Saturday, June 30, 2007

Hollywood Ending

I was in the mortuary conference room with my siblings, my stepmother, her sister, and my stepsister. The O'Neill family has owned the mortuary since 1898. Mr. O'Neill running the meeting currently heads the family mortuary and is my age, probably. Our families went to church together, so I recognize the boy in him.

He goes on about his services, very thorough and thoughtful. I zone out for a few minutes, answering my phone when my own mother, who's babysitting Clara and Diego, calls to ask when I will be home because she wants to "go do something." Marco shoots me with his stare, "Turn that thing off!" he hisses. His own phone chimes constantly with text message notices, so I hiss back "it was MOM; I have CHILDREN." Death does not bring out the best in all of us.

Suddenly, I hear Mr. O'Neill say something about a "witness cremation."

"Wait. What are you talking about?" I ask.

"The witness cremation," he says. He explains the scenario. "The family can request to be there at the cremation. They are able to view the body and then watch as the body enters the furnace. They can remain in the cremation room as long as they like."

I imagine flames; I imagine a burst of flames enveloping my father's corpse: a pyre.

"Maybe I want to do that," I say. Everyone except Mr. O'Neill looks at me funny.

"I don't want to do that," says my sister.

"Me neither," says my brother.

"No way," says my stepmother. "You're on your own with that one."

"That's okay," I assure them, looking at Mr. O'Neill.

"It isn't like Hollywood," he says, not looking at me.

I'm embarrassed that he's read my mind. "Can I think about it?" I ask him.

"Of course!" he says. "Just let me know as soon as possible, so that I can make the arrangements. We won't do much, just try to make him look a little better. He will have been in the freezer for a few days. It takes a while for the State to create the death certificate, longer now that they have everything computerized."

The feeling in the room was one of generosity, so nothing sounded cold. Death sounded warm and inviting, in fact.

I decided to do the witness cremation. My uncle Pat met me at the mortuary on Wednesday morning. I'd dressed up a little, and I covered my hair -- because it was filthy -- with a scarf. As I left the house that morning, my mother laughed and told me I looked like aMuslim woman. When I arrived at the mortuary, my Uncle Pat laughed and said that when he saw me walk in, he thought I was a Muslim woman.

A different mortician led us into the back room. They brought my father out, his body covered with a white sheet, a terry cloth towel wrapped like turban around the hole in his head where thecraniectomy happened.

My uncle and I stood over him, quietly. Then my uncle said, "He looks like Santa Claus."

"He does," I said, and he did. His face was a little blue, like he'd been driving his sleigh through the north pole all night. A little red and frostbitten. I touched his stomach.

"I kissed my dad when I saw him dead," Uncle Pat said, "and he was so, so cold."

"I don't want to kiss him," I said. But I wanted to touch him one more time. I touched his forehead, whispered, "I love you, dad. Thank you for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever." Tears gushed from my eyes, gathered on the tip of my nose and fell on his body.

The attendants wearing dark suits looked at us with anticipation. We nodded to them. They took hold of the gurney and rolled it toward the furnace. One of them pushed a button and the door of the oven opened. The inside was a large metal
box, and I could see flames reflected in the metal's sheen. They pushed my father in, and the door closed. The attendant pushed another button, and the incinerator geared up and then ignited full force. We stood there for a few more moments, then we left the room. On the way out, I thought to myself, "His mustache looked perfect."

Friday, June 29, 2007


Tonight putting Diego to bed is a chore with mixed blessings, or, rather, a blessing and a curse. It takes especially forever, tonight when one is tired and waiting patiently -- oh. so. patiently. -- for the end of the day to come, for a time when it's possible to be alone, or pseudo-alone. One has been waiting; that is, I have been waiting to sit down and listen to my mind for a few extended minutes, to be able to think my own thoughts for a while instead ofanother's, specifically a two year old and ten month old's thoughts.

At these kinds of moments, I imagine that life is a boat, put out to sea, and I am sitting in that boat. And I have a choice to jump boat or to sail on. And so I sail on.

Finally, I get Diego to settle down, to stop saying "Hi!" to everything: the cat, the trees outside, the ceiling. Finally, I am able to nurse him into quietude, to help him drop down into alpha state, to coax him toward sleep. I sing him his favorite song, over and over:

Row, Row, Row your boat,
Gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

I sing it to him over and over, as he stares at the shutters, blinking in the last light of the day. He stares, mewls, chuckles and swoons, smiling, toward dreaming.

I sing the song so many times, it takes on that sonorousness of a lesson. I see my father's life, so short. I realize that for the rest of my life, his life and my life with him will be a dream. Whether it be a shared dream, I know not. But I like to believe it will be.

