Robert Gallagher, Wake
After the Wake
For the first weeks after my mother died, my father made it clear that he wanted to die, too, right away. My wife and I came to an agreement to bring our kids to see my father as often as possible. Showing him that he had grandkids was our strategy to discourage his ideas of suicide. However, with three kids who had to be in different places for different activities every evening, it was difficult. By the second week, we knew that not everything could be canceled or postponed. Sometimes other parents and kids were depending on us.
Fortunately, the planning for my mothers wake took over. Wrangling the legal details and the logistics of inviting people gave my father a challenge that he could meet. As he received phone call after phone call, he discovered that my mother had a lot of friends who remembered her, even if they had worked with her fifteen years ago, even if they only knew her from a YMCA water fitness class, or even if they didn't know her family but saw her obituary in the paper and wanted to be there at her remembrance.
“Jenny’s children are coming,” my father told me. We could tell he was looking forward to that. By Jenny's children, he meant my cousins on his side, all of them older than me. “Probably Gary and Sue. Definitely Annie. It sounds like Jim will fly up from Texas.”
“Even Jim?" I couldn't remember the last time we'd seen him.
“Will Mark bring his family?” My mother's youngest brother was someone whose company he enjoyed as well. While my mother had been alive, we had seen Mark often.
Together with my wife, we made a list of all of the friends and family who would be coming to the wake. At my father's insistence, I rented out a nearby recreation center to host them.
"Because I can't travel far," he said. "Besides, if it's close to the house, it'll be easier for you when you set up."
Left unspoken was the problem posed by the house. At this late point in his collecting or hoarding things, none of us could conceive of an attempt to clean it for guests. It didn't seem realistic.
Our list reached over seventy people. When the day came, some of the visitors cycled in and out of the wake and didn't stay long. Most of them sat at their tables for hours, though, and the most important of those were our friends. Many of them arrived early to lend a hand. We needed their help. Mark's family leaped in, side by side with us. And Kyllian and Adam tackled a couple technical jobs on the spot. They saw the needs and acted. Without them, I would have had to choose to do either one of those jobs to the exclusion of everything else.
The talks around the tables of our rented hall weren't limited to my mother, of course, not for the entire four hours. But my father was pleased that so many people were willing to talk with him about her. People approached him who he hadn't seen in years or who he had never known. He was as alert and energetic as he'd been for weeks.
In the end, though, he was tired. He sat down for the last forty minutes to watch us clean up. With a few grandkids along, he allowed himself to be led out the glass doors and toward his car. I sped up to walk ahead of the crowd. It was a surprise when someone started calling for me. I turned. I saw a few people standing in a circle. One of them was staring at me. Then I looked down and saw my father lying on the asphalt.
He had stepped from the curb and fallen.
That's how we spent another evening in the hospital. This time, we learned that he had broken his collarbone near the right shoulder. He had already been hoping to die after the wake. This only seemed to strengthen his position, emotionally. It was time.
Nevertheless, a month later I dropped by on another of my weekly visits to check on his healing. He looked better than he had in a long while. Although his right arm was still in a cloth sling, he had improved in the use of his left hand. He motioned for me to stroll with him out onto the porch.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to light the cigar," he said. I had previously refused to help him with that.
On a stool on the porch, he had put a glass ashtray. He'd rested cigars on three of the four ashtray corners, each of them in a different state of decay. With his left hand, he picked one up. It was trailing a wisp of smoke. He puffed. The coal of his stogie glowed. Grey vapors billowed from his lips. He coughed.
"Help me sit down for a minute." He gestured to his green, wrought iron lawn chair.
"How do you get back up when I'm not here?" I asked. My hands found it hard to get a grip on him that avoided his collarbone, right arm, and shoulder. His left arm felt thin. His body seemed brittle. When I let go an inch too early, he fell into his seat with a huff.
"Getting back up is easier," he said. He slumped into a position of comfort. Some recent memory made a flicker of doubt pass through him. "When it's not, I yell for your brother. If he doesn't come, I find a way anyhow."
My expression must have looked doubtful.
"Usually," he qualified.
When I checked the other porch seats, I found that the front one had a stain that smelled like dog urine. The other had enough fur to knit a dog but I opted to sit in the fur. Before I could ask more questions about his health or my brother, my father launched into the topic of Orioles baseball. The team had gotten a new manager, Buck Showalter, and it seemed to have become instantly better with the same lineup of players.
"I remember going to a minor league game with you," he said. "Was it Frederick?"
"Yeah, the Keyote mascot waved at us. We almost caught a foul ball." That last part wasn't quite true although I had shield him from two looping fouls.
"I liked that more than I thought I would," he admitted. "It was up close. I could see. The sounds were clear, too. That helped. But I don't think I'll ever go to a game again, not in person."
Even half an hour before first pitch at the Keys Stadium, he had barely made it down the steps to his seat. Attendants had rushed to help. After the game, we had been forced to let everyone else go ahead of us. My father had barely made it back up even with three stops to sit on benches along his way.
"The Orioles have a couple of those minor leaguers now," he said approvingly. "They're on the roster."
He lured me into talking about sports for half an hour. We recounted the preseason football games so far. His enthusiasm for Baltimore and for the University of Maryland pulled me in. Besides, he deflected my questions about his health whenever I tried to steer the conversation back to it.
After his cigar died out, the fumes faded from the porch. The mosquitoes started to find me. I killed one on my shirt. He nodded and laughed.
"I'm immune," he said. Whether it was the cigar scent or something else about him, he was right. He never seemed to pick up mosquito bites. "For me, it's not a bad time of year to be outside."
"I need to go in."
"You could start smoking," he suggested.
"Ha ha. Do you want help out of the chair?"
"I guess I'd better." He leaned forward as I approached. Lifting him out was easier than getting him into place. A hand to his left shoulder was all it took. He felt like paper. My pull backwards was just a touch too fast. "Ow. Easy, easy."
"Sorry. Are you still okay?"
"What about your other shoulder?"
"The collarbone keeps healing," he told me. He lifted his right arm, still in the sling, to show me. "Funny, isn't it? I didn't want it to heal. Didn't care. But the doctor says it's better. And I can tell, it's better."
He seemed surprised. I was, too. Even though he didn’t seem to have much of a will to live, his body insisted on healing.
"It's the way of things," he said.