I can see the brightness through the thin skin of my eyelids. It stings as I try to lift them. I must’ve fallen asleep reading, although I’m not where I remember I was.
Wait, where am I?
It’s white above and a medley of grey below. All around me I see cars, coming in and pulling out. I’m in a parking lot – a busy one at that. People young and old, are rushing about trying to fill every last second of their eventful lives. The sun reflects off of the great snow banks producing an even whiter light that ordinarily would burn my eyes, but this time it doesn’t. In fact, I can look straight at the sun without it hurting one bit.
Why is that?
It’s as if I am looking at everything through a thin black veil. Sure I can still see, but my vision is now clouded, blurred by a dark curtain of confusion. Frightened, I swivel around, turning in circles looking for an answer, an explanation, anything, until I find it. There, third spot from the left. I approach the charcoal car with caution - something I’ve never done before considering it’s my vehicle. A figure sits inside. I inch my way nearer. It’s a man, hunched over. My body fills with rage as I storm toward the stranger, screaming at him to get out as I go. But the closer I get the quieter my voice becomes, until I am no longer yelling, no longer speaking. All of my attention is drawn to the mystery man. He seems so familiar, the way his forehead’s creased with concentration, how his nose is buried within his book. Subconsciously I take another step towards him, and another, and another until I’m stopped dead in my tracks as I begin to recognize the man in my car.
Is that me?
This is impossible, it can’t be. How can I be there, if I’m out here? My face is pressed up against the window with my hands cupped around my eyes as I try to get a better view. Oh god, it is me. There’s something wrong, this defies logic - and yet here I sit hunched over with my nose in my book, motionless. Confusion consumes me, and just when I’m about to lose it, I’m interrupted by a nearby conversation.
“This one over here, Al?” says the first voice.
“Yup, that’s the one. Grey Toyota,” replies the other to his partner.
I turn to see the two police officers making their way towards me. A wave of relief washes over me, finally someone who can explain what the hell is happening.
Excuse me officer, but could you please tell me what’s going on?
“Aw shit man, what a shame,” says the first, completely ignoring me.
Hey, I’m talking to you, I say. He’s still ignoring me, and I’m about to get in his face when he walks right through me to peer through the car window.
“Poor son of a bitch didn’t even see it coming,” the second concludes.
See what coming? What’s going on?
“Cause of death?” the first officer asks pulling out a light pink official-looking note pad and a stubby wooden pencil.
“Can’t quite tell, oh well, let’s just bring him on down to the hospital,” says the second, wiping his sunglasses on the chest of his uniform.
Where are you guys going? You can’t just leave me here. Hey!
Just like that they’re gone, back to their cruiser, and I’m left standing alone in the middle of the parking lot. I stay there for some time, sitting cross-legged on a carpet of cement as if I were a child in elementary school. I certainly feel like one - alone and confused. I watch as the sun passes over head, slowly climbing until it finally reaches its apex. I never thought death would be like this. It’s not physically painful, but it’s just as bad, maybe worse. The emotional agony is unbearable. I can hear the silent cracks as my heart begins to shatter into pieces so tiny there is no hope in putting them back together. I can feel everything I once had, every last hope and dream, slipping from my grasp like the ribbon of a balloon slipping through your fingers as you watch, it floats up towards the heavens. All the things I’ll never get to do with my family, my kids. Like being a grandfather, or walking my daughter, down the aisle. I just sit there in silence as my body shakes with tearless sobs. At least two hours pass before I’m able to muster up enough mental strength to get up, and even then I function at a snail’s pace. It feels like an eternity, but finally I’m standing straight.
What am I supposed to do now?
With no destination in mind, I walk wherever my feet take me and start down the nearest street, kicking loose snow as I go. When I get to the crosswalk I stop with the rest of the crowd, though I don’t have to – being dead and all. I wait patiently for the light to change and for the small pixelated man to appear. I’m in no rush.
It’s the middle of January, and people push hastily through the small mob to get to the other side of the street. The winter wind whistles through the air, scattering millions of snowflakes into a speckled commotion of fury. Ahead, a lady’s hat is lifted from her blonde head, and flies back into my face, or rather through my face. Nothing. No physical feeling at all, however the mental sensation is still there. I’m still peeved that I had to swallow that poorly knitted thing, but you know what they say – live and let go. The irony.
I don’t know where I’m going until I get there. Home. Pulled in the driveway I see the same cruiser parked in my spot. The two officers stand at the door, waiting for the poor soul that has to open it. It’s Michael, my eldest son.
“What’s going on officers?” he asks.
“Son, we’ve got some bad news. Are you the only one home?” asks the first officer.
“Yeah, what’s wrong?” he asks suspiciously.
“Earlier this morning we found your father, dead in his car. We don’t know the cause as of yet, but I can tell you he went gently,” continues the cop.
That’s all it takes. I watch as Michael’s face contorts with pain, tears well up in his clear blue eyes, until one slips and the rest follow. He just stands there, looking directly at me but seeing nothing but the gleaming snow.
“We’re so very sorry for your loss,” says the other officer, resting his hand lightly on Scott’s shoulder.
“Does my mom know yet?”
“No,” answers the first officer. “We’ll have you come down to her work with us to tell her, if that’s okay?”
