My father died twice.
The first time had nothing to do with me. That was completely on him. I’ll never know how coherent he was when he slammed his truck into the side of a bridge; his high blood alcohol count at the time will forever veil that evening in a haze. I imagine there were at least a few spare seconds of “Oh, fuck.” It feels better to think that we will have a moment to prepare ourselves for what’s coming. Because the rest — everything that comes after it for everyone else — there is no preparing for it. Even when you’ve been through death before, at the tender age of 13, even when death is a familiar landscape, you still won’t have the tools to prepare yourself.
At least, that’s the excuse I give for how my father died a second time, 13 years after the first.
A death certificate is not a decree stamped in stone. It’s an official piece of paper made by corroborating barely-held facts with someone super trustworthy like a funeral director. Then you make a bunch of copies and send them around to the people who won’t stop calling you, asking for bills to be paid. God help us if death certificates ever go digital — for now, at least, they are a reassuring paper stock, fliers for you to broadcast around like a town crier bringing your message of doom.
But no one really tells you about this before you need to know it. So when my older brother and I went down to Colorado Springs’ Shrine of Remembrance, fresh with grief after taking my mother off life support two days before, we weren’t aware that we were walking into an exam that we, despite our familiarity with the situation, definitely should have studied for.
Walking into a funeral home didn’t help our mental state. The first thing you want to do at a funeral home is figure out how to get out of there as soon as possible. This psychological sensation is aided by the visual surroundings — the wood panel walls, the drooping arcs of carnations in creative arrangements, the bad carpeting. The people who staff these places aren’t much better than the décor — they’re like Twin Peaks without the quirky charm. Like any minute you should expect Bob to slither up.
In case you haven’t gotten the picture yet, I didn’t want to be there. My demeanor was that of a kid called in to the principal’s office. Very “fuck authority.” I couldn’t help my unhelpful mindset, and every object was fit for judgment: the funeral director’s neck beard, the dust collecting on the rubber plant in the corner, the choice of wall hangings. Every boring question he trotted out received a belabored answer.
So there’s my brother and I, sad, clueless, and unhelpful, while the wet napkin of a funeral director ploughs along, sorely disappointed in our ability to be forthcoming. Every question is a million dollar one: Where was your mother born? What was her father’s name? What type of urn would you like to buy?
But the question that kicked us off Dead Woman Jeopardy?
“What is her Social Security number?”
I looked at my brother, “Uh, do you have that with you?”
My brother looked at me, “Uh, no. Don’t you know it?”
I dug through my brain, thinking 0-7-something-something because those last four digits were her AOL password, but feeling pretty certain this was not the situation to put forth your best guess on what arrangement of digits make up your mother’s unique national identifier.
I called my mom’s sister, who was staying at the house, and directed her to a sticky note where I had the number jotted down. I could hear her fumbling, and I smiled at the funeral director like I know, I’m sorry, I can’t believe we fail at writing death certificates.
My aunt took her sweet time, like she was logging into the national database and scanning through every Social Security number in existence. Finally, she gave a number, and we were able to wriggle free of the funeral director’s disinterest and finish the arrangements.
Six months down the road the hospital called and was like, you know this death certificate has the wrong Social Security number on it, right?
Here we were slinging false documents around: closing bank accounts, transferring mortgages, holding them up as definitive truth. We took whatever nine-digit number my aunt popped out and ran with it, using a long-defunct Social Security number to get the things that we had to do but didn’t really want to do done and only one person noticed it was wrong, six months later.
Where did these magical nine digits come from? They were my father’s Social Security number. We put my father’s Social Security number on my mother’s death certificate because my aunt had somehow grabbed hold of an insurance card instead of the sticky note I had instructed her to: she didn’t understand that on military documents, which is what it was because my mom had Tricare because my dad had been in the Air Force, they put the Social Security number of the sponsor, that is, the active military individual, on all documents. There he was, sponsoring her death.
This isn’t a story about the gross incompetence of the hidden after-death machinery that’s supposed to make the life of the still living go smoother. The heart-wrenching thing is how little it all matters. I had my sense of security evaporate in two ways: my mom as a touchstone in my life that was only one-quarter complete, and the idea that serious things are taken seriously.
We had filled out paperwork, trying to make death into something neat and ordered, but in reality, when you sit down to write a death certificate, that final stamp, you can make it whatever you want.
In the end it was really my aunt who was to blame for helping draft those commemorative editions of his my father’s death certificate. Maybe she was secretly wishing to help my mom live forever. Although we did eventually get the problem corrected, I like to think that in a way, she does.
Tamara Matthews is a Colorado girl in an Illinois world, according to Facebook ads that keep trying to sell her t-shirts. When not writing depressing personal stories, she is crocheting, playing guitar, or trying to take up a new athletic hobby and doing poorly at it. She has produced work for The Rumpus, Newcity, A.V. Club, and Chicagoist. Follow her on Twitter @writingtoatee