“Goodnight, little boy. I love –” I stopped, catching sight of the blank floor space against the wall, next to the closet in my room. He wasn’t there, curled up into a crescent of silver and white atop a towel riddle with holes and tears. Wolfgang was gone.
I was reaching for a lamp on an end table, when I started to tell him goodnight and that I love him – as I’d done for years. I remained in that odd position – propped up on my left elbow, right arm stretched out towards the lamp – for what was probably just a few seconds, but felt like several minutes. I wondered how long I could hold that position without dropping dead.
I finally shut off the lamp and laid back onto my trio of pillows. Beneath a single sheet, clad in nothing but skin and body hair, I felt a stick of anxiety materialized in my throat. I rattled off my usual stanza of prayers to all those who’ve gone before me, pleading for their protection and their strength.
I looked again at the spot on the floor where Wolfgang would camp out every night; that ragged towel – seemingly held together by strings – bunched up beneath him.
I don’t know why, but Wolfgang had a fetish for towels. It may have come from his previous daddy, Tom*, my former friend and roommate, who carried the puppy around in a lunch cooler; an old purple beach towel of mine that he’d stuffed into it. The towel provided some comfort to a tiny critter who would grow into a 20-pound monstrosity filled with eons of canine angst.
In early 2005, I lived and worked temporarily in Northeastern Oklahoma on a government project that was part of the contract my employer, an engineering company, had. The area, bordering Kansas and Missouri, is a mostly toxic wasteland where soil and water had poisoned by decades of lead and zinc mining. I stayed in a nice and recently-built hotel, along with a coworker and our supervisor.
For most of the time I was in Oklahoma, Wolfgang stayed with my parents. But, for the month of May, I rented a car and drove all the way up there because I’d decided to take Wolfgang with me. Some of the hotel staff came to like him. The first time someone with the housekeeping staff heard him barking, she was certain I had a pitbull ensconced in the room. There mere sound of his voice frightened her. But she and a few others were mirthfully surprised to see how small he was.
That little thing can make that much noise?!
Yes, he can!
One night, as I sat at the desk in my hotel room, working on my laptop, I noticed Wolfgang exiting the bathroom with a small white towel in his mouth. Because of his presence, I made a deal with management that no one was to enter the room, unless I was there also or in the event of an emergency. Wolfgang’s bite matched his bark. Consequently, I let bath towels pile up beneath the sink.
A few minutes later, I turned to Wolfgang and was startled to see that he’d removed every single used towel from beneath the sink and to a spot in front of a cabinet. He lay in front of the pile, curled up like a hairy conch shell. I laughed.
I keep trying to think of things like that, now that Wolfgang is gone. It’s the same with my father. Memories of him behaving like the lunatic he was – imitating Flip Wilson’s “Geraldine Jones” persona, threatening to tickly my mother – roll through my mind. It eases the pain of losing both of them within a 5-month period.
Today is the first birthday I’ve marked without either of them. It’s such a weird feeling. How could this happen? Why, in the name of all that’s great and wonderful in this world, did they pass away so close together? Talk about timing!
Last month I finally decided to rummage again through the storage shed in the back yard; a dilapidated structure where my parents stuffed anything and everything they didn’t want or need in the house. It also had doubled as a tool shed for the plethora of gardening equipment my father had accumulated over the years. In the fall of 2014, I carted a few large pieces – a dead lawnmower, an antique weed eater, etc. – to the front yard for him. I taped a cardboard sign with the words “FREE TO GOOD HOME” across the mess and left it all there for whomever. It was gone before day’s end.
At the same time, I retrieved several boxes of old National Geographic magazines. “These don’t belong out here,” I told my father. Old Home & Garden magazines, maybe, but not National Geographic. I hauled them all into my room and rearranged them, alongside my gallery of books.
But last month I found several other items – a few as old as those National Geographics, but more precious. There was a box of handwritten journals by my paternal grandmother, Francisca. A couple of other boxes contained stuff from my childhood: drawings, poems, stories. Among the latter was a one dollar bill paper-clipped to a fragile slip of paper. It was a note from me to my father; thanking him for being such a great daddy. I was about 5 when I wrote that. And he kept it! As an only child, my parents were apt to keep as much about my childhood around as possible. But that a simple, handwritten note dating to the late 1960s would retain a place amidst all of that material stunned me.
And yes, it also made me sad. But I realized – more than ever before – how fortunate I was to have a father as incredible as mine. It’s why I get angry now when I hear people say fathers don’t serve a purpose in this world.
Back in July I visited a weight-lifting gym in East Dallas with a close friend, Pete*, who’s a regular there. It’s a tiny, no-frills joint carved into an aged shopping center; where free weights are the main source of muscle-building and men can work out shirtless. After showering and changing back at his house, Pete and I had dinner at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants near downtown.
At some point, the conversation turned to family, and – with my voice cracking – I emphasized how badly I missed my father. I try not to get emotional in public. Even during my dad’s memorial service in June, I managed to hold it together. But, planted in a booth beneath dim lighting in the restaurant, I just couldn’t remain poised. It must have been the margarita swirls. I was already on my second one.
Pete knows how I feel. He lost his own father 12 years ago. Curiously, our fathers had grown up together in East Dallas neighborhoods now occupied by office buildings and overpriced condos. “My father went to be with his mother,” Pete had told me that night on the phone. I didn’t understand. All of Pete’s grandparents were dead. What was he trying to – aw shit! I don’t know if there’s an etiquette rule for announcing the death of a loved one via telephone, and if there is, I could care less about it.
I still have trouble sitting in the easy chair near the fireplace where my dad used to sit while watching TV. His urn resides quietly on the dirty white brick of the raised hearth. I make it a point to touch it every day and tell my father I love him. His mother had lived to age 97. Why couldn’t he? What is the proper time of year to die? It seems we have rules for everything in our lives these days. Meteorologists can track hurricanes with near-accuracy. As soon as a massive quake struck northeastern Japan in March of 2011, scientists could determine how long it would be before tsunamis struck the Hawaiian Islands and the west coast of the U.S. Why couldn’t the slew of doctors my father had seen over the years not tell me when his body would finally say, ‘To hell with this shit!’?
A few times over the past few months, Wolfgang would stare at that general area for the longest time. I’d feel the pressure change in the house. But it wasn’t a frightening sensation. I knew my father was nearby. He had said more than once he wanted to die in this house and not in a hospital, a menagerie of tubes pouring out of him like overgrown hairs. If I did anything right, I feel it was that. I was able to grant my father his most heartfelt wish.
There are so many echoes of him and Wolfgang around me, now that they’re both gone. And the house is otherwise quiet. I’ve never felt pain like this before. But, on this 53rd birthday of mine, I’m not too distressed. My heart and my mind are filled with the happiness of the lives they lead. I couldn’t ask for more from either of them.