Saturday, September 21, 2013

rambling...and remembering Scotty a year later

Whidbey Island, across the water from Seattle, is not known for sunshine but this day was beautiful beyond beautiful.  The open area of the cemetery allowed us to see a larger vista of the faultlessly blue sky where hawks circled high up on currents we couldn't feel down below.  It was not too warm, in the 70's, but my dad and my remaining brother worked up a sweat digging a hole in the area outlined by spray paint on the grass.  There were no other people around except for a maintenance guy several plots down from whom my brother borrowed a sharp tool when they ran into rock.

I've been to a handful of funerals and memorial services.  This was my first burial.  Based solely on images from media, I expected that the hole would be pre-dug, that there would be a casket covered in flowers, that there would folding chairs for loved ones to sit on. I expected black limousines.  I expected rain.

While Davy was digging, my father commented on the plot behind Scotty's, dedicated to a little girl, and decorated with bushes, flowers, and a small stone walkway leading to a bench.   "That might be one way my mom could be of help," I said.  "She does a lot of gardening."

My father's face went slack and pale.  "Oh no.  She doesn't even get to know that this place exists."

Right.  I forgot.  Somehow, in the surreal nature of the day and the experience, I had forgotten about the complete division.  The coroner had split the ashes between two containers, joking (a little bitterly) that he had measured to the smallest increment so as to avoid any accusations of favoritism.

"Of course," I said.  "Sorry.  I don't know what I was thinking."

While my father and brother dug the hole and chipped away at stone, I sat in the car working on a written memorial for newspapers and a website.  Next to me sat the urn containing half of Scotty's ashes.  Because Scotty wasn't married when he died and had left no will or instructions, it fell to my parents to decide on the arrangements.  They hadn't seen each other in probably 30 years (and didn't see each other on this occasion either) and hadn't agreed on anything since the 1970's.  If this were a Disney movie, the situation would resolve with everyone remembering that they loved each other and Scotty would jump out from behind a giant fern having united the family with his death ruse. Yeah, it was surreal, but not that surreal.

The plans were made using the funeral director as a go-between and Scotty's children for input.  Jack, Scotty's almost 14-year-old son, wanted nothing to do with the process, beyond supporting his sister, Sophia, 12 years old.  Sophia wanted an open casket and a burial.  My mom wanted cremation and somehow convinced Sophia of this.  Apparently my mom really wanted something called a Buddhist cremation where the bones of the loved one are retained for some purpose but my father effectively nixed this.  Each parent got half the ashes, no bones.

There have been schisms in my family for years but never one so dramatically manifest.  Half the ashes.  Half the family.  I don't know what my mom and sister did with their half.  My dad chose to bury his half so that Jack and Sophia would have a place to visit.

I wrote about Scotty's achievements and travels, his children, his love of music.  I vividly saw Scotty standing at his conga drum, playing along to loud music, blissed out.  I heard him doing the voices of Smithers and the anteater from Pink Panther.  I remembered falling on the floor laughing over total silliness and I also remembered his rages, his 'Hulk' moments.  And I thought about his nearly lifelong struggle with addiction and the downward spiral of the past couple of years.  The last time I saw him he was sitting in the back of a police car outside my house.  Then I remembered how excited we were when Scotty was born.  Somewhere there is a picture of my dad in hospital scrubs holding newborn Scotty up to his face.  The look is pure joy and also something else I've seen on the faces of new fathers:  sort of surprise at the happy reality of this new person.  There's a new daddy picture of Scotty like this.  Baby Jack is swaddled.  Scotty has just set him down on a bed and is in the act of turning to another task but can't stop the smile, can't hide the joy.  And why would he?

The look on my father's face at the casket:  pure horror and shock and love.  I can't imagine his face when he got the phone call telling him that Scotty had hanged himself. I know my own reaction was muted because my husband was out of town and I tried to keep life normal for my two six-year-old sons.  Because of this and because the whole thing was so hard to believe anyway, it didn't seem completely real to me until I was standing in front of the open casket.  There he was.  My brother.  In a casket.  Doesn't get more real.  He was wearing the clothes his girlfriend had given my dad and which my dad had painstakingly ironed in his hotel room:  a dark suit coat and a plaid shirt.  The shirt was buttoned up high to hide his neck.  His face was dark but his hands were white.  The funeral director explained that this was because of the blood pooling during asphyxiation.  I remember my father sort of shrugging and holding up his palms.  "These are the only clothes we have for him.  So I guess that's what he's wearing."  It didn't look like something Scotty would wear.  I tousled his hair because they'd made it much too neat.  I patted his chest and I tucked a note into his pocket but I couldn't touch his skin.

