The large twin undertakers seemed to be taking their sweet time preparing to remove my father’s body from his house in rural Virginia. But what did I know? My sense of time was totally out of whack. I’d been through a lot since 7:00 a.m., when I discovered that my father had died in his sleep the night before, in bed at home while my mother was in the hospital for cardiac testing.
As the Geminis prepared to shroud my father’s body, I sat quietly on the couch in the living room, avoiding the spot my father usually reserved for himself. There was a big analogue clock on the mantelpiece of the fireplace to my left, and another large clock on the hearth to the left of the cast-iron stand that held the fireplace poker, brush and ash shovel. There was a small clock on the end table that held magazines and a cup with ballpoint pens and my Nisei dad’s Japanese ear pick in it. There was another clock across the room, and a microwave with a digital time readout. All of the clocks were synchronized. Dad liked to know what time it was, which happened, also, to be a characteristic of Zen monasteries where I’d trained, where events are timed to the minute and the meditation and meal schedule is God.
The clocks ticked loudly and asynchronously—Dad hadn’t managed to get them matched to the second—but I didn’t have the nerve to do anything about them yet. I would, later on.
* * * *
That night, I hauled bedding up from the basement family room and installed my son and me on the floor of the living room. My newly widowed mother was home from the hospital by then, sleeping in her bed, where Dad had died. I wanted to be close to her, in case she needed me for something and cried out in the night. The lights off, my son nestled close, I closed my eyes and stretched out. As soon as my body settled into the familiar slight lumpiness of the cotton futons, I realized that Dad’s clocks were not just loud, they were very loud, overwhelmingly loud. In the pause after one tick ended, another clock’s tick would sound so that the dark living room was filled with the sound of constant ticking. It was like trying to sleep next to a concealed time bomb.
“It’s OK, I can handle this,” I said to myself, breathing deeply from and into my belly. I meditated, counting in Korean from one to five on the exhale, the original method I’d been taught in the Zen temple in Michigan. The ticking seemed to swell in volume. Where was the damn bomb? I realized that my head was the secret bomb, and it would explode if I continued to lie there, doing nothing. I could feel Dad’s spirit, crouched on his end of the couch, trying to protect his clocks, but he was dead and his grip was weakening.
I sat bolt upright and carefully threw back the covers, making sure that my child remained covered.
“Sorry, Dad,” I said aloud in the direction of the couch, “but this is way too Edgar Allan Poe.” I collected the clocks, placed them in the hall closet and covered them with some coats, then closed the closet door and returned to the futon nest on the floor. I couldn’t hear the ticking, and although I could imagine the clocks, piled on the floor of the hall closet, ticking resentfully, I closed the doors of my attention and drifted off to sleep.
* * * *
“Let’s get this show on the road,” my father used to yell at his children. He was always spouting obnoxious adages such as “Age before beauty” and “You can’t fight City Hall.”
No eyes no ears no nose no tongue no body no mind says the Heart Sutra, a central text of Zen Buddhism.
So, yes, it was time to get this show on the road. We have returned to the beginning of this story, before I had the nerve to touch any of my father’s things. The twin undertakers were ready to do their part. I was ready. My father’s blue body in its blue cotton shirt had been respectfully rolled in a white sheet and transferred to a white canvas stretcher. Gemini Undertaker One backed gingerly out of the narrow doorway of the small bedroom. There was a stirring of excitement in the household. I stood up and moved to where I could view the spectacle without getting in the way. My Japanese Brazilian brother-in-law and nephew positioned themselves to my left. The atmosphere was hushed, and my father’s many clocks ticked loudly.
The stretcher was manipulated through the door, with Gemini Two expertly handling the other end. The body progressed down the brief stretch of narrow hallway, and as it passed I was surprised to see that my seven-year-old son had slipped into the end of the procession and was bringing up the rear. His eyes resolutely fixed on the stretcher, spine straight and shoulders rolled back, he marched in slow step. He carried on his shoulder the sheathed blade of a toy samurai sword that was part of a Halloween outfit my brother had worn thirty years previously. It had been stashed in the basement along with the miniature samurai armor that my maternal grandfather had made in Hawai‘i out of cardboard painted black and cleverly tied together with cords. The small sword had a faux gold and orange brocade sheath, and a metal blade.
My family is, it is said, descended from samurai, so there was a comforting sense of rightness, of our family’s history, in this ending. I followed the procession out through the cold garage and watched as the shrouded body was slid into the back of the van and the van’s doors were closed. I could no longer see my father. A light spring rain had begun to fall. From behind me, my brother-in-law darted forward and pulled the garage door shut from inside. As the heavy door rolled downward on its metal track, I could feel it in my body. I heard the motor turning over, and the crunch of gravel as the funeral home van pulled slowly away.