Diary of the Dead

To the extent I have been able to reconstruct events, I know the following failures occurred, in approximately this order.

  1. Dad had been neglecting home maintenance. Not surprising given his age and the fact that Mom was gone, but this was not typical for most of his life. I’m not sure he ever said Take care of your things and they’ll take care of you, but I might have learned it from his example.

    Dad’s cat had always been inclined to pee on beds, which had consequently been kept swathed in plastic; but during the last several years, Albert had also begun peeing on chairs, and Dad wasn’t keeping up. When my sister moved the chairs in the family room, she found golf-ball- sized mounds of crystallized cat pee beneath them.

    Outside, everything painted was peeling. Cobwebs draped the bench and a gas grill on the front porch (the bench I’d been given the task of painting while too young to be legally employed by anyone else — though no one ever sat there).

  2. Dad had stopped having much yard work done. The ivy had spread thickly over not only the entire back and sides of the two-story house but most of the roof. As you approached the front door, tree branches loomed low like claws, and vines were strangling Mom’s lilacs. The side door was impassable.

    No one had ever died in my parents’ house, but even in the middle of its sensible, blue-to-white collar subdivision, it was looking seriously haunted.

  3. A cleaning woman had been coming once a week, but the evidence was minute that any actual cleaning had been done for quite some time. (We were basically paying her to let us know when Dad died — though of course that’s not what happened.)

  4. About three weeks before his collapse, my dad’s computer had become infected with a very destructive virus that wiped out or corrupted virtually everything on his hard drive. One of the things I loved about him and Mom was that they were open to new technology, even at their age; but they had little help with it. Dad’s computer was still in the shop when he died.

    He’d called me to tell me not to worry if I didn’t get any email for a while. (Our family had always been too frugal to phone long-distance much, and our letters had been almost entirely replaced by email.)

  5. When I spoke with the cleaning woman afterward, she said about three weeks before Dad’s collapse, the toilet in the downstairs bathroom had flooded the back hall. The toilet had had to be completely removed and rebuilt. After that, it apparently went on the fritz again to some lesser degree — it wouldn’t flush unless you took the top off and tinkered with the mechanism in the tank.

  6. Also according to the cleaning woman, about two weeks before Dad’s collapse, something, probably the dishwasher, had broken in the kitchen and flooded it and the breakfast area. We don’t know whether the dishwasher was ever repaired.

  7. Dad had developed pneumonia. The doctors at the hospital indicated it was far enough advanced that it must have been getting worse for a while. (Note: Dad was a doctor, so one might think he’d have had some inkling as to his own condition, but with him, you never knew.)

  8. Four days before I found him collapsed, the cleaning woman had been there. She told me that at that time, Dad had seemed his usual self and the breakfast room ceiling was fine.

    Three days before I found him, on Friday, a neighbor saw him walk across the street to pick up his newspaper and mail.

    I found him on Monday. So, sometime between Friday evening and Monday morning, the following additional failures occurred:

    Something happened to make my dad leave his pants strewn on the family room floor and his boxer shorts in his chair. One possibility is some kind of excretory accident. I didn’t notice anything on his pants or shorts when I picked them up, but I didn’t examine them closely. Another possibility is that he’d been masturbating. After his death, we found a large stash of porn DVDs in a first- floor closet, together with a bottle of lubricant. Since he’d only acquired a DVD player within the last two years, we have to assume this stash, too, was fairly recently acquired. Many of the porn DVDs had themes involving young girls. We also learned Dad had been a subscriber to Teen Vogue magazine.

    Something happened to make my dad leave his pants strewn on the family room floor and his boxer shorts in his chair.

    Another possibility is that Dad’s clothing ended up strewn oddly about as a result of the fact that one or more of the health failures we know occurred took him somewhat by surprise, with or without some combination with some or all of the above.

    Once I got him to the hospital, the doctors said he had an infection in his blood and was highly feverish — this could have made him dizzy or delirious — and that he’d had a mild heart attack. He might also have had a small stroke — his speech was greatly impaired by the time I found him.

    It’s also quite possible he’d been plastered; he’d been a serious alcoholic for years, on top of being on barbiturates to control his epilepsy.

    At any rate, he’d somehow gotten himself upstairs, while leaving his pants and shorts downstairs.

  9. At some point, yet another plumbing failure occurred in Dad’s upstairs bathroom, which resulted in the damage to the breakfast room ceiling and the pool of brownish water standing on the kitchen counter.

    Even if Dad couldn’t get a plumber out there right away, it’s difficult to believe he would have left the damage as I found it in the kitchen and breakfast room, if it had been that way long and if he’d been coping normally, when he knew I’d arrive within a few days. However, since no water was running in my dad’s bathroom or elsewhere when I arrived, and the water on the counter had apparently begun to dry instead of continuing to spread, it seems the plumbing failure must have occurred before my dad’s collapse, although after he’d developed the pneumonia and possibly after one or more other health failures, such as the infection, heart attack, or possible stroke. Or maybe he just discovered it late in the evening and said, Fuck it, there’s nothing I can do now anyway.

  10. Dad managed to remove whatever else he may have been wearing (since I found him naked), but he left his pants lining and an overcoat strewn on his bedroom floor upstairs. A Colonial-style washstand in his bedroom was overturned.

    It was July; the weather had been far too warm for him to have been wearing his overcoat during the day, so he must have been wearing it in the evening? But he’d told us he wasn’t driving at night, only during the day, although he was never a reliable source of information. He’d had only three friends in the area, with whom he socialized infrequently. We spoke with all of them as well as others, and none had socialized with him during the past two to three weeks.

    And had he been shirtless, or had he managed to put his shirt away while leaving his other clothes, including an overcoat, spread on the floor in two rooms? And why would his pants and shorts be downstairs but the pants lining upstairs?

  11. Since Mom had died, my sister and I had taken turns visiting Dad and having him visit us, so we’d been seeing him at least four times a year. I’d been visiting him for his birthday in April, but this year, just two weeks before my scheduled trip, my own home had been severely flooded. We’d had no flood insurance, lost two months’ income while busting ass to recover. In addition, my visit to Dad had been delayed until the July 4 weekend. I hadn’t been in my hometown for the Fourth in thirty-three years.

    I hadn’t been in my hometown for the Fourth in thirty-three years.
  12. When I arrived, Dad’s phone downstairs was off the hook, so I couldn’t get through when I tried to call him after he failed to answer the door. It was one of those wall phones that’s not difficult to knock off, and it was located only about three feet from the floor, next to my dad’s chair. It’s possible Dad left it off after attempting unsuccessfully to call for help (before nonetheless managing to get himself upstairs); or maybe he’d taken it off because he didn’t want to be disturbed; or maybe the cat knocked it off.

  13. By the time the ambulance and I got Dad to the hospital, in addition to pneumonia, infection, a mild heart attack, and possible stroke, Dad was also in kidney failure.

    Dad had long been keenly interested in the history of the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. For most of my life, he’d kept a life-size bust of Jefferson in the family dining room. Jefferson and Adams both died on Independence Day. Dad died on July 4, 2006.

    I’ve given up trying to understand exactly what happened in that house before I found him. It’s a weird little story that will never be fully told. One of many.

Carolyn Sortor is a media-based artist in Dallas. When her time comes, she wants to be ready.

Mal Jones is an illustrator and designer in Alexandria, Virginia. When his time comes, he wants to die by the ocean after eating a good piece of pie.