Made to Lose
I was seven years old the first time I wrote a eulogy. The January snow gave me the opportunity to stay home and play Barbie dolls with my little sister. At this age, Barbie dolls were our absolute favorite toy in the world. We each had one doll to which we were very loyal, one who was always our main character, who of all the Barbies we had, Ken always chose. My doll’s name was Eden.
I don’t remember the name of Victoria’s doll, but I know that our plastic pals were best friends. The dolls did everything together, they were even dating twin brothers! (My mom had to get us each one of the same Ken dolls, or else one of us would have a fit. This was an understood arrangement pretty early on in our childhood.) The four of these dolls went on many double dates: to swimming pools in the bathroom sink, hotels made from stacking boxes on top of each other, drive through movies in front of our TV, and more. On this January weekend, the group was going to a ski resort. Victoria and I built mini igloos in the snow, digging out just enough space for the four dolls to fit comfortably. All of our games had very dramatic and complicated narratives, or at least they seemed that way to us. In reality they mimicked the predictability and happy, fairytale endings of romantic Hallmark movies. In this particular game, the group was stuck in a terrible snow storm, and their igloo had been snowed in.
When my grandma, who we call Mema, called us in for hot chocolate, with icy hands and red cheeks, we came running, completely forgetting the dolls in their icy prison. They were trapped there all night. When they weren’t there for breakfast, we remembered the predicament we’d left them in, and went quickly to retrieve them. We were excited, for this was shaping up to be one of the most interesting and longest running games we’d played. We theorized about how the group would make it out of the snowy tundra in which they found themselves. Would they be rescued? Dig themselves out? Would the power of love melt away the snow and rescue them?
When we came upon the spot where our igloo had been, it was clear none of those wonderful options would be the end of this story. Someone, I suspect our (at the time) twelve-year-old brother, had trampled over the igloo, leaving behind a snowy mound with limbs poking out. We dug our dolls free in disappointment, but that feeling quickly turned to despair as I freed Eden, or what was left of her, from the igloo. Eden’s dress and coat could shield her from the cold, but not the foot of a twelve-year-old jerk. When I rescued her body from the snow her head, and a beautiful mane of blonde hair, did not come with it. I had to dig a bit more until I found it. Her golden locks were frozen in solid ice, and her blank, smiling expression was now haunting.
I don’t remember when I started crying, but eventually it was loud enough that Mema came running out and led me away from the scene with Eden, my broken doll, in my hands. Mema and I spent the morning trying to save her, soaking her in warm water to defrost and then trying to reattach the head. Mema spent hours with me trying to save Eden’s life, reattaching the head desperately and trying to keep it on while watching the shred of hope in me slowly die. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever thanked her for that. To be fair, it’s easy to forget your manners when faced with the death of your once best friend.
By lunch, PB&Js with the crust cut off, a glass of milk, and some graham crackers, Eden was gone for good. I could hardly eat, I was so upset. Grief was new, and bad to me. I felt too many feelings at once–rage, denial, despair. All things I would one day discover were normal reactions to loss, at the time were the worst things I’d ever come to know. What made it worse was Victoria’s doll, happily sitting next to her while she pretended to feed it lunch. She was unaffected. I wanted her to be as sad as I was. I wanted to her to know my pain, to cry with me.
I didn’t break my sister’s doll; in fact, I couldn’t even imagine it. I’ve never been very outwardly aggressive. Even back then, I fought my battles with a pen, not a sword. What I did do was take an empty shoe box, color it black and line the inside with some cotton. Christmas tree snow. I dressed Eden in my favorite of her dresses, a red and white gown from the Christmas collection, and then I sat down to write. I can’t remember all of what I wrote in the eulogy, but I know I thanked her for being a friend to me, and being the perfect doll. I talked about all of the games and stories she’d starred in: the time she saved a bunch of orphans or when she held a surprise party for one of her friends, where she originally met Jake, the alternative name I’d given to my Ken doll. She was kind-hearted, gentle, and loving. She was the person I’d admired most, and wanted to be one day.
