“He’s dead,” the voice on the phone said flatly.
“What?” I asked. “Who is this?”
“It’s Roma,” my stepdaughter said with exasperation. She repeated, “Dad is dead.” Wait a minute, I think. What dad are we talking about here? My dad died a year ago. Confused, I decided to temporarily skip the who part and move on.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“I’m standing in his apartment. The police are here. They’re removing his body right now. The man is dead. It appears he had a heart attack and died in his sleep.” Suddenly it hit me. She was talking about her dad. My ex-husband. She was talking about James.
“Where are your brother and sisters?” I asked.
“They’re in the car in the parking lot on the other side of the building,” she cried. “They don’t know yet. What should I do?”
“Drive everybody back over to my house,” I said. “I’m on my way.” I was already moving towards the door.
“But, what do I say to them?” she asked.
“You don’t have to say anything,” I advised. “Just focus on driving everybody home safely.”
I was at my mother’s visiting with her, my sister and brother-in-law. It was Christmas Eve and we were all gathering for what we expected to be our last Christmas in that house; since my Dad had died the previous November, my mother had decided the house was too big for her. Earlier in the day, my stepdaughters, Roma and Amanda, had picked up my son and daughter, Jacob and India, and drove them back to Fort Wayne to spend Christmas Eve with their dad. When they arrived at his house, he didn’t answer the door. They waited a while and then called me confused, wondering what to do. I suggested they go to my house and try calling him again from there. “I’m sure he just got tied up in Christmas traffic and will be home soon,” I had reassured them.
When they called a little later saying he still wasn’t answering the phone, I told them to stay put while I called the police. When the police said they’d drive over and check it out, I called the kids back and told them to wait at my house until they heard from me. I wasn’t expecting this call from Roma. Wasn’t expecting the kids would drive back over to their dad’s house. Wasn’t expecting them to find the police hauling his dead body out the door.
“James is dead,” I said bluntly to Mom, Babs and Buddy as I hung up the phone. “I have to go.” I had a single focus vision–to get to my children.
“Hold on,” Bud said. “We’ll drive you.” We all jumped into Mother’s car. The 45-minute drive to Fort Wayne seemed to take three hours. This made no sense. We were just getting good at being divorced. It was only a little over a year ago that Daddy had died. We had barely caught our breath. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Not on Christmas Eve.
I walked into my house and found all the kids in the living room playing the board game Aggravation. (As if we needed any more aggravation!) “How’s everybody doing?” I asked hesitantly, testing the waters. Roma gave me a pained expression from across the room and nodded me into the kitchen.
“I couldn’t tell them,” she sobbed “I think they know, but I couldn’t tell them.”
Amanda walked into the kitchen crying. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is,” I said simply. As hard at this question was, I was glad it didn’t require a complicated response. I was at a loss for words.
Jacob came into the kitchen. Same question, same answer. We all stood in the kitchen looking at each other. Then I realized they were all looking at me. Three kids down, one to go. India, the youngest, was still in the living room playing Aggravation alone. I went in and sit down next to her. She flashed a smile big enough to show her one dimple. But there was fear in her eyes. Her 9-year-old brain was busy between those blonde pigtails processing the confusion of the last few hours. But she didn’t dare ask the question her older siblings had asked. She fixed her grey eyes on me and waited.
“India,” I said gently, searching for words. “Sweetie, your daddy is dead.” She screamed and threw herself in my arms, then pushed me away, knocking herself and the Aggravation game to the floor. So much for the mother-of-the-year award. Then she was up again, pounding my chest, shaking her head, “No, no, no! I can’t live without him!” (That made the second worse news I had received that day.)
“I know it feels that way,” I said. I was fresh out of any brilliant words of comfort, so I went quiet and held her while we cried.
Good thing we drove Mother’s car because mine wouldn’t have been big enough to hold us all and I insisted we all drive back to Huntington together. My mother-bear instinct was flared full force and I was not letting a single one of those kids out of my sight. We all crowded into Mother’s car, dog in tow. The trip must have made him nervous because when we get to Mom’s, he walked right in and peed on the fake snow that was laid out under one of the Christmas trees.
“Simba!” Mother shamed him. “I can’t believe you did that!” He looked at her confused as if to say, “Isn’t that why that tree and the snow are in here?” Poor puppy. We were all confused. She ripped out the soiled “snow,” leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the decorated holiday fantasy.
When we woke up Christmas Day, I had no idea what to do. The Christmas presents were all under the tree wrapped and ready. But how could we just open presents knowing James was dead? On the other hand, if we didn’t open them, he would still be dead and the unopened presents would be a merciless reminder.
“Yes, we should share Christmas!” Mother proclaimed. “James would want it that way.”
