Thursday, February 03, 2011


It's the sixth anniversary of my dad's death tomorrow. Let's get right to it. On February 4th, 2005, the phone rang in the late morning. My mom's voice was contorted, and I don't know exactly what she said, other than "He's dying." We hung up quickly. I lived ten or fifteen minutes south.

There were split-second questions as we stumble-raced to get to the car and get up to my parents'...parent's house. Do I brush my teeth? God, fuck, of course not. Jesus. Shoes? Which are closest but which go on the fastest? Shoes become on. We fall headlong out the door, are in the car.

Which fucking way? Which route? I-5? 99? Just fucking pick one. I-5, obviously, just go!

I don't remember getting to the freeway but I remember driving up this freeway and suddenly being visited by none other than a fucking ACTING lesson. An acting lesson decided to reveal itself right at this moment. Simultaneously ridiculous and profound, irrelevant and breathtakingly relevant.

Objective and obstacle. I suddenly understood it with crystal clarity.

Objective: Get to my parent's house as fast as I can so I can see my father before he dies. This means drive fast, drive so fast, drive incredibly fucking fast. If you don't drive fast, you won't see him before he dies.

Obstacle: Don't get in an accident or pulled over. You must drive safely, respecting the laws of both physics and the road. Can you imagine? Talking to a policeman? Standing next to or sitting in a stopped car? Unthinkable. If you don't drive safely, you won't see him before he dies.

I felt sure and unstoppable, like an arrow shot from the bow of some Aztec god, the aim of me so straight, shooting to this death with the utmost force and velocity. I've never known what I needed to do so clearly, and executed it so surely. A feeling of extreme power. Objective, the Platonic ideal, in shocking technicolor.

And I felt furious and oppressed, like a horse who wants to run until its heart bursts, but is reined, somehow, in all directions, held down, held back. You have only one want in the world, and you can feel the answer coming from all existence, and it is a resounding, hysterically unacceptable NO. Supreme powerlessness. Obstacle: Like something wants to kill you, and appears to have the upper hand.

We turn onto my mom's street. (It's my mom's street now. God, though, let's give it back to him for a second.) We turn onto my dad's street. They live (I think they live. Is it they who live, still? Or just she?) just one block down, on the right. A giant red fire truck is parked outside. I park and burst out of the car, burst into the gate. A medic is walking away from the house, a blond woman. She smiles at me sorrowfully. She's walking slowly. That makes no sense. Why would a medic be walking slowly? Instinctively this is bad. But I'm running. I'm running into the house.

Initial impressions confuse. My mom is on the stairs. That makes no sense, and is a bad sign. If my dad were alive, she would be with him. But then she says over and over again, "It's all right," and so that's wonderful news! My face lights up, I can feel it light up, because this means I've made it! I try to ascertain where I should go - where is he?! But then she clarifies her statement, "It's all right. He's gone."

I'm turning around. There are medics in dark blue, looking at me kindly. No. No. The quality of NO briefly suffuses everything in existence. It's likely that I say the word a few times [A phrase that was certainly repeated: I didn't make it] but I remember the feeling of the word no suffusing my body more than anything. I make an essential, invisible, involuntary, internal gesture. I crumple. Not outwardly. I don't go down, drop to my knees or anything. It's like an implosion, like there's a black hole suddenly in my gut, and it pulls at the fabric of me, which makes a crumple. This is exact. This is exactly what happened. (I almost want you to find a piece of fabric, and lay it over your partially closed fist, over the circle of your thumb and forefinger, and then reach around with your other hand and pull the fabric through from underneath. I just want you see it and feel it, like a crude little diorama. Death at the second grade science fair.)

He's on the floor over there. That's where he is. Lying flat on his back ridiculously in the middle of the floor, in the middle of the living room. Head facing west, feet facing east. He's in a grey-green fleece robe. And he is dead. He looks like he's been dead for a thousand years, that's how inscrutably dead his face looks. I'm kneeling by him. I kiss his forehead, a dead forehead. A corpse's forehead.

He was very likely already dead when my mom made the phone call. It was a heart attack, or maybe a stroke. My brother tried CPR, but he probably went within 30 seconds. That's what they say. If only I'd known that, but then I wouldn't have learned anything on the way.


Brian said...

Thank you for sharing your story. My own Dad died 8 years ago. I don't remember too much other than I was in the hospital room with my mom and we were just quiet, listening to him take his last breaths. Then, hugging and crying. I wonder sometimes how others face it, how they process. How do we live knowing that losses like this are part of the deal. But we do.

