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Maybe They’re Home Now

Death is my greatest fear, bully, and teacher. He will appear suddenly or sometimes expectedly, like an angry hornet that flies into your open car window as you’re driving down an empty stretch of road. Hopefully, it will fly right back out with a gust of wind. But the reality, if you choose to accept it, is that you must prepare for the possibility of being stung. Death can knock my ass out with a single strike, thanks to his hacking down of the people around me. No matter how much time I have to prepare, the pain always feels new and oh so paralyzing. But, sometimes we are resistant to the shattering reality of Death. Unless we are able to witness the ugliness of its toil, which is not the filtered down glamor show that funeral homes create, we don’t really get the full scope of being surrounded by the dreadful realization of Death’s work. I’ve been to countless funerals, some of my family members and others that I was acquainted with. But those losses only affected me to a certain degree. I imagine Death to be a like an Olympic Diver, who jumps from the highest point possible in order to send a huge wave of water over those who are in the splash zone. Once they’re dripping wet from his splash, they’re goners. Sometimes you’re in the stands watching with anxiety. Other times, you’re standing right beside those who are covered in pool water but your clothes are dry. It’s only when I’m close enough to the splash zone that I embrace the reality of how cruel and terrifying Death can be.

The day after Christmas 2017, I was awoken to the sound of my Nana wailing like a banshee. The phone call merely consisted of the phrase, “he’s dead! He’s dead!” My mother who had just received the exact same call from Nana had already put on some pants by the time I stumbled out of my room. I threw on my Velcro sandals as we ran out to my car, before driving exactly one minute to our destination. Nana’s latest rental home was only a few blocks from our house, yet always seemed so far away. I parked the car as my mother sprang out of the passenger seat and sprinted to the front door then twisted the front doorknob. She didn’t need to twist anything, because the door was already open. She walked inside as I heard shouting.

“He’s dead, Cheryl. Oh my God, what am I going to do…?” Nana said.

When I reached the open doorway, I hesitantly walked inside to find the two little girls, Kayla and Amanda standing beside their foster father’s hospital bed. At 6’5, Uncle Jimmy was incredibly tall, Irish American, and built like a semi-truck. But on this flimsy metal bed, he appeared small and delicate. His eyes were closed, thankfully, but his skin looked like stone.

The girls stood before him and stared unnervingly, totally motionless. There was something so eerie about seeing these two usually energy-filled kids standstill. I think they knew at this moment that he was dead. Kids are so much smarter than we tend to give them credit for. I’m sure they had been bracing for this day for some time, as it was no secret that their daddy had some serious issues. In an attempt to avert their already ruined innocence, Nana screamed for the girls to come back to their rooms and change.

“Okay, mom, now breathe. Can you send them over to the neighbor’s house for a bit?” my mom asked, calmly.

Nana, in a complete state of panic, nodded and yelled for the girls once more. They came out, looking somber and clearly onto the “everything’s fine” act we were creating. Kids also aren’t ignorant to the feelings of a moment within a room of adults.  He finally did it, I thought to myself, he finally killed himself. And with that scene of chaos, shock, and disappointment, Uncle Jimmy became another corpse forever burned into my memories.

Uncle Tony was my dad’s older brother and he was the most popular family member of the Bruno family. He was just a cool guy, with his suave demeanor, ripped muscles, and a classically thick Italian-stallion mustache. When he kissed me goodbye after many holiday parties down in Hollywood, Florida, his mustache would gently brush against my upper lip. This sensation made me giggle and creeped me out simultaneously. To this day, I can still feel that sensation every now and then. I was a shy kid growing up, and I still am to some degree, so I didn’t interact much with him before his early death. You don’t tend to worry about making closer connections with your family members when you’re young because the reality of how quickly Death snatches people up is unthinkable. Because we moved to Port Saint Lucie, Florida when I was six, I didn’t see much of my dad’s family except for major holidays.

However, as if it were some kind of cruel twist dealt by fate, Uncle Tony and his wife, Paulette, moved to Port Saint Lucie in the final year of his life. In that year, he was able to retire at the age of fifty-five from the fire department. When he was asked by my dad why they chose our city, Tony said that the housing was super cheap and it was hard to pass up being about twenty minutes from the beach. But, I think he wanted to rekindle his relationship with my dad. Even Tony’s daughter, Carla, and her husband Gene moved there too. Even though he lived maybe fifteen minutes from our house, my dad never wanted to see his brother. I asked him once why and he said, “I don’t know why he moved here anyway.” There always seemed to be an underlying tension between the two brothers. I think, without any major evidence, that my dad felt inadequate as compared to his brother. Tony was a popular firefighter down in Hallandale, my dad worked as a plasterer in west palm beach. Tony made a lot of money, had expensive cars, and went on all kinds of exotic vacations. My dad struggled to work sometimes due to a construction drought, drove the same beat-up truck for years, and maybe went to Disney once a year for a single day before driving back late at night in order to save money on a hotel stay. Tony was just an all-around popular and cool guy to be around. He had the kind of personality that people are drawn to like moths to a patio light.