I read the eulogy to Mema and my sister. Victoria, being two years my junior and clearly not as sophisticated as I was, didn’t really understand the whole funeral thing. She pretended her doll was crying, though, and I felt like that was enough. Mema was shocked, for one that I had an obvious career as a undertaker ahead of me, but also that I’d written such an eloquent eulogy for a doll. She joked, perhaps inappropriately, though Mema was never one to sugar coat things for us, that she wanted me to write her eulogy one day. I don’t think up until that point I’d considered that things other than dolls and goldfish could die, and certainly not Memas.
The second eulogy I wrote came about seven years later and was for a person who hadn’t even died yet. My parents got divorced when I was thirteen, but it had been obvious to all but my father that it was going to happen eventually. He had a lot of health issues, mostly due to his habits of smoking and drinking, which he’d developed in his early teens. As soon as he stopped working because of his health issues, it was clear they wouldn’t last long. Our family lost our big, upper middle-class home and dropped a few levels to a small, lower-middle class apartment complex. My father didn’t have any hobbies, besides drinking for seven hours of the day and watching terrible cable television. When he taught Victoria and me how to make his favorite drink, a Smirnoff Vodka and tonic with a half cup of crushed ice, my mom had finally had enough.
My mom took us from the two-bedroom apartment that our five-person family shared and left my father behind there. Even when she mailed him the papers, I don’t think he realized how serious she was. When he finally did, I think that began his downfall. For months he left his apartment only for cigarettes, vodka, and canned tomato soup, the only things he consumed (except on occasion some Zebra Cakes from the gas station, when he felt he had to keep what little meat was left clinging to his bones). He deteriorated into a skeletal version of his former self, and through mandatory court-established visiting days, I watched it happen. When it got too bad, my mom managed to change the court’s mind so that the visits were no longer mandatory. After that the only thing driving us to see him was our own free will, or guilty conscience We didn’t see him much.
Long before any of that happened, when I was much younger and knew nothing of alcoholism or money struggles, my father was the light of my entire life, and I was his. I was his first child that shared his blood–his first son had been adopted in his first marriage, and my mom’s son was from her first marriage. I was their first kid together, and he used to say, perhaps unfairly to my siblings, that of all of them I was his. While Victoria took after our mom, I spent every waking minute I could with my dad, We watched movies that I was much too young and impressionable to see and listened to music I could hardly understand. We talked about everything. He’d pick me up from school early in his big blue pick-up truck that smelled like cigarettes and melted crayons, two smells which I’m oddly quite fond of now. We’d go to museums and films and then out to lunch at a diner where we’d get milkshakes, one strawberry and one chocolate, so we could share them.
While he was at work, if I wasn’t playing with dolls, I’d sit in his home office looking at all of his books. The whole wall was a bookshelf, completely stocked with classics, first edition printings, and out of print copies. There were records, too, hundreds of them and CDs, and cassette tapes, which he could still play in his ancient truck. He was a collector, and he promised it all to me one day.
Parents are strange and mysterious creatures. It’s difficult as a child to imagine they exist at all when you’re not looking right at them. And maybe they don’t. Maybe when you’re not looking, they turn into something different completely. They’re no longer a hero, a caretaker and boo-boo kisser. They’re people: confused, afraid, and hurting.
We got a call from my oldest brother, my dad’s son, sometime in the fall when I was still thirteen. About four months after he’d officially started living on his own, if you could even call it living. I’d just started a new school and was adjusting to a new world. My brother, Nathan, said he’d just talked to dad and he sounded “off.” In my family of two alcoholic parents, “off” is our sibling codeword for seriously drunk. “A little off” is tipsy, and nothing to worry about, but “off” by itself is one of the most frightening words I’ve ever heard. Nathan said dad was “off,” even “really off.” I called him in the car on our way home. My mom pretended not to listen as she drove while I said hello a few times and listened to him slur. He wasn’t talking to me at all. In a delirious voice, he talked to someone who wasn’t there. After I hung up, my mom sent an ambulance to his apartment.