I sing it so many times I start to cry. Life is but a dream. Is it possible to live merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, rowing our boats down the stream, toward the sea?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

the misery and the happiness

We're back in Houston.

Conflicted, because of the weather, inside and outside, we rail against one another, trying to balance the weight of loss with the dream of loss.

It's hard all over.

All over, it's hard.

It's all overhard,

I could leave my feelings like that, all short, terse, oblique and resonant.

Or, I could expound (v.), expose (v.), exposition (v.).

Or, I could keep the energy wound up, coiled in my brain like a snake, swooning into a pounce.

My father died of an aneurysm. And a stroke. He died at 71 years old. 1000 people attended his funeral. The service consisted of a high mass, in the Mexican/Anglo spirit of the place. Mariachis provided the music liturgy, readings were chosen with care (I read the first reading from the Book of Job). Father Art's homily and Tony Moiso (current head of the family that bought the rancho from my family) eulogizing my father captured the girth of Tony's spirit, shared that spirit with all who were there. Truly the attendees formed a pageant of meaningful people from my father's life. It was a celebration of him and the of way he lived.

He was truly, without a doubt, the life of the party.

The California Highway Patrol closed the Ortega Hywy Exit on Interstate 5 for the funeral procession from the Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano to the old cemetery, where my father's ashes were buried between his mother and father's graves. The sun was bright. The sky was blue. It was the perfect California day: warm in the sun (almost hot), cool in the shade. With a breeze in the shade, one would be almost cold. After the graveside service, we walked down the hill with our children and extended family and with friends, walking back through town to the mission, or finding our pre-parked cars in one of the “shopping centers” at the bottom of the hill. My mother parked her Toyota Camry in the handicapped spot next to the old Forster Mansion. David and I sat and waited with Clara and Diego for 30 minutes, hoping to finally see my mom walking down the cemetery hill to open the car for us so that we could get going to the fiesta.

Following the funeral was the fiesta out Ortega Highway at Las Amantes Ranch, one of my father's favorite spots on the old Rancho Mission Viejo. Mariachis greeted the guests; picnic tables were dressed with table clothes and covered with shady tents. The beer truck, liquor wagon and Margarita stands served libations constantly and tirelessly. I had half a Margarita. I took two sips of it, set it down and came back to an empty cup. I couldn't eat any of the food because of my dietary restrictions; I drank a lot of water, and it felt like I was swimming in condolences. By the end of the day, I had a headache the size of Iowa.

Nevertheless, I appreciated everyone who came out to say goodbye to Tony and to share this loss with our family.

My father is proud of and grateful to his community. His family is, too.

Thank you.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The King is Dead. Long Live the King.

Tomas Antonio Forster, September 3, 1935 -- June 12, 2007.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

And There Was Dancing and Music

And movin to the groovin.

I've been purging my books, my life really: going through books and CDs and papers. Jesus I have so many papers. I come from a line of packrats, most notably my father; the man has kept every single item that had any history for him personally, including the first bill he paid after graduating from college. WEST POINT. And don't you forget it.

Papers...what are all these papers? Poems, my own and other peoples, files of things that have personal history for me -- IBP postcards, teaching lessons, shit I don't know what it is nor what it's good for. I got to get rid of my shit.

By the way, we're having a garage sale, an estate sale, really because it's going to be inside our estate, the estate we're leaving for another, smaller, more economical estate. Smaller. Did I say smaller? Small-er-er-er-er. Last week, in preparation for the move, I proclaimed to David that I was only going to take 100 books to the new house, excluding my poetry collection; the entirety of which I refuse to part from. Well, I did give away my 1974 Anthology of Modern Hungarian Poetry. By give away I mean set aside. It'll be for sale on a Friday and Saturday very soon. Probably that's the only one I should keep. Who knows, I'll bet the Hungarians are going to break out as the next Superpoets of the world.

