May 21 is a rather significant date on the calendar for me. It represents two things.
#1: It was the last day I saw my dad alive
It was the day I received a phone call at 2:00 in the morning and knew exactly what it meant. I remember hearing the phone ring and it sending a nauseous feeling directly to my gut before I even picked up the receiver. I rose from bed and banged my upper right leg against the corner of the footboard. It would leave a bruise that would stay roughly three weeks, turning purple to green to yellow, and then back to normal, my body healed, the white blood cells doing what white blood cells do in healthy human beings.
I remember my sister’s voice on the other line of the phone that night or morning or whatever you call 2 AM, telling me I needed to drive down to Duke hospital right then at that very moment.
I remember walking into the spare bedroom, over to my dresser, and putting on a pair of black Nike sweat pants, basketball shoes, and a hoodie, and then opening up the closet.
I remember looking at a pair of dark khaki pants and a white dress shirt and a dark tie that hung down from the rack, and in the bottom of the closet, a pair of dress shoes.
I remember just standing there, knowing what was happening, with my travel bag on the bed, unzipped, empty, and a question inside me asking, “Do I pack for my dad’s funeral?”
I remember just standing there, paused in the moment, not knowing what to do.
Not wanting to let go of that one last straw of hope in the world.
That everything would be okay. That this was a false alarm.
And I remember looking at the dark khaki pants and the white dress shirt and the dark tie and the dress shoes, and I remember closing the closet door on them all.
And so I took my empty travel bag and I tossed inside a toothbrush and a book, and my fiancé and I and our dog, whose birthday was that day when the sun would rise, climbed the stairs of our apartment.
And I remember how dark it was once we opened the front door of our apartment.
And I remember how light it was once we arrived into Durham, North Carolina, from Charlottesville, Virginia, over four hours later.
I remember seeing my dad and touching his skin and seeing his eyes rolled back and his rapid heartbeat pulsing through his chest, and then I remember running into the restroom to have diarrhea, and one of my family members telling me he was dying, to come out, and I couldn’t because my stomach was so upset at what was happening, and then coming back out and hearing the machines beep and beep and beep and then a line of high pitched noise, and hearing the doctors and nurses, and seeing them rushing into the room, and watching him die right in front of me, watching the rapid beating of his heart cease.
And then getting in the car and driving back home and my wife telling me that she will drive and me refusing.
And I remember getting just into Clarksville, Virginia, and pulling over on the side of the road, a place I still vividly recognize whenever I drive this way, and I remember stopping and losing it and I can’t stop crying and I’m wet with tears and I’m wet with sweat because it was cold when I left that morning at 2 AM in sweat pants and a hoodie and now it’s warm, spring warm.
And I remember getting home and some of my relatives already being there, sitting on the front porch, and I remember knowing this was all really happening, that this is real, that my dad is dead and my dad is not coming back, and my uncle Butch comes up to the driver’s side door as I open it and he embraces me and I just lean my head into his chest and I cry, and him telling me he’s sorry, that my dad was a great man, and I remember remembering the “was,” and how that was in the past because that’s what my dad’s life now was, not is.
And when I stop crying, I go into the house and grab my basketball and I walk over to the basketball court, and I dunk the shit out of the basketball, and I dunk it hard again and again and again until my wrists ache and the knuckles on my fingers are swollen, and I remember thinking about my dad and the time he tried to play basketball with me at a certain point in my life when I was probably nine or ten, and he just wasn’t any good at all, but he would play with me anyway, and how I wish I had told him how much those few weeks meant to me.
And I remember thinking about that and thinking about Jeremiah because this was the court where we grew up, all of us, and I remember just thinking how I just wanted to be a kid again, I just wanted my dad alive and Jeremiah alive and I wanted Robbie here and Kevin and Brandon and Jay, and it brings tears to my eyes and a lump in my throat as I write this.
And I remember Dean Evans pulling up in his truck and coming down to me at the basketball court and telling me how sorry he was and I start crying and he hugs me and I think about how much that hug means to me at that very moment. I’ve known Dean my whole life but I’ve never known Dean that well, but in that moment I realize he is a good man and that sometimes a hug is all someone needs. They don’t need words or flowers or anything. They just need a hug.
And I don’t remember much of the next few days because I was so numb and I had cried so much that by the time family night came around I didn’t have any more tears left in me. I don’t remember much other than my uncle Jack’s shoes falling apart at my dad’s funeral, which I thought was perfect because my uncle Jack never wore shoes when I was growing up, and I thought how my dad probably would get a kick out of that because Jack probably never wore shoes when he and my dad and Rodney and Gloria were growing up either.
And I remember returning back to Charlottesville, where I live, two hours from my family, and opening up the closet and looking at my dark dress pants and my white dress shirt and dark tie and dress shoes, and I remember them just hanging there, untouched, just like I left them.
#2: It’s also my dog’s birthday
Her seventh birthday to be exact. That my dog’s birthday happens to be the same day my dad died is appropriate, my dad being the dog lover he was. I’ve written about this before. It’s sort of his way of saying, “Hey, I chose this day on purpose, so that you cannot be totally bummed out. It’s your dog’s birthday. Celebrate it.”
My dad’s funeral was on my sister’s dog’s birthday two days later. God is strategic.
So, yes, I could dread this day like no other, but that’s not what I do. In the past, I made it a point not to commemorate death anniversaries. I prefer to celebrate the other days the person lived as opposed to the one day they lived no more. But the last two years, now that I can face my dad’s death a little better, I have taken special note to acknowledge that May 21 represents two things: my dad’s death and my dog’s birth. So, yes, I guess, in my own way I am commemorating a death anniversary, but I am also commemorating a life anniversary — one that’s sitting at my feet snoring as I type this.
Which brings me to this, a video of my dog when she was only a puppy, and me, her dad, playing a little basketball in our old apartment on Pantops.
We took a walk today, too. Down to the pond. Just like my dad would have liked. And it rained and I felt it on my face just as I felt the rain on my face a previous year on this day.
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