Chapter 19 – A Real Pain in the Neck
I don’t know how well my parents used to communicate when I was a little kid, but for the past fifteen or so years whenever my mom tried to talk with my dad about anything serious like the bills or finances or doing projects around the house, he’d usually just start yelling and leave, slamming the door on his way out. That’s why my sister, in order to save Mom the trouble, had tried to sit down with Dad once or twice over the past few years to talk to him about, ya know…death stuff. What are your final wishes? What sort of service do you want for yourself? Would you prefer to be buried or cremated? Or perhaps it’s always been your wish to be shot out of a cannon or strapped to a rocket and sent to the moon. Like, we don’t know. And we’re letting you know that we don’t know. And we’re letting you know that we’d like to know so we can give you what you want. Just tell us and we’ll do it. It’s as simple as that.
“Ehh,” he replied, “I don’t really like to think about that sorta stuff.”
“Well Dad,” Teresa said, “nobody likes thinking about their own mortality, but…”
“I’m gonna live until I’m at least eighty.”
“Okay, that’s cool. And I’m not saying something is definitely gonna happen to you before then or anything like that, but what if something happens to you, Dad? What if? We’d like to be able to give you what you want.”
“Nah,” he said. “I’ll be okay.”
Well, everything’s always okay until it’s not, and unfortunately my dad’s state of “okayness” didn’t last until he was eighty like he’d been bankin on. In spite of my sister’s efforts to let Dad choose what he wanted, the responsibility of making a decision about how to dispose of his lifeless body fell onto us. Before proffering my opinion, I ran the two main options through my mind to see how they’d play out. If we were to do a traditional Irish Catholic burial, for example, would I wanna see the grayish skin of my dad’s face dabbed in makeup like some homo necrophiliac’s wet dream and his skinny, broken-down, now ice-cold body laid out in a box for everyone to gawk at? Could I then live with the thought of my dad’s rotting corpse closed-up in said box under hundreds of pounds of dirt for all eternity…or at least until a couple hundred years from now when the graveyard goes bankrupt and some real estate mogul buys the property to build on and exhumes all the bodies and just throws ‘em in a dump somewhere so he can get on with his project? Would I ever go visit my dad’s grave and stand there feeling at peace thinking about the worms crawling in and out of his eye sockets six feet below me? Let’s mark that option off as a “fuck no.”
And if we opted for cremation, could I live with myself knowing I sent my dad off to be barbecued? I mean, the logistics of the whole operation are so fuckin tragic. This is my dad, right? This is my hero from when I was a little kid. And these fucking strangers who don’t give a shit are just stuffing him in a bag at the hospital, loading him into some ice truck and then transferring him over to some building with a smokestack where he’ll be set in some shitty wooden box that they’ll burn along with him. And then they’ll preheat the oven, slide the whole package into the incinerator and party like it’s 1944 in Nazi Germany. I was makin myself sick to my stomach picturing his flesh dripping off his bones, and his face literally melting off his skull like what happens at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But somehow, after getting past those gruesome images, cremation seemed like such a better option. We could take his ashes and scatter ‘em in all his favorite places from over the years and I could “visit” him there – I could visit him in his happy places. Like, we could scatter some of his ashes in the woods where he always walked and I could go for a walk and “spend some time with Dad” that way. I dunno. It seemed like the lesser of two evils. It seemed infinitely less depressing than going to the cemetery on his birthday and on Father’s Day and tossing a bundle of flowers on his headstone and pretending that that action is supposed to mean something to me.
I shared my thoughts with the rest of my family – minus all the gruesome details, of course. They’d all been thinking along similar lines, though my mom had some reservations about the idea. She said she was worried that my dad’s family would not approve. She thought that they – especially Grandma – would be upset about not having a proper Irish Catholic burial for him. She was also worried that it’s not what my dad himself would’ve wanted. “He spent thirty years as a firefighter putting out fires, trying not to get burnt and carrying charred-up dead bodies out of buildings,” Mom said. “To burn him now…hmm, yeah, I just don’t know.” Well, in spite of whatever doubts each of us may’ve had, we ultimately ended up opting for cremation and got the ashes – I dunno exactly when – maybe three or four days after his death. It was definitely before the service we held for him, that I know for sure. It was my mom and sister who went to pick ‘em up from the funeral home. They were stored in a brown urn with a screw-on lid. The two of them’d already had a look inside and told me to do the same.
“If there was any doubt it was him in there and not just some random jar full of ashes…” my sister said, but didn’t have to conclude the thought. I saw in the ashes right away what she’d been referring to. There was a little burnt-up battery pack with a little burnt-up wire attached to it. It was my dad’s deep brain stimulator.
“Fuck,” I sighed as I stood there and stared down into the urn.