But the dancing and the music, that's what I wanted to talk about. I used to listen to a lot of music, used to purchase these things called CDs. They were more expensive than tapes, but better for some reason...maybe because they never wear out. Right? Or do they? Mine are all worn out, tired and lonely and dusty and slapped all up together with other lonely, dusty CDs. I have music on my ipod now or in my computer or in my distant memory. Do I really need these CDs? No. I do not. So why can't I just wipe them off the shelves into the boxes for the garage sale, I mean estate sale? Because each CD holds at least one memory which is tied to either a song or a mood that dominated during the time I was listening to the CD; and memory is seductive, it requires your time. And I don't have the time to listen to all the music in the world, especially because now I live with three other people who not only compete for my time, but also compete with me for music listening space. Mostly, my children win. I listen to decent children's music (it's catchy!), but I used to listen to good adult music. "Adult music" sounds like it nasty but it's not nasty. I still listen to Bob Dylan; I let Clara listen to a Bob Dylan mix every night for 15 months as her bedtime music. I had to make sure she had his patterns measured into her brain. But after Bob Dylan, the fidelities start to muddy up, the waters get murky. Do I want this Moby? NO. But then I have to listen to it to try and figure out why the fuck I bought it in the first place. There was a song tied to a memory, I'm sure. What about these Joni Mitchells? YES, but she's one of those people that I have to wait for, it's harder to make time for her admist the Reggae Playground or Carol King's Really Rosie. And, really, how many more times am I going to have to listen to Joni Mitchell in my lifetime? I may have listened to her enough. And anyway, I already transferred her to my computer, so she's on my ipod. The ipod takes up a ridiculously less amount of space; therefore, I can get rid of the Joni CDs. But then there are those CDs that I haven't burned yet, like "Tom and Elis" by Antonio Carlos Joabim. Like Coltrane's "A Love Supreme". Like Wilco's double album. Like a bunch of other ones.

But I want to get rid of stuff; I'm interested in travelling light.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

I Want To

I want to say goodbye to Zorca, our gypsy neighbor who's put down roots in the townhouse on the corner of Travis and Stuart: Our psychic friend, our comrade. I will miss her. She has this amazing voice, amazing. It sounds exactly what a crazy old lady's voice should sound like, shrieking and urgent, near-hysterical, yet wise beyond its whelps.

This house we're leaving, it is haunted; we said goodbye to the ghosts. We'd heard about one ghost from a previous tenant who stopped by one evening with his lover because they'd been walking on the sidewalk in front of the house and run into David who was taking out the trash. The previous tenant came upstairs to look around the old place, and he told us the story of the ghost who hurled one of his floor lamps across the room, or something equally catastrophic, when he'd lived here.

We had no episodes like that one. But in fact, we had not-so-subtle catastrophes that could not be attributed per se to ghosts. Like the time the fleas infested, or the time it poured buckets of rain down through the attic door into our bedroom on Memorial Day two years ago. Like the lead paint, the nails sticking out of the warping hardwoods, the general decay everpresent -- from the shedding shingles of white paint adorning the outside, to the squirrel corpses that, while they rot, infuse the air we've had to breathe with the pungent, unmistakable odor of death. Hard to escape that smell; it creeps into everything. Both times our children were just home from being born, an animal rotted beneath the floorboards under the bed I nursed them in.

My father still lies in a drug-induced coma in Mission Hospital in California. They, the doctors, are afraid to allow his brain any stimulation. His brain needs rest, they say. Yes, we say to one another; he needs rest. And he does. My father needs a lot of rest. He has lived hard the past 71 years, a charmed life, as my brother Marco dubs it. He deserves to die a hero in his own mind, my father, which is what he worked his whole life to be: a hero in his own mind.

Is he big enough to be a hero in my mind? If you know more than a little about my father, more than a little about me, you know that the decision for me to consider my father a hero is one that must be made with the purest love, because my father and I? We fought. Always and consistently: to the death. We fought so hard, we actually hated one another truly and purely at times. But always within that hatred lived the ghost of love, bright love, true love. Real love, no matter what shape it chose to show up in. And I don't even feel bad about romanticizing my father because, in fact, he is a hero in my mind. He lived up to me, to the largeness I required of him. That is no small feat. I'm proud of him.

What I miss most right now is his voice -- the boom and bust of it, his whimsy, his self-satisfied delight in his own observations. In the last five years, most every time I called him (and it was only maybe three times a month), I'd catch him potting his plants, his flowers specifically, around his patio overlooking San Clemente and the Pacific Ocean. He'd tell me what he was doing, and what a perfect day it was. "It's another perfect day here in Southern California," he'd say accusingly.

"It's hot here," I'd say. Or "it's raining," or "it's sorta cold here."

"I don't know why anyone would choose to live in fucking Houston," he'd say. "I live in Paradise."

"It's complicated," I would say sometimes, although rarely. Mostly, I'd just say, "Yeah...."

I wish I had a recording of my father's voice. I have a recording of my brother Marco imitating him, and it's scary, the verisimilitude Marco can capture. He knows how to dramatize my father's gross humanity with expertly observed examples. He's genius, my brother, and I'm grateful for him.

Today, while talking to Marco on the phone, I could hear the ghost of my father in him, and I realized that the ghost of my father has been there, here, with us forever; and therefore, he will be with us forever. And that is enough.