I found out that my dad died via SnapChat.

Oklahoma City Ballet dancer Taylor Arel

June 19, 2016

When my grandmother died, there was contention amongst the family about whether or not to have an open casket funeral. Some wanted to be able to see her face one last time to pay their respects, some thought that the notion of trotting out her uninhabited corpse filled with chemicals was no way to honor a person. The compromise that was reached was that her casket should open to the back so that anyone wishing a viewing could walk around to the other side of the tent. This had the unintended effect of excluding anyone from the funeral who was sitting in the tent. Being of the camp that did not want to see my Grandma’s former self now a pile of flesh, I stood at the back of the tent with my 11 year old nephew and showed him my new phone while the procession was going on. This was right about the time that cell phones were beginning to have cameras built in and he was fascinated with it and wanted to touch it and press all the buttons. He asked if he could borrow it and then disappeared for about 5 minutes while I talked with whomever was next to me. He came back and handed me the phone. The screen displayed a photo of my dead grandmother’s face, lying on a lacy pillow in the casket. It was shocking and weird but as with anything that successfully subverts a complicated and inadequate ritual…funny. I can imagine that an 11 year old with a new camera to play with is going to want to take a picture of the most interesting thing in the room: a dead body. It was a horrific thing to see…her mouth stitched up and an unnatural color painted onto her face.

Oklahoma City Ballet dancer Joe Seaton

There is clearly no sign of life in a corpse. There is no approximating the way a body sits while it is alive, or even an approximation of unconsciousness. It is no longer a human. Even a wax sculpture would do a better job of mimicking the way that flesh lines up on the bone with blood flowing through. An embalmed corpse is so meager to the point of satire. Why wouldn’t you take a picture?

My sister texted me yesterday to let me know that my father had less than a week to live. He has been on a long disintegration on the tail end of what has been a long and healthy life. So in the groggy haze of just waking up, when I saw there was a SnapChat message from my nephew, I guessed he was reaching out to connect during what I know is an intense time for him. He has been a primary caregiver as my dad’s health deteriorated. The two of them have been best friends for as long as I can remember. My dad’s old world, inconsistently conservative morality that was an unreachable void between he and I was somehow funny and fascinating to my nephew. They would banter and poke at each other in the way that my father and his own mother used to. One time at the dinner table, my dad told his mother he was going to smack her for sassing him. She told him he better look in the mirror first (because she was going to fuck him up so badly, he should get one last look at what he used to look like). It was funny, and loving, and full of joy. My nephew didn’t take any of my dad’s shit and it didn’t seem to bother him either. In some ways he was my proxy and a comfort that my father was having a relationship that took care of him. My nephew could accept him unconditionally in a way that my complicated upbringing never let me find my way out of.

Oklahoma City Ballet dancer Walker Martin

That morning, as I stepped through into the bathroom, I clicked my nephew Cody’s name in SnapChat and what appeared in my hand before me was a photo of my dead father. A horrific photo of my dead father. It was taken in a dark room, using a flash made from a chunk of the sun. Here was this shell of the person who had raised me. His mouth was gaping open as if to groan “braaaaiins”, his eyes were closed, like a prop from a horror movie. Beneath him read a caption like “he died this morning.” 10 seconds are ticking away and my disheveled mind is racing through the ramifications of the ham-handed metaphor playing out in front of me: the last image I will ever see of my father is about to disappear forever just as the person who brought me into this world is also gone. All happening in the form of this horrific image in front of me that I can barely look at. My body wanted to back away and my hand wanted to force the phone into my eyes.

Then the timer clicked to zero and it disappeared.

I sat on the edge of my bed in true shock and disbelief. Not that my father had died, but that my nephew had communicated this to me in a bone fide fucked up way. In fact, disbelief over my father’s death was now impossible because I had been punched in the face with the cold, brutal truth, that all life or semblance of my father was absolutely gone. I was robbed of my own experience and I felt angry.

And then, almost as quickly, I wasn’t mad anymore. My nephew is a loving person beyond most people that I have encountered on this planet. He has spent so many of my dad’s last days, right by his side and I cannot imagine the impact of now sitting right there when my dad is finally released from his suffering and dementia. And as insane as his action of sending me this insane photo is, I know it was his way of including me and helping me be present. And to underline a reality of life that we all but refuse to ever talk about. And that made me laugh. And I laughed and I laughed. And laughed not just for him or laughed not just for the joy of my father. I laughed for all of our predicament in that we will all leave our skin and bone behind and disappear into the great mystery. I got the sad news, not in a cloying, hand on the shoulder, impossible empathy that will never feel comforting to me. I learned in an action that cut through all the bullshit and helped me get right to the business of honoring the memory of being raised with love.

I remember my father sometimes through the uncrossable divide between us and it, in many ways has let me be the person that I am, free of the expectations of this world. I remember begging for endless piggy back rides and back scratches and receiving them almost as much as I asked. I remember being his accomplice in crime in the complicated scheme of women he juggled in his gigolo life that may be one of the biggest ways I am like him. I remember him asking me to come out to him in spite of my militant refusal to have to treat parts of my life like a confession, only so he could have the moment to communicate that his love for me was unconditional. I remember our standing Tuesday date of Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Three’s Company, and Hart to Hart, then staying up late and making toast with peach jelly. I remember when he then gave up those Tuesday nights with me so I could play weekly fantasy board games with some older friends. I remember that in spite of calling Stevie Wonder “n****r noise” and shutting off the radio, that he cried when his friend, the (black) janitor where he worked most of his life, died. I remember him letting me disappear into the basement for weeks at a time when the reality of life had become too much and not trying to force me out of it…in fact, he built me a waterbed down there. I remember every driving instruction he ever gave me every time I drive a car and get furious just like he did whenever somebody drives like shit. I remember him catching me reading one of his Playboys and when I tried to hide it, he told me that it was ok and that bodies are beautiful to look at. I remember him sitting with me on the operating table while I had a chunk of wood removed from my leg. I remember feeling loved and wanted.

These things are all so intrinsically a part of me, not even so much as memories, but as parts of my DNA. These interactions exist in my knee-jerk. They are how I answer without thinking. They are how I learned to see and react to the world. These things feel like living, breathing links to my father that extend through me and into the world around me. Part of a web that extends through everyone who raised him and continue through everyone that I raise.

Today is father’s day and two different dancers I have worked with in my life reached out to wish me a happy. I’m never going to have kids of my own and I can’t picture myself ever as a grown up, so whenever anyone asks me to be in a father role, I feel like they’re talking to the wrong person, but I took what they said as a celebration of my dad and could feel his hand reach through me and into eternity.

Leave a Reply