Michael doesn’t reply, doesn’t even move. Slowly, he sinks down until he’s sitting on the porch. He’s in his pajamas, but I guess he doesn’t care. My feet act first, and before I know it I’m sitting beside him. I look at him, at his face, his eyes. I remember when he was first born; I remember watching his chubby cheeks through the glass that kept me from him. Born with an underdeveloped lung, and now look, he’s all grown up. You’re strong Michael, I say pushing his bangs out of his eyes. Slowly I stand, kiss him on the top of the head and watch as he rises and shuffles towards the car, soaking up every last moment I can
The three of them pile into the cruiser, and I stand at the foot of the lawn watching them pull out of the driveway until the car disappears down the dreary street. The sky grows darker, and the white clouds are soon stained with the grimness of reality. I wish the sun would come out. So that I could at least see it one last time. My journey continues as I walk in the opposite direction of where the cruiser vanished. I haven’t given much thought to a location, but I’m sure something will come to me. I’m walking along the avenue, staring at the slush-covered sidewalk. It’s interesting, how something so white and pure like snow can be tainted and turned so easily by the grime of our lives.
When I look up this time I’m somewhere new. It’s busier here, more people pushing, more cars to not hit me. I’m here. As I walk into the bank I can see them now. Both officers, Scott, Michael, and Sarah, my wife. I’ve been walking for hours, yet I’m still here in time – one of the perks I guess, time goes at whatever pace you want it to. Oh no. They’re telling her. Ooooh. I knew she wouldn’t take it well, fainted in less than thirty seconds. My dear wife, I feel so bad for leaving her alone in all this. We were supposed to spend forever with each other, and now? I’m really going to miss her. She was my best friend. I wish I could cry. I wish there was a way for me to release all of these emotions and pent up energy. God, I can’t take this anymore! I storm out, looking for the nearest park and run when I see it. I find the biggest tree I can and sit under it, just like when I was a teenager. It’s a willow, old and sturdy. The leafless branches dangle freely, dancing in the never shifting breeze. For the first time today, I feel calm and at peace. Like I’m finally where I’m supposed to be. I lean back until I’m resting against the trunk of the great tree. I close my eyes and slowly start to drift.
I’ve been here before.
“Daddy!” I turn to face the small voice that’s calling me, and I see her. My baby. She’s just a tiny thing, a short little six year-old licking the ice-cream as it drips down her cone. It’s August, and we’re sitting on a bench. We just came back from a movie. Friday night, and the streets are full of people, but all I see is her. Sitting there, her feet dangle at least a foot from the ground. I can’t help but smile, watching her. She turns and her big brown eyes look up at me, a wide grin spreads across her precious face. I miss this so much.
“Why are you crying daddy?” she asks with a worried expression.
“I’m just happy baby. Sometimes when you’re really happy, you cry.”
I’m still watching when it all begins to fade, and I don’t blink until it disappears for good.
I awaken sniffling, but when I go to wipe my tears my cheek is dry. I’m no longer under the protection of the willow, though I’m not sure of my current whereabouts. There are chairs – lots of them, and hand sanitizer? I begin to ponder, perhaps a hospital? But the thought vanishes when I see her. She’s sitting in the chair across from me, with her knees pulled in tight. She’s sixteen and beautiful as ever, but when I look at her I still see the six year old with ice-cream all over her face. I get up and sit beside her,e but she doesn’t notice. She weeps as silently as she can, trying not to draw attention to herself. My poor baby. It kills me, seeing her in pain, and knowing there’s nothing I can do to fix it. Slowly, she lifts her head and turns in my direction. Her eyes are red and swollen, black streaks remain on her cheeks where her mascara ran. She’s looking right at me. I try to think of something to say, some words of wisdom to give her as a parting present, but I come up blank. All I can do is stare back. Stare into her round brown eyes and know that she’s looking back at me. I try to hold her gaze for as long as possible, but she looks away too soon – much too soon. It feels as if my heart has been wrenched from my chest, leaving a hole that’s infinitely deep. She gets up now, wiping her face with a tissue. I want to follow, but I can’t. My limbs press downwards, weighted by my loss. I love you Lilah, I say while I watch as she turns the corner, and then she’s gone.
It’s almost time. Time to leave, to move on and pass over, almost – but not yet. There’s one more person I need to see, one more goodbye I have to give. I hear the hospital doors open and as soon as he steps through I can sense his presence. Wow, when did he get so tall? Jacob shuffles his feet slowly across the carpet, as if the longer he took the less time I’d be dead, but he already knows. I can tell. His eyes watch the ground as if it were going to run from him. His broad shoulders are bent forward, making him look like an unusually tall hunchback. He makes his way down the hall, and this time I’m able to follow.
I’m led to a white room, with curtains enclosing a slight rectangle. He pulls it back, and I see myself for the first time since this morning. My face is pale, all the colour, all the life drained out of it. My once full cheeks now sag along the sides of my face. I don’t know what’s worse to look at, my face or theirs. All five of them crowded around my gurney, looking at my body but searching for me.
Jacobs turns away from my body and towards me. I can see the pain spreading, until it consumes him. The tears start flowing and they don’t stop. He just stands there crying to the floor, I go to hug him to hold him in my arms one last time, but everyone else beats me too it. I wait patiently for them to finish, and as soon as they’re done, my arms are wrapped around his large body, and I’m squeezing as hard and I possibly can. It’s at least three minutes later when I let go, against my will. If I could, I would stay here forever with them. I try, but a greater force now pulls me towards the exit. I’m standing just before the door when I turn to them one last time.
I’ll always be with you, I say and step though the threshold, and without another glance I walk away.
The hardest part of death is not dying – no, that step’s rather simple. The hardest part is saying goodbye for last time.