It was March 3rd, 2007, at about one in the morning. I was awake, sitting in my living room watching late-night television with my bicycle parked in front of the sliding patio door. I was getting ready to take a “late-night drive” around my block.  I was a senior in high school and everything about my life felt wrong. My GPA was below 2.0, which meant no scholarships. I had applied to my dream school, Flagler College, and was rejected. Even though I had my driver’s license, we were too poor to buy me a car and the movie theatre I worked weekends at barely gave me hours. The only time I ever felt free was at night when I could essentially sneak out of the house while my parents and brother slept the night away. I had unplugged the landline of our wall phone in order to plug in the computer internet line so I could use dial-up. I was trying to illegally download some music to put on my iPod for the ride when I heard a light knocking on my front door. I was terrified. My heart began to pump loudly in my ears as I slowly walked toward the front door windows to take a peak. Standing there, with his head down, was Gene, Carla’s husband. He had tears streaming down his face.

“Is that Gene?” I said.

“Hey Beth, I need to talk to your dad. Can you go get him?” he said.

I opened the front door and asked if everything was alright. Gene said nothing. I speed walked to my parent’s room and woke up my mom, who also was confused. She came to the door and Gene told her bluntly, “Tony died. You have to tell Frankie.” The next moment really sticks out in my mind simply because the only thing myself or my mom could think was that this would most likely kill my father.

“He could have a heart attack,” she said to Gene, “let me sit him down and tell him.”

My dad was woken up, and ordered to sit on our couch, but I think he already knew someone died just by all of our somber faces.

“Tony died during surgery tonight,” my mom said.

My dad, in a whirlwind of confusion and emotion, said “no, no, no” as he put his hands on his face and cried. If there’s one thing that makes me totally emotionally vulnerable, it’s watching men cry. Maybe it’s because it feels wrong in some way like men are supposed to be strong all the time. But watching my dad cry felt like a flood of despair flowing through me. I rode with Gene down to the hospital, and my parents drove in my mom’s car.

On the way down, the streets were empty and illuminated by all the street lights. I remember numerous Red Bull cans everywhere, clunking around the floor of Gene’s truck. He had told me that he recently gained thirty pounds thanks to his addiction to the energy drink. Naturally, I made a mental note to never drink that stuff ever or I’d also end up with a car full of cans and a weight problem. When we finally pulled into the parking lot of the hospital, we hurried up to the elevators and up to one of the high floors. I was totally naive as to what we were doing. If I had known what was awaiting me, I probably would have stayed downstairs in the lobby. We walked down a long, darkened hallway, towards the sounds of sobs coming from one of the rooms on the left side. It was his room, Tony’s room, and the sobs were coming from Aunt Paulette, who was embracing his dead body as if her life depended on it. In the corner of the room was her son, Michael, who was filled with anger and red-faced from crying. The room was an odd blend of sadness, rage, and confusion. Tony was still dressed in his green checkered surgery gown, but his skin was no longer that deep brown tan color. It was pale as if the very energy used to create his sun-kissed skin had drained along with his life force.

We learned, after many hours of sitting in that room with Tony centered around us, that he was having prostate surgery when he suddenly had a massive heart attack on the operating table. After he had died, everyone tried calling our house phone but because I had unplugged it, no one could get through, so finally sent Gene to tell us the bad news. A little while later, three young male doctors came into the room, the same group who had been working on Tony, to give their condolences. Michael suddenly stood up from his chair, pointed his finger at each of them, and screamed, “we’re going to sue the shit out of all of you!” The smallest of the doctors walked out into the hall and began crying. My mom, since she was a Nurse and knew all about the realities of losing a patient during surgery, walked out to comfort the doctors and to thank them for their efforts in trying to save Tony. Word of Tony’s death spread like wildfire amongst our family and within south Florida. At his funeral, where his body laid in an open casket, hundreds of people stopped by to pay their respects. When it came time for the burial, we all piled into a limousine behind the hearse. As we pulled onto the I95 interstate, there were cops and firetrucks at every entrance and exit onto the roadway. The entire road was blocked off for his final ride to the cemetery. I can’t begin to explain how eerie it was to see this major six-lane highway cleared of everything but a single funeral procession.

