caterer over the phone, I sat at the breakfast table writing John’s obituary. As is customary, I first listed his name, age, the date he died, and the cause of his death. Then, I laid out what I considered to be the major events and accomplishments of his life, and some personal details: “John will be remembered and missed by all who knew him for his great intellect, warmth and laughter, not to mention his boundless enthusiasm for San Francisco, The Great Depression, World War II, the Democratic Party, and a good cigar.” When I got to the part where surviving family members are named, Karla and I struggled a bit over how to describe Trudy. In the end, we settled on, “beloved wife,” over, “loving wife.” (I preferred, “one helluva wife,” but Karla didn’t think it would fly.)

After my sister and I were satisfied with it, I emailed the draft to Leo, my eldest nephew Brian, and Trudy for approval. My sister-in-law responded, “Mary, this is excellent! John would be so proud. Love you!” Brian wrote, “Great job.” My mother wrote, “I would omit ‘age 87,’ and ‘after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.’”

I told Trudy that all the other obituaries in the paper listed the deceased’s age at the time of death. I then explained that I had written, “Along with his two brothers, John enlisted for service after the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” because I thought it efficiently gave a feel for the era as well as John’s, and his brothers’, patriotism and sense of responsibility. Trudy replied, “Okay, leave in the part about Pearl Harbor, but I really don't like the, ‘at the age of 87.’ Your father was very sensitive about his age. You've put in his date of birth. Let them do the math.” Aghast, I read the email to Karla, who snickered and commented, “Huh. I never knew John was sensitive about that.” Neither did I.

In Trudy’s honor, I omitted John’s age from his obituary.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

All the King's Horses

While John lingered, Trudy and I sent each other instant messages about what to do once he died. My father was always very vocal about his wish to be cremated and to have his ashes scattered. Because of this, my mother had purchased only one burial crypt at an exclusive – and pricey - local cemetery that houses many celebrities, including Trudy’s hero, Marilyn Monroe. Trudy also insisted upon interring my grandmother there, and later, her frumpy eldest sister June. (I once asked my dad if Aunt June was a lesbian, but John laughed and said no, she was just sensible.) Aunt Ruth bought a crypt there too. Before she did, Karla suggesting swapping June out to a cheaper cemetery and letting Ruth have her spot because, “June wouldn’t have appreciated that place anyway.”

Although Trudy agreed to have John cremated, she still wished to have a viewing. I was against it. Not because I was afraid; I am used to open casket funerals. That’s how my family, on both sides, has always done it. But John had been so sick for so long, he no longer looked the way most people remembered him. He looked skinny and frail and…dead. Trudy tried to sell me on the idea. “He looks terrific. Really. Everyone is amazed at how good he looks. The last time you saw him he probably didn't have his teeth in and needed a shave. That bloat will go away when he passes. All of the fluid leaves your body. And don't forget, that machine is forcing air into his body. I really need to see him at peace and in a suit. And looking handsome.”

Before signing off, Trudy brought up placing an obituary in the L.A. and San Francisco newspapers. I told her I would write one. “You’d better start writing, so we can confirm all the facts. I really have to run. I'm going to See's to get the nurses some candy, so goodbye!”

John remained in the same stable, unconscious state until five days after his birthday, when Trudy called to tell me that he was bleeding internally. She said she had discontinued his life support, and that the doctors expected him to die within hours. Trudy waited at the hospital with her friend Sunny, who had driven into town from Malibu to escape a wildfire threatening to engulf her home.

Sunny and Trudy first met at the beauty shop they have both patronized weekly for decades. During the past couple of years, they have become very close. Sunny’s husband is a stroke victim, and Mom thought he would make a good pal for John as his Alzheimer’s began to progress. What else the two men have in common remains a mystery, since Sunny’s husband can’t really speak, and John has trouble remembering New People. I had never met Sunny, but I’d heard what a loyal friend she is, and that, by-the-way-and-not-that-it-matters, she is very wealthy.

