It was Valentine’s Day 2013. Couples all over the country were celebrating the romantic holiday with each other. Words of love, flowers, chocolate, and other more intimate gifts were being given and accepted by lovers, spouses, and friends. In Michigan, Mother Nature had decided to bestow the gift of snowfall and the temperature was low enough to cause an icy concern for anyone who needed to brave navigating the roads. My brother and I were two such people.
I had been awake for close to 72 hours due to stress, anxiety, and sadness. We had each been stationed overseas at the time, my brother at an Air Force base in Italy and myself at a Marine Base on Okinawa, and it had taken us each roughly 24 hours to make it back to Michigan.
I can’t speak for Justin, but for me, it involved two layovers, a lot of waiting, and a brief scare with missing luggage. Fortunately, I didn’t have to deal with screaming, unruly children but there was one little girl who seemed to notice that I was traveling upset. She sat across the aisle from me and we spent most of the flight taking pictures of each other and playing games on my cellphone. It was very nice, if brief, distraction.
I had finally stopped crying, and after wiping away the tears and fixing my face, I was trying to get some much-needed sleep while my brother drove us the three hours up north to a very small community called Houghton Lake.
Houghton Lake is a small town in Northern Michigan with a population of roughly 4,000 people. It’s mostly forest with many places to hunt, fish, and take part in all kinds of outdoor activities. Houghton Lake is home to one of the state’s largest winter festivals, Tip Up Town USA (a town made completely out of ice and built on top of the lake). We would not be partaking in any of these activities.
We had a long few days ahead of us. Instead of spending a fun winter with friends and family we would soon have to deal with bank employees, landlords, and storage units. For now, however, we were on our way to the towns’ funeral home. We would suffer through a small accident with another driver (from which I now sport several small but very noticeable scars on my right foot and ankle) and spend several hours at the local police station clearing it up before we would finally make it to our destination.
Justin had been driving so that I could try to get some sleep. We were just arriving and while trying to make a turn onto the main street that would take us through town we hit a hidden patch of black ice and slid into a vehicle waiting to make a turn off of that same street. We dented his drivers side door enough that it wouldn’t open, but other than that the other driver was fine. When our car collided with his I had been laying down as much as a car will let you. And the impact had jerked me forward like a crash test dummy. I had been wearing my seatbelt, but my right foot had jerked and caught on something sharp underneath the dashboard which caused several cuts that bled just enough to make taking off socks difficult later on. Luckily February in Northern Michigan is insanely cold and I didn’t feel any pain until much later.
The funeral home was small. Our Aunt (who had picked us up from the police station while our car was towed to a shop) knew the funeral director from her church. It was the only funeral director in town and another family was scheduled to come in later that day. The first thing we did was sit down with the funeral home director and decided on whether or not we preferred burial or cremation. As much as either of us would have wanted a proper burial we didn’t have the money. Cremation it was. We picked out styles for a memorial service guest book, thank you cards, etc. and we decided on a poem that would be on the “program” for the service. We took care of all the small details first because we weren’t ready to do what we really needed to. We needed to see him.
At the time this was happening I was being treated in the military for Anxiety and Depression. I had my medication and my workbooks full of techniques from my doctors on how to manage and cope with my panic attacks and depressive episodes. None of it worked. None of it even helped. In that moment, that place, there was no coping.
I had heard that when you see a dead person they look like they are sleeping. Like they will get up at any moment and continue on with their lives. That wasn’t true at all. He didn’t look like he was sleeping. He didn’t look like he had ever been alive in the first place. What he looked like was one of those wax mannequins you see in museums. He didn’t look real.
My brother handled it much better than I did. He was calm and composed while I was a sobbing mess in front of everyone. I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of there, but at the same time, I couldn’t bear to leave.
Three days after each receiving a message from the Red Cross we ended what had become the worst Valentine’s Day of our lives saying our final goodbyes to our Dad.
He had been born and raised in the area and when the day of his memorial service came it seemed like everyone in town had shown up. I had forgotten just how many people he had known in his life. Some of them were old friends from high school. Most of them were friends and co-workers from his job in construction. My dad had built many of the houses in the Houghton Lake area.
The church was full and by the time the service was over and we had shaken everyone’s hands twice over I felt like I could sleep for a week and still be tired. It had been the worst Valentine’s Day ever which had lead into the worst February ever and was only the beginning of what would become the worst year ever. Three years later it still hurts, though it hurts a little less every day.