My Dad and my Brother are gone. They were taken away a long time ago and kept in a place out of reach to me. Death holds them still, within her dark cloak, comforting and terrifying them to keep them with her forever.

So I thought I’d write them a letter. I didn’t know if I’d send it, but I still needed to say goodbye, if only for myself. I dug into my memory, into the 90’s where most of the good stuff is. To restaurants with them, laughing and joking like best friends. To getting home from school and setting up the haunted house, the one that was known around the neighborhood. I remember going to my Dads work. He would give me coffee with a hot chocolate packet dumped in it – adult things I had never tried – and show me his 3d stress testing programs. I imagined my Father as a younger man, before I existed, driving his motorcycle around the country with dreams and plans swirling in his head, carrying his sorrow and his sleeping pack with him wherever he went. When I was really little, my brother set up a magic show in the bathroom, our fuzzy brown blanket as the backdrop and his props on the stool. I walked in and waited with the patience of a little boy. After what must have been just a couple minutes of him getting ready, I got bored and left before it started. I’ve never been able to truly forgive myself for not watching what he had prepared, silly as it seems. I put those things in the letter, and more, and said my goodbyes.

My Grandmother on my Dad’s side is old these days. She’s a real estate agent, and was able to find an address to where my Dad was. I went ahead and sent the letter, knowing full well that I wouldn’t get a response. It felt good to send it. I knew that the letter would get destroyed before it was even opened; it’s contents were too truthful and damaging to be allowed to be seen there, so Death filters stuff like that. And then a few weeks later came a response. Hi Michael, it’s good to hear from you. I thought that you were mad at me and your Brother (I had thought that they where mad at me). Thank you for the nice words, and would you like to meet up with us soon, over dinner, to talk about what happened those ten years ago, when you were kicked out of the cult, and things were so hectic and different.

Life is weird. I feel like I’ve gotten this chance, a bubble in time and reality, a once in a lifetime opportunity. I feel like I’ve gotten to peer into the window, closed to most, on the wall that separates us from our loved ones when they die. Religious cults do this. They take family members and friends away from you, most often forever. They destroy relationships, that’s what they do best, and they leave in their great wake pain, sorrow and depression. Depression that lasts lifetimes, that doesn’t go away, even with medication. They turn people into zombies that can sometimes bite and infect others. They cause suicides. They ruin lives.

I arrived at a small and cozy steakhouse in Pasadena in the evening, after work. As I pulled up I spotted what I thought might be my Dad. His curly and too-long dark brown hair, with a few roots of grey, had somehow turned into short hair that was fully silver. He wore a convincing mask, aging him ten years or more. It sagged in all the right places, weighed down by sorrow. Memories of his bright and animated laugh flashed through my mind, his sad eyes still filled with the fire of life. They were much sadder now, and they sagged with the weight of that cunning disguise.

As I put the car in park and got out, he looked at me with the same subtle but visible expression that I must have had, taking in the years on my face that should have passed gradually, but were forced to happen now in an instant. He joked on how my Brother is always late, but should be there soon.

Inside with the two of them there now, I looked at my brother. Besides his glasses and slightly receded hair he looked mostly the same, the only exception a new plastic quality to his smile, one that worked hard to betray even his own mind. But that’s ok. We ordered our food, and then the clouds parted; I was a teenager again. Anything bad that had happened was pushed away to the fringes of our minds, and we existed in that restaurant in our own bubble. They were free from Death, the tyrant. The jokes and smiles came back, the fluid conversation and understanding, acquired by years of seeing each other at our worst, and years of video games and basketball, being happy. It was wonderful; it was bliss. I relived my childhood. I was in the present. I got to tell them how I was working on graphics for TV shows, about my Wife and our adventures over the years, our bulldog who’s changed our lives, the 75 pounds I lost last year. I had changed into an adult somewhere in all that time. And I soaked in their lives too. My Brother’s new Wife and the things he has been doing in music; my Dad’s quest for a new job and his weird and funny take on life.

20 or 30 minutes after we all finished our food we still sailed in the freedom. They were as comfortable as I, but I had no other purpose than to see them, no spring loaded motives waiting dormant in the back of my mind. I saw a look in my Dad’s eye aimed at my Brother. A question, and after a subtle conformation, Dad asked me if my Wife and I would like to come over sometime, maybe for a holiday or something. It was a gentle touch, but then a backhand to the face; bitter sweet. It was really difficult for the next 5 minutes before we left, being civil as possible but still telling them the truth. Since loosing them I had evolved eyes that could see corrupted evil and true intentions – reality. I guess they had not. Truth needs to be gently placed on the ignorant; it can be shocking for them. I did the best that I could. There are certain things about the group (cult) that I can’t (won’t) have in my life right now (ever). They must have forgotten about Uncle Allen, my middle namesake, a slightly slow but sweet and loving Father and Husband, who took his life in a truck down in San Diego. Or the 10 or 15 families, not unzipped, but carelessly ripped apart and discarded. My Dad’s Dad, kicked out of the group long ago, who as he was dying of an untreated cancer still sent them money. All that money, spent on fun vacations to Hawaii and China for the two leaders and their privileged families. But I didn’t remind them of any of these facts. What would be the point? It would only make the monster stronger. And I knew that this wasn’t a beginning, just a glitch in time that I was able to step in and experience before the window closed.

I’d love to see you guys, but the group itself is just something that my Wife and I can’t be involved in I said. But Michael, we are the group. The tape in my Brother’s head had been activated; I saw it in his eyes. My Dad was quiet again, not sure what to do. We were standing outside in the cold, thumbing our keys. Death was here now. She had emerged out of the dark, her cracked and decaying face smiling. As small talk tried desperately to cover the discomfort, Death laughed. She opened her thick cloak, black as pitch, and called to them. The promise of unthinking coziness and the horrifying religious dedication pulled at them, and quickly they were gone. They died for the second time then, and my old wound was torn open. But I accept that reality. I don’t run from pain, or stick my head in the sand. That, I think, is the main difference between them and I.

Michael Ranger

Note: My Dad passed away today, and the last portion of this is kind of negative and judgemental. We all make mistakes. The good far, far exceeded the bad with my Dad. I love you and miss you Dad.

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