The morning of the funeral, my brother and dad and I arranged some photos on a display board to bring to the service.  At one point, my dad, whom I hadn't seen for twenty years until the day before, left the  room and sobbed.  My brother and I looked at each other quietly.  Neither of us went to hug him.  I didn't think I could after all the time.  At the funeral, he told me how much Scotty loved me and I collapsed into his arms crying.  Turns out I could do it.

My father was wearing slacks and a dress shirt.  "Who forgets a suit for a funeral?" he asked.  Well, someone in shock, of course.  Davy, in the military, has been to too many funerals to forget.  He was the only one there in a suit, besides the funeral director.  Scotty's friends were casual even in their respectful dress-up.  At the service, Sophia and I clung to each other, holding each other up.  "I just wish he was still here," she whispered.  I know.  His relationship with his kids had become more than strained in the past couple of years as he lost all custody and then all visitation beyond phone calls due to his drinking and drug use and the behavior that went with that.  Jack sat in the back with some friends during the service.  His relationship with his father was more than frayed.

Scotty was wildly impractical and inventive.  He was sensitive and yet could be mean in his truth-telling.  He wanted transcendence and escape.  The only time I remember him really sticking to the daily life thing was when his kids were little.  And even then....  not so much.

The youngest of their four children, Scotty was still a baby when my parents separated and divorced.  As the oldest I had gotten the most stability--nearly nine years of mostly normal average life in the suburbs.  Scotty got a few months.  Davy a few years.  I remembered the hand-off, when my mother gave up custody of us.  While friends unloaded our beds and toys, Scotty's crib and changing table, from a small trailer in the driveway, my mother sat in a rocking chair holding Scotty.  Jenny, Davy, and I stood in a semi-circle around her.  Eventually, she handed Scotty to Bev.  From the soon-to-be-absent mother to the soon-to-be-abusive step-mother.  Psychically, emotionally, metaphorically--and maybe literally, I don't remember--I took Scotty back and put him on my hip.  He will always be my first baby.

I had already been taking care of him.  In our small unit in the public housing complex, I shared a room with Scotty so I could change his diapers in the night if needed, or soothe him back to sleep.  In the mornings I got up early with him and fed him.  Usually I made him scrambled eggs, stirring the eggs with one hand while holding him on my hip with the other.  Then on to fourth grade.  At home again, I often took Scotty for long bike rides using my mother's bike which had a baby seat on the back.  I came home from school once to discover that Scotty had climbed out of his crib after his nap and spread the contents of his diaper all over our shared room.  When my mother offered to clean it up, I cried in relief and cooked dinner in exchange.

Eventually, the maintenance man left and my dad and brother returned the chisel or ax or whatever they had borrowed to get at the stones in the ground. Just the three of us now.

Not long ago I heard a suicide-attempt survivor speak.  He said he felt regret the instant he let go of the bridge railing and jumped.  Did Scotty have regret?  Did his feet reach for the chair or stool or whatever he used?  Did his hands pull at the rope as he gasped for breath?  How tight did he tie the knot?  How long did it take?  What were his thoughts?  Did he wish for the oblivion of death more than to hold his baby girl and boy again?  In the casket he looked as if he were sleeping but I know his fear and panic face.  I've seen it.  Can see it now.

When the hole was complete, I carried the urn of ashes on my hip, more scared of dropping them than I had ever felt of dropping a real baby.  I worried that my vision problem would lead me to trip over a root or stone and send the ashes flying.  Why the fear?  As if anything could be worse than the events of the past week.  Everything was going so well until Kristy dropped the ashes.  Probably I just wanted to feel control over something, anything.  And I know it was just ashes, and half the ashes at that, but I felt love and respect for this token of my brother.  I had to carry him lovingly, gently to this resting place.

We lowered the urn into the hole and my brother prepared to cover it with dirt.  I suggested that we each throw in a handful of dirt first.  This was something I had only seen in movies and on TV, but it seemed like the right thing to do.  We did that and then they shoveled in the dirt and shrugged the sod back into place.

"Should we say a prayer?" I asked.

"I just did," Davy said.

"Can you say it again?"

We held hands and Davy said a beautiful prayer wishing peace for our brother and son.

In silence, under that blue blue sky, we walked back to the car and then drove slowly from the cemetery, turning onto the road and joining families going grocery shopping or couples on dates.  People lonely or joyous, busy and distracted, or contemplative and serene.  I just wish he was still here.  I knew that I would go grocery shopping, that I would get busy, and that I would even feel peace again.  But now it was just a beautiful day full of grief, heavy like the absent rain clouds.