My father’s ashes arrived today. I wonder if the postman realized what was inside the inconspicuous cardboard box in his care. Did he happen to glance down at the return address label, Angelus Funeral and Cremation Traditions, and cringe at the thought of holding some stranger’s ashes in his hands? Did he feel sorrow, or sympathy, or empathy for the final remains of someone who was, only days before, a living, breathing human being not quite different than himself? If not for the deceased, then did he feel sorrow, or sympathy, or empathy for the loved ones who he was delivering the remains to? Then again, maybe he never glanced down at the return address label. Never realized he was entrusted with such an important task: safely delivering to me the ashes of my father, a man I hadn’t spoken to or seen in over a decade.
When I was a child, my father molested me. Inappropriate touching, not intercourse. My memories of the molestation are tattered and torn; bits and pieces that come back to me in abrupt flashes. My father’s hands. The roughness of his callouses. The gentleness of his touch. Fondling. The smell of liquor. Tears. The stench of cigarettes. Darkness. Threats. No more gentleness. Pain. More tears. All-encompassing darkness.
There was a time when my father and I went to concerts together, county fairs, and school field trips. We loved to play pool. He taught me how to play chess. “You have to always think one step ahead of your opponent, Pockets,” he would say. Pockets was a nickname he gave me when I was around eighteen months old. We were shoe shopping and I fell in love with a cute little pair of shoes that had tiny pockets on the sides of them. I’ve been Pockets ever since. “Playing chess is a lot like real life. You must always have a strategy.”
My father always won. After all, it’s hard for a young girl to beat a man who had played the game all of his life.
My parents separated when I was twenty one. After my father left, women, who were once children, came forward to tell my mother that my father had molested them decades before. At the time of their confessions, my memories of the molestation were still shrouded in darkness, but I believed every one of those women. I never doubted their stories. I never doubted his guilt. Something in me knew what he was capable of. What his hands were capable of.
Shortly after the accusations started coming to light, I began to remember fragments of the molestation; never a complete memory. During a heated argument in front of his mistress’s house one evening, not long after my parents separated, I confronted him.
“You didn’t think I remembered, did you?” I said. “But I do remember, you sick son of a bitch. How you would touch me. Molest me!” Tears were streaming down my face.
Taken aback, my father simply responded, “Get the fuck out of here!”
No denial. No questions. No concern.
The next day he left a message on my answering machine: “Amy, this is your father. Look, I’m sorry. The thing is, your father used to be a very sick man. Hopefully someday you’ll understand. Okay. I’ll talk to you later. Love you.”
The powdery residue of matter that remains after burning; ruins, especially the residue of something destroyed. Residue, matter, remains, ruin(ed), destroyed.
As I sit here, typing, staring at the cardboard box on my desk, I am taunted by a man who no longer exists. Yet here he is, taking up valuable space next to a sheet of My Little Pony stickers and a deck of playing cards. To me, he exists in the past. Well, truth be told, he exists in the past to everyone now. But to me, for over ten years, he has only existed in the past, in my memories. Present only in the lines around my eyes, the structure of my nose, the color of my hair. But here he sits next to me, in the present. A physical, tactile object. Why is this man taking up space in my house? In my life? On my desk?
I received a phone call two weeks ago from my cousin Renee. I was at work at the Myrtle Beach art museum, closing up for the night. My mom was there with me; she had come to see our latest exhibit about an hour before. I had Renee on speakerphone. She asked if I was sitting down. I knew in that moment my father had died. I can’t explain it, but I knew. I told her I wasn’t sitting down. “Just tell me,” I said. I looked over at my mother.
“Amy, your dad died this morning,” Renee said. “Lung cancer.”
My mother and I stared at each other. My dad, her ex-husband, our mutual enemy, was dead.
“Will there be a funeral?” I asked.
“No funeral and no obit,” Renee said.
“Why the hell not?”
“Because his girlfriend doesn’t want to make a big fuss.”
“Did he have a will?”
“No. His girlfriend said he never got around to it.”
I have a paralegal degree and I used to work in probate, but somehow, I didn’t think of the legalities of his death until the next day. I woke up earlier than usual. As my eyes opened, I realized he died intestate, without a will, and that as his only living heir, I could legally make decisions on his behalf. At first I didn’t fully understand why I wanted to become the Executrix of his estate, but then I realized I would be afforded an amazing opportunity: this was checkmate. For the first time in my life, I had the power. A move on the board that no one saw coming. My father had been in charge for so many years, over me, over my body, that it seemed only fair that I now had control over his.
