Departures and arrivals

I just had to make it to the night of the memorial service. That’s when Chris would arrive. A person just for me. My friends belonged to my whole family, even Lynn, my first girlfriend, who I called right after I phoned the paramedics. I’d opened my parent’s front door to the porch, slick, coated with a night’s worth of rain, then sleet then snow. Though my father’s body had begun to stiffen when I found him, I heard my mother upstairs, still calling his name. In the doorway, I listened for sirens. I’m not sure what I said when Lynn picked up, but “I’ll be right there” was her response.

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Lynn and I have been friends for longer now than we ever dated, our romantic relationship an obscure footnote to 15 years of friendship. Her current girlfriend met my father on their second date, as one does. I was giving a reading to promote my novel and Jen ran into my dad in front of the bookstore. Both from small Wisconsin towns, they bonded over a shared cigarette. Lynn and my father both taught at the local university. She’d see him between classes, talking with a grad student, another teacher, a friend. He’d stop what he was doing to hug her, always exuberantly. He was hers too.

A shameful thought after I found my father: I should never have broken up with my ex-girlfriend. I wasn’t strong enough on my own. No matter that a key reason for our breakup was my ex’s lack of empathy, her consistent inability to cope in a crisis. Right then, I wanted, not her, but what she represented: an established connection, habitual interactions spanning six years. She was the second person I contacted. Her reply came five hours later, a cold condolence meant for my family, nothing just for me.

Before the paramedics left, my mother sent Lynn to the basement to glue a measuring cup. Gluing had been my father’s job. We were all in shock’s throes then, me complimenting Lynn’s black jeans, my sister unwilling to take off her winter coat. Throughout the blurred week, Lynn and Jen picked up food, made phone calls and helped facilitate a memorial service which grew more elaborate as days carried us away from my father’s death.

My father was a minor celebrity. A musician, poet, Harley Davidson archivist, elite motorcycle gang member, English professor and founder of UW-Milwaukee’s Rock and Roll certificate program. As word spread, his official Facebook page filled with memories, condolences, photos of him hanging with Bruce Springsteen and Little Steven, with his friend Victor Delorenzo of The Violent Femmes. Over 500 people attended his service. I spoke to reporters, wrangled speakers and used the phrase “point person.” We moved his memorial from funeral home to classroom to a hall large enough to accommodate over seven hundred. We mourned in front of an audience, for a man who belonged as much to the public as to his family.

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Chris is new. Not the third person I texted, not even the fifth. It was after Lynn scaled my parent’s treacherous steps, after one of the paramedics told me my father had died peacefully and I said, “That’s what you have to say;” after the house had filled and countless cups of tea had been brewed that I reached out. When Chris called, I stepped away from the living room where my mother sat with the chaplain they’d insisted on sending. His purpose was vague; perhaps my mother would ask him to glue something too. Chris couldn’t make it to Milwaukee until the service, but over the near week after the moment in which I stood shoeless in my parents’ backyard, pressing the phone to my ear, Chris comforted me from a city away. And over that week, I pinned my thoughts on Chris’s arrival.

Gender, sexuality, neither interfered with my dad’s ability to connect. Beneath his tattoos and cowboy hat was a guy whose earnest heart attracted misfits of all stripes. My family joked that lesbians loved my dad and gay men hit on him. One of his former students and close friends, a trans musician told me my father “had a way of forcing me to look inward towards that Self which is pure and untouched by societal dogma; the Self which knows no gender and does not recognize sex. He helped me realize that the constraints which are continually being thrown upon me from the outside are merely an illusion. He told me that I am the bravest person he knew. An honor of which I am not worthy but which I will proudly hold for the rest of my life.”

When I came out to my father, he accepted it instantly. This was in 1998, I think, though I’d have to ask Lynn. She snags the details which swim past me, captures and recalls life events I’m too internally focused to track. Early on, Chris asked when I’d graduated from high school. “Let me text Lynn,” I said.

On the night of his memorial service, my sister and my mother and I rode home in separate cars. The house was lit up when I entered, beginning to fill with longtime friends. I’d made it through delivering his eulogy, through the service which stretched more than two hours. Now in my parent’s—my mother’s—kitchen, I accepted the tea someone offered, but let it cool as I waited. I thought how my dad died young, relatively. He wasn’t sick, though certainly we felt his exhaustion. What he gave to the outside world also took from him. Still, his death was unexpected; looking into the future now meant confronting years of space his life ought to have filled. I knew in that pocket of time that Chris’s arrival, my anticipation, was less about Chris than it was about an external marker, something to target in time’s yawning span.

Later that night when Lynn hugged me goodbye, I held onto her and remembered years ago, when we realized we weren’t meant for forever, I’d felt nonetheless certain of her primacy, how necessary she was to my family, my life. Though chosen not blood-born, she contained moments past and present, grains of my father. Even Chris, willing to step into the grieving household of a woman still vague around the edges, now retained images of my father formed in absence; books of poetry under low lights, forgotten mugs of tea, a measuring cup hastily repaired. My relationship with Chris still lacked the depth and breadth only time manufactures, but as Lynn held me, I heard Chris say, “Thank you for being there before I arrived.”

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