Sunday, October 07, 2007

Nine Years

On October 7, 1998 at 1:04pm in the town of Brockport, county of Monroe, State of New York, my father dropped dead.

Nine years have passed. The details above are not etched in my brain, quite the opposite. I have a hard time remembering the date, let alone the time. To write this, I must refer to information printed on an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper. This paper, is sitting unfolded, three crease marks across its face, on my desk. The notary's seal is visible embossed into the fibers of the top third of the document. My desk, in my house, in the city of Misawa, prefecture of Aomori, the country of Japan. How far away I am from that day, from that world, even.

Not long after my father's death, as part of an art class, I did a project in the spirit of Joseph Cornell, consisting of Plexiglas boxes full of found and manipulated objects, literally trying to piece together an understanding of my father's death. I rummaged through the junk that accrues in the odd little drawers in one's house, went to flea markets, raided a then-boyfriends' (expensive) supplies for tying salmon and trout flies, scavenged wherever and whatever. I wasn't sure what I wanted to put in the boxes, but I knew what would go in when I saw it. But one thing I knew for certain, from the outset, was that most of all, I wanted to put copies (or pieces) of copies of my father's death certificate into these boxes.

So, breathless and heart-hammering, I called my mother on the phone, explained as much as I could and asked her to send me a copy of the official certificate. Imagine my surprise when the envelope from Florida arrived in the mail, containing not multiple xeroxed copies, but the original document, complete with notary seal. I had to sit down. My hands were shaking. It had all, suddenly become very real.

"Proof" was not only not what I expected, it was much less so. The paper hadn't the gravitas of my birth certificate. It lacked the heavy manila, ornate Gothic typeface and gold seal of my college diploma. It hardly even looked official, it was dumpy. Instead, the death certificate was bleary black ink on thin white office copy paper, the copy made slightly out of alignment, so that the edges weren't quite plumb. The form had been completed in a mixture of my brother's all-caps hand-printing and the straggly courier typeface of a government-office typewriter that had probably been in use since the Eisenhower administration. It was printed on the front only, 33 boxes to neatly categorize a messy, hard, funny, confused, under appreciated, drunken, stoned, angry, loving all-too-human life that had spanned 60 years.

It made me irate, all that flat black and white. It made me irate, those 33 little boxes that said everything about my father's death and nothing about his life. It made me irate to frightened and dismayed by a piece of paper.

My memory boxes were fairly large and deep, made of Plexiglas because it was cheaper and safer than glass. I filled my father's memory boxes with color: turquoise, crimson, ochre, silver, vermilion, saffron. I filled them with glass beads, river pebbles, little-girl glitter and puffy craft paint. I filled them with nuts, bolts, bits of fabric and duct-tape. A beer cap. Tobacco. I used fine silk thread, gossamer like spider webs and pieces of burlap and twine, shiny sheet metal, old skeleton keys and chicken bones. I used a copy of an article from my home-town paper, an article that made the front page--my father, lying unconscious next to a downed 1953 Harley Davidson--a wreck that almost killed him--almost made me never be.

I drank most of a very expensive bottle of whiskey while doing up the memory boxes (recalling my dad always drank cheap rotgut) and for the most part, I didn't even taste it. I got stoned off the epoxy used to fuse the edges of the Plexiglas into boxes. I glued my fingers together, got glue in my hair, I wrecked my favorite pair of jeans. In frustration, I smashed a box that wasn't working out the way I wanted to. I cut my hand doing so and I put the bloodied shards of Plexiglas back into another box. I took the finish off the varnished kitchen table, burnt a hole in the carpet. I fought with my boyfriend-at-the-time, who wouldn't, couldn't see the point of 120-pound watercolor paper smeared with glue, glitter, tears. I pulled twigs off of trees, I snipped off a chunk of my hair ( took three years to grow back in) and used that, too.

And I used copy after copy of the death certificate, enlarge, reduced, in its entirety, in torn and burnt bits and pieces. Hundred of copies of the certificate. I made a box, then another, then another. I wrapped each of the 12 boxes with black pieces of cloth, put them in an old chest and took them to my art class. I had my classmates pull the wrapped boxes out and reveal them. As they did, I so talked about the boxes, the keys, the bones, the glitter, the death certificate, and my father.

I left those boxes at the house when I left that particular boyfriend. I do not miss the boyfriend, I do not miss the boxes. Sometimes I miss my father. Not so much after nine years, but this is the way of things.

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