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A Moment: “Momento Mori” by Adam Rensch

Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

By Larry Smith

“There lives a voice there now, in the house of my memory, the ghost of the last thing my father said to me. This ghost is a comedian.”

Ask me how my father died and I’ll say, He fell and hit his head. I’ll say, It was a blood vessel that burst. I’ll say, It only took 30 seconds, because that’s what the coroner said. I’ll say, I don’t really know, because no one was there to see what happened, just my father, and he didn’t bother to leave a note, as I’m sure he would have written, Well I’ll be dipped in shit. He was always one to make these kinds of remarks at an inappropriate time—say, when you’re losing a lot of blood, when you’re crawling through broken bottles to find a place to die. Maybe he was dizzy, or maybe he dove headfirst. I only have images: the coffee table, the blood trail, the bile on the carpet. Sometimes I’ll say his death is complicated, but this is only part true—anything can be complicated, if you want it to be. It all depends what kind of story you want to tell. A tragedy. A mystery. A thriller. A romance. My father’s death has been all of these. My favorite version is the comedy. It’s a funny story, I’ll say, but no one who’s heard it has ever laughed.

I accidentally killed my father, I’ll say. I was trying to save him.

The story: when my stepmother was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, my father began drinking himself into a waking coma, a kind of slow-motion suicide. After she passed away, I began “taking care of him”—watching him while he slept or paced around his apartment like a man planning his escape. I gave him money for the alcohol, justified it, I would too, if I were him. His binges lasted for weeks, sometimes months, and then he’d call me from a payphone on a street somewhere, telling me he was done, he was getting his life together.

During his last binge, he destroyed his apartment, the second one in the past year. He called me the night before he died and invited me over. You need to see this, he said. Two things happened while I was there. The first is that he fell and hit his head. I can still see it—the way he was standing there, talking, how his eyes lit up and his body stiffened, the way he didn’t even try to put out his arms as he hit the wall. He sat up afterwards, looked at me with a shrug, and said, What is it? I’m fine. The other thing that happened was that, for the first time, I knew he wouldn’t make it. In spite of this, perhaps because of it, I offered to help clean his apartment the following morning.

I arrived and found him asleep in a blanket of broken bottles. I woke him and he crawled to his soiled bed, nothing in his room but a few dozen empty bottles and a broken stereo. I cleaned what I could, but after an hour I gave up: there was too much for one person, the bags kept breaking, the stench was unbearable. Just before I left, I remembered how he’d fallen the night before. Without thinking, I moved his furniture around, made a space so that, if he fell again, he wouldn’t get hurt. An hour later, my father stumbled out of his bedroom, fell and hit his head on a coffee table I had moved to a corner. The impact burst something in his brain, and he died almost instantly.

I have remembered this moment many times: moving the table, looking back at the room, the way the morning light looked after a night of heavy snow. There lives a voice there now, in the house of my memory, the ghost of the last thing my father said to me. This ghost is a comedian. He knows how the story ends. Be careful driving, he says, and then, with pitch-perfect delivery, a wry laugh, he gestures to where the body left him behind. I’ll be careful sitting.

4 responses

  1. suzan says:

    wow.
    i am sorry for your loss of both your parents.
    your dad sounds like a good guy, just lost there for awhile.
    he was lucky to have your loyalty.

    your story is difficult to wrap neatly into a package, because it truly was so many things. good for you for figuring that out and being able to put it down on paper!

    i wish you well and hope you are doing ok.
    peace and harmony to you…
    suzan

  2. Jeanette Cheezum says:

    Heart wrenching.

  3. dragnfly says:

    Love it.

  4. Davita says:

    Beautifully sad, beautifully written.

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