Anonymous said...


Catrien said...

Hi, I'm here for the first time and while browsing around I thought I'd say how fun you are (which you are) and that I'd come back (which I will).
Now I've read this post and just want to say I'm thinking of you and wish you strength.

Maria Glanz said...

Yes. Yes, indeed. When my brother was dying, I too was visited by a similar revelation. I'd been in the Freehold Meisner series the year before, and I remember - oh my God - this is what that was all about - Unbelievable circumstances lead to... something impossible to predict. We got to be with my brother as he lay dying in the hospital, from cancer that he'd fought for over a year. I ate M & M's a lot, I read a People magazine and thought to myself, "this experience is.... boring... that's weird... is that weird?" My sisters and I sang every John Denver song we could think of to him in his bed, remembering maybe 40% of the words...

Some time in the day or days following his death, maybe the day we made funeral home arrangements, my whole family instinctively went to the indoor carousel in downtown Mansfield and rode it. For him, sort of.

The whole thing was, just, weird. Unthinkable. Sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes boring.

And in the middle of it all, Meisner and all that acting training shit made perfect sense.

Tina Rowley said...

Brian: It's really something to swallow. And me, too. I have so much curiosity about how others experience this massive event. I remember reading somewhere that in small villages in Tibet, when someone dies, the whole town just quietly moves into the bereaved person's home and stays there for 30 days. I think that's the most perfect thing I've ever heard.

Anonymous: Yes.

Catrien: I'm so glad you like it here and that you'll be back. And thanks for the kind wishes. The anniversary passed a little stormily, but that's okay. Storm's moved on.

Maria: I can only imagine. That sounds so right. And yeah, it's the damnedest thing to watch your acting training and your life hold hands during giant events like that.

jennijen said...

You're description of the crumpling is perfect, just perfect. I remember vividly that exact feeling when I got a phone call in a target where we were trying to figure our which bottles to buy for my 6 week old son. That was 7 years ago and I can still feel that feeling when I think about that moment.

la Ketch said...

It's been 20 years for me since my dad died suddenly and just this morning I thought about that moment, when your brain says, "you'll never see them again." and your body received the information and your whole chest punches out. Sometimes I think I check on it just to see if it's still there. Of course it gets easier. You find the peace. You find a way to move on with it but It's still there alright. Telling the story is such a great way to process it though and it helps you and us so Thanks for this! I'd never hear this story before so it was great to hear.

Michael Maupin said...

Ah, Tina, hon. This was hard to read. I was flashing back to my father's death in 2008. Same sort of thing, except he was thousands of miles away. A flurry of phone calls, waiting, stumbling in the street, then a call back with confirmation from paramedics that they didn't reach him in time. I never got to see him again. Was at a bus stop in St. Paul, on the street when I got the call back and completely lost it. HATED passersby. HATED people who had family still alive and wasted their time complaining about them. And hated to be seen crying on the street. It was awful. When we went down to FLA for the funeral, the doctors said we could see the body but I was voted down by my brother and aunt. Never sure if that was the right decision, but the doctor said, "How do you want to remember him?" Alive, of course! Damn I hate death. damn damn damn. thanks for writing this <3

Tina Rowley said...

Jennijen: It's so vivid, right? And you had to negotiate grief with a newborn, too. Oof. Damn.

Hilly: It always amazes me when I think of how you lost your dad, bunny. The world just striking out so brutally from nowhere like that. I love you.

MM: Oh my gosh, I can just imagine. The passersby. How lopsided and separated out and unfair and isolating it all feels. It's so brutal and confusing, death. Puts us in our place. I'm so glad you commented. XO

Ellen said...

My father died in October 2006, just three weeks after my wedding (that he was too sick to attend) and a week before his 75th birthday. I went on my honeymoon trying not to think about him but when we landed back in Portland it came crushing down on me. I flew down to my mom's knowing it was to say goodbye. My sisters and I took care of him in the living room with my mom lurking about helpless. There were moments that were brutally funny and absurd and other moments that were just brutal. It was so amazing that in many ways he became the dad he always wanted to be in that last week--affectionate and fully present. His best friends came to say goodbye and watching these old men get emotional was almost the worst part. I just remember calling my best friend and telling her "Pop died this morning". It felt like such a strange thing to say. Ever since he passed I feel lopsided with only one living parent. Being with my dad when he died was the most beautiful and amazing gift that I'll treasure always.