March 21, 2011

Flowers, fragrance, and funerals

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Orchids and chrysanthemums smell like death to me:
the cloying sweetness of casket-side flowers,
wilting from the heat of bodies pressed too close
as passersby sob their payment to Chiron.

The trees outside my apartment complex have a sickeningly sweet scent: not pleasing like honeysuckle, but of something decaying like fruit left too long in the sun. The blossoms themselves are beautiful white flowers sprinkled like snow across dark branches. Bradford pears or ornamental cherry trees. I’m not sure which. The scent, though, is the same pungent odor of the flowers at Dad’s funeral.

White flowers on the tree outside my window

I remember clearly the last picture taken of my Dad: Easter, 1994. Dad stood, smiling, arms outstretched as if to embrace the dining room table with egg-dying accoutrements, my stepmom, and little sister in one fell swoop. My sister was intently focused on painting an egg through long blond curls while holding her woobie-blanket in the crook of her left arm. My stepmom patiently smiled. Living with Dad could have that effect on you. He could go from serious parent to big kid in under ten seconds: fatherly advice punctuated by water gun fights.

My oldest sister Tracie took that picture. Dad had just turned 50 and Tracie was in town to celebrate Easter and birthdays. Dad’s birthday was March 12 and Stephanie’s is March 8. (Mine is March 23.) He looked happy, even though there were health problems.

The weekend before that picture was taken, Tracie and I had an evening out with Dad. Steph was at home with Sammie, and our other sisters were with their father and stepmom. Dad, Tracie, and I waited two hours to dine at Planet Hollywood in Washington DC. It was loud, boisterous, and filled with Hollywood memorabilia. When we were deciding what to eat, Dad hid behind his menu. He folded the menu and my sister and I started laughing. He had slipped on the red foam clown nose Tracie had given him from one of the productions she had worked on at Arena Stage. I still have the gorilla and fancy drink glass. And one lonely birthday card.

Six months later, on October 1, he was gone. Massive heart attack. One moment here, the next: *poof*.

Later, we would look back at that Easter picture and note that he didn’t look right. Sammie (my stepmom) didn’t know about the health issues until after Dad died when she found test results from his physical buried in the bottom drawer of his desk. Heart and cholesterol problems, just like his father before him. Prime candidate for a stroke. No one — my stepmom, Tracie, me, Jen, Annette, Steph — had any idea anything was wrong.

His remains — along with the red clown nose Tracie had tucked into Dad’s carefully folded hands — were cremated. We sprinkled Dad’s ashes during Thanksgiving. I remember watching Dad’s older brother, Bob, leaning against the old Dodge Colt, wondering how Dad could be gone. It was like seeing a taller, slimmer version of Dad walking amongst us.

I tried to keep in touch with the family after Dad’s funeral. The years passed, people moved away, phone numbers were lost, and time slipped by.

And now the funeral-like flowers are blooming and once again I am too late to say good bye to those I love. Uncle Bob passed away on February 22, 2011, just a few days after my horse-crazed Aunt Myrtle on my Mom’s side. When I called Tracie to tell her about Aunt Myrtle, we talked about how we needed to find Uncle Bob and his family. They found us a few days later by leaving a message on Tracie’s phone that Uncle Bob had died from a heart attack. He had been in perfect health.

I do not have pictures of Uncle Bob and only the one of Dad at Easter. I have coins, though, to cover their eyes, and pay their passage with Chiron while the fragrance of decayed blossoms wafts through my window.

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