Phoenix, 2014. The end of summer. My father had been dead for two years. Robin Williams had just committed suicide.
Most of my friends hadn’t heard of the disease that killed my father until after Robin’s autopsy results were released to the public. Within minutes of the press release, “suicide and then “Lewy body dementia” were scrolling across the ticker of every local and national news channel. Like wildfire.
I’d been checking expiration dates on yogurt at the grocery store when the news came out and my first friend called to see if I had heard. She listed the disease buzzwords she’d just learned with breathless expertise. “Death by asphyxiation,” which sounded a little better than “hanging” but not much. “Paranoia,” “hallucinations,” “depression.” All the same catch-phrases doctors had used to describe my dad while he was alive. I stood in the center of the aisle while the yogurt warmed in my hand, my friend’s voice fading as other shoppers tried to shove their carts around me. Strange—it was the first and maybe only time a famous person had anything in common with my family. Big news.
For the nearly two years between my dad’s death and Robin’s, I had done a lot of explaining. I told the Lewy body dementia story the same way with the same details to every new audience. There were these protein cells in his brain. They killed the part of the brain that makes decisions and filters what you say. No, not like cancer. No, not like schizophrenia. Not like Alzheimer’s. I explained how dementia causes severe depression. I explained how dementia impairs judgment. I explained how suicide had always been a danger with my father—why he had not been left alone for the last year of his life—not even in the bathroom. Weary as I pretended to be with the consistent stream of questions, the answers made my family unique. It was like being the only family on the block with a pool. Sick as it sounds, we weren’t a cancer or heart attack family. We were special.
But with Robin’s death, something that had once seemed so private and specific to my life was now served up on the magazine covers with a side of suspicious celebrity baby bumps and suspected eye lifts. Before, it had comforted me somehow to believe that “nobody understood what we’d been through.” But now, it seemed everybody did.
I was competitive, too. You were thirty when your dad died? Well, I was twenty-three. Beat that. I knew pain wasn’t unique. But I didn’t care. What was the most shocking? What made our story different? I had to one-up everyone, even my mother. She had lost her dad too, years before I was born, when she was about my age. When she said she missed my dad, why couldn’t I have given her what we both needed—someone to say yes, me too. But me too translated in my heart to one shattering statement—all deaths are pretty much the same. There were others before my dad and there would be others after him. Younger fathers and even younger daughters left behind, piecing together this broken web of an explanation for why some lives are cut so short and others are not. My grief was white noise in a vacuum.
As time went on, I was starving for any details in the stories of my father’s death that were different from anyone else’s. My father was fifty-five. Robin Williams was sixty-three. I was twenty-three when dad died. Robin had a daughter, too, five days younger than me. Robin was English, French, Scottish. Just like my dad—and every similarity made me angrier, festering with each unsuspecting person who approached me in the weeks following the autopsy saying, “Isn’t that what your dad had?” And I would say yes, always wishing the answer was no.
Maybe I knew these were attempts to connect, one human trying to reach into another's deeply closed off heart and make it beat again. But every interaction left me more isolated than before.
I watched clips from the late 80s of Robin Williams at the Met, alone on the enormous stage in his Hawaiian shirt and a scruffy shock of hair. He pulsed from one side of the stage to the other, a thousand voices, a thousand faces. “Ballet. Men in pants so tight you can tell what religion they are.” He sipped water from a plastic bottle and wiped sweat from his forehead while the audience soaked him up.
My dad did impressions, grabbing his cheeks in both hands and wiggling them until they were “limber.” He replicated Tigger's growl to make me laugh when I was baby, muzzling his whiskery cheeks against my soft bare ones. He flew me around the house before bedtime as I grew, his airplane engine sputtering and chugging to a stop as I crash landed into the crib sheets. He cataloged lines from films, commercials, television shows in his memory, always ready to spar with me, the Martin family floor-show. It belonged to just the two us, this connection. Until it didn’t.
More time passed. My father had been gone for two years, and I’d long stopped counting in days, weeks, months. Robin Williams was no longer the cover story at the grocery check-out line. It was no longer the first thing people mentioned during struggling small talk. I would run into someone I knew at the dry cleaner, at the dog park, getting my oil changed, and they’d ask me how my mom was doing, how was my job, was I dating? And I wanted to answer, “My dad is still dead.” Time washes away everything, eventually. I knew that. My head knew that. Sooner or later, people forget.
But I hadn’t. Every morning I woke up and for a few seconds, something nameless was wrong. Like sitting up in the dark hotel room and trying to remember where you are. The lights are in the wrong place. The smells are different. The noises outside your bedroom window, not the noises of home. There was no one in that dark room or anyone I even knew who could identify with me. I’d made sure of it. Wasn’t that what I wanted?
On my father’s anniversary, I met my mother at the cemetery to hedge the grass around the stone and scrub away the calcified water spots with vinegar. We didn’t speak except for the instructional commands and requests of two workers sharing a job. Pass me the paper towels. Cuff up your pants; it’s muddy there. The January breeze stirred through the fresh mowed grass and knifed through my sweater, sweeping into the tree over my father’s stone and shaking loose a thousand tiny brown leaves. The leaves swarmed as if they were alive, whispering around my face and sticking in my hair. My mother and I sat back on our heels in the damp green earth and watched them fall before scattering across the granite we’d just buffed.
“I feel cheated.” My mother broke the dictum of silence I had imposed on this activity and the clarity of her voice made me jump. She had squirmed behind my barrier before I’d had a chance to stop her.
“Cheated like I didn’t get something I was supposed to get. Like I should have had him longer.”
Then, maybe before I’d had a chance to stop myself, I said, “Me too.” My own words surprised me. Cheated. That’s exactly how I felt. Ripped off. Swindled. Fleeced. I was cheated out of a snapshot with my father at graduation, the point of my cap close to his face. I was cheated out of dancing with him at my wedding someday. Cheated out of holding the ladder steady for him while he took down Christmas lights over the garage. Cheated out of coming home to visit my parents as they grew old together. No one until my mother had ever admitted that this deal we’d been dealt was really shitty. It had never occurred to me that she would feel the same way.
I unspooled a wad of paper towels and passed it to her. I had to nudge her to take it. Another family pulled in to the parking lot and started to unload their car full of flowers and tiny balloons on sticks. We watched them ambling over the grass towards the other end of the lawn, carefully stepping on the grass patches between the stones as if walking the line of a curb. My mother swept the leaves away from the stone and dropped the towels into her sack.
She seemed closer, as if she had taken a weight from me that I didn’t want to hold. Me too. A division cracked within me I hadn’t known I needed, a breaking of hurt into two pieces instead of one. Listen, said some part of me that had grown up one step ahead of my heart. Learn this now. This is another truth. Life is found in clinging—not to the revered specialness in isolation, but to the commonality. One death didn’t need to be different from the next. My father didn’t need to the only one. I didn’t need to be. We mattered.
My mother stood up and swept the blades of grass from her knees. The sun was starting to go down and the night air had cooled. We headed back towards the parking lot together, tightroping across the grass, hands close—steadying each other.
About the author:
Katie Martin is a Phoenix based writer and graduate of Pacific University's MFA program. Her work has appeared in several journals, including Green Briar Review, Silk Road, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn. A chapter of her in-progress memoir has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.