It was the middle of the night and my sister and I were sitting at my mom's dining room table with the hospice nurse, a man I could have sworn I'd seen on MSNBC's Lock-up a few weeks earlier. Short and stout with huge forearms, a shaved head and a handlebar mustache, Ricky was telling us the story about one of the first times he had been with a family when someone passed away.
Daughters, sons, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren were gathered in the room where Mama, 94, lay dying. When Mama took her last breath, there was wailing and crying. Some fell to the floor as they ripped at their clothing while others threw their arms in the air, wanting to know why. This went on for several minutes before one of the women yelled out, "Oh, no! Oh, no! Demetri! Demetri is not here! What is going to happen? He is going to shoot someone when he learns of this! He will kill someone!" Everyone cried out in agreement. The wailing continued until the doorbell rang. A hush fell upon the room. Everyone turned and looked at Ricky.
Ricky figured it had to be Demetri. And although he didn't want to die along with Mama that night, he took a deep breath and walked to the door.
Demetri, in his mid-70s, listened as Ricky said quietly, gently, "I'm sorry to tell you this, but your mother passed away a few minutes ago."
Demetri fell to his knees on the front stoop and began to wail, shaking his fist at the sky, cursing God. Ricky backed off to the side as Demetri crawled into the house on his hands and knees, slowly making his way to the room where the group waited for him in silence.
He crawled through the foyer, down a narrow hallway and then into the room. The group parted as Demetri made his way to Mama's bed.
From the floor, Demetri cried out, "Mama! Mama! I'm sorry I let you down! How can I ever repay you, Mama? Mama ... Mama ... Mama!"
One by one, others joined in.
"Mama! How could this happen? Mama! We're so sorry, Mama!"
Ricky said this went on for awhile and then, within the hour, the liquor was flowing. Everyone was doing shots of Yukon Jack, telling jokes, laughing and talking.
Ricky said, "That's when I learned that everyone handles grief in their own way."
I shook my head, laughed and thought, Aw, poor Demetri. I would've punched him right in the face.
Because for the last eight months, what I've most wanted to do is punch someone right in the face. It was torture watching my stepfather slowly dying. And anger became my nature. It was the way I handled my grief. That is, when I wasn't cracking jokes. Or saying inappropriate things like, "This or that is killing me." Or, "I almost died when that happened!" Or, "Such and such is to die for."
I told my sister, "If I don't stop saying things like that, I'm going to kill myself. Oh my God! I can't stop!"
I don’t know if my inappropriate outbursts angered those closest to me. It they did, they didn’t let me know it. And although we may all hurt the ones we love the most, I did my best not to hurt anyone in my family when I was fighting mad. Instead of spouting off, I’d write. I’d walk. I’d go to the playground and swing. And when none of that seemed to work, I’d get into my car and drive, where I could take out my anger on other drivers, if only in my mind.
Go, you idiot!
What are you looking at?!
Oh my God! What are you, going around the world to the left? Turn your blinker off already!
The last few things my stepfather said to me were jokes. He called me a few weeks ago, which he had never done in his life.
He was weak. His voice was low and very hoarse, "Hey, Lor."
Surprised, I responded softly. "Hey there. What are you doing?"
He livened up and said sarcastically, "Talking to you. What does it sound like I'm doing?"
The last time my husband, son and I visited him, we had been there awhile and I was worried we were wearing him out.
"Let's go guys, so Boppa can get his rest."
He sighed then grinned at me, "Fine. Blame it all on me."
I smiled. "I'm not blaming you for anything."
My stepfather passed away in the early morning hours on January 20, 2009. A day of change I had been looking forward to for eight years. There's a joke in there somewhere and one he would've been happy to tell, Republican that he was. I just haven't figured out what it is yet. (It would be a no-brainer if Hillary Clinton had been sworn in instead of Barack Obama.)
After he passed, no one fell to their knees. There was no wailing, no cursing God. There was no Yukon Jack. My mom, sister and I just sat quietly and talked for a long time.
My mother held his hand, rubbing his arm. She looked up at me and said, "I have to give you that plaque out in the garage."
I said, "What plaque?"
"That plaque you gave him when we moved into this house."
I thought for a second then realized what she was talking about. I didn’t remember giving him the plaque he's had hanging above his workbench for the last 30 years.
It reads: Patience my ass. I'm going out to kill something.
Nothing could have been more appropriate. And it made me smile. And I was grateful. He and I were more alike than I ever knew. All of the anger that had washed over me and through me for so many months, in that moment, simply washed away through laughter and tears.