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Carrie Pomeroy

The Game of Grief

The spring before my father died, I played the Game of Life almost every day, with friends sometimes, but mostly by myself, following my own rules. According to Life's official rules, when you landed on the Day of Reckoning square, it was time to count up your money, pay off your debts, and dump your family of plastic pegs back in the box: game over. Whoever had the most money won.

I preferred to skip the Day of Reckoning. Instead, I whisked my car back to the starting square, keeping my piles of play money and my carload of plastic-peg husband and kids. When I ran out of room in the car, I just crammed more kids in sideways. I wasn't going to let some dumb rules force me to say goodbye to my family. No way. Not after all we'd been through together.

Oddly enough, my little sister and I were playing the Game of Life with some neighborhood friends the night our dad died. While Dad was struggling to breathe next door, Amy and I were sitting in the neighbor's basement rumpus room, spinning a dial to see where we'd land next, scooting our plastic cars toward the Day of Reckoning. I tried to talk my friends into playing my way, but they weren't interested. Why play a game that no one would ever win? They just didn't see the point.

It was the night after Easter, and our spring break from school had just begun. Blondie's album Rapture was whirling on the basement turntable, the volume cranked up to ten. None of the usual weeknight rules seemed to apply. "Stay and play as long as you like!" our friend's mother urged us. "You're on vacation! Live a little!" We didn't know it at the time, but our mother had phoned the neighbors from the emergency room and asked them to stall us in the basement until she could get there.

When our mother picked us up at about quarter to ten, I could tell she'd been crying, and I thought I knew why.

"Dad didn't get that job, did he?" I blurted as soon as my friend's door was closed behind us. My dad had flown to Detroit that day for a job interview, hoping to escape the failing frozen food outfit where he'd worked for the last three years. Before he'd driven to the airport, our family had held hands in a circle, bowed our heads, and prayed that the interview would go well.

My mother's mouth tightened into something between a wince and a smile. She put her arms around our shoulders as we walked.

"Girls, I'm afraid I have some very bad news," she said.

My father had gotten home hungry that night, so Mom had fixed him a cold turkey sandwich with some of the Easter dinner leftovers. He was eating in his favorite chair in the family room, watching TV, when he started to choke. My mother tried the Heimlich maneuver. She tried fishing the clotted meat and bread from his throat with her fingers, tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When he still couldn't breathe, she'd guided him toward the car to drive him to the emergency room, but he'd collapsed on the kitchen floor. That was when she'd called 911.

"The medics and the doctors at the hospital did everything they could," she told my sister and me. Her voice was calm, as soothing as her hand on my forehead when I had a fever.

The three of us had reached our driveway by then. Our street was dark, except for the streetlights and the familiar blue glow of our neighbors' TVs. My father must be OK, I thought. How could my mother be so calm if he wasn't OK?

"Girls," my mother said, "your daddy died tonight."

"You're kidding," were the first words out of my mouth.

I woke up the next morning to the smell of my father's Head and Shoulders shampoo. I was in my parents' bed. My sister was sleeping next to me. I stared at the sunlight streaming through the window shades and at first I couldn't figure out what I was doing in my parents' room. Then I remembered, and what I felt those first waking moments was not the shock I'd felt the night before, and not the sorrow I would have expected. It was curiosity, avid, chomping-at-the-bit curiosity.

I had never lived through a day like the one ahead of me. What was going to happen next? What would our house, our life, be like without my father in it? The excitement tingling through my body reminded me of waking up on Easter morning only a few days earlier, knowing that I had an Easter basket at the foot of my bed but not knowing exactly what treats I'd find inside.

I knew right away that I had better keep comparisons like that to myself.

Your father is dead, I thought sternly, trying to face the news head-on, trying to believe it. But I backed away from it, shook my head. My healthy, handsome young father could not be dead. It was ridiculous. I almost wanted to giggle, the way we kids had giggled and rolled our eyes when our sixth-grade health teacher had struggled to present the facts of life with a straight, unembarrassed face.

From the kitchen below, I could hear the clink of dishes and silverware and the murmur of women's voices. What was it going to be like, I wondered, to walk downstairs and face a house full of people? How would they expect me to act?

My sister blinked awake. Listening to the women in the kitchen, we smiled shyly at each other, neither of us saying a word.