Seeing that thing was an instant reminder of one of the worst times in all of our lives. As I’ve mentioned before, my dad had problems with depression. He started going to the doctor for help with his depression when I was about a freshman in high school, I’d say. Instead of helping him work through any psychological issues he may’ve been struggling with, right away they got him hooked on all sorts of anti-depressant, anti-anxiety and even anti-psychotic medications at unreasonably high doses that he’d end up taking until his death almost twenty years later. It was kinda like this, like a vicious cycle: He’d originally gone to the doctor to get help with his depression and anxiety. They gave him pills that made him feel worse. Because he felt worse, he went back to the doctor for more help. They upped his dosage and/or added another med to throw in the cocktail. This caused more problems, so he went back to the doc, doc wrote some more scrips, pharmaceutical companies get paid big, Dad gets irreversibly fucked up, I’m scarred for life watching all this shit happen to my man before my eyes, rinse and repeat for almost twenty years and call it a lifetime.
Those fucking bullshit pills paired with my dad’s drinking made him meaner than normal to my mom around the house, made his anxiety and depression exponentially worse, stole his personality, and – at the risk of sounding overly dramatic – completely destroyed his mind. They also did a number on his body. After a few years of usage, his neck became twisted to the side and would twitch back and forth involuntarily. Although there was never any proof that it was specifically the pills that caused this, the warning labels on those medications they’d been stuffing down his throat clearly indicate that long-term usage can lead to tardive dyskinesia and dystonic reactions – my dad’s official diagnosis later being declared as dystonia torticollis. His fucked-up neck caused him physical pain which he, in turn, used as an excuse to keep drinking heavily, having once said to me in response to a complaint I made about his excesses that, “You’d drink a lotta beer too if your neck hurt the way mine does.” I didn’t agree, but I wasn’t gonna argue with him. To be able to look straight forward and do a task as simple as read the newspaper, the guy would hafta press one hand up against his cheekbone to hold his head in place so he could focus his eyes on the text. When he was driving, since his neck problems prevented him from turning his head, before going through an intersection or making a turn, he’d hafta twist his entire body in order to look both ways to make sure there weren’t any cars or pedestrians coming. Like, the guy’s entire physical existence must’ve been an absolute fucking nightmare. I can’t even imagine it.
To try and combat his twitchy, twisted neck, my dad started going to a neurological specialist. Their go-to treatment for him had been Botox injections in the office while recommending at home he apply IcyHot patches and use some handheld, battery-operated massage device that looked and performed like a vibrating dildo – all of which, might I add, really had little to no positive effect on his condition. Over the years, my dad grew more and more desperate which caused him to start seeking forms of treatment that deviated from the mainstream. I believe my sister drove him to some Indian healer one time to see what the guy could do for him and I personally drove him to – I don’t even know what you’d call it; some sort of mini convention, I guess – way out in the suburbs. There were about twenty people in attendance. We were all sitting in a semicircle around this well-to-do woman in her mid-fifties that had her hair, make-up and nails done up real nice like fuckin Barbara Streisand or something. She was a total salesman. Or saleswoman. Whatever. She was fulla shit is what she was. A true predator that takes advantage of people at the weakest and most vulnerable points in their lives.
As the meeting got started, this woman was the center of attention, standing there in front of everyone giving a spiel about the product she was selling. She was selling these things called “healing wands.” They looked like and were about the size of fancy fountain pens but instead of ink inside, these things are filled with healing stones and crystals, and when waved in a circular motion over something, she explained, are used to promote healing and a cleansing of the aura. It’s also important, she noted, to clearly state the intent for which you are using the wand so the wand’s contents know what to do with the energy or something like that. You do circular movements with one end of the wand to draw the negative energy out of a person’s body – or a specific part of it – and then you use the reverse side of the wand to put positive energy back into it. And this process is supposed to cure any and every affliction known to man.
So, after she’s done explaining this stuff, she’s asking people to individually come to the front of the room and sit in a chair for her to wand them in front of the group. She asks, “What brings you here today?” And everyone there was either old or dying of cancer or had some sort of irreversible condition for which modern medicine offered them no hope. Someone would get in the chair and she’d say, “Oh, okay. You have leukemia? In that case, instead of wanding just one specific part of your body, I’m going to do big circles around the whole thing to make sure I draw out all the negative energy inside you.” And everyone in the room would sit there watching her trace invisible circles around these sickly bags of bones while stating her intent for the wanding and repeating her mantra. The whole fuckin time I was sittin there, I was just so god damn disgusted that she was selling all these people false hope and makin money offa their misery. And she musta noticed it too because at one point she came up to me and asked to see my cell phone.
“My cell phone?” I asked.
“Yes, your cell phone.”
I wish I’d just told her to fuck off, but all eyes were on me and I felt uncomfortable, so I reached in my pocket and pulled out my old flip phone. This was quite a few years before I ever upgraded to having a smartphone. I held it out and she took it from my hand.
“Oh, wow,” she said, holding it up for the group to see. “It’s a nice one.”
And then she proceeded to wand my phone while explaining that wands can be used to remove negative energy not only from people, but from our belongings as well in order to keep our environments as pure as possible. She handed my phone back to me and I stuffed it in my pocket feeling humiliated. This humiliation soon morphed into a murderous rage that I had a hard time suppressing when it came to be my dad’s turn to sit in front of the group and get his neck wanded by this disgusting fuckin bitch with a heart more shriveled and blackened than that of the Grinch himself.