Last Christmas Season, Trudy and Sunny went into business together as personal shoppers. Their advertisement in Beverly Hills 213 Magazine promised, “Whether it is a corporate gift basket, a jewel from Tiffany’s, or a shopping list from Costco, we are available to assist you from start to finish. We will do the shopping and wrap and deliver as specified!!” They got very few bites. The customers they did attract were too much of a bother for Trudy to accommodate, so she would IM me, asking if any of my, “out of work actor friends,” wanted to make a quick buck driving around town picking up some orders. I don’t know where Trudy got the idea I have any, “out of work actor friends.”

After a sleepless night clutching the phone, I learned that by morning John was stable, due to the dialysis Trudy had ordered, once again. Karla consulted her family doctor. He explained that dialysis was a life support measure preventing John’s organs from shutting down. He predicted that with dialysis, a feeding tube, the biPAP machine, and the medication he was receiving for his blood pressure, John could hang on for weeks. He continued that renal failure was not a painful way to die, and was certainly preferable to the unknown host of infections that would eventually befall him. Karla called Mom to relate what her doctor had said, but Trudy was aloof and quickly ended the conversation.

The following day, Karla called Kindred again to check on John’s condition. I was regretting my decision not to go back to see him, and needed constant reassurance that he was still unconscious, not lying there in a fever, calling my name. Dad’s nurse, Jennifer, told Karla that John was stable, but unresponsive. Karla asked if he was puffy. Jennifer answered that he was, but the dialysis scheduled for later that day would help. Karla expressed her confusion and learned that contrary to what Trudy had told us, there was never an order to take our father off of life support. In fact, according to his chart, John was to have dialysis three times a week. Against all our wishes, Trudy was keeping him barely alive.

Having refused to return to the hospital, I chose instead simply to lie curled in the fetal position on my living room floor in a sea of balled up tissues, clutching a pillow and a bottle of whatever, waiting for the ax to fall. Karla may have sensed that I was at the end of my rope when she insisted we get out of town for a while.

Two days later, I was on a plane bound for Karla's house in West Virginia with her and my concerned brother-in-law, Jeff, who offered me Xanax at regular intervals throughout the flight. As soon as we landed, we all had emails from Trudy telling us John was off of life support and on a morphine drip. He would be dead in somewhere between two hours and two days.

The next morning, one of John’s doctors called me because Trudy wasn’t answering her phone. He said that John was bleeding from his mouth, which was making it difficult for him to breathe. The order not to resuscitate was vague, so he needed permission to clear his airway with a tube. I asked him if this tube would delay the end. The doctor refused to predict how long John would survive and told me it could be days, or even weeks. I couldn’t stand the thought of my father choking to death, but I couldn’t bear the thought of him lying there half alive for much longer either. I hung up and called for Karla in hysterics. She got the doctor back on the phone. He explained that the tube would not breathe for John, it would only make his breathing more comfortable. Karla OK’d the procedure and asked the doctor to kick up John’s morphine dose.

After that, we got dressed and drove to a drugstore where we bought Jeff cough drops from a woman with no front teeth, and then I went for a run. I have no recollection of how I spent the rest of the day. At about 10pm, the phone rang. My sister answered, looked up at me and said, “He’s gone.”

A few minutes later Karla called Leo to give him the news. He and Susan were in San Francisco for a convention. They were both smashed, having just returned from the Buena Vista, where they toasted John with Irish Coffees. The first thing out of Leo's mouth was, "How is Mary?" Next, Karla called her son back in L.A. to tell him his grandfather had died. Right away he asked, "How is Mary?"

And then, Karla called Trudy. It was a brief conversation. After she hung up, with some prodding, Karla reluctantly revealed that Trudy’s only comment to her had been, “How could Mary leave town when her father was so sick.”