Downstairs, the doorbell rang, and we ran to the window to see who was there. It was our Uncle Jim, our father's identical twin, standing on the front step with a suitcase in his hand and a garment bag slung over his shoulder. Amy and I gaped at each other. How had he gotten from St. Louis to Buffalo so quickly? He must have taken one of those red eyes my father was always hopping. We scrambled into our robes and rushed down to see him.

I didn't know Jim well, but he had always been my favorite uncle, this man with my father's face and voice and walk, my father's gestures and donkey's bray of a laugh. He and my father were both marathon runners, so they were lean and sinewy in the exact same way, their bodies whittled down to the same sharp contours of skin and bone and lanky muscle. He had my father's tall frame and his short black hair. He had the same green eyes flecked with gold, though Jim's right eyelid drooped slightly, a key way to tell the two of them apart. They both had the same insistent five o'clock shadows. My father used to shave twice a day--once before work and once after, so he wouldn't scratch my mother's face when they kissed.

There in the front entryway, Jim wrapped Amy and me in a tight hug. A button on his overcoat dug into my cheek, but I didn't care. For a moment, the world was as it should be. My father was holding me again.

But then Jim's chest heaved with a sob, and the spell was broken.

My father's canonization began that day. Within 24 hours of his death, it was already becoming hard to recognize the real man beneath the glowing halo planted on his head. Our next-door neighbor, the one who'd distracted us in her basement, told my mother she didn't think it mere coincidence that my father had died the day after Easter at the age of 33. He was, she insisted, a true incarnation of Christ's love. She stopped just short of saying he had been Christ. The priest who came to our house spoke of our family sitting in the front pew every Sunday and holy day, a model of piety. He didn't know that my father had avoided chitchatting with the priests and our fellow parishioners after Mass because he wanted to beat them all out of the church parking lot.

Still numb, I warmed myself on the adults' praise of my father, though I remembered him as more of a ham and a joker than a saint. I liked to remember the way he clicked his heels in parking lots like a dancer in an old movie, the way he wrestled with my sister and me on the family room floor, shouting "Three falls to the finish!" I remembered the way he answered the door like Lurch on The Addams Family, intoning, "You rang?" to make our girlfriends roll their eyes. I remembered him washing my hair in the kitchen sink when I was little, massaging my soapy scalp "just like at the beauty shop."

I remembered, too, how he'd rescued me once, on vacation in Florida. A wave at the beach had caught me off guard and knocked me underwater, hard. But my father's sure hands had snatched me up and pulled me back into the world, spluttering and gasping for air.

So I did have happy memories of him. But he was also something of a stranger. His work as a sales executive took him away from home most weeks. When he was home, I was glad to see him, as long as he didn't interfere too much. If he dared make a suggestion or issue an order, I curtly informed him, "We don't do things that way," shutting him out of our cozy trio of females.

Then, when I'd decided at twelve that it was high time for me to start acting like a teenager, my father had made a natural target for my pubescent angst. I'd read enough Judy Blume to know that adolescents were stormy, tempestuous creatures, and anxious to grow up, I played my role to the hilt.

So my father and I fought while we were on vacation at a resort in upstate New York, fought at breakfast, fought at family reunions, fought at a miniature golf course. Next to a whirring mechanical windmill, golf club in hand, he informed me I wasn't too old for him to pull down my pants and spank my bare bottom in front of everyone there.

Just try it, I thought. I'll kill you first.

We had even fought the night before he died, while our family was eating our Easter dinner. My father simply didn't understand how a girl like me, with a nice house, loving parents, every material comfort, could be so sullen and miserable. He had a solution for my problems, though: team sports.

"You've got what it takes to be a phenomenal runner," he told me. "It's a shame not to use the gifts God gave you."

I didn't know then what sports had meant to my father during high school, when he'd lettered in track, baseball, and football. Being an athlete had steadied him through his father's alcoholism and his parents' divorce, through his mother's remarriage to another alcoholic, through all the grimy ugliness of growing up in the shadow of a steel mill. When he brought up sports again over the Easter turkey and green beans, I didn't know he was throwing me the lifeline that had yanked him out of deep trouble. I just thought he didn't like me the way I was.

