THE LAST DAY ON EARTH
My dad lived every day like it was his last. (Yes. It is going to be that kind of post. Put your feet up and chill a spell.) Every one. I suppose legally he was my step-dad–but laws, would he lose his cool if you called him that. “Blood’s got nothing to do with it” would hurl on out of his mouth, complete with Elvis upper lip and Winston cigarette . . . and that’s just the way it was. I knew him from the day I turned thirteen until the day he died, and nary once did he put up with this “step” mess. Others might not value the depth of that decision, but we knew what was up. I was his daughter. End of story. And, so, this one’s for you, Bri. No holds barred.
He won the New Jersey lottery in the mid-eighties after struggling to support my momma, myself and three other children. Every single dime of that money, ‘cept for that last payment a few months after he died, got spent on vacations, a boat, a baby grand piano, dinners out with my Momma, handcrafted rings for my Momma, trains for the babies and . . . you get the idea. Turns out, Bri was the antithesis of my favorite Skynyrd song, “Curtis Lowe,” on account of the day he died everybody came to pray. Folks in torn shoes, black, white, hispanic . . . all filled the corners and inches of that sweet Southern Methodist church to pay their respects. You see, Momma wasn’t the only one he blew that money on: Dad had been funding the local food bank. For years. Had been paying light bills and water bills of poor folk. For years.
And he was a local cop.
Imagine. Poor folk. Showing up for a cop’s funeral in ragged shoes. Sobbing when TAPS commenced. What kind of a man inspires that level of adoration? Well. Scootch over here and I’ll tell y’all. Ain’t got nothing to do with money and ‘ary damn thing to do with magic. (Isn’t that always the way?)
Memory: I’m fourteen. Bri has concocted a family “excursion,” and I’m fourteen. Nuff said. Grumble, grumble in the back of a black Lincoln Continental in the early eighties when “Brown-Eyed Girl” revs up on the FM radio. Do you remember when? Pop, pop, up and down shaking the whole damn car, jazz hands no longer on the wheel, shalalalalalalalalalaladeeda! Just like that! Leaning into my mother’s face, her trying to look stern and failing miserably, like that. Like living and loving. Like it was the last day on earth.
Memory: I’ve joined a biker gang, am doing a deadly dance with crystal meth and am living on the streets. Dad, barely thirty, takes every last dime out of his life savings to put me somewhere I can heal. When my mother cries at night, he doesn’t. Just says over and over: I have faith in her. One day, she will make you the proudest. Don’t give up. Fast forward to a phone conversation, twenty years later: Mom, I already owe 64k for my masters degree. I’ve been accepted into the doctoral program. Should I just stop and go to work? (Scuffling sounds, Dad’s voice suddenly on the line.) Have you lost your mind? Do you speak English? Am I speaking Japanese? You go and you go and you go all the way to the top. You let nothing stop you. You are investing in yourself. Be Doctor “Seba.” You hear me?
(On the day my heart died, I had only just begun my doctorate work. In his phone contacts, the letters Ph.D. followed my name. He had called it, years before it came to fruition, that day on the phone.)
Memory: I’m in the bed. Deep woods of Florida on a semester break, all the chillun good and knocked out in the den and I’m snoring. Directly, the light switches on and my shoulder gets shaken like it’s gonna start bakin’ and there’s Bri. Eyes all lit up, three a.m. Here’s the cause for the uproar: You have to see this. Get up. Blind stumbling, grumbling after him in the dark out to the woods. What? I’m tired. Flashlight pop across the shadows of tree limbs. Look! Isn’t that the most awesome banana spider you have ever seen? Like it was the last day on earth.
Memory: July 4th. No one else came home, but Bri had called me and sorta wished out loud that I could bring the kiddies down. He was going to be the Grand Poobah at the county celebration, leading the Pledge of Allegiance in full dress uniform. Wished I could come. We are on the back porch, gnawing on burgers he kicked up on the grill, and Bri wishes for mushrooms and onions. Out loud. So I get my ass up and griddle them, lickity split, and rush them to his half-eaten burger. He has a headache. It won’t stop, but neither will he as he lights sparklers for the boys and cracks another beer in the deep woods of Florida and the deep place in my heart that cannot forget him. Like it was the last day on earth. On account of: it almost was.
