I was 26 years old when the hospital called and told me that my father had finally drunk himself to death. They worded it as a “liver cirrhosis-related rupture” but I knew that it meant the same shit. They had told me that he is still alive but does not have much longer. They asked if I wanted to come in to say goodbye to him before he goes. I said no and hung up my phone.
My father’s routine was the same from the time that I was a child up until his hospitalization, and by extension, his death. He was a heavy equipment operator by trade but had trouble keeping consistent employment as he was pissed drunk most of the time. This fact was never apparent to him, however. He would come home from a shift of running back-ho and plop himself straight onto his battered recliner. After downing a pint and half of Alberta Premium, he would preach his tirades to me, or to anyone within an earshot, about how the immigrants, the faggots, and the Liberals were leeching off of the hard-working man to “go-on and live their lavish lifestyles off of his back!” The man never did have much self-awareness. When he wasn’t sitting on his ass choking down cheap whiskey and Players cigarettes, he kept himself busy by either sneaking off to the bar or slapping my mom around. He never did know that when I was 15 years old I started a job as a night janitor at my high school to help Mom keep up with the bills and the mortgage. I wasn’t given the job legally. It was given to me out of charity, or pity, depending on your point of view. I still thank Mr. Krasinski to this day for setting that up. I was paid under the table to work four three-hour shifts every weeknight aside from Friday and one four-hour shift on Sunday nights. As far as the Canadian Revenue Agency was concerned, my wages were filed under Welding Education Supplies: Miscellaneous. I saved what I could to free myself at 18 but I gave the most of the money I earned to Mom. We had a silent understanding that dad could never know.
I remember the Easter of 1998. After two years of working under Mr. Krasinski, he awarded me with an extra $50 one March Friday night. He expected me to get some beer or maybe take a girl out. Neither of those interested me – instead, I bought my mom a large bouquet of daffodils. They were her favourite flowers and she especially loved having them around at Easter time. I spent the remainder of the money on a tin of Skoal for myself and a bottle of Mr. Clean for the house. The flowers were only perched on the kitchen table for about ten hours. After a drunken squabble based on one of my father’s paranoid delusions that mom was cheating on him, he smacked the vase and flowers on to the floor. I’ve watched the man beat my mother’s face to the point of unrecognizable with his bare hands, I’ve seen my mother struggle to walk for two weeks due to the bruises that he left on her legs with his belt. But never did I see her cry as hard as she did on that day.
My father died the same way that he lived – bloated, miserable, and in the absence of a son that never loved him. When I did arrive at the hospital, the nurse informed me that he hung on for ten hours in the palliative care wing before passing away. I had a hard time suppressing a smile knowing that the son of bitch spent his final hours suffering and alone.
“So, what now?”
“Well, now you need to make your arrangements. Did you and your dad have a conversation about his wishes after his death?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Good. You know that we legally can’t keep him here for more than twelve hours, right? He will be moved to the hospital morgue for tonight and then to Zens’ Funeral Services first thing tomorrow morning. Will you be okay to continue this process with them? Do you need any time?” The nurse mumbled as she smacked her gum under the buzzing fluorescent lights. Her coffee breath fiercely overpowered the piece of Excel that she started chewing three hours ago.
“No, I’m fine.”
“Alright, hun. Go home. The death certificate and his cremation request have been faxed to them, you can pick him up next week to continue with your arrangements. I’m sorry for your loss.”
Before I could respond, the nurse readjusted her frizzy, red ponytail and marched away from me with as much conviction as someone wearing white New Balance runners could muster. If I were in the hospital for anyone else, I would have been pissed at how fast I was being pushed out. Instead, I laughed to myself as the nurse stormed off around the corner.
When I turned the ignition on my 2003 Honda Civic the next week it barely started. Despite its alternator problems and the fact that I drove across town with the gas-light on, I made it to Zens’. The place was dreadfully drab, even by funeral parlor standards. As I walked in, I was assaulted by the stale stench of formaldehyde and that unmistakable “church-smell.” I walked to the front desk to be met by an overweight woman who was visibly annoyed by my presence. Her eyes were glued to her computer screen and she mindlessly tended to her nails. Her perfume was overwhelming. I think her technique was if she ignored me for long enough that I would go away.