I fixed him with my sharpest glare. "I'm sorry it bothers you that I'm not some dumb jock," I snapped. I cut myself off before I added, "like you."

"You meant the world to your father, you know," grown-ups told me after he was gone. "He worked so hard, and it was all to make a good life for your family."

I nodded and ducked my head, too ashamed to meet their eyes.

As penance for my failings as a daughter, I decided I was never going to have fun again. I would not laugh. I would not fool around. From now on, my life was going to be all about grief.

One afternoon a few days before the funeral, two of my playmates tested my resolve when they knocked on our door and asked if Amy and I could come outside.

Amy hesitated, chewing some dry skin on her lower lip. My mother said it would be fine if she wanted to go out. Instantly, Amy grabbed her wind breaker and slipped on her sneakers.

"How about you?" my mother asked me.

"I don't think so," I sighed. I tried to look too sad to even consider playing.

My sister strolled next door with our friends. I sat on the living room sofa perfecting my mournful expression, stealing peeks out the window through the filmy blue drapes. Amy and our friends huddled on the neighbors' blacktop driveway, leaning close. One girl patted Amy's back and nodded soberly. But then, as if nothing in the world had changed, they pulled out a basketball and started playing Around the World, aiming shots at the hoop hung over the garage door.

My mother sat down beside me on the living room couch.

"I don't get how she can be playing like that, so soon," I said.

"She's young. Maybe she doesn't really understand yet," my mother said with a shrug and a rueful smile.

"People are going to think she doesn't care," I protested.

"They'll probably just be glad to see her having a little fun, if they notice at all," my mother said.

"Maybe," I said.

"It's all going to hit her later, I'll bet," my mother said. "She'll probably need a lot of help from us then."

I nodded and tried to look responsible and mature, but inside I was squirming. It was really no wonder, I thought, that Amy could play with a guilt-free conscience while I was sitting inside. Amy had never mouthed off to our father the way I had. She'd never yelled at him that he didn't understand her and never would. Amy, the cheerful, athletic nine-year-old my dad had dubbed Sport, would never have any doubt that my father had loved her. And she'd never have to wonder if she had really loved him.

The day of the funeral, my mother dressed my sister and me in the Easter dresses we'd worn to church less than a week earlier. Mine was a white dress printed with cranberry-colored flowers. My mother wore a white suit with black trim.

"I don't want us all in black," she insisted. "I want to project some sense of hope."

We arrived at the funeral home with my grandparents, my Uncle Jim, and his wife Trudy, followed by my mother's brother and her sister Jean. My family had always joked about this place because it was called the Amigone Funeral Home. "Am I gone?" my father would intone in a ghostly voice whenever we drove past.

The funeral director walked us down a long hallway. My mother had decided to have an open-casket visitation for family only, a few hours before the more public funeral Mass. My father used to say open caskets were barbaric, but my mother thought that in this case, the open casket was necessary. The suddenness of his death, the fact that some of his relatives hadn't seen him in years--she felt people might need to see his body to grasp that he was gone.

In the funeral home hallway, lugubrious organ music oozed from speakers mounted on the wall.

"God, can't they do something about that?" my Uncle Jim growled.

I wasn't sure what he didn't like about the music. I knew I didn't like the way it dictated a certain way we should feel. It was generic mourning music, chosen to suit a generic idea of mourning, and it had nothing to do with my father as a living person, the man who had whistled and sung along with Top 40 hits on the radio, the man who had crooned, "It's night-night time in Happy Valley" when it was time for bed, the man who had surprised my mother with disco dancing lessons two Christmases ago.

We reached the door to the room where my father was laid out. Through the doorway, we could see his profile peeking up from the coffin against a backdrop of white satin.

"Oh, no," my mother said in a small, shocked voice.

As soon as we'd reached the casket, it became immediately clear to me that the body lying below us was not my father. First of all, someone had parted his hair wrong. He wore his hair parted in the middle, but now it was combed in a side part. On his lips was painted a faint pink smile that I guessed was supposed to make him look peaceful, but it only reminded me, ludicrously and a little scarily, of the Joker from Batman and Robin.

