In the early morning hours of July 22nd, 2007, a defeated and disease-ravaged man lay dead in his bed. Beside him, his nerve-shattered companion dialed a preset number on the man's cell phone.
My phone rang. It was 12:30 am. I almost didn't hear it. Nick Drake strummed his last stance on my iPod, and my Pit Bull and a German Shepherd were chasing a wild scent left on a butcher shop's brick wall.
My phone rang again. Standing under the shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains and the yellow light of a half moon, I flipped open the cell phone and saw the caller ID, "Papi".
"Oh God, my father's dead."
I was right. He was.
"Papi" was no ordinary liar. He was, without exaggeration, the Mozart of liars. His fictional compositions were orchestral masterpieces of fib. As composer and conductor of his fabricated truths, my father was unrivaled below the equator. Yes, below the equator. My Papi was born, lived and died with all his lies in Argentina. Beautiful Argentina.
Hours before my father died, on July 21, he celebrated his 69th birthday by trying not to die. Papi was always afraid to die on his birthday. His mother, my grandmother, died on her birthday, and he couldn't shake the awful irony that that coincidence somehow represented. So on his birthday, my father held on for as long as he could to make sure the clock hand past the midnight mark. Life, in his opinion, had been sadistically cruel to him, and even though he nevr seemed to win at it's game, he wasn't planning on losing this time. There was no way that the cruel irony of his own mother's death would repeat itself in his life.
I called my father to wish him happy birthday only 6 hours before he died. He sounded awful. More awful than all the other times I called him and he sounded awful. The problem was, you never knew when he was faking his illnesses or not. This time, however, there was no mistaking the sounds of a man running away from the last gasp of life. He sounded so bad that after hanging up the phone, I started making plans to go down to Argentina. It had been six years since I had seen my father last, and though my wife and I had wanted to travel the year before, something always delayed our plans.
Papi adored my children the same way he adored his children. With all his might and always from afar. I think it was easier for him to be an exiled father than a real one. Self-exiled, of course. My father had a hard time living in truth, and he never wanted his children to really see what he himself could not face. That his life was an unfinished romance novel wrapped around a plot line of "would have's, should have's and could have's," and written by an unreliable narrator who was always running to stay one step ahead of his last gasp.
Me, I am in a mixed state of emotions. I'm thousands of miles away, and instead of attending the funeral, I attended to the arrangements and the payment. A few weeks before he passed, Papi made me promise to bury him properly. He didn't want to end up in the community pothole as he called the public cemetery.
Like most deaths, pain is accompanied by laughter and silly memories, but death also reminds us how ephemeral our physical experience really is, and it brings into focus our own use of that time. Death screams, "do all you can to not waste a single second."
For the most part, my father wasted his life and threw away his relationships. Just a few days ago I talked to him about regrets and he was defiant all the way. This time, I didn’t get upset, I just laughed and said, “well, I’m sure you’ll be changing your mind one day soon, just don’t forget to come back and let me know.”
Amazingly, Papi gave me a sign not even 24 hours after his passing. A little miracle of a sign that conceded, “Marcel, maybe you were right, but hey, I’m still here, so I guess somebody is going to give me a second chance.” Maybe one day I will write about this sign, but for right now, I'm happy to keep it to myself.
I've also decided that one day I am going to tell my kids everything about their grandfather. Yes, everything. Hopefully they will understand why, in spite of it all, I loved him strong.