Death

It was a phone call she had imagined a hundred times before it happened. The specifics of it changed in her imagination a little bit every time but almost always involved some sort of death alone in some desolate place — usually along a lonely stretch of highway somewhere between his sales route home and the big city.  So when the call finally came, she was not surprised at the fact of the death at all – something that unnerved her sister, who delivered the news of her father’s passing.   It was her sister who gave her the final details of the event and she could in one instant see the entire thing.

It was one of those really beautiful October days.  The sun warmed a cloudless blue sky and coaxed an uncertain world to show itself fully in the light.  He had been at the farm, a small patch of land about an hour from her family home. He was alone, as always, tinkering with the old farm machinery he used to bale hay.  In a careless moment, perhaps when he stopped to relish the day, his hands had slipped and he had been sucked into the baler.  The old baler kept churning her father inward until the motor burned out. Some time over the course of that brilliant afternoon, he died, half-wedged inside the gears.  When her father did not come home for dinner, her worried mother sent her brother-in-law to check on him.  When he finally arrived at the farm, the autumn light was fading and it took him a while to find her father’s body.   When he did, he  tried to gently untangle her father from the metal beast but couldn’t.  And then this big burly man sat in the dust at her father’s feet and cried.  He eventually called 911,  and it took a few hours for several firefighters and police officers to dislodge her father so he could be examined by the county coroner and officially declared dead.

After she heard this story, she took comfort from the fact that he had died while he was still strong and capable and of his right mind. And that he died on a glorious fall day in a place he loved, doing something he enjoyed. This seemed like a respectable death, as good as any death could be.

When she saw her father, dead and laid out for viewing, she gave him one last awkward hug – something they never quite figured out when he was alive.  Then she sat down to wind up his business affairs and write a eulogy. She did not want to leave these tasks to anyone else.

She found her father’s small notebook of client phone numbers and started at “A” and worked her way through, calling all of them.  She listened patiently while they all told her great stories about her father, a witty and charming traveling salesman to whom people poured out their troubles — a character she did not recognize in her own life story.  She settled up his outstanding obligations and closed his accounts.  She gave funeral information to those who requested it and on the day of his funeral, the parlor was packed with a line of strangers she and her family had never seen before.   She had written a good strong eulogy, one that spoke simply of his life and that came from  the conversations she had over the last few days with her father’s customers and friends, all unknown to her.  She practiced saying it out loud until no tears came and it sounded right to her heart.  When some of the men began to wail and shake at her words, she felt peace at the idea that perhaps she had finally seen him for who he was as a man, and not just as her father with whom she had always had a complicated relationship.

Years later, she would be watching “Death of a Salesman” in a theater alone and be struck by the little story Willie recalls about Dave Singleman….the death of a salesman, the one that Willie Loman always hoped for but did not have.

And she finally mourned for the death of her father, the salesman.

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