Not like I had any better idea. So we had coffee and Christmas morning casserole and opened presents. We got caught up in the excitement of ordinary Christmas moments and would forget. And then one of us would remember and the tears would spread through the room like a virus. Everything was surreal. By the time we were done, we had as much dirty tissue as we did torn Christmas paper. The holiday had definitely been soiled with a big, gaping hole.
The next morning my best friend Sally called. “What do you need?” she asked. “How can I help you?” I closed my eyes and tried to organize my thoughts. It was the day after Christmas and I was still at my mother’s house. What did I need? I needed to let the dog out. I needed to do some laundry. I needed to make phone calls. I needed to load my mother’s car with Christmas presents and get my family home. Or maybe I needed to sit down with a cup of coffee and give this recent whir of events time to sink in.
“I don’t know,” I sighed. “I guess I need to get into his house. We need his clothes and eyeglasses for the funeral. And we need his driver’s license so we can provide the morgue identification. And I just need to get in there and scope the place before the kids go in to get their things.”
“Do you want me to go with you?” she asked
“Well, the problem is, I don’t have a key.” I explained. “And I don’t know his landlord’s name or phone number. And the city’s Office of Records is closed because of the holidays. So I don’t really know what to do.”
“Well, it sounds like we need to break in,” she said matter of factly.
“What? How do you suggest we do that?” I asked.
“Come pick me up and we’ll go over there together and figure it out,” she reassured me.
I borrowed my mother’s car and drove back to Fort Wayne. “What is that?” I asked when Sally climbed into the car with a small duffel bag.
“This? It’s my breaking-and-entering kit,” she said. “Didn’t we decide to break into his house?”
My head was swimming. “You have a breaking-and-entering kit?” I asked incredulously. “Whatever for?”
“For situations just like this!” she pointed out. “You never know when you might need to break in somewhere!”
Good grief. I didn’t even want to know what a breaking-and-entering kit might contain. But she was right. I did need to get in James’ rented house and I didn’t have a key. So it appeared a breaking-and-entering kit was just what we needed. And my best friend just happened to have one sitting right there with us in my mother’s Lincoln Towne Car. My guardian angel appeared to be on the clock after all.
We drove over to James’ house and parked. I sat in the car and took in the scene. His car was still parked in the un-shoveled driveway blanketed by snow. There were no telltale signs of death. No flashing neon signs that said: tragedy struck here. In my mind’s eye, I could see my four kids standing at his door knocking with snow-laced gloves, presents in hand, the excitement of Christmas wrapped around and between them like the cold. Surely they knocked several times. How long did they stand there before they finally turned away and decided to go home?
I shook my head, clearing the picture as Sally and I got out of the car. She moved up and down the side of the house, scanning the windows. “I think this one will do,” she said choosing the window closest to the back door. She pulled a tool out of the duffel bag and snipped the screen then somehow popped the window open. I had no idea what just happened, but in a matter of minutes I was standing in front of an open window that bid me entrance.
“Since I did the breaking, you should probably do the entering,” she said as she put her tools away. Recognizing some logic in that, I stepped closer to the window.
“Give me a boost,” I said and lifted my foot. She bent over, laced her fingers together, cupped my foot in both hands and hoisted me up. Palms down on the windowsill, I heaved myself forward. I was hanging half in and half out, with my tail sticking up in the air. “This is the last compromising position you will ever put me in!” I swore at James silently and then started laughing hysterically even though my stomach was pressing into the windowsill making it hard to breathe.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Sally said. “Get in there before someone sees us and calls the police.” She threw my legs inside. I tumbled over a chair sitting under the window and onto the floor. “Now go open the door and let me in,” she directed through the window.
I stood up and looked around. The air was as still as–well, as still as death. I opened the back door and Sally came inside. We stood silently together, listening to…dead silence. We walked through the kitchen and into the living room. Presents were lined up on the couch, waiting to be shared and opened. I grabbed the wall, steadied myself and caught my breath. I was glad I was not here alone. And I was glad the kids were not here at all. They did not need to witness this post-death scene. The rumpled bed where his body was laying when they moved it out. The pre-made Christmas spaghetti sauce. The cheese ball platter. The unfinished work left on his desk. The journey through the house was a safari of surprises that jumped out like wild animals that clawed at my startled heart.
“Are you okay?” Sally asked as she put her hand on my back.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I grumbled. “Let’s get what we need and get out of here.”
We scurried around gathering clothes, eyeglasses, wallet–apparently, the initial needs of a corpse are similar to the needs of those of us who are still breathing. We closed the window, grabbed her breaking-and-entering kit and left the scene. I was fairly certain I did not get whatever it was I needed.