Thursday, December 13, 2007

On a Happier Note

Eerily enough, Jan is not the only person in Trudy's life to have been murdered while under medical care. My Great Aunt Edna, 88 years young, entered the hospital with only a touch of leukemia, and mysteriously, she passed away there only a short time later. Trudy is certain that Edna died at the hands of her greedy step daughter Fay, who, Trudy determined, smothered Edna with a pillow one night while her uncaring nurses slacked off in the snack room. Evidently, only Edna stood in the way of Fay inheriting some very valuable land, located on the outskirts of Youngstown, Ohio, which had belonged to Fay’s father, Clyde.

I hated Uncle Clyde. Everyone did. Clyde was from Georgia and looked like one of those mean old men in the documentaries they show you in elementary school on MLK day, who stand by nodding proudly while local police hose down civil rights activists. I don’t know what Edna saw in him. She was so gentle and sweet. Perhaps she was limited by her deformity. It must have been difficult for hunchbacked girls to catch a decent man back in the day.

When I was in junior high school, Edna and Clyde drove out to visit us in Clyde's giant, finned Cadillac, which bore vanity plates reading, "BIRD DOG." On the evening of their arrival, Clyde started a little fireside chat in the living room with the query, "Why d’ya think those niggers keep killin' eachutha ova in Atlanta?” We sat in stunned silence until he answered the question himself. “Cuz they're animals, that’s why." John white-knuckled his glass of bourbon, having been admonished by Trudy not to, "get into it," with Clyde. He was company. I, on the other hand, saw this as an excellent opportunity to both behave self-righteously and embarrass Trudy at the same time. I stood up haughtily and announced, "We don't use words like that in this house, Clyde.” Then, I raised my eyebrows and turned up my nose at him, which implied an additional, "You ignorant, fucking cracker." Clyde smiled sweetly at me and asked, "What word, honey, nigger?" John then stood, winked at me, and warned Clyde to, "settle down."

A few years later, Karla called me with good news. “Guess what? Clyde is dead!” The best part is, he could have been saved, if only he had allowed Edna to learn to drive. He was such a controlling bastard that, not only did he regularly open and peruse Edna’s mail before permitting her to read it, he had deemed it unbefitting of a lady to operate an automobile.

The story goes that one night Clyde didn’t feel so hot. Eventually, he realized he was having a heart attack. Alas, instead of calling an ambulance (What if a nigger was driving it and he needed CPR!), he gave frail little Edna the keys to his Caddy. Sitting on phonebooks, she did her best to navigate the darkened streets of Atlanta, but sadly, Edna got lost on the way to the emergency room, and the world lost Clyde.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


When I visited John a few days later, he wasn’t on a ventilator, but he was receiving oxygen. His feeding tube was still in place. He was so bloated that the skin on his face was unnaturally taught and shiny. He wasn’t wearing his teeth. His nephew Steve called, so I roused John and held the phone to his ear. He was mostly inaudible and incoherent, but at one point I did hear him mumble weakly into the receiver, “Well, I’m alive.” I decided then that I would not return to the hospital. I couldn’t bear to watch him suspended between life and death with that feeding tube. He didn’t need me. He wasn’t even there anymore.

The next night, Trudy left me a voicemail message that John wasn’t doing well and the doctors felt he probably wouldn’t make it through the night. Karla, Leo, Susan and I had a conference call about what to do. Trudy had not bothered to call them herself. Leo said he would go along with whatever we decided. Susan thought we should all go to the hospital. I decided that if John was unconscious, I wasn’t going to spend the last moments of my father’s life consoling Trudy. I couldn’t do it. As it turns out, none of us could.

Leo called the nurse’s station. John was unconscious. His condition was not good. And, he was breathing with the aid of a biPAP machine, a non-invasive ventilator. In other words, life support. Adding insult to injury, John had been instructed years ago to use a biPAP machine at night to control his sleep apnea. He had refused, because wearing the mask over his nose and mouth made him feel claustrophobic.

