Funny thing is, my daddy was right there with me when I died. He knelt next to the tub, wetting his oilstained overalls at the knees. The overalls had his name stitched in red on a white oval, but the oval itself had a few threads pulled. It hung off the fabric a bit on the left side, sort of wrinkled up from where momma would hang daddy’s overalls on the line to let the sun dry them. The oilstains were old and incorrigible. That’s what momma called ‘em. Incorrigible. Said nothing she ever tried fully got the stains out. They were worked into the fabric itself, got under and into the denim. She would tell me this idly in that way most adults talk to babies. She would tell me lots of things in the lonely morning hours after daddy’d gone to the shop to work and she’d hung the laundry out to dry. Usually she talked about her schedule, or daddy’s boss who always chewed on a nasty-smelling cigar, or what she planned on cooking for supper. More just her talking to herself while she spooned me some oatmeal. She always looked at me, though. Not like daddy, who only glanced. That was the difference. Daddy never really looked at me ‘til after I’d died. I think if it’d been her that was with me when I died I wouldn’t have died. I’m not blaming, though. It wasn’t daddy’s fault.
Another funny thing is that daddy cried. The last image I saw with my own two corporeal eyes was of daddy’s wet face, his arms extended down to try to pick me up, I think, and all of this ripply from where his tears hit the water above me. He loved me, daddy did. I know he was sad to see me go. I knew it then and I know it now. There’s lots of things that get clearer when you die. Lots of things you know. I know daddy loved me. Still does. Momma too.
And I know that it was a funny death—not in the way I used to think it funny when momma would make that silly face at me with her cheeks puffed up, but rather in the way that momma used to say there was something funny with daddy’s boss. Something off, she meant. I don’t have to survey the others here to know that having your daddy there with you when you die isn’t common. I just know it.
I didn’t splash much. That I remember from back then when I was alive. The image of daddy crying—my last image—doesn’t have any splashing water in it. I didn’t strain against his arms. I just drifted off peacefully. Maybe that was God that did that. Momma used to tell me, spoon to my mouth, that I had the colic and kept her and daddy up at night something awful. And not just so’s she could breastfeed me, but because my body wouldn’t let me sleep. So it might have been God what made me so peaceful when I drifted off in the tub.
Daddy rubbed soap on me all over. Under the arms, behind the ears. All over. He rubbed some on my head to make sure I didn’t get the cradle cap, even though I didn’t have much hair at all to clean. Ain’t that funny? I cried a bit then, like I usually did. I never liked it when the soap on my head got washed off. The water in my eyes scared me a little, though it didn’t ever hurt. But daddy shushed me and leaned in over the tubwater and kissed me on the head. He was smiling and his cologne was strong against the oil-smell of old rusty cars. He told me everything was okay, that he was there with me. His breath smelled like whiskey. I didn’t know it was called whiskey then. I just knew it as the drink that daddy would sometimes get into and cause momma to tut at him like a bird. But like I said, there are lots of things that you know once you’re here on the other side.
I’ll list some more things I know now. I know that daddy didn’t really want to be there when I died. He didn’t want that. I know that he’d been fired by his boss at the auto shop—the boss with the really bad smelling cigar that he always chewed the end of. And I know that dreckly after that daddy went and took his final paycheck to the bar and got drunk on five glasses of whiskey until he couldn’t see straight. And then he’d come home and, putting together some clues that had been simmering in the back of his mind for a long time, he’d rummaged through the trash momma had set outside. And I know that when he’d found it momma happened to come outside to see what all the commotion was about—thinking it was a ‘coon got into our trash again—and he’d showed it to her without saying anything, just the fumes of whiskey coming out his mouth. I know she’d scolded daddy a bit for making so much noise when she’d just got me down for a nap, and then she’d looked at the cigar end daddy had taken out the trash and she’d started crying, saying that she’d had to or else his boss said he would fire daddy and they couldn’t afford for daddy not to have a job with the baby being a part of their lives now and there wasn’t another auto shop in the town—leastwise not one that would take daddy in with his record and his alcoholism—and so what was she supposed to do. I know daddy was there with her when she died too, out in the backyard next to where we put the trash.
Another funny thing about it all is that daddy let me finish my nap. I think it was nice of him to do it. Thoughtful. I didn’t get much sleep at night, like I told you, and so he let me nap in peace and quiet. He sat on the couch looking at a newspaper without really reading it until he heard me stir in my crib. The crib was walled with white—white sheets and white bumpers to keep me from knocking my head on the thick wood out of which daddy himself had carved and bolted the crib together. I know this because I saw it later, here on the other side, in my memories. Daddy reached in and picked me up and smeared a little streak of oil on one of the bumpers. He looked at it for a moment, averting his eyes from me like he sometimes did. But then his eyes turned to mine and he smiled and carried me to the bathroom, where he took off my diaper and onesie. The water was lukewarm. Room temperature. Just the way I used to like it. This was another thoughtful thing daddy did for me when I died. I died in perfect water having slept away all my exhaustion, content to the point of not struggling. It was the best way I could have died, I know. That’s one of the things I know now.
Some of the kids over here died in car crashes, or from any of a number of diseases and infections. I met a boy a while ago who died from something called SIDS where he just didn’t wake up one day. I thought that awful strange and sad, to just die with no warning for his momma and daddy. I got lucky. My daddy was right there with me when I died, smiling and crying through ripply water. Not many over here can say that.
I guess that’s the last of the funny things I’ve learned over here on this side of the curtain. (That’s a phrase I learned back when I was alive, from momma. ‘This side of the curtain.’ She used it when she talked about my papa who’d died before I was born.) But anyway that’s the last of the things I’ve learned so far: we don’t have any control at all, really, over how we come over here to the other side. Not one bit, mister. And there’s two sides to every story. It’s all in how we take it in. I know what it means to have daddy there when I died. I’m not stupid, mister. Not by a long shot. I’ve learned these things. Some would tell me it was bad—that it should have scarred my spirit beyond reckoning. Or his. But it’s not, really. I didn’t even cry. It was peaceful when I went. And daddy was there. How many of you can say your last image is of your daddy being there smiling at you and crying over your death? Not many, that’s how many. I was lucky.
That’s a strange way of looking at it, ain’t it?
Ain’t that funny?
This is a short story for the series “Small Sample Size.” If you have a short story to share, contact us!