My father died in Chesterfield, Virginia, in his girlfriend’s bed. I grew up in Richmond, which is right outside of Chesterfield, so I know both cities quite well. I called the main hospital in Chesterfield, Chippenham Medical Center, and asked if my father’s body was there. I was transferred to a nurse who was on call when my father was brought into the emergency room the morning before. I explained that I was his only child and that he died intestate and that I couldn’t understand why his girlfriend was allowed to make any decisions on his behalf. The nurse told me that my dad’s girlfriend said that he had a child, but no one knew how to get in touch with her and that there were no other living family members. She conveniently forgot about his sister and four brothers. And the fact that she and my father could reach me anytime they wanted to, via my cousin Renee. Though they never did.
The nurse explained that my father was brought in the morning before and that he had undergone quite an ordeal. His girlfriend told the doctor that he hadn’t been feeling well for a few days and that he was complaining about being hot that morning. She left him in bed to go into another room to get him a fan, but as she turned to go into the hallway, she heard him make an odd noise. When she turned around, he was no longer breathing. According to the E.M.T. report, which I obtained after becoming the Executrix of his estate, he was unresponsive, lying in the supine position in bed when the E.M.T.’s arrived. They placed him on the floor and began C.P.R. They injected a dose of Epinephrine into his neck, trying to resuscitate him. His pulse returned, though quite weak, and he coded several times in the ambulance. In the ambulance, an E.M.T. injected him with two more doses of Epinephrine, directly into the side of his neck, three minutes apart, until they arrived at the hospital. The doctor called his time of death, in the emergency room, at 9:06 a.m.
Immediately after his death, his girlfriend signed documents to take possession of the belongings he had on him when he died (his wallet, his rings, his clothes) and to donate his corneas to science. My father wasn’t an organ donor. My father also had cancer. I don’t understand how this donation was possible. She also signed documents to send his remains to a local crematory. When I spoke with the nurse who saw my father in the emergency room, she said that it was too late to stop the donation of his corneas, but I had stopped them from moving his body to the crematory his girlfriend had chosen by an hour. I immediately put a stop to his girlfriend’s involvement and asked that my father be sent to a different crematory. I instructed the staff to cease all correspondence with her; I did not want her to know anything about his whereabouts or my plans for his body. The few times our paths crossed over the past decade she treated me as if I were an evil stepchild. She also tried to keep me in the dark about my father’s death. I asked the nurse if I could have an autopsy performed, but I was denied by the Medical Examiner. According to the Medical Examiner, there was nothing suspicious about his cause of death. Being two states away and not in possession of vital paperwork that I would soon have access to, or any medical training, I accepted his expert decision and had my father moved from the morgue to the crematory.
Once my father was transferred, I explained everything to the funeral director and began to inquire about options and prices. As a full time college student, taking care of my mother, I didn’t have much money to work with. In fact, I didn’t have any money to work with. The cheapest available option, complete with a white faux-marble urn, would cost me one thousand dollars. After borrowing the money from a dear friend, I called the funeral director and paid for his services over the phone. Within a few hours of my payment being called in, the process would begin: the process of turning my deceased father into a powdery residue of matter.
Since I typed that last paragraph, I opened the box on my desk. This is the first time my parents and I have been under the same roof in over a decade. After opening the box, I carefully removed the contents: the funerary paperwork, the gold plated, cross-shaped earing he had in his ear when he died, the photos of his dead body that I had requested from the crematory (I wanted irrefutable proof that he was, in fact, dead), and his white faux-marble urn. Mom and I began looking through the pictures. We hadn’t seen my father in so long that we were both taken aback by the images of this bald, overweight man, draped in a hospital gown, lying on his back, confined to a cardboard box. The funeral director explained that they store bodies for cremation in cardboard boxes, which they then burn with the decedent. The injection sites were clearly visible on the side of his neck. Pinkish in color with a purplish hue. Time had not been good to him, neither had the lung cancer. I honestly don’t know if I would have recognized him if we had passed on the street somewhere. My father was a good looking man in his day, but the man lying in that cardboard box was a distorted, caricature-like version of himself. Or was that the real, grotesque version all along? Had smoking four packs of cigarettes a day for over fifty years allowed his hidden inside self to become visible on the outside?
I tried to hold back the tears. I don’t know why I was beginning to cry, I just know I wanted to stop. He doesn’t deserve my tears, my sympathy, my love. But seeing him in that box, vulnerable, alone, dead, I suddenly realized that it really was over. No more fighting. No more screaming. No more crying. No more wondering what his next move was going to be. No more trying to remain one step ahead. The game was finally over. My opponent was no more.
Seeing his lifeless remains in that box, I realized something else: my mother and I hadn’t suffered alone. My father had suffered, too.
We stared at his urn like we were waiting for it to say something. Mom reached over and squeezed my hand. “Are you okay, baby?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“I’m not sure. I’m just trying to figure out how we got here, that’s all,” she replied. “I know he was a horrible person, but he was your father, the only one you have. There was a time when you loved him, when I loved him – before everything came out about his past, before we found out about the children he had molested,” she took a deep breath. “Before you remembered that he had molested you.”
I wanted to deny it, that I had once loved him, but she was right. There was a time when I loved him, idolized him in fact. To this day, I can’t believe I mentally blocked out the molestation for so many years. Truth be told, I was sitting there conflicted, confused. Buried under layers of anger, hurt, and disgust, there is a small part of me that is mourning the loss of him, the loss of the illusion of the love between a father and his daughter.
The feeling of love keeps trying to creep into my heart, but I’m scared to allow it to take over. The past decade has changed me. Once I realized what my father was capable of, I put up walls to protect myself from others. If my own father could abuse me, could lie to me, could manipulate me, could throw me away, then how can I ever trust anyone? Yes, the abuse is in the past, but the repercussions of his attacks are in the here and now. His sins are why I am the way I am today. Why my doors must remain locked, why my house can never be completely dark, why I have yet to be in a romantic relationship where I can completely let go and trust the man I am with, why those walls are around me – walls that the strongest of men, as well as the weakest, have yet to break down.
Lung cancer wasn’t what killed my father in the end. I may never know his true cause of death. When Renee called she said he died of lung cancer. When I tried to obtain an autopsy over the phone, I was told by the Medical Examiner that there was nothing suspicious about his cause of death (which I assumed was lung cancer) and that if I wanted an autopsy performed, I would have to pay thirty five hundred dollars. His death certificate arrived in the mail the other day. His doctor listed three causes of death: 1) stroke, 2) Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, 3) lung cancer. The E.M.T. report seems to contrast all of that, though. The report states that when the E.M.T.’s arrived, that the four quadrants of my father’s abdomen were distended and that his girlfriend reported he had vomited blood several times overnight and that morning. A distended abdomen and vomiting blood doesn’t sound like the symptoms of a stroke, or lung cancer, to me. It sounds like he was poisoned. Internal bleeding. Insides visible on the outside. Poison gnawing its way out.
The residue of my father: funeral paperwork, a gold plated, cross-shaped earing, photos of his dead body, his urn, his sins, my memories of him. What remains must not be destroyed; there has been enough destruction.
Holding the pictures of his lifeless body in our hands, my mother asked, “What are we going to do with him?”
I began placing all of the contents back into the cardboard box. I folded the flaps together, picked it up, walked over to our hallway closet, and opened the door. “We’re going to lock him away, where he can’t hurt either one of us anymore,” I said.
I placed him on the bottom shelf.
My father claimed that he was a Vietnam vet, that he served his country, that he was a Green Beret, and a P.O.W. He used to tell wild stories of his time in the war. After my parents separated, I started digging into his past. I found out that he had never served a day in his life; in fact, he never left boot camp, much less fought overseas. His exaggerated stories of war and imprisonment went through my mind as I stared at the inconspicuous cardboard box on the bottom shelf of our hallway closet.
“Well, mom, he may not have been a P.O.W. before, but he damn sure is one now!”
Looking at the box, sitting next to the spare toilet paper, I realized his reign of terror was finally over. The man who gave me life, the man who said he loved me, the man who manipulated me, the man who sexually abused me, he no longer exists as he once did.
I closed the closet door.
Amy J. E. MacKenzie is a creative nonfiction writer and aspiring children’s literature author. She holds a Master of Arts in Writing from Coastal Carolina University (Creative Nonfiction and Literary Editing; 2015). Amy is currently an M.F.A. in Creative Writing candidate (Creative Nonfiction) at Old Dominion University, where she has been awarded the Perry Morgan Fellowship in Creative Writing (2017-2018). Her work has appeared in NewPages, The Truth About the Fact: International Journal of Literary Nonfiction, and The Pinch Literary Journal, where she won first place in the 2016 Pinch Literary Awards for her narrative nonfiction essay, “Shakedown.”Amy is currently working on a memoir-in-essays, which will include her published pieces, “Ciao Bella,” “Shakedown,” and “Ashes. Remains. My Father.,” as well as a series of illustrated children’s books which focus on the significance of historical studies.
You can connect with Amy on Facebook and Twitter @amyjemackenzie.