It all began — or, for our arbitrary and reconstructive purposes it all began —
Crap. I’ve messed it up already. May I start again? I promise to get it right.
It all began on Friday, November 9th, 2007 around 4:00 pm. In 2007, I was teaching at Eastside High School, and Abbey was attending Eastside High School — so I usually took Abbey home. Or, to be more accurate, I usually took Abbey shopping or out to eat and then took her home. But not this day. Because this day, Abbey was going to Disney World with Sarah and my dad and her friend, Morgan, and my Uncle David, and our cousin Ryan, and Ryan’s friend. And the whole group was leaving from the Atlanta airport early the next morning. Driving to Atlanta that evening. So I took Abbey straight home.
When I got to my mom’s house (Shoot. I’m messing up again. At this point in time…at this point in time I still called it my parents’ house.) When I got to my parents’ house, my dad was sitting at his computer, putting the finishing touches on the Disney trip and he looked so happy and also so tired. I walked up behind him. He was sitting in his chair and I was standing and he looked up at me and smiled.
“Did I tell you that Sarah decided to go to Disney World with us?”
He had told me. Many times.
Yes, I said. I’m glad.
“She even got off work to go. Can you believe it? She must really want to spend some time with me. She even got off work…”
He trailed off. Shook his head at the wonder of it. I smiled.
I really want to spend some time with you, I said.
I looked down at him and his happy face and I felt love. So I leaned over and wrapped my arms around him and the chair all at the same time and I squeezed really hard and I made that noise that people make when they squeeze someone really hard.
I feel like I never get to see you anymore.
He looked surprised.
“Let’s fix that. As soon as I get back. I have…exciting things coming up. You should know. Very, very exciting things.”
He looked pleased and mysterious and that’s when I wanted to tell him that I felt like I had no exciting things coming up. That’s when I wanted to tell him that I hated my job and that everyone at my job hated me and so I was not me at my job and so I was tired. Dead tired. Exhausted from the effort of holding back, holding in, all day long every day. But it didn’t seem like the right time. Still, he must have sensed something.
“You could probably use a vacation,” he said. “Maybe you should go to Disney World with us.”
Yeah. I wish.
These were our last words. They were not his last words, but they were our last words.
I decided to lie down on my mom’s my parents’ couch for a few minutes before heading home, but it turned into a couple of hours. Because I wasn’t kidding about being exhausted and Fridays were always the worst. I felt drugged. About 6:00 — maybe 6:30 — I sensed that people were moving toward the door. I half-opened my eyes and thought: Get up. Get up and say goodbye one more time. My dad was standing by the door with his bag in hand. I made a movement with my foot and I tried to get up and I couldn’t. I really, literally couldn’t. I lifted my head just enough to see over the couch and half-opened my eyes. I saw everyone standing by the doorway. Hazy. Blurry. This is the last time I saw my dad, and I saw him as a shadow.
About 9:30 that evening I stumbled to my car, drove myself home, climbed into my own bed, and slept hard. Slept until almost 9:00 on Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, at the Atlanta airport, my dad and Sarah and Abbey and Morgan were getting ready to board a flight to Orlando with my Uncle David and Ryan and Ryan’s friend. My dad and Sarah were in one of the many airport gift shops when my dad picked up a watch and tried it on. It was one of those gold-tone watches that has no clasp. That stretches. He held out his arm to look at the watch from another angle. He turned his arm toward Sarah.
“What do you think of this? Does it look too nerdy? I’ve been needing a new watch.”
Sarah looked at him in his faded-blue pleated shorts and off-brand polo shirt, with his glasses slightly askew and his socks pulled up just a little too high.
“I don’t think it’ll hurt anything, dad.”
He smiled and paid for the watch.
“I’ve been needing a new watch,” he said again.
A few minutes later, the group boarded the plane.
Meanwhile, back in Greenville, my day passed without incident. It was a Saturday, so I did some housework. Later, I met several of my newspaper students at a Starbucks and we worked on the upcoming edition of the school paper — we had a deadline coming up the following week. Periodically, my sisters texted me pictures. Getting into the car at Space Mountain. Posing with Mickey Mouse. Standing in front of the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse.
A few hours later, my students were tired of Starbucks. But some of my designers weren’t done. So we reconvened at my mom’s my parents’ house. I didn’t have internet at my house. And I didn’t invite students over. We finished our work around 10:00 pm, and I sent my students home.
I got another cup of coffee and my laptop and joined my mom in the living room as I worked on the paper. She was watching some 60 Minutes style show about a woman on death row, trying to get exonerated.
