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Unvarnished excerpt from the upcoming book Viking Funeral…
“How weird is death?”
“I know, right?”
Their house, my parent’s house where Dave lived (and died) is about 15 miles from our house in Redlands. There was no traffic on this beautiful summer Sunday morning. What was I hurrying for anyway? There wasn’t anything I could do for Dave at this point, for anyone really.
As I drove on the crosstown freeway, I could not help but notice what a gorgeous day it was. A really gorgeous day. I thought of the movie Little, Big Man, starring Dustin Hoffman. Jack Crabb’s (Hoffman) adoptive grandfather was an Indian Chief. Among his Native American spiritual beliefs was the ability to recognize that death was near. He announced to Jack with enthusiasm, “Today is a good day to die.”
The chief had been blinded in recent years by American Soldiers in their campaign to irradicate Native Americans. He was aged and saddened by the state of mistreatment by the US government of his people, and in general, had grown tired of living. He asked Jack to lead him up to a rock mesa above their tribe’s campsite.
Once there, he thanked the Gods for his many gifts in life, respectfully expressed his frustrations at the way his people were being wiped out. He asked for blessings for his grandson and felt ready to lay down on his buffalo hide to prepare for death to take him.
Moments later a rainstorm began causing him to ask “Am I still in this world?” Jack assured him that he was. The old chief got up from his supposed death bed with the resigned response, “Heh, I was afraid of that. (pause) Well, sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it does not.” Dave loved this movie. If you haven’t seen it, he would have, and I definitely recommend watching it, highly recommend!
I thought it was a beautiful day to die. I thought it was funny that this thought came to me. Such strange thoughts pop into our heads at times like this. Regardless of all that, you know, if you could choose, this was a lovely day to have chosen to die. So, in this case, the magic worked.
I found myself driving distractedly looking at the strikingly beautiful blue sky that was dotted with scattered white puffly clouds instead of the road. The sky is not normally such a deep blue in the summer in Southern California. It usually is more of a washed out shade of light blue. On this day it was almost cobalt blue. It probably has to do with the orientation of the sun at that time of year, and the optical illusion of the physics of light scattering. Or something like that was my guess but was just a working theory. I have to remember to Google this sometime.
I felt separate from my body with these thoughts of the sky for a moment and felt among the very clouds I was one split second ago admiring from the freeway below. As soon as I questioned what in the hell is happening? I slipped back into my first-person perspective as I navigated the big sweeping curve on the 210 freeway through Highland toward San Bernardino.
I tried to force myself to pay attention to the road, but thoughts of what the hell just happened, nice clouds, this seems dangerous, death and how we absorb this type of news was swirling in my head. Everything was uncharacteristically thieving my attention away from the road.
There is no mistaking death. No one misstates something that significant. Back to the history of MY forever, I have never heard of anyone officially reporting the death of someone by mistake and then having to stand at a podium at a news conference with a bank of microphones in front of them to retract their official statement, which I then ridiculously envisioned. “Earlier, we incorrectly reported the decedent… was… dead. We legitimately thought he was in fact… dead, but for the record, he is totally not dead, he is… definitely alive. Thank you.”
Again I returned to Earth, to driving. I was resigned to the certainty that he was gone, I knew there was no mistake. My previous feelings of elation for HIM grew subdued by contemplating everything that would now take some getting used to without him. Burritos, movies, music, my mom, this is the short, short list.
Relentlessly weird thoughts just popped in my head without end in sight, it felt. Death is as final and non-negotiable as it gets in this life. Everything and I mean everything else is so insignificant by comparison. Wait, is this life we are living even real? Is there such a thing as death? Why am I having all these weird thoughts? Am I dreaming? I must be dreaming because this is some weird shit to be thinking about. I again returned back to the road. Floating up there among those clouds must be some sort of protective mechanism for when the shit hits the fan.
These thoughts were swimming against the undercurrent, nope, rip tide of random other thoughts just roiling around my head. Wave after ridiculous wave of weird thoughts, heading every direction at once, irritating me, that on this day, at this moment, this is the bizarre shit that pops into my head? Now? Really?
Rationally I understand that we can’t control the thoughts that enter our heads. We can control what we do with those thoughts, but I was amid a barrage of synapse impulses that felt like a paintball fight in there. I was simply not prepared to wrangle any of it. I don’t think I was fully awake yet, I couldn’t have been. It takes hours for all executive function to fully come online in our brain. I was less than 20 minutes into my waking state at that point.
