Obituaries are embellishments. They are not to be read carelessly. After college I worked on the obit desk for a wire service. I wrote Gerald Ford’s six months before he died. This is the privilege of public figures. As for the rest of us … we hope there’s a strong pen in the family.
Obituaries are existential. The when and where and what trump the how and why. “Old age” is an insufficient cause of death. For example:
“Perry Steven Amendt died from renal failure on November 6th, 2012, in Palm Desert, CA. He was 59.”
Obituaries are ineffable. Occasionally I would be permitted to insert radical things, like the color of the deceased’s eyes.
I was trained to synthesize life in several column inches. I avoided adjectives, descriptors. Any survivors were strangers to me.
Perry was my father. ‘Dad’ was too casual for him. I did not mention this in the obit.
He lived in a homeless shelter in Indio, Calif., working in the commissary for his keep. Tequila and menthol cigarettes hastened his decline. He defied life in this way, off the grid, inaccessible. His solution to not keeping up his relationships—he was estranged from his siblings and friends —was to have none. Except with me.
The Saturday before the Tuesday he died—Election Day—I got a call that his kidneys were failing. I hustled down. He was, as the ICU nurses had suggested over the phone, “not in good shape.”
It occurred to me I would have profited from a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. I was handed several DNR authorizations. Do Not Resuscitate. Life support isn’t one thing or one plug; it’s a dozen procedures and interventions. And all I had were intuitions, conjectures.
The nurses X’d places for me to initial.
I wanted to talk to Perry first.
His legs were swollen. He fussed with his catheter. Fear registered in his eyes—the color of jaundiced lime. I said hello and he asked me to please kill him and could he have some cold water. I told him I couldn’t and dabbed his lips with a sponge, until he was hydrated enough to cry.
Once he fell asleep, I signed the forms. A nurse handed me the carbons. Then she gave me a hug.
The hard, unmentionable, latchkey years. He had no business parenting, but thank God he did. I edited this part out of the obit.
Hours after he was moved into hospice, Perry slipped into a morphine coma. Someone had mercifully muted the TV, Let’s Make a Deal. His morphine drip sounded like an iron lung. He was wrapped in his bedclothes like a papoose.
I held him by the forearm. I tried to will him to stop breathing. I believe he was too embarrassed to expire in front of me. His last audible words were: “I feel safe with you.” Then again, he could have been speaking to his mother, or my grandfather. I was told, toward the end, to accept unseen people in the room as real.
At his passing, I notified Perry’s old best friend, who said it was “a bummer.” The obit would not permit this.
I found in his effects a story from a creative writing course—he was 17 then—named "In Peril of Death" (“Bill Gunther,” it began, “was not an easy man to scare.”) and a college essay he titled "My Dad" (“Not at all flashy or extremely original, but still fine,” his teacher had written. “A-.”)
When the pastor at the homeless shelter telephoned with his condolences and with every faith that Perry had, at the millisecond after his death, touched the face of Jesus, and was in heaven and no longer in pain, I was too touched by the gesture to say that Perry first had a layover in Phoenix, where his vitals were being parted out for medical research.
Perry Steven. P.S. Obituaries are for scrapbooks. Obituaries are legacies. Children, also, are legacies. He’s gone and my life has shrunk a little. A lot.
I know what obituaries are not. They’re not postscripts. People are not afterthoughts.
- Zachary Amendt MFA '14
Amendt is from San Bernardino, Calif. His stories have been anthologized by Dzanc Books and Underground Voices Press.