Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
One of my first memories as a child was a funeral. My uncle’s funeral. He was my mom’s half-brother and considerably younger than her as he was from her dad’s second marriage. I think he was in his mid-twenties and he was addicted to ecstasy. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. Since he was addicted to the high, he started to get depressed whenever he wasn’t high and ended up committing suicide. He hung himself in his bedroom. How do you explain that to a 4 year old? I don’t know if my mom told me about the hanging back then, but I knew that he had killed himself. I remember my mom telling me that he thought no one loved him and that’s why he did it. She doesn’t remember telling me this, but I remember. I remember blaming myself for his death. I was always afraid of older men when I was young; I’m not sure why, I think I was just a really shy kid. I never wanted to play with my uncle and I always avoided him. At 4 years old, I thought that he killed himself because of me. I know now that that’s not true but I still feel guilty about never wanting to spend time with him.
The most vivid memory I have of the funeral is playing a game with my sister and my two cousins. It was called “Inky Pinky Ponky”. Maybe you’ve heard of it, maybe you haven’t, but I’ve never heard anyone mention it since that day. I’ve heard of similar versions of the game but not the same as this one. In this game, one person is the leader and everyone else stands in a circle with their fists held out in the middle. The leader thumps everyone’s fists around the circle saying this rhyme: “Inky Pinky Ponky, Daddy bought a donkey, Donkey died, Daddy cried, Inky Pinky Ponky.” Whoever’s fist the leader lands on at the last word has to put that hand behind their back, and then it repeats until only one person is left with a hand in. They’re the winner. At 4 years old, I really hated that game. My uncle’s death was the first death I had ever had to cope with and singing about a dead donkey did not help me much.
I always thought being afraid of death was a normal fear that everyone had. But my fear went deeper. I refused to watch any movies where characters died; I didn’t watch The Lion King until I was about 16 years old. I was terrified of hospitals and I still won’t go in one unless I absolutely have to. I was always afraid to go to sleep when I was young and I think it had something to do with the fact that going to sleep and dying seemed so similar. Parents often explain death as going to sleep forever. I’m not sure if that’s how my parents explained it to me, but it certainly would explain it. Perhaps my fear of sleep also stemmed from the nightmares I used to have. One in particular is so silly now that I look back on it. I dreamt that I was running away from a witch in this forest. She eventually caught me, brought me back to her house, and tried to cook and eat me. Of course, I woke up before that happened. Another time, when I was older, I dreamt that I had done something bad at school, and they were going to punish me with the death penalty. I begged my parents to do something about it, but they just shrugged it off. I woke up as I was sitting in the electric chair. One dream that I remember the least about probably affected me the most. I dreamt of a funeral. But not just any funeral – a funeral for a baby. The only image I still remember from this dream is a tiny little coffin. That image haunted me throughout my childhood.
A few years ago, I was going through old photos on a rainy afternoon. I sat on the floor of the living room, flipping through the albums, admiring how cute I was. Then I went through a box of photos which was mostly doubles or just pictures that had never made into the album. Towards the end of the box, I found a card with a picture of a baby on it. The baby kind of looked like me but I knew it wasn’t because it said “Peter” on it. I didn’t bother to open the card; I just turned it to my mom and asked her who it was.
“Oh, that’s the funeral card from when your Aunt Susan’s baby died.”
“Aunt Susan had a baby?” I asked.
“Sort of. The baby was still born at about 7 months. It was the closest to full term she had ever reached so they had a funeral for the baby. You were there.”
My mom’s casual retelling of the events flooded my mind with images. It all came back to me before I could even blink. My dream of the baby’s funeral wasn’t just a dream. It had actually happened; I was just too young to remember. The baby died when I was about 3, almost 4, about six months before my uncle’s funeral. My brain was unable to retain that memory, but the nightmare that haunted me for years after stuck with me.
One day, when I was about 14 years old, my mom got a phone call. She sat at the table, crying on the phone, and I knew something was terribly wrong. I stood a few feet from her, tears running down my face, too, even though I didn’t know what happened. I’ve always been a sympathetic crier, especially when it comes to my mom. She held the phone in her lap when the conversation was over and told me that my Aunt Diana had died. She was my mom’s sister, and they hadn’t spoken in years due to drama between them and my grandmother. But still, she was her sister. I held my mom’s head in my arms as we both cried for several more minutes. Then, she had to go downstairs. My grandmother lived in our basement and my mom had to tell her. No way was I going to be a part of that. I can only imagine the pain someone feels when they find out their child has died. It wasn’t entirely a shock – we knew she had a brain tumour – but that didn’t make it much less sad.