I could also blame it on shock. I didn’t want to admit to any of those thoughts. I don’t know now, and definitely didn’t know then what sort of thoughts I should have been having at the time but I did not want these thoughts, none of them. I tried to think of what I thought I should be thinking and nothing came to mind. Nothing. I again felt separate from my body. Time slowed to a crawl on my drive as I wrapped my waking conception around these how weird is death questions. And answered myself out loud, “I know, right?” Yes, I talk to myself, out loud. ALL—THE— TIME.
I finally exited the freeway an entire lifetime of twelve minutes later and made my way by rote memorization to the well-known house on Arrowhead Avenue. Well-known not just because of my driving muscle memory from arriving ‘home’ literally thousands of times before. Well-known because it seemed everyone knew Dave lived there. Well-known because it is a lovely and historical representation of 1920s era Southern California Spanish Mission style architecture. Well-known as the backdrop in my R.E.M. dream cycles forever. Well-known in that many people besides our family have lived life with us in that lovely residence that I simply never tire of looking at.
About half a block from their corner, there was no missing the two Firetrucks, ambulance and police cruiser facing different directions, double-parked on the side street. The back doors of the ambulance were still open. All the emergency lights on all the vehicles were off. I instantly was taken four decades into the past to a time when my dad came around this same corner from the opposite direction to find his home, our home, surrounded by a similar fleet of emergency response vehicles.
I was seven. My dad had gone out to pick up my sister Anne from the skating rink after 11 p.m on a Friday or Saturday night. While he was gone, less than 15 minutes round trip, a drunk driver had hit our neighbor’s brand-new, days brand new, with the M.S.R.P. sticker still in the window, BMW head-on while driving northbound on the wrong side of Arrowhead Avenue.
My mom and I instinctively ran to the front of the house to see what had happened. The front entry hall of our house was oddly lit up. We could see what appeared to be a car headlight through one of the windows on the side of the door mere feet from our front steps. None of what we were seeing made any sense, yet.
The car had jumped the foot tall curb between a fire hydrant and one of our Crepe Myrtle trees and mowed over the beautiful old, Doric column street lamp in between. It was the kind of light with a single Victorian style glass fixture on top. Our small world was strangely dark beyond that single headlight shining directly at us from that weird angle through the unsettled dust and momentary silence.
We could not believe what hell had been wrought from the horrific sounds of the collision that had terminated in our tiny front yard. We cautiously stepped out on the porch to see more of what in the hell? I climbed on the wall of our wraparound porch to see what my mom could see. It was from there that we could make out the entirety of what had been a shitty old Ford Maverick directly in front of us on our lawn.
The car was tilted toward the driver’s side. The left front tire was folded underneath. The lamp post was under the car on the passenger’s side. Between the missing wheel and the lamp post the car was almost completely resting on its side, the driver’s side. The windshield had a circular spiderweb-like fracture dented out where the passenger’s head had obviously just been.
There were two hairy guys who looked like Cheech and Chong, in the Maverick. One fell from the high side of the car onto our lawn. The driver rolled out of the car on the low side and onto the walkway in front of our door. They were fine, totally TRASHED, but fine.
We were myopically transfixed with the wreckage feet away from the walls of our home when we noticed the other car out in the street which was clearly related to this mess that landed in the lap of our front yard. The other car strangely seemed…is that car empty? I wondered. There was no visible driver as far as I or we could tell. My mom said what we both concluded Isn’t that Jerry’s car?
The formerly cute little red brand-new Beemer that belonged to our neighbor Jerry was out there in the middle of the street completely thrashed. It was oriented diagonally after making three full counterclockwise spins, dented to shit, the windows, all shattered. There was a trail of car parts, insane circular skid marks, antifreeze, motor oil, broken glass a hundred feet long and 30 feet wide, starting from where it was hit two houses down to where it ended up almost directly in front of our house. The car was ‘bleeding out’ it’s fluids slowly in the street as we watched.
Two ambulances, a fire truck, police cars, tow trucks, emergency personnel all converged on the corner quickly as one would hope. My dad described being overcome with dread the moment he turned north on Arrowhead on his way back at what lay three short blocks ahead of him.
He couldn’t miss the blaze of red emergency lights swirling, throwing wildly bouncing and reflecting red bolts of light off the facade of the cathedral directly across from our house. We had a large elm tree that obscured the view from the south at that time so he couldn’t tell if the house had exploded, were on fire or what in the hell!!? The red-light glowing bubble of frenetic negative energy hanging over everything in the hazy night air just exuded, something very bad.
