It felt like a phantom clock was striking midnight.
I thought I heard twelve chimes, but maybe they were ringing somewhere off in the distance. Maybe I was just imagining it because the sound of midnight—that finite clang—would have fittingly stamped this moment. But even without hearing the distinctive ringing of a midnight bell, even without confirmation of the time, I’d always remember this moment. At some point in the night, Dad had died, and we’d been left to figure out the rest of our lives, or at least the next few hours.
I’d never seen a corpse before, not in its organic form, before being preserved in a coffin—only after being coiffed and cleaned to a perfection that never replicated the actual living person I once knew.
At Uncle Earl’s funeral, he’d worn an intensely black suit with a matching tie, but he’d once said he would rather die than wear one. Well, I guess the suit was fitting then, because if he’d taken one look at that Windsor knot, he would have dropped dead on the spot.
Lying in that shiny coffin, Uncle Earl had been like a wax statue, a pristine, unnatural representation, not the Uncle Earl we knew. That wax figure wouldn’t ruffle my hair while saying, “When are you going to cut that thing? Are you looking to grow a pet?” It’d always driven me crazy when he said that, but he was being true to who he was; he was his authentic self. In that coffin, any semblance of authenticity he’d once had dissipated, leaving a body in a proper suit. I supposed he’d been prepared and preserved to look like that for an audience, to appear “more
This was different though, and not because the dead man lying in the bed was my dad. This was different because my dad still looked like himself. He wasn’t made up for anyone; his life had just faded away. His lily-pad-green eyes were dull and staring at nothing on the ceiling. His jaw was slack. He looked like he was waiting to sleep, but his soul had left his body instead.
The most potent difference was the absence of living movements. He was missing those subtle movements, like adjusting himself under the bedspread, or twitching his nose from time to time. He was missing his stare, when he would focus on a particular point as if to turn it over in his mind before slightly shaking his head to refocus his eyes. His dark-brown hair somehow had lost its sheen, which seemed impossible since it had grown oily from not showering for days on end.
It was his stillness that filled the room. His severe lack of movement connected him to all other corpses, but because he wasn’t in the standard coffin, in the standard funeral home, I couldn’t shake the expectation of seeing him move. It was almost like I was taking for granted that people could move. Even if you were a quadriplegic, your eyes could move back and forth, and your chest would rise and fall with every breath you took.
It was impossible to mistake a dead man for what he was, and however I felt about this situation, I knew that he was dead.
“Wolfgang, why is this door open?” Van Gogh called from the hall. His footsteps began to slow to a stop as he hesitated to enter the room. We both knew this room was off-limits, and we both knew why.
Normally I followed the rules, especially ones set by Van Gogh, but I’d felt compelled to go into our dad’s room, almost as if…as if I knew that I would find my dead dad lying in his own filth. As I mentioned, it had been a while since he’d showered.
“Wolfgang, why are you in here? You know you shouldn’t—holy shit!” Van Gogh shouted, stopping a few feet away from the bed.
Although my brother’s eyes were usually a mirror image of our dad’s lily-pad-green ones, his naturally seemed livelier. In fact, they seemed to be expanding and retracting, if that was even possible.
I had no idea how to respond, other than to say what we both knew was a lie.
“I don’t know what happened. He just … died.”
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