I met Death at a party. It was my sister Priscilla’s twelfth birthday and I was five. She wasn’t particularly frightening, Death, but then I had been told all about her, so seeing her made no adverse impression on me. Until I realized she was there for my dad.
When I was a little girl, I shared a morning ritual with my father. It started with the sound of gushing water through rebellious pipes, a moaning screech when Dad first turned on the tap. I still live in the house where I grew up and it’s the same today. But back then the sound meant my dad was awake. I remember I would trundle up the stairs, rubbing sleep from my eyes, feeling my way in the dark hall to the closed bathroom door. Of course I would knock, and my dad would sing out, “Is that my Princess Lulu?” I loved that because it gave Lucy, my given name, a fairy-tale flair, and such things are hugely impressive to a five-year-old. He would open the door wide and the light would sting my eyes as he ushered me into the bathroom, our inner sanctum—just me and my dad. It was a small bathroom; the tub took up one whole wall, and the sink had this minuscule counter that could barely accommodate his shaving things and a bar of soap. Mickey whines about that same thing, even today. I would climb my little self up onto the toilet and open my book. That was my ostensive purpose for being there after all: to practice my phonics.
Meanwhile my father, standing over the sink, would start to shave, and every day when he was fully foamed, he would swoop in for a kiss and a giggle. I’m thirty-three now and can still smell his shaving cream, still hear my own laughter.
My father was a big man. His belly practically hung in the soapy sink, and sometimes when he leaned close to the mirror to inspect this or that, he would straighten to find a froth of suds clinging to his bare stomach and he’d say, “Well, looky there, Lu, got me a creamy middle just like an Oreo.” Another kiss and giggle. When he was all finished cleaning and combing and gargling and spitting, he would splash Old Spice over his face and fill the bathroom with that unforgettable scent. I’m still a sucker for Old Spice, but I won’t let Mickey wear it.
I remember everything about those mornings. From the yellow towels on the floor to the sink full of soapy water, to Paul Harvey down low in the background, and the freshly pressed uniform hanging on the back of the door. The town where we live, Brinley Township, knew my father as Sergeant James Houston—Jim to the world and Jimmy to my mom and his partner, Deloy Rosenberg. I loved watching the transformation from sleepy, hair-everywhere, shirtless dad, to Sergeant James Houston. When he walked out of that bathroom in the blues my mom ironed for him every night, I thought he was invincible. It was utterly inconceivable to me that anything could ever hurt him, least of all two tiny bullets. I thought that’s what it meant to be Sergeant James Houston of Brinley Township—indestructible.
But then Mrs. Delacruz, my kindergarten teacher, told us all things die. “Everything, no exceptions,” she’d said, and it got me worried. I’m sure I must have asked Dad about it, though I don’t really recall. I just remember him kneeling by my bedside one night to discuss it. Lily, who was four years older than me, was pretending to be asleep in the next bed, so he was whispering when he made this terrible declaration: Mrs. Delacruz was correct, all things did die. I suppose it was in response to my horror that he took my hand and kissed it and ran it over his bristly chin. He said to me, “Lulu, you don’t need to be afraid of death. In fact, there are secrets about death that not everyone knows.” I remember he came even closer and said, “Do you want to know what they are?”
“Secrets?” I said. It sounded far-fetched, but my father never lied to me so I kept listening.
“Lulu, there are three things about death that I promise you. I promise you it’s not the end. Feels like the end—that’s why people cry—but it’s not the end. And it doesn’t hurt. That’s another very important part of death that people get afraid of if they don’t understand. It doesn’t hurt. And finally, if you’re not afraid of death, Lu, you can watch for it and be ready. Do you believe me?”
His face was so earnest, so reliable, that I simply nodded. “What does it look like?”
“I’m not sure, but I bet it’s pretty.”
“Is it nice?”
“Very nice, and very gentle.” At this point he explained to my little, spongelike brain that death was not the same as dying. That sometimes dying did in fact hurt, but with it came a little bit of magic because you got to forget the hurt as if it never happened. This opened up a huge discussion about all the gory ways a person might die, and how lovely it was that you got to forget. I must have seemed skeptical, which is strange because I didn’t doubt what he was telling me. Still my dad said, “Lulu, do you remember being born?”
I recall soberly considering this and answering, “No.”
He nodded. “See, death’s the same. You get to forget.”
I was amazed. My dad was right. He was always right. I don’t remember everything my father said, but I do remember the way the mystery of death utterly dissolved that night in his honest eyes. I trusted him completely, and his words have stayed with me and petrified in my grown-up soul. Of course I realize they were merely a gift bestowed on my innocence; reassurance to a little girl who couldn’t sleep. But who knew the calm he gave me would see me safely through so much loss and cradle me when I almost lost myself.
Of course he was right: death happens to everyone. But if it’s not the end, and it doesn’t hurt . . . well, then what was there to fear? Certainly this was the logic of my five-year-old self. So, when Death showed up at Priscilla’s birthday party, I was intrigued, but not alarmed.
The party was in our backyard. The barbecue was sizzling with hamburgers, the coolers overflowing with beer and Hawaiian Punch, and Mom was arranging candles on Priss’s cake. Besides half the junior high, a lot of my parents’ friends were there. Jan and Harry Bates, from next door, were trying to get their goofy son to stop chasing my sister Lily around with his ferret. (They were nine years old, but I knew even back then that Lily would marry Ron Bates. Everyone did.) Dr. Barbee was there and the Witherses from the funeral home down the street, my dad’s police friends—even the mayor was there.
I was setting paper plates on the picnic table when I noticed her. I knew immediately who she was, and she didn’t seem all that threatening or wrong. In fact, she looked as if she’d be kind, though I’ve come to wonder about that. If I had to describe her, I don’t think I could, because how do you really describe the feeling attached to an apparition? It seems to me now that it was more like a raw knowing that took on a shape and dimension that something in me recognized. I’ve seen her since and have personally assigned her as female, mostly by instinct and impression rather than anything resembling proof. All the same, I’d know her anywhere.
I wasn’t scared by her presence, at all. In fact, I remember being quite intoxicated by the sound of her whisper above the noise, though I never heard what she said. I watched her kind of float among our guests, her whole bearing no more substantial than the inside of a cloud. At one point she even looked at me, right in my eyes. If my father had never told me about her, I think I would still have known who she was. It was an irrepressible connection, completely undeniable. She knew me, too. She smiled at me—at my little-girl self—but she saw my grown soul and my grown soul understood. She would come for me, too. But not then.
No, she was there for my father. And my dad must have felt it, too, because he found my gaze from across the yard. I can still see his face, the knowing in his eyes. They told me not to be afraid—he wasn’t.
I still thought him too big to die and much too solid to ever spring a leak that would kill him. But two tiny bullets did just that. He died the day after Priscilla turned twelve when he tried to stop a drifter from robbing Arnie’s Gas N’ Go. Death came for my mother twelve years later. And then it was just we three girls, Lily, Priscilla, and me.