I went to sit on the couch while my mom broke the news. Behind our couch, on a ledge, we had this clock. It was a German Carousel Clock and I liked to watch as the little gold balls of the carousel spun around and around. I think, in a way, it soothed me. Watching time tick by as the carousel spun was relaxing, much like the waves of the ocean flowing in and out. I turned around to watch the clock but the carousel had stopped spinning. The time on the clock was 3:47. I checked the clock on the VCR which said it was 4:22. I sat on the couch with my hands in my lap, thinking about my aunt. I thought about how my mom must have felt. I wondered if she felt guilty for not speaking to her for all that time. Just like I had felt guilty for never spending time with my uncle before he died. My mom came back upstairs a few minutes later. She started walking towards the other couch to sit down when her eyes fixed on the clock. “That’s it,” she said. She grabbed the clock, lifted up the glass dome and took the batteries out. She marched to the garage and tossed them in the bin where we put dead batteries. She returned to the living room, looking exasperated. Of course she would be upset – her sister had just died – but why all the commotion over a clock?
“Mom, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“That God forsaken clock…” she muttered, rubbing her forehead with one hand.
“It’s just a clock, Mom… What’s the big deal?”
She sat next to me on the couch and it seemed like she was trying to compose herself before she spoke again. “I’ve never told you this before… But I was married once before I married your dad. Hi name was Patrick. He was a few years older than me and I was so in love. He asked me to marry him when I was only 19 and I was head over heels for the guy so I said yes. We were married about a year after that. We got that clock as a wedding present from one of his relatives.”
I had always thought that the clock was a wedding present because we called it an Anniversary Clock. I don’t know if that was a real name for it but that’s what we called it. I assumed it was from my parent’s wedding and I had never bothered to ask about it. It was just a clock, after all.
She continued. “Anyway, one day, he got into a car accident. While he was in the hospital, they had to do some brain scans to make sure there was no bleeding. That was when they found the brain tumour. Patrick had always suffered from headaches but it had just become a part of his life, and he never bothered to do anything about it. Turns out the tumour had probably been there since he was born and his brain had just formed around it, still allowing him to function normally. He was fine for a while, but eventually he ended up in the hospital for good. They couldn’t operate on it because the tumour had spread out in little lines. If it had just been one solid mass, they could have tried to remove it. His last few months went by painfully slowly. He was basically completely unresponsive, but I stayed by his side as long as I could. I was relieved when he finally took his last breath.”
I was utterly awestruck at my mom’s story. I couldn’t believe that she had kept it a secret for this long. She never made eye contact with me while she spoke; she just looked down, and I suspected that she was trying to hide her tears from me. She probably didn’t want me to cry again, too.
“So, that night, when I went home from the hospital, that clock had stopped at 7:06. I remember the time specifically because that was Patrick’s time of death. 7:06 pm. I didn’t think much of it at the time – just a weird coincidence. It took me a long time to replace the batteries because it took me a long time to get back to normal. I didn’t eat for days after he died. I didn’t do much of anything for a long time. And then I met your dad, several years later. It was around the time that we moved in together that I put batteries back in the clock. It worked fine for a few years after that; the carousel kept spinning. Then one day it stopped again. That was the day your dad’s grandma died. I started to get a little suspicious at that point but I couldn’t be sure that it stopped at the exact same time. So, I put batteries in it again, and again, it stopped. That was the day your uncle died. I asked grandpa when exactly he had died and he said it must have been around 3 am. Sure enough, that was when the clock had stopped. I didn’t put batteries back in for a few years but then I finally decided that it was silly to think that a clock could tell when people died. But now it’s stopped again. At 3:47. Grandpa said she just died not too long ago. Probably about 45 minutes ago. So, that’s it, I’m not putting any more batteries in it. It might still be a coincidence but I’m not going to take that chance.”
I suppose the clock could very well be a regular clock but ever since my mom took those batteries out for good, no one in my family has died. My grandmother is almost 80, same with my grandfather. My dad’s parents are both 92. Recently, my dad’s father had another stoke. It was his fourth in the last few years. Each time, his recovery has taken longer and longer. At first, he would try to speak but no one could understand him. Eventually he just got frustrated and stopped trying. He would sit in his bed, staring at the wall while everyone talked around him. After this last stroke, he hasn’t even tried to speak again. I can tell that he’s miserable. I never understood why people were forced to suffer like that. Sitting in a hospital bed and being fed through a tube is no way to live, and certainly not how I want to remember my grandfather.
He was always kind of a quirky guy. He’s been almost completely deaf for as long as I can remember, so we never really talked much. He scared me as a kid because he was always yelling. But he was a proud man. He owned his own business and provided for his family. It was a jewellery store, and he specialized in repairing watches. He kept that business going until after his second stroke when we had to put him into a nursing home. He was about 85 at the time. He could have retired whenever he wanted to but he loved that store and he loved what he did.
I only really remember one specific conversation he had with me and my sister. I remember it was just the three of us in the house. I even remember where we stood in the living room. He showed us a picture of his father and told us about what a great man he was. “He would always tell me and my brothers that time is precious, time is a gift, and it should never be wasted. He gave me this watch when I was young and told me to always make the most of every second.” I think he’s still wearing that watch right now. But is he making the most of every second? Far from it.
So, as I rummage through this drawer at my parents’ house, I think about all of the good memories I had with my grandfather. I try to forget about what he looks like right now, hooked up to all those machines, his lifeless eyes unmoving. Death still terrifies me but I think it is better than a life like that. Ah, there they are. Two double A’s.