By Mike Fehrenbacher
Another one was dead. My father, Gerald. Never a vivacious man in life. In my memories, the world danced and skittered around him while he rocked time away in his favorite chair—a chair that will soon be mine and that I’m sitting in now, sipping bourbon—debilitated not by disease or injury, but by the inertia of unmet desires he held at a safe distance his whole life. He watched satellite TV. In his final years he read political blogs, wearing big ridiculous glasses, never, to my knowledge, contributing commentary, except in banal pointless arguments with me over the phone. I dreamed of animating his body with electricity. I wanted to be his ventriloquist, to hear words I longed for him to say. It would have worked well since we sounded completely alike. But he was a zealot for his own brand of adamancy. It was his proudest accomplishment, as if he’d spent all those years cleverly fossilizing his body, atom by atom, to prevent anyone from imposing a request upon him. He was the first human to achieve rigor mortis while breathing.
His father—my grandfather—died much differently. I was only ten, and his death impressed upon me the grave utility of seat belts. My grandpa used to take me in his old Ford into his fields to let me thrash across drainage ditches and, after harvest season, mow down rows of naked stalks. It was a game we kept secret from my parents. The crash happened in the summer. He was driving me to get ice cream. We both had our arms extended out the windows. He would splay his giant hand against the wind and try to catch rogue bugs. To hell with them, my grandpa said with his peculiar pursed smile the one time I’d asked him why he didn’t wear a seatbelt. He felt that if some damn hippie could ride around free as a sprite on his motorcycle, why did he need a safety belt in his big honking truck? I didn’t see him fly through the windshield when he lost control and hit a telephone pole, but I did see his ice cream—rocky road—splattered across the dash, and his body, bent into a backward child’s pose, lying thirty feet away in the field.
My mother died four years ago without her teeth. I can only imagine the blow her confidence suffered from this indignity. She suffered a heart attack in the morning, while taking tea. “Gerall! My teef!” she shouted, then crawled across the kitchen floor to the stairs, where she pulled herself up four wooden steps, then expired. I don’t know for sure that’s what happened because I wasn’t there, and my father never talked about it. But that was the state she was in when the paramedics found my father cradling her toothless head in his arms, sobbing and broken.
My mother’s father died before I was born, before she was born, in a war.
My grandmothers will never die. My father’s mother lives in the farmhouse where she was born and where she raised my father and his two sisters and untold generations of hogs. Every Sunday I take her to church. During the last conclave, she confided her wish to see a black pope, but was pleased anyway when they chose an Argentine because at least he wasn’t another greasy meatball. My mother’s mother, ninety-nine, lives intestate atop a pile of solid investments in a nursing home outside Chicago. She remembers only that she loves the Cubbies, and remembers that only because my uncle has plastered Cubs banners across every wall and window of her tiny room. He wants her to sign a will and give him everything, except she will never die.
I will die alone in 2061, from acute kidney failure, in a hotel room in New York City while on an important business trip. The death will come unexpectedly. My latest checkups will have shown that I was in tremendously good health for an octogenarian. My business partners will figure it out the next morning, after I fail to show up for our important first meeting of the day. My absence will prompt great concern amongst my partners and client, who will contact my hotel. The rest of the day’s meetings will be abruptly cancelled. Arrangements will be made to ship my body back to Chicago. My son and daughter will fly from their respective home cities to meet my body there. Their mother, my ex-wife, will decide to come and stand at the back. They will mourn over my body. They will not know what to say about me and will convince each other that at least my spirit was active until the bitter end. They will feel grateful to hold onto their own lives. They will bury my body, per my wishes, at a cemetery of their choosing, in a casket made of oak reclaimed from barrels of Kentucky bourbon, my whiskey of choice when sealing deals big and small over a career spanning years and years and years.