Memory: I’m on a treadmill at the local gym. A new song winds its way through the speakers, and I almost lose my stride. Sounds funny. Has that metallic edge that music makes when a spirit has ahold on it and reverberated against my eardrum like a message. And I am calling on angels. I won’t give up if you don’t give up. I won’t give up if you don’t give up. I need a sign to let me know you’re here.
And then the announcement: “Seba” come to the front desk. You have a phone call.
Y’all know that moment? That slip of an instant in which you know that you know that you know, and if you just stand very still, and not breathe, it won’t be real yet? You know?
Memory: One week later. Most of the folks have paid their respects and come and gone with braised ribs and squash casserole and Christian mantras of where my dad was now and . . . I stand outside, in the dark, smoking a cigarette. And there it is. Right where he fell, suddenly, when the aneurism blew: a pack of Winston reds. Memory in a memory: Bri, I quit smoking. Stop, no, don’t (cigarette shoved in my mouth, lit) fine. Him: that’s not what’s going to kill you. Might as well go ahead. (Note: my Dad had never given me a cigarette before. Wasn’t his style. This was the first time–but it wouldn’t be the last.) And there I sat, sobbing in the grass, getting chewed up by fire ants with a pack of Winston reds in my hand. He had only smoked one. Every year, I stand outside (just after July 4th) and light my own firework up. I figure, if I’ve counted them right, I have almost a decade left of this ritual–and then I’ll quit.
As I wrote that last line, sitting here on my front porch out in the country, the screen door opened all the way and then slammed shut. Y’all reckon I have company?
Memory: I’m on the phone with Momma. I cannot grieve yet, nor will I ever grieve proper, on account of she needed me then. He was the love of her life, her Van Morrison, her fire sign equal and her best friend. And I say to her: the way you live from now on is a testament to him. Anything less means he wasn’t even here, at all.
And here’s the point of the post: He lived like it was the last day on earth. Because one day, it was.
Some souls leave such a gaping, god-shaped hole when they exit this plane. My dad left one the size of the moon. Part of me died that day on the treadmill and will never return. Part of me lives because his work wasn’t done. All of me knows that it is the last day, every day, because it is all one big fucking day. I have sensed my own demise, have caught the whiff of it in the air, and have struggled with the demons of common sense and sustainable retirement plans and this is what I’ve found:
Money ain’t shit compared to your soul. Money cannot buy you friends, that moment with a banana spider who chose that tree, silliness in a car or love. In fact, I contend that if you have more than you need, that’s the universe anointing you in its stead. Pay someone’s water bill. Buy someone dinner. Blow some of it on a vaca for your babies. Do you have every right to keep every dime? Why, sure. But:
Do you want to see real magic happen? Change a life? Leave something other than bonds as your legacy?
Yesterday, I listened to my personal God-shaped hole. My student, and darling, was displaced: no home (after ten more days), less money (slow season at the tattoo parlor), no momma, no daddy, no nothin’ but me. Now, I’m in an economical slump, my own self. Not much to pass around. And here’s where I stand:
What the hell do you mean, you will sleep in your car? What the hell do you mean, you’ve not had a Christmas since you were ten? What the hell do you mean, you are afraid no one loves you? What the hell do you mean, you think you’re white trash and it’s okay if someone beats you bloody? What the hell?
Hmmmm. What would Dad do? Well . . . .
Y’all welcome another member to the family, Miss Hazey Dayz. We went over the chore list last night, the rules and decided to pick up her chickens and her flow wand and move her scrawny-needs-to-eat-more-fried-okra out here to Seba land. On account of:
She was calling on angels. And she needed a sign, to let her know we’re here. Maybe one day, she will have a memory that makes magic, too.
I need a sign to let me know you’re here, cause my tv set just keeps it all from being clear. I want a reason for the way things have to be. I need a hand to build up a hope inside of me.
This post is dedicated to the only father I ever had, who taught me that blood meant nothing next to love and that money meant even less.
Wait for me by the banana spider, Bri. I’ll be the one with all the white hair and no money.