Look…I loved my father and I hated him. Sometimes I had the urge to kill the guy. So did my other family members. But we all always did our best to take care of him – like, no matter what, ya know? I considered myself his protector. My dad was a proud hard-working blue-collar man who’d had a rough life but always managed to provide for his family. The guy caught some tough breaks and somehow lost himself along the way, but I still always tried to maintain his honor the best I could. And as you might imagine, this attitude of mine isn’t exactly compatible with watching my old man sit in a chair in front of a group of equally desperate saps, letting some fuckin cunt make a public mockery of him. It just wasn’t okay. I wasn’t okay. I was so fucking enraged. I wanted to take a pair of those wands and stab one through each of that lady’s eyeballs at the same time then rip her fucking head off and punt it against the wall. I wanted to let her know that she fucked with the wrong family. And I wanted her to pay for it. God damn, I just wanted to explode… But I didn’t. I kept my mouth shut. Because my dad believed in what she was doing. At least at the time he did. And he continued believing in it for a few more months, routinely wanding himself at home and even having that bitch come into our house and wand his neck in front of the rest of my family, telling us how much she thinks he’s been improving lately. Then, like all the other remedies he’d tried, after they’d inevitably done nothing to fix his fucked-up neck, Dad gave up on it and started looking for the next thing he hoped was gonna save him.
At some point, my grandma sent my dad a brochure for this experimental procedure she’d heard about to implant in his body something called a deep brain stimulator. It’s a device that consists of a pacemaker-like apparatus placed under the skin of your upper-chest and from it runs a wire that travels up through the interior of your neck before it gets plugged with electrodes neatly into the center of your brain. The idea is that this thing is supposed to produce regular electrical impulses that correct any abnormal electrical impulses in your brain and thus would correct any abnormal movements in your body such as those occurring in my dad’s neck. At the time, my dad was regularly drinking a 12-pack of beer a day at home after coming back from the bar and was on a bunch of different pills that the doctors kept feeding him in spite of his having gone to rehab to get off of ‘em – the doctors at the rehab facility said that at that point his brain was so messed up from the pills that he could no longer function without them, so instead of getting him offa them completely, they just switched what they were giving him and sent him back home to us…so, thanks guys for nothing. Anyway, that said, Dad was really in no shape to make such a major decision but, without giving it much thought, he decided to put all his eggs in this deep brain stimulator basket. He was gonna get this surgery done come hell or high water – whether the insurance would pay for it or not. And my mom, my siblings and I were staunchly opposed to it right from the start.
“Dan,” my mom said, “this is your brain we’re talkin about here. You don’t mess around with your brain. You don’t want these people sticking wires in there. Please, just don’t do it, okay? There’re no studies done proving this will even work for you. Just no. It’s just not a good idea, Dan. Please.”
Dad would get so pissed off and yell and throw a fit every time she’d try to talk him out of it. Like, there was clearly no convincing him, but Mom can be pretty stubborn when she thinks she’s right and wasn’t gonna give up on her husband that easy. So she went behind Dad’s back and tried to convince the doctor to not let my dad go through with the procedure. “Doctor,” she said, “he’s really not in the right state of mind to make such a major decision. He’s on a bunch of medication and he drinks twelve beers a day. Please, don’t let him go through with this. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.” The doctor asked how it was possible for a man to drink twelve beers a day. “Every day,” she explained, “he goes to the liquor store and buys a 12-pack of Corona. And he sits there and drinks them all. Even after going to the bar with his friends, even if it takes him all night to do so, those twelve beers will get finished. And then he does the same thing the next day. And every day. He’s not okay – don’t you see that? Please don’t do this surgery on my husband.” The doctor didn’t take what my mom had to say into consideration and the surgery went on as planned. Mom still to this day says that, “That doctor didn’t give a shit about Dad. He just wanted a guinea pig to try this experimental procedure on,” and I tend to agree with her. And then she usually adds that, “Getting those wires stuck in his brain was like having a lobotomy done. It made him even goofier than ever.”
The day of the surgery, I was so upset with my dad and with that doctor that – while I was sitting in the waiting room paging through a story in a magazine about this new war that’d been breaking out in Syria at the time – I remember wishing and hoping that he’d die right there on the operating table. Of course, like everything else he tried, the deep brain stimulator was a major flop that not only did nothing for his neck, but also turned out to be one of Dad’s biggest regrets. The once-proud badass fireman that always strutted around the house without a shirt on, showing off his muscular physique and tan skin no longer wanted to take his shirt off around other people even when swimming in the pool because he was ashamed of that square battery pack jutting out from beneath his skin in the center of his chest. It made me so fuckin sad. Everything about my dad’s downfall made me so fuckin sad. And seeing that deep brain piece o’ shit mixed in with my dad’s ashes brought all this shit up again. But like my sister said, at least we knew it was him in that urn.