Female house flies lay 75 to 100 eggs at a time, which hatch after approximately twelve hours. Fly infestations occur in environments that are constantly filthy, places where unmanaged garbage, poor sanitation, and rotting or spoiled food is left around. Places like this are at high risk for fly infestation. Places like this, where a lonely, depressed, recently divorced sixty-year-old alcoholic, who believes his children have forgotten him and has given up on taking care of himself, are at a high risk of fly infestation.
The scene has been described to me several times by EMTs in the ambulance that picked him up. They called my mom that night with the details, but I had to wait until the next day for them to describe what had happened to me. They forced open his door when there was no answer, and found inside a putrid smelling, fly-ridden apartment. Ash stains from cigarettes and empty vodka bottles covered every inch of the carpet. In the center of it all, only half-conscious and speaking delusions as flies gnawed at the open wound on his leg caused by an ignored blood clot that came from years of terrible health, well, there was dear old dad.
Following that scene is a blur of several more. He was rushed to the hospital, his infected leg amputated, leaving him in a wheelchair. His life was barely saved. He went through physical therapy, and it was suggested he look into mental therapy, but he refused to even consider it. This sequence ends with him in an assisted living home in West Virginia, the only one he could afford, four hours away from anyone he knew, which was just us. He had a wheelchair, a handful of personal possessions saved from the old apartment, and maybe a quarter of a will to live.
This is when I started drafting his eulogy. Something told me that it had to be me, his kid, to write it. I felt as though we’d abandoned him, and the guilt of that was subdued by writing about him. I started high school, and soon came the obligatory young person’s process of “Figuring Out Who The Hell I Am.” I kept coming across personality traits that I’d borrowed from him over the years. His love of art and music, his desire to always be learning, his sense of adventure.
I don’t know if I believe in souls. I want to say that my father’s soul and my own are connected in some way. If souls aren’t real, then it’s something else that connects us. In the eulogy I described it like puzzle pieces. I wrote that he’d given me all the pieces of myself, and I was left to put them together without him, which felt like an impossible task. He wasn’t in my life after the divorce and especially not after that night with the flies, but losing him felt almost like an impossible task as well. Terrible, because of course, we, as humans, are made to lose people.
I tucked the first draft of my eulogy to him away, but continued to write about him throughout high school. We talked on the phone sometimes, maybe once every few months, but his mind wasn’t always there. In March of my senior year, we got the call that he passed away. “Peacefully in his sleep” were their exact words. The night we found out, I immediately thought of the three-page-long eulogy somewhere in one of my notebooks from freshman year. I dug through a few of them until I found it. It needed some revision, so I spent most of that first night revising it. This eulogy, however, I never intended to read aloud. It was between me and him, even though he would never hear it. My desire to keep to it myself really upset my mother. We didn’t have a funeral; he died with just enough money in the bank for a nice urn and the oven procedure, which, as it turns out, can get pretty pricey. We also figured that four kids and an ex-wife were not enough people to justify throwing a whole funeral. My mom still wanted me to read the eulogy though, for our family. She said a eulogy is meant to be shared, to be the thing remembered of a person, the text beside their picture. “How will anyone know who he was without your eulogy?” she asked me one day. For the week following his death, she asked me every day if I had written something I wanted to share. Maybe I should have, but I didn’t. I refused, quite aggressively after her third or fourth time asking. To be fair, it’s easy to forget your manners when faced with the death of your once best friend.
The eulogy, like most things that we supposedly do for dead people, was not for him. It was for me. Funerals and memorials are for the living, pictures and eulogies are for the living, and anyone who says differently doesn’t understand death. You can’t do anything for them now; everything you do has to be for you. These things are not selfish, if that’s how I’m making it sound. They’re simply how we communicate our grief. It’s for the sake of closure, or perhaps just the illusion of closure; I’m not quite sure yet. For me, at least, my eulogies are a place to put my grief, to trap it and keep it somewhere separate from the rest of me, so it can’t get in the way of the rest of my life.