The weirdest part about this experience was the way everyone’s grief was collectively shared. Everyone was sad and upset that Tony was dead. People openly cried, hugged each other, and some even collapsed from emotional distress. Paulette at one point during the wake collapsed below Tony’s casket and had to be carried off to a private room to recover. I had never seen anything like this display of emotional distress before. By this point, I had lost grandparents and other various relatives so I wasn’t new to the funeral game. What I realize now is that because everyone was able to grieve collectively as a large supportive unit, the pain of the loss didn’t feel lonely. Sometimes, especially when we lose someone that we were particularly close with but perhaps everyone else wasn’t, we can feel like we have to carry the weight of this loss. We feel a duty to grieve greatly in order to show the world that our loss was meaningful. That this person’s life may not have mattered to many, but it should have. It would take almost ten years later for me to experience the one death that would break me down and force me to build myself back into some semblance of myself once more. That would be the death of my father, whose death was by the far the most impactful and most life-altering.

The most significant part of my dad’s death was that I had exactly six months to prepare for it. In those six months, I struggled with acceptance, but also with the slow agonizing pain of watching this person that I loved crumble into the shell of a man.  They say that people die from certain things like cancer, a car accident, or even an eating disorder. But, the thing no one really talks about is the fact that death is way more complicated to label. No one necessarily dies from cancer, they die from complications of cancer like with my father, who technically died because the melanoma literally ate away at his brain and brain stem causing a complete snap collapse of all motor functions. When it happened, I watched like a mindless spectator as his eyes opened as wide as humanly possible, as if to capture all of the light from within that Hospice room before complete darkness. It happened in an instant, yet he gasped for air at least ten times before his jugular came to a halt. I held his hand as he gasped for air the last time. In the year that followed I tried to push down that moment from my mind’s “recently viewed” category and into a shame file cabinet which was only to be opened in an absolute PTSD emergency.

I swore to myself that I would never again bear witness to such an event as watching the life force drain from someone’s body. I wanted to move onward to that phase in my life where everything was at least bearably acceptable. Like when people ask you how you are and you respond with a tiny whimper of a “good.” That kind of basic survival within life’s battles would have sufficed. Death became too real for me, and it became a way of life too. Because of what I had witnessed, I could not simply move on. I felt a great responsibility to him and to the world to find out the meaning of his death and to share this revelation with others who will one day watch Death at work as he strikes down their loved ones too. So, I decided to start researching the lives and deaths of famous people. Mainly, those famous deaths that left people in a state of shock and sadness. The ones where people say “he died before his time” or “if only she had lived longer.” Stars like Karen Carpenter, Prince, River Phoenix, James Dean, and Chris Farley. I watched documentaries, read books about their lives, and scoured the internet in search of bringing meaning to their life and death. Karen Carpenter had the most beautiful voice, but the lowest self-esteem, which caused her a deadly eating disorder. The meaning of her life is to never let one personal flaw dictate it, especially when you have so much to treasure. For River, his drug overdose most likely stemmed from childhood abuse that he refused to talk about. His death could have been avoided if he had dealt with those and sought solace in safe outlets.

But, through all of my research and all of my opinions about the meaning of everyone’s death, I couldn’t figure out my dad’s. His death felt meaningless to me. My father didn’t lead some amazing life or even accomplish anything other than raising a family and working until retirement. Because he had a grumpy personality, he wasn’t exactly viewed as lovable to anyone other than his wife, son, and me. At his funeral, no one openly cried or threw themselves into a frenzy of emotional distress. Everyone was silent. No one even stood up to talk about my dad when the preacher asked the attendees to share personal memories of my father. I felt then and I still feel now that everyone wanted to simply move on. No one wanted to find meaning in this loss. I felt so utterly alone for the first time in my life. I was alone with only my grief and pile of dead celebrity stories to give me some traction on the bottom floor. It was while I was crawling along, inching my way back towards a standing position that I understood the meaning of my dad’s death. But learning this realization came with a price.

The death of a loved one always involves the forgiveness of what could have been, and for what should have been. When someone dies, we tend to play the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” game where we dissect every possible way we could have saved this person’s life. I’ve seen it done countless times, as well as playing this game myself. After someone dies that you’re close to, or even feel empathy for, you play the “what if” game with that person’s death. For instance, Uncle Tony. If he had only taken better care of his health and ate a better diet, his prostate would have never needed surgery and he’d still be alive. Or, if my dad had worn sunscreen and watched for melanoma signs within his skin, cancer would have never spread and he’d be alive. In the case of my last body, Uncle Jimmy, I remember playing the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” within minutes of dialing 911 and sitting on the front lawn of the house. There were at least twenty different blow-up Christmas decorations scattered around me. Slowly, within the hour, various family members came to the house. One cousin, Cindy, came at the same time the white morgue van arrived. As the attendant pulled out his gurney and large black zip-up bag to stuff Jimmy’s body inside, Cindy and sat side by side as she smoked her cigarette.