My mom worried out loud to the neighbors who had instantly gathered “What is my husband going to think as he comes up Arrowhead returning home?” This was way, way, way, way, way before cell phones so she couldn’t call to prepare him. I shifted from this fresh hell on earth in front of us to worry about his pending worry.
I’ll never forget the wide-eyed look on his face as he made the left turn of our corner and could finally see what had been hidden by the trees, between all the emergency vehicles. A tow truck was backing onto our yard over the parkway, it’s weight further damaging our grass.
After parking the car, my dad and sister Anne joined us on the porch. He checked my mom and me over quickly to assuage his fears and was then among the emergency personnel in the yard. Turns out you have very little say when your property is inadvertently involved in an incident such as this.
The lamp post had to be addressed first. The tow trucks were staged on each side of our southwest corner. The car was lifted with winches from one tow truck in front while the other dragged the lamp post out from under the car from the side. It was pulled all the way across the sidewalk, side parkway and placed in the street where it remained for days.
There was an enormous at least four-foot-deep by a four-foot-wide hole in the grass of our front parkway where the lamp post had stood on a concrete pad. Because of this, the piece of shit Maverick had to be dragged off a different way than it arrived. The missing front wheel dug deep into the soft grass like a plow. There was no delicate way to carry out this excavation. Our front parkway, side parkway, front lawn, nothing was unscathed. A construction barrier with a flashing light was placed around the hole. Our poor little yard looked like a warzone after the wreckage had been cleared away.
That incident happened just a few months before Dave was hurt. The look of worry on my dad’s face was heartbreaking to see. I just hated seeing him so fearful, even for a split second. Anne made the same observation of the fear that was sparked in her from seeing our dad so frightened as she sat next to him in the car while approaching the oscillating red lights of unknown cataclysm. Children shouldn’t see their parents like this.
I realized in the present day that I witnessed a prodrome back then. What I saw, what I knew in retrospect now, what he, what both my parents must have felt when a few months later they got that call from the hospital that Dave had been gravely hurt.
I was glad he hadn’t lived to witness this present day of emergency vehicles surrounding their house. I couldn’t take seeing him have that look on his face one more time. Once is too many, twice is too much for one lifetime. I couldn’t help but wonder what my face looked like, as I remembered that scary night on Arrowhead, from this side, the end of the story of a lifetime of worry.
It doesn’t seem possible, but our brains can overlay deeply buried contextual background with live foreground observations simultaneously. These impossibly conflated layers engaged the front of my mind as I looked right through them to the world of open ambulance doors in front of me.
This entire repackaged confab in my head took way more time to write and to read than it did when it hit me and played out. It was like when you wake in the morning, fall back to sleep, dream an entire night’s worth of dreams that incorporate the snooze button sound into the storyline. When you wake again only a minute has passed. How does that happen? Is it time travel or time standing still?
I shook off this last REALLY intense vinette and parked across the street. The big gate to the back yard facing me was open. I headed that way because I no longer kept a key to my mom’s house on my keyring. The wheelchair ramp for Dave to enter the house was in the back of the house which is how an ambulance gurney would have to enter and exit. Dave’s room was at the back of the house. All data and evidence pointed to the back door being open at the back of the house with all of the people at the back of the house. Why am I repeating the back of the house? I felt like some sort of android.
I walked into the shady yard. I felt the pleasant damp morning smell of the lush garden, the dirt, grass, and freshness of all the greenery that would dissipate soon with the heat. The fire and paramedic crew were loosely huddled together on the patio with their heads hanging down. Their quiet reverence was tangibly hanging over the yard along with the canopy of willowy branches of the elm trees that were creating beautiful mottled shade on the ground. I knew they were long past being done with this call and probably should have been gone a half an hour ago. I approached and thanked them for staying. I was touched by their respect for that moment.
They all knew Dave. The fire station was two blocks away. Dave’s best friend from forever, Brian, began his career with the city fire department at that station and was posted there for years. Dave used to hang out at the station in the evenings, watching sports on T.V., basketball or volleyball games in the department parking lot, making friends with the guys along the way.
I met my son’s father through Dave through Brian. He was among the fire personnel stationed around the corner. He ended up stopping by to hang out with Dave initially, shoot the shit, watch games, eat tacos, develop a failed romance with me over those years.
In a city with more than a couple hundred thousand people, the analytical part of my brain knew it was not possible that everyone knew Dave, but at that moment, there was no more analysis, all those weird thoughts and paintballs in my head left me with only the visceral with these people on our patio.
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