I worked up the courage to return Trudy’s call. She coldly informed me that she told the doctors not to intubate, but didn’t mention the biPAP. She told me the nurses were all rallying around her. She didn’t ask me to come to the hospital, and I didn’t offer.

In the morning, John was still breathing with the biPAP and he had been given medication to lower his blood pressure. He was unaware and not in pain. Later, Trudy called to tell me that John had pneumonia in both lungs and, without intubation, he was not expected to survive. The next day was John’s 87th birthday. I hoped he wouldn’t make it.

But he did. The nurse reported that John was still breathing with a machine, he hadn’t peed for days, his blood pressure was low and his potassium level was high. Trudy called to say Dad was going to have dialysis because his kidneys had shut down. If she didn’t allow it, he’d die. I told her to call the doctor and cancel the procedure. She promised she’d OK it, “just this once,” to ease John’s breathing. Afterward, they would take him off of all life support.

Late that night I saw Trudy online, so I asked her when they would stop the biPAP and feeding tube. She said the order would go down the next day, after the dialysis. Then she casually announced she had requested last rites be performed for John, “because he was such a strong Catholic all his young life and just in case.” Trudy says, “just in case,” like she’s making horn bets at a craps table. She really knows how to taunt me. I explained that there is no, “just in case,” in Catholicism. I went on to remind her that John had been a strident atheist for the last 50 years or so, and what she was planning to do was disrespectful of him. Her interpretation: “Mary, your father tried to make people believe he was anti-religion. He liked to have something to argue about.” I surmised that if he feared God he probably would have baptized his daughter and saved me from floating in Limbo for eternity. (For the record, the Pope “revised” the whole Limbo thing in April 2007.) Trudy signed off. I was glad to learn that she placed such faith in medieval Catholic rituals, and planned to hold an exorcism at her condo as soon as possible.

The next day, John was placed on dialysis, yet he remained on life support. The day after that, I called Trudy to get an update on when they were taking him off. She replied, “Oh, Golly. I’m on the other line. I’ll have to call you back.” She didn’t.

But she did send us all an enthusiastic email later: “I have good news! John is alert, the swelling has gone down and they are removing the biPAP (breathing) machine. He is talking and he told the nurse his birthday was the 16th! Mary, I know you are upset with me about this, but yesterday I called in a priest to do the last rites. He anointed John with oil, laid hands on him, prayed and sprinkled holy water on him. Believe what you may, but I know it had a lot to do with John doing better today.”

I told her I didn’t want him more alert, I wanted him to die. I asked Trudy what kind of God would want him to linger? Leo ordered me not to indulge her. Karla weighed in three hours later, just after visiting John. “When I walked into the room John was moaning and continued to moan for the 45 minutes that I was there. I walked up to the bed and called his name. He looked my way with eyes rolling in the back of his head and said, what I gathered to be, “Who is that?” I said, "Karla," and he continued to moan. I asked if he was hurting and he said yes. I asked where and he could not get words out but it sounded like mouth. I asked if his mouth hurt and he said “No, my (garble garble).” I asked several times and nothing he said was intelligible. I went to the nurses’ station and told Jennifer that something was hurting John but that I couldn’t understand what it was. She said that she would get his nurse. I went back to the room and said that it was Karla again and he said “Hi, darlin’.” He was trying to pull up the covers and I asked if he was cold; he said yes so I covered him completely. His face is covered with abrasions, most likely from the biPAP, but did appear less swollen.”

The next day, Trudy called me to find out when I was coming to the hospital. She professed that John had improved since Karla was there. I told her I didn’t want to see him that way and if he didn’t need me, I didn’t think I’d be back. She screamed, “He needs you! He was asking for you!” I asked her when, and after hesitating she answered sheepishly, “…Last night.” I asked her why she was so evasive with us all about the life support issue, so she stepped up her game. Pausing dramatically, she inquired, “So, you’re never going to see your father again?” I told her I didn’t know, and hung up the phone.