“Isn’t it strange that you pass your death day every year…just like you pass your birthday? Only you don’t know it. That seems so strange to me.”
She looked over and noticed I was working. She apologized for interrupting me.
No, it’s alright. I closed the laptop and set it aside. You’re right. That is strange. But what would you do if you knew? Feel sad all day? Celebrate?
“Oh…no. No, no, no. I don’t want to know. That’s what bothers me the most about the death penalty.” She nodded toward the television. The woman on death row was crying and telling her story to a reporter. “The knowing is cruel and unusual. It would be much better if someone from the State just came into your cell and injected you in the middle of the night without you knowing when it would happen.”
I laughed nervously. A little uncomfortably.
I don’t know that it would be much better. Maybe slightly less awful.
We watched TV in silence for a while. My mom looked over at me.
“You look tired. You should put on my pajama pants and stay over…don’t drive home this late.”
So I stayed.
Meanwhile, at Disney World, the Light Parade had just ended and the girls and the boys and my dad and my uncle were headed back to their hotel rooms. The dads told the kids that they were worn out from their first day at Disney World and might sleep in the next morning. You young ones enjoy the park when you wake up, they said. Don’t wait around for us — we’ll meet up for lunch.
They all went to their rooms and got settled in. My Uncle David went to bed, but my dad stayed up. Planning out the next day with his maps and his highlighters and his Post-It notes. He yawned. He looked at his new watch. It was 2:00 am on Sunday, November 11. He shook his head to keep sleep away and squinted harder at his maps. When he looked up, there was a man standing at the foot of his bed. An older man who looked like a cross between Roy Reach and Walt Disney.
“I need to sleep more,” he said.
The man smiled.
You are asleep.
The man walked around to the side of the bed and sat down on the edge. He put his hand on my dad’s knee. And that’s when my dad recognized him.
“Oh! I should have known it was you. I should have known you would look like this.”
Meanwhile, back in Greenville, I woke up with a start. I was sweating and I thought: I’m not ready to lose my parents. It took me minute to remember where I was. I was at my mom’s house. I looked at the clock. It was 2:33 am on Sunday, November 11. I shook my head to try to wake up a little. Why had I woken up worried about my parents? Probably because of my mom’s morbid death day talk. Still. It wouldn’t hurt to check on her. I made my way to her room and opened the door an inch — just enough to hear her breathing. Which is exactly what she was doing. Loudly. I smiled. Everything was fine. I turned around and went back to bed.
Meanwhile, across town, my brother Dan was still awake, finding information about PPM filings for a deal he was working on with our dad. He was excited, so he wrote our dad an email. He looked at the clock on his computer. It was 2:36 am on Sunday, November 11. How had it gotten so late? He hit send.
Meanwhile, back at Disney World, Sarah and Abbey and Morgan were in bed, asleep. Ryan and his friend were in bed, alseep. Uncle David was in bed, asleep. But my dad was sitting up, his knees pulled to his chest, looking at Death in disbelief.
“I should have known you would look like this,” he said again.
Death just smiled. And waited.
“Does it have to be now? I mean…does it have to be here?”
Do you know a better place?
My dad sighed.
“But my kids. My youngest two. They don’t even know me. They’ll never know me.”
The others will tell them. And eventually, they’ll believe.
My dad sighed again.
“I’m just. I’m a little worried…that the irony…the irony of it all. It might be too much. It might kill them.”
Do you think it’s irony? I prefer to think of it as symbolism.
My dad shook his head. He hadn’t expected Death to be so literary.
“But I’ve been getting better. I’m feeling so much better. I’ve had a few setbacks but the general trend is up…”
No you haven’t. There is no upward trend. You can’t fool me. You’re not really fooling them, either, you know.
My dad raised his arm in front of Death’s face. He knew it was a pathetic attempt, but he had to try.
“I just bought a new watch. And now you want to take me out of time.”
Death laughed, but not unkindly.
You’ve always been a little out of time, though. Haven’t you?
There was an uncomfortable silence.
Would you like a flashforward?
A flashforward. Would you like to see? All of the best characters get them. Sydney Carton got an incredible view. Saw for centuries.
“Am I a character?”
You’re about to be.
More uncomfortable silence.
So. Do you want to see?
My dad nodded. And then he saw.
“Wow. Oh wow. Really? All that?”
Death just smiled.
My dad nodded again. He looked at his new watch. It was 2:38 am on Sunday, November 11. He stretched his new watch over his hand, took it off, and placed it on his borrowed bedside table. He put aside his maps and his pens and his plans. He linked arms with Death.
And then he said, “Let’s Roll!“