One night I was doing the dishes and my dad came in the kitchen and struck up a rare conversation.
"You're doing the dishes?" he asked incredulously.
"Yeah, someone's gotta do them," I answered.
I had recently started doing an old country music radio show out in Warrenton with a friend of mine, Ed, every Sunday night. The good kind of country music, not the money music it is today. We played lots of bluegrass records, Merle Haggard, Willie Neslon, Buck Owens, that sort of stuff. My dad loved "Rocky Top" so I'd play that record a lot. It was great talking to him. I had recently discovered poker and that was the one thing we ever talked about. Occasionally I would even make a late-night call to him for poker advice.
We joked around a little and I remember thinking that it was the most human, real conversation I'd ever had with him. He even told me a joke. An hour later I went out to meet my friends Anthony and Sean to go eat Mexican food. As I walked out the front door, I thought I saw something strange in my peripheral vision: my father lying on the couch, as he always did after watching the news, but backwards—with his feet where his head usually was—which would have been highly unusual, something I had never seen. But I was late and as I hurried out the door, I decided that I must have imagined it and kept going.
I came home a few hours later and my dad had gone to bed. I sat in the living room and watched a Saturday Night Live rerun with Charles Grodin hosting. I laughed out loud during his Art Garfunkel impersonation. Then I went downstairs to bed.
I woke up early the next morning so I could make the two-hour drive to register for fall classes in Richmond, but something didn't seem right. I don't know how I knew, but I could tell something was wrong.
I went upstairs and the usual signs of my father going to work were not there. No lights were on and it was eerily quiet. I ran up to my parents' bedroom, trying to mentally prepare myself for the worst-case scenario. As I walked in the room, I saw what I was afraid I would see: my father, lying there face-up on the bed, sideways, fully clothed, on top of the covers with his legs bent and his feet almost on the floor.
I thought maybe he fell asleep like that. I said, "Dad? Are you awake?" He didn't respond. I started to panic.
I yelled, "Dad! Wake up! Come on!"
I shook him, "Sh--! Come on!"
I yelled right up against his ear, the same way I did with Liz. Just the fact that I was touching him was surreal. I grabbed the phone and dialed 911. When the operator answered I told her that my father wouldn't wake up. She asked where he was and I told her on the bed. She told me to pick him up and carry him to the floor so she could instruct me in CPR. I put the phone down, pushed my arms under his body and picked him up. His entire body was completely stiff, like a board. I carefully carried him across the room, his body frozen in the position that he was in on the bed, and lowered him to the floor. I put the phone back to my ear and told the 911 operator that his body was stiff and asked her what to do next. She said, "Oh... well... um, just wait there. Someone will be there soon."
As she finished the sentence I heard sirens blaring in the distance. He must have died the night before. The 911 operator knew there was nothing to do after I told her his body was stiff. The ambulance came and they checked him out. They put a sheet over him and told me to go downstairs. He was only fifty-one. I was in shock and didn't know what to do. It was hard to know even how to feel. My father had just died, but I barely had a relationship with him. And here I was, alone with him in the house, just the two of us. Only, he was dead.
I get it now. We're both "idea men" and anything outside of these ideas is a distraction.
A police officer stood against the wall behind me while I sat at the dining-room table and flipped through a copy of Newsweek, crying. The worst part of it all was watching them put my father in a black bag, zip it up and carry him out through the front door inside it. They didn't put him on a stretcher. They just carried out this black bag, sagging like a sack of trash. I've never been able to shake the images of my father walking into his house one night and then being carried out in a black bag the next day.
I was also haunted by the feeling that maybe I could have saved him if I had paid better attention the night before. Did I really see him facing the wrong way on the couch? Maybe he had started to feel weird then, but made it upstairs and then the heart attack hit him as he sat down on the bed. What if I could have saved him if I had just paid more attention to what was going on there?
I called my mom and Liz to tell them. It was pretty hard telling my mother that her husband was dead. Liz took it the worst. She still called him "Daddy" sometimes. I heard my mom on the other end of the phone tell Liz to sit down. A few moments later I heard Liz scream.
Liz and my mom drove back later that day from North Carolina. That night the three of us all slept in my parents' bed. Liz and I were concerned it would be too much for my mom to handle losing her husband and suddenly be alone in their bedroom, but she seemed to handle it pretty well. But you could never really tell how anyone was handling anything in this house.
A few days later my mom came back from the morgue with a small bag that contained my dad's wallet, watch and wedding ring. My dad, who was a devout atheist, had once told my mom that he wanted to be thrown out in the trash. My mom kept his ashes in a box inside a filing cabinet drawer in the dining room for a few years, and eventually honoured his request.
Editor's Note: Years later, when Mark had become a successful songwriter and lead singer for the indie rock band EELS, he came to terms with his distant but brilliant father:
Yes, I'd been through some terrible stuff. But I couldn't ignore the fact that I'd been through a lot of great stuff, too, and I wanted to reflect that in my songs. One morning while I was brushing my teeth, I looked in the bathroom mirror. My father was looking back at me. I realized I could identify with him in a lot of ways now. I was learning more from reading about him. How he was depressed from feeling under appreciated or misunderstood, how he wanted to be left alone. How he wore the same clothes all the time, just like me.
I realized that I had been feeling that same thing he must have been feeling all those years when he couldn't be bothered because he always had some crazy ideas he was trying to sort out in his head. You're just about to crack the code and the kid wants to play baseball. I get it now. We're both "idea men" and anything outside of these ideas is a distraction. I had been angry at him all these years but, now that I saw so much of him in myself, it became easy to identify with him. I let him off the hook. And life immediately got better. My parents didn't have a clue how to raise children, it's true. But I can see that, given what they were given, they gave it their best shot.
And being through the hardships in my life made the other times in my life something I could really dig into and appreciate. I wanted to celebrate life. That meant all the ups and downs. I realized how lucky I was to have had some of the seemingly horrible experiences I did because it meant I was one of the lucky people who experiences a wide spectrum of some of life's situations.
A colleague of my father's once said that, just a day or two before he died, my father had told him that he felt he had lived a good life and that if he were to die right then, he was satisfied. I guess since he died a couple of days later, we should all be careful about making such pronouncements, but I thought about it and I could kind of see why he felt that way.
The tougher circumstances I'd been through were now making it easier for me to truly appreciate all the great things in my life. I lived in a house that I loved being in, had some good friends and was able to actually make a living doing what I love and have to do. How often do people really get to be in that position?