It's been 25 days since my dad died. Some days are normal. Some days are not. In the first few days after he died, a lot of people gave me advