Is He Dead?
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“Is he dead?”
It seemed a stupid question at first.
It was Sunday and I was lying in bed with a cold. I was half-watching the television, where Rosie O’Donnell, Richard Dreyfuss, and Emilio Estevez were pretending to be a family in the movie Another Stakeout.
The phone rang. It was my mother, crying. I sat up.
“Something bad has happened,” she said. “Leon jumped,” she said. “Out the window.”
He lived on the 24th floor of a Manhattan high rise.
That’s when I asked if he was dead, and the answer was quick: of course.
Leon was my stepfather for 19 years. He was mentally ill, although only diagnosed after I’d left home for college. There were hospitalizations, and prescriptions for Risperidone and Paxil and a whole soup of anti-psychotic and anti-depressant medications.
My mother took care of him until the night he imprisoned her in the kitchen and started squeezing her thin arms, and then her neck, leaving a trail of bruises. His son, then a teenager, heard our mother’s screams and ran to a neighbor’s house for help. The police arrived the moment after she’d broken free. She was running down the street, Leon in pursuit. He was arrested, brought to a mental hospital. My mother secured a temporary restraining order, and then a divorce.
After that, he lived alone. He improved when he was on his medication, and when he felt better he was sure he didn’t need it. So he’d stop taking it—and then go into decline. First he’d speak slowly, then not at all. He’d stop eating, then drinking, then leaving the couch, even to go to the bathroom. His court-appointed guardian would discover him on the sodden upholstery and call the ambulance. Rehydration, medication, revival. Wash, rinse, repeat. He was 75, and I couldn’t imagine how he could continue in this fashion.
But I also thought he would never die.
Leon started confusing me when I was five years old. That’s when he married my mother, and not long after, he dropped down on one knee and said he’d be honored if I’d call him Daddy.
My own father had died when I was infant; I readily accepted Leon’s proposal—he was nice to me and brought me toys. As I got older, I came to admire him. He celebrated the life of the mind. He was always reading, several newspapers a day, books, magazines. He was forever handing people articles to read, and always encouraging me to read and, when it became apparent I was so inclined, to write.
But then there were the times when his eyes got swirly and hard and glassy. He’d hurl words I’d never heard before, at volumes I’d never encountered—along with furniture, and anything else he happened to get his hands on. At first, his furies were vented only at my mother, but then, around the time I became a teenager, I became a favorite target.
He could not bear the smell of me. He swore he could smell makeup on my face and bade me to wash over and over again. He did not like the sight of my bare feet; I was required to wear slippers. When I forgot—as I often did—he would find them and throw them in my face. But as much as he seemed to want me to disappear, he also couldn’t stand to be unacknowledged. His rage at encountering unwanted sensory evidence of my existence was matched only by his rampages when I tried to ignore him.
There were always apologies afterward. They became less convincing over time. “I never meant to do you any harm,” he once said to me, sadly, after a social worker had paid an investigating call. I’d stopped listening by then. It was only after he was officially diagnosed with psychosis that I realized that he was probably telling the truth. But he made his final attack on my mother not long after that, and although he lived for seven more years, I never spoke to him again.
There was no funeral. He was buried in Calverton National Cemetery. I went a few weeks after he was buried. His headstone was white, and along with the relevant dates, it said: “Beloved Dad. Rest in Peace.”
But did he?
“It’s about the jumper on 24th Street,” said the police officer who answered the phone, when he thought he’d put me on hold. A few moments later, I received permission to tear the fluorescent green police seal from Leon’s apartment door. Cause of death had been determined. It was not murder. The apartment was no longer a potential crime scene.
The case was officially closed. But my work had just started. Since I was the only one of the immediate family living in the city, I had to clean his apartment, to ready it for its next occupants.
I walked into the dining room, past a wall lined with packages of Depends and stacked with newspapers, the one on top from the day he died. His shoes were kicked under the table, and the table itself was overflowing with clocks, both digital and analog, and many watches. There were several compasses, needles spinning northward. Also on the table, a stack of papers: copies of patents he’d applied for as a younger man, plays he’d written when he was younger still, and his military service records.
In the living room, I found approximately 300 flashlights that he’d collected to ward off the dark, and dozens and dozens of radios that he’d bought to fill the silence.
I opened his closet, which smelled as he always did, of newsprint and Scotch tape. There, among his suits, was a garbage bag filled with burnt out light bulbs. These I threw away without counting.
I went into the bedroom, where I found pictures of my brother, and his daughter from his first marriage, and of me. The frames were tipped face down. There were knives of various shapes and sizes arrayed on the night table.
He’d used a knife to cut the screen out of the dining room window. Or so I surmised; the screen was gone and there was the knife near the ledge. Also: a blue velvet yarmulke, and his glasses.
I had been told it would take about ten seconds for him to fall from that height. I had been told that he hit the honey locust trees in front of the building. When I looked, I saw no obviously broken branches, but the coroner’s report confirmed that he did not reach the ground intact.
He was identified with his fingerprints.
After a few weeks, I finished donating his belongings to charity. Conversations about Leon were just as likely to be about redoing his kitchen cabinets as they were to be about trying to make sense of his death. Life’s details had to be addressed, we had to move on, insert-platitude-here.
The blunt truth is, it was much easier that way. In cleaning and emptying Leon’s apartment, I had encountered the evidence of a once-full life of many identities, an inventor, a playwright, a husband and a father—narrowed to fingerprints. I felt compassion for his many losses, immediately followed by guilt: after all, in the last years of his life, I’d shunned a very sick man I’d once called Daddy.
To ease the guilt, I’d re-tell myself the story of Leon’s crimes. Then I’d feel sad, and mad—the complexity was exhausting.
By day, I mostly succeeded in pushing him out of my mind. But at night, in my dreams, I’d often revisit his apartment. It was as cluttered as the day I first tore off the police seal. Leon would slowly pace the living room. He was frightfully pale, bruised and abraded. He had a pained look on his face. “How did you survive the fall?” I’d ask him. “And who is in your grave?” He’d stare at me, and say nothing at all.
One year passed, then another and another, and night after night, I’d encounter him, still pacing in the living room.
Then, one night, the dream changed. Leon had died, and it was my job to identify his body. He was brought into the living room, in pieces. There were mason jars filled with fluid and fat. His tibia had been turned into a trumpet, painted and ringed with red silk thread. The top of his skull had become a vessel, a kapala, rimmed with silver. It was separate from his face, which was pale and arranged in its familiar pained expression. “Everyone dies, but no one is dead,” I said as I examined the pieces.
I was repeating a Tibetan saying I’d read a few days earlier. It was meant to be comforting to those who had lost a loved one, but I’d found it menacing when I first encountered it. I did not want my dead to be anything but gone.
That morning, though, I woke with the understanding that while Leon’s shattered body was long gone, the unfinished business that we had—his pained expression, and mine—were still very much alive. And I realized that if I examined what remained closely, slowly, it might still be possible to transform what was left into something useful. Perhaps even into something sacred.
“Is he dead?” Not such a stupid question, in the end.
Alison Stein Wellner is an award-wining writer and essayist. She’s the
culinary travel editor for About.com, and writes for Perceptive Travel and Luxist. She’s contributed to Business Week, Glamour, Men's Journal, New York Magazine, The Travel Channel’s World Hum, Yankee and Yoga Journal among other publications. She divides her time between Manhattan and New York’s Hudson Valley.