I noticed my father's hands, too. In his fingers was tangled a string of wooden rosary beads. I'd never seen my father say the rosary in his life. Yes, he kneeled down every night by his bed and prayed, and he said grace over supper, but I'd never seen him say the rosary.

I looked more closely. When my father was alive, I'd been fascinated by the bulging, knotty veins on the back of his hands. The coursing, pulsing life in him seemed ready to burst right out of his skin. Sitting on his lap while we watched TV, I couldn't resist pressing down on those bulging, wormy veins of his, even though--or maybe because--it irritated him.

"Cut it out," he'd mutter, batting my hand away, his eyes still on the television.

Now, when I looked at his hands tangled up with those rosary beads, I noticed that the veins lay flat beneath his skin.

My mother leaned over and kissed my father on the mouth. I couldn't imagine wanting to touch him, let alone kiss him. I wondered if my mother really wanted to kiss him, or if she felt she had to do it, as his widow. Was I supposed to kiss him, too? My mother stroked his hair and touched his cheek. He lay there, so still, a big doll, a department store mannequin.

Panic rose in me like nausea.

"I've got to step out for a second," I told my mother. I walked painstakingly slowly down the aisle and out of the room, trying to look dignified and mournful, but I really wanted to run as fast and as far as I could get. I sank down on the nearest sofa in the hallway, buried my face in my hands, and cried. I was shaking uncontrollably, my teeth chattering.

My Aunt Jean and my grandpa stayed with me in the hall. Jean sat next to me and put her arm around me. My grandpa offered me his handkerchief and then stood nearby, nervously rattling change in his pants pocket.

"I hate this part, too," Jean said.

"It's not him," I insisted.

"Well, honey, I agree with you there," she said in her blunt, cigarette-roughened voice. "But we have to work with what we've got."

At the church, the pallbearers placed my father's coffin on a gurney, and they rolled the coffin up the aisle toward the altar. My sister, mother, and I followed behind. More than ever, I felt as if I were performing. I arranged my face in my practiced expression of mourning, though a part of me wanted to smile at the strangeness of it all, this macabre parade. It was an elaborate joke, not real, and come Monday evening, I knew my father would arrive home as usual, carrying his briefcase and wearing his blue wool trench coat, and we would realize the truth, that he had really been on a long business trip and this whole funeral had been an unnecessary farce.

I kept my eyes trained on the shining linoleum floor, my face turned away from my family and the coffin in front of me. I glimpsed a few people I knew in the crowded wooden pews. In the back row, secretaries from my dad's office sobbed into Kleenexes. I saw my old baby sitter Rosalie and my fifth grade teacher Miss Kamm. I was careful not to make eye contact with any of them. I was afraid I might smile or wave or do some other inappropriate thing. Usually I only saw so many familiar people together in one place at school plays and concerts. That made what was happening seem all the more like a performance.

The priest offered his words of comfort, his sacraments. My Uncle Jim delivered the eulogy, looking uncannily like the brother he was helping to bury. Jim spoke of the marathons my father had run. He talked about the drive and persistence and courage it took to finish those 26.2 miles.

"At the end of a marathon, there's always a line of people waiting to clap for you at the finish line," Uncle Jim said. "And today--" He broke off. He looked down at the podium for a long time before he could speak again, and his voice was hoarse. "Today, I want us all to clap for my brother for finishing the race of his life."

He lifted his hands and clapped, a forlorn, small sound in the big echoing church. At first people seemed startled to be asked to clap. They looked around at one another warily, and only a few joined my uncle in clapping. Then gradually everyone joined in. I clapped, too, but my hands felt numb and disconnected from the rest of me, pieces of raw meat.

Afterwards, like a cast of actors meeting their admirers, my sister, mother, and I stood at the back of the church and received our well-wishers. I remember thinking that I had to look grown-up and responsible, so that everyone would know I could take care of my mom and sister. I decided the best way to do this was to stand as straight as I could, so that I would look taller. Later, my rib and stomach muscles ached from being clenched for so long.

As soon as our spring vacation had ended, my mother sent my sister and me back to class while she got our house ready to sell. She thought it would be better for us to stick to familiar routines as much as possible.

At school, I noticed other kids gaping at me in the hall. It was as if they thought I was the one who had died, and they were surprised to see me still up and around. Maybe they were hoping for some uncontrollable bout of tears. Or maybe they simply shared the unspeakable excitement I had felt the morning after my dad died, the thrill of seeing how quickly an ordinary life could be smashed to smithereens.