She released an exasperated sigh, “What?”
“‘What?’ I’m here to pick up my father’s remains and that is all that you have to say to me, ‘what’? Is Mr. Zens here so that I could speak with him?
“Rob’s busy,” the impatient woman snapped, “but if you want to start talking to me politely then maybe I could help you out. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, sugar.”
I was ready to throttle this bitch, but I was more ready to leave this place and all of this behind me. I decided to pick my battles and took a deep breath.
“I am searching for Darren White, Mr. Darren Lee White. He would have been moved from the hospital to here last week. I was told to pick him up at this location. Further arrangments will not be necessary, that has all been taken care of.”
“Lemme take a look for you, gimme a couple minutes. This old computer takes forever to do anything.”
After a few minutes of apathetically searching her files and making various breathy noises, the receptionist had found the file.
“Here he is, Mr. White. Brought in last week and has been cremated. Are you sure that you have your arrangements made? Aside from the cremation request made by him a few weeks ago, there is nothing on his file about funeral arrangements.
“Yes, it has been taken care of. My dad always was a private man, it is no surprise to me that he requested the details on his death be kept close to the chest, too.”
The receptionist gave me a skeptical look but could not be bothered to put in the effort of questioning me. Instead, she lazily mumbled that Robert Zens’ office is through the hall and the second door to the left. I will be able to speak with him when he is ready and will get my father’s remains then.
“Thank you,” I said as I headed towards the hall.
Mr. Zens’ office was in a sad state of affairs. The cramped corner office had stacked documents and files scattered everywhere, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the chaos. The desk was littered with newspapers, empty Diet Pepsi cans, and envelopes with PAST DUE stamps on them. One single 60W lightbulb hung over the office and even that was on its last legs. The only positive within the depressing office was a picture of what I had to assume to be Mr. Zens standing with two young girls, probably around ages eight to ten. A tired, middle-aged man wearing an ill-fitting suit entered the office. I extended to shake his hand and he obliged.
“Mr. White, I presume? Thank you for coming in to meet with me.”
“Please, just call me Marcus.”
“Fair enough, Marcus. Your father’s ashes are ready for pick-up. All you need to do is sign a few release forms and you can be on your way. Your father made arrangements with me to be cremated but there’s no indication of any sort of arrangements after that. If I may pry, which church will you be hosting the services at? I can recommend you some good ones in town, depending on your denomination, of course.”
“We’ve made our arrangements. With all due respect, Mr. Zens, this process will be kept between my father and I. Just know that he will get the proper burial that he deserves.”
“Fair enough. Please sign these release forms and you’ll be on your way.” Mr. Zens extracted two forms from the mountain of papers like magic. There was no way in Hell that anyone but him would know where those papers were. As I signed the surprisingly pristine documents he sifted through a series of black boxes in the corner, muttering to himself.
“Ackerman, Rhyhorski, Li, Scott, McCarthy, Verne… ah, here we go, White.”
He hoisted the box onto the desk. It was about the size of a household printer and completely black. The only defining features on the box were the latch to open it and the label on the top, “White, Darren Lee.”
“We’re all set, Marcus. Is there anything else can that we can do for you? Would you like some help carrying this out to your car? Don’t let the fact that its ash fool you, these boxes are heavy.”
“I’ll be fine, thanks.”
“In that case, thank you for choosing Zens’ Funeral Services for taking care of you. I am sorry for your loss.”
“Somebody’s gotta be.” I lifted the box out of the building and into my car.
I drove around with my father in the backseat for a couple of hours, only stopping for gas and a drink at McGee’s, the shitty dive bar that my dad spent most of his time at while he was on this side of the grass. After reaching the end of the second hour, I had found my father’s final resting place. It was on the outskirts of town at a Husky truck stop. I pulled up behind the building, away from the prying eyes of underpaid employees and overtired truckers. I turned my car off and pulled the box containing my father out.
“Well, Dad, someone should probably say a few words. But that person ain’t gonna be me, that’s for fuckin’ sure.”
I peeled the name that he gave to me off of the box, lifted the lid of the dumpster up and slid the box inside. As I drove back home my only regret was that there was a lot of other shit in my car that I should have thrown out while I was there.