I never believed in hope until I went to the wake for my girlfriend’s dad.
It was a harsh week — the kind that already starts out like a garbage can that hasn’t been emptied in two weeks and ends with maggots feeding through the plastic bags. Death can do that, I guess. Stick to the molded, eroding trash bin of shitty days and eat up everything you have left, including the garbage. Fevers become funeral homes. Suicides become bible scriptures. Cardiac arrests become coffins.
Traveling to Joplin was never really about me, and I made sure both my parents knew it when I called them to let them know that my plan was that I didn’t really have much of a plan. I knew I couldn’t be hers when I got there. I had to switch it up and become the friend she had just met through mutual relations at college. The friend that was polite and respectful and blissfully unaware of all the serrated indents from chicken pox scars that lined the inner curvature of her boobs.
I hadn’t seen Katy in two weeks. I didn’t get to take her out to the pinnacles for a picnic on Valentine’s Day, and after sitting on the phone with her every night getting emotionally robotic accounts on the status of her father, I just wanted to hold her. I wanted to brush back the bangs that sweep into the left side of her face, even though I knew they’d just fall back into their comfortable spot as a blonde eye patch. I wanted to catch tear drops my sweatshirt sleeve and keep her close as she fell asleep while I watched the tear stains dry up.
But I couldn’t do that. Because I’m a girl and she’s a girl and who in their right fucking mind would ever permit that kind of love?
I spent my 4 hour drive in senseless conversation with her roommate. And I was thankful for it because all that talk about weed and playing bloody knuckles in middle school kept my head away from all the anger I felt. I was hopeless. I was useless. I couldn’t even love my girlfriend the right way.
“Did you smoke? Don’t lie to me.” I read that text sitting in the parking lot of a Kum ‘n Go. I was too lost for a bong rip and for a split second I forgot that Katy needed some slack. I had no clue how to get to her house, and when I finally saw her slip out of her small blue Honda, I just needed to hold her for a second. It couldn’t happen. Her friend was there and didn’t know about us. I stayed sober the entire car ride despite all the offers, knowing that I had to stay sharp and be ready to take care of whatever was going to happen, but that was my first taste of the incredibly sobering weekend I was about to experience. It was a quick “Hey, haven’t see you in a while hug,” and we were off to the morgue.
That’s how most of the weekend was. It was torture. But I had to keep in mind that what was difficult and frustrating for me was like comparing a flu shot to an open oozing sore infected with gangrene. I may have lost my girlfriend for a day, but Katy lost her dad.
I’ve never felt empathy the way I felt it for the girl I’m in love with. Every pained grimace, every forced smile, every blank stare during casual chatter — I saw it. Katy was in a haze, a black mist of something I would never be able to understand, and I couldn’t even offer her my hand to guide her through the smoke. This was the first time I couldn’t kiss something away and make things right. No amount of my homemade risotto would ever be able to replace her dad’s grilled burgers.
She was numb and she wasn’t ready for the visitation that morning. She didn’t need the “I’m sorry’s” and “It’ll get better’s” from the 300 visitors that showed up to pay their respects. I’m sorry doesn’t breathe life back into idle lungs and how the fuck do they know it’ll get better? She didn’t know most of them, and I think it made her a little uneasy thinking that somehow all these people felt the need to all the sudden get to know her. She and her mom were the surrogate Waynes, burdened with the responsibility of telling everyone else that it was okay.
The morning of dragging her feet along the floor tiles and burying her face in her oversized owl mug ended with her surrendering to the inevitability of what the day was going to bring her. In normal princess fashion, she emerged like a mermaid out of her mother’s room wearing a long, green patterned dress; the back was weaved in and out of all the freckles she has on her back, the freckles that I secretly trace every night when she falls asleep towards the fan. It was comforting to see those freckles again, something I had become so used to brushing with my fingertips, something that had suddenly made this strange house in this strange state feel like home. I was uncomfortable and rashy and nervous all day, but that dress brought me back to my real home — her.
It was cutting really close to two o’clock and the Johnson family had to start making their way towards Parkers Mortuary. Katy’s roommate and I gave her a little time to be at the wake and assume the position of grieving daughter. When we got there we were standing in a winding line outside the door into the street.
I didn’t see hope until I caught a simple glance from Katy at the wake. I had been in line for about half an hour. It was a little weird, because the only other time I ever had to wait a half hour to see my girlfriend was when she called to ask for more time to apply mascara and bobby pin her hair. I knew she was already done up, I saw the green dress to prove it. It was when I was right next to her dad’s coffin — the powdered face wrinkled and lifeless and 100% decked out in Mizzou black and gold — that I caught her eyes. Her face was framed by the shoulder of a grieving Whatshisface. Her eyes were a little swollen, puffed up and shining gold through the lightning streak of red that bled into her pupils, but they managed to get a wink out.
A small smile and a wink. That was all it took. I knew.
Death is weird and it eventually gets to bury everyone. We just have to be careful to not let it bury us before we stop breathing. I was worried all weekend that I had lost a girlfriend, but with a wink I had my girl back. Katy won’t ever get her dad back and she won’t ever get normal back, but I have hope that one day she’ll be okay too. She’ll go out to the lake with two fishing rods and pull out a couple Keystones knowing that Wayne is there guzzling the 30-rack with her. She’ll be on stage, jittery and graceful and so fucking beautiful knowing that daddy is still watching his tiny dancer. She’ll be sad. But life will be okay.
All it takes is some time and a wink.