One day about a month after I'd returned to school, I decided to put being a dead man's daughter to good use. We were scheduled to play volleyball in gym class later that afternoon. I rarely managed to serve over the net or keep a volley going, and my classmates groaned at my every missed shot. "God, Carrie, what's the matter with you?" they taunted. Every mistake reminded me of how badly my father had wanted me to play sports, and how far I was from fulfilling his dream.

I decided I was not going to gym class that day. I would make myself cry. My teacher would assume it was about my dad, and I would be able to sit in the nurse's office until gym class was over. It seemed only fair that the bad thing that had happened to me should exempt me from rules that other kids had to follow.

I was in social studies, the class before gym, when I decided to make my move. We were taking turns reading aloud from our textbook, trudging through a chapter on constitutional amendments, and I had just finished reading a paragraph about women's suffrage. A glance at the clock warned me I only had ten more minutes to act. I stole a sidelong peek around the room, trying to gauge my audience. Some of my classmates were doggedly staring at their textbooks, mouthing along with the words. Most looked bored, their fists just barely propping up their lolling heads. Up at her desk, the teacher peered down at her book through drug store reading glasses.

I clenched and unclenched my fists, feeling the dampness on my palms. I had to work up a convincing cry, but no tears were coming. I bit the tender flesh inside my mouth. I dug my fingernails into my arm. Nothing. I took a deep breath and tried to pull up the most disturbing images I could conjure. A picture of my father in his coffin flashed through my mind, but I flinched away from it, unable to hold the image.

Then another memory arrived, a memory from a few weekends before his death. He and I had gone to a park near our house to fly a kite together. The kite was shaped like an eagle, and as it flapped in the wind, I'd pretended it was a real eagle dipping and soaring over our heads.

As we walked home from the park, I told my father about what I'd been imagining. We talked about trying to see a real bald eagle some day -- bald eagles weren't as common a sight then as they've become these days, and they definitely weren't common in our upstate New York suburb. My father told me about how bald eagles had almost died out. Chemicals sprayed on crops had made the eagles' eggs so thin and fragile, the eggs were breaking when the mother bird sat over them. Seeing my stricken face, he rushed to reassure me that people weren't going to use those chemicals any more. Maybe, we decided, things could still get back to normal for the eagles.

When we came to our street, I saw a couple of my friends walking ahead of us on the sidewalk. Suddenly, I felt embarrassed to be carrying a kite with my dad. Would my friends think I was a baby? Would they tease me? I stiffened, hesitating, trying to stall.

"I can carry the kite home if you want to go see your friends," my father said. Gratefully, I pushed the kite into his hands and galloped away.

How relieved I'd been to leave him behind.

At first, only the kids closest to my desk noticed I was crying. But the nudging and whispering traveled quickly from row to row until the room was dead silent and everyone was staring at me. My teacher left an aide in charge and hustled me off to the nurse's office, murmuring comforts I didn't hear. With businesslike efficiency, the nurse draped a scratchy wool blanket over my shoulders, sat me down on a cot, and nestled a box of Kleenex on my lap. Then she called my mother.

I'd gotten my reprieve from gym, all right. I just hadn't bargained on playacting my way into actual grief.

Hunched over on the cot, I wanted to run, scream, bang my fists against lockers until my knuckles bled. My father was dead. There was no bending the rules where that was concerned, no rescuing him from the Day of Reckoning, no plunking him back at the starting line. I could reach out my hands for the rest of my life, pleading, but I was never going to touch him again. Never. These were the facts, as harsh, impersonal, and unavoidable as that Florida wave that had flattened me against the ocean floor, years earlier.

Caught beneath that wave, I'd thought, This is it. I'm going to die. But then my father had fished me up and carried me to the warm, dry sand. With his hand pounding between my shoulder blades, I'd coughed up cold salt water, taken a deep breath, and come shivering back to life.

©2005 by Carrie Pomeroy

Carrie Pomeroy has published work in The Baltimore Review, The Laurel Review, and has work forthcoming online at and Mother of a young son and daughter, she is currently writing a memoir about motherhood.

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