“It’s a damn shame,” she said as she took in a deep drag, “it didn’t have to be like this. He could have found someone, had kids, and just lived his life, you know?”

I nodded my head because I did know exactly what she meant. Jimmy didn’t have to die from a drug overdose the day after Christmas. He didn’t have to die with the knowledge that his addiction had caused many painful years of broken relationships between his other siblings. Through all the rehabs and all of the relapses, we all just assumed that this would go on forever.

“I never gave up hope,” she said.

At this moment, I could only think of my own father’s death one year prior, and how I had given up hope very early on. When my dad was first told of his terminal cancer, the doctor pulled me and my mom to the side and said “he has maybe one year if he’s lucky.” As soon as those words penetrated my ears, I let go of all hope I was holding onto. By month four, I decided that I wanted my dad to die. I was tired of waiting for the inevitable to happen. I felt like I was being tortured every single day. I had to wake up and see my father lying on a crappy hospital bed in our living room surrounded by piss jugs. Sometimes at night, when I couldn’t sleep, I’d slowly approach the living room and listen for his jagged breaths just to make sure he was alive and that I wouldn’t wake up to another corpse.

Every day was like taking part in a horror movie and hearing the dreaded anticipatory music of the incoming killer as he makes his way toward you. You can’t see him, but you know he’s there watching and waiting. Death was stalking my dad and he was coming, so why not just get it over with? What was Death waiting for? I’m not proud of this thought, if anything I’m ashamed now four years later that I didn’t hold onto a single string of hope. I needed to forgive myself for my feelings, good and bad, toward his death. I had to forgive him for dying before I had a chance to really get to know him as an adult. Most of all, I needed to forgive myself, him, and Death for ever thinking that I had any control in the matter. Death, much like life, is unpredictable. It’s pure chaos, both internally and externally. Having grown up without much religious belief in the afterworld, it was very difficult to accept that someone is just gone forever. We try to make sense of the chaos, but sometimes there’s nothing to make sense of. Death happens and there doesn’t necessarily need to be a reason for it.

A little over a year later, Michael, who was Uncle Tony’s stepson, killed himself with a gun late one night while drunk. “He always had darkness within him” and “he was never the same after Tony died” were phrases I heard often throughout his funeral. I didn’t disagree with either of those statements, but I felt like people were just trying to solve the puzzle of Michael’s death. As I peered around the funeral parlor, I could see all of the minds of every single person in that room. The wheels were spinning inside their heads, attempting to make sense of the tragedy that had occurred. “Why did he do it?” or “How could he do that?” and “What was he thinking right before?” are some questions that will never be answered. If we try to rack our brains in order to find an answer, we’ll just find more grief and more disorder. If there’s one single lesson I’ve learned from my father’s death, it’s that acceptance is an empty room. It’s hard to fully process and accept the unacceptable within life. For me, it was totally unacceptable that my dad died at the age of sixty-three. It was intolerable that a strong man could be depleted down to skin and bones within months. I felt wronged by the world and wanted answers. Answers that I could never find because there is no answer. We can try and make sense of some things, like a tiny “aha!” within our crumbled wreckage left behind by Death. For instance, if my dad had never died, I would have never sought out therapy and improved my entire outlook on living. I would have never taken the step to branch out from my home state of Florida and relocate to the unknown land of northern Alabama. And I would have never met my husband, who much like me moved to Alabama in search of a new beginning. Those are my answers, my meanings in the death of my dad.

One quote that has stuck with me since my days of researching the deaths of celebrities comes from a friend of River Phoenix. When he was asked about River, he stated something to the effect of River always acting very simply, and how he dressed however he wanted. That from his appearance, you’d think that River was homeless. And how maybe he’s home now, wherever he is. When I think about all of the people who are gone now, I tend to stick to the belief that maybe they’re home now, too. I don’t know what that is, but regardless I don’t need to know the answer. I can finally take comfort in not knowing.

Bethany Bruno is a born and raised Florida writer. She graduated from Flagler College and later earned her M.A in English from the University of North Florida. Her work has been previously published in The MacGuffin, Lunch Ticket Magazine, Litro Magazine, Dash Literary Journal, Still Point Arts Quarterly, etc. She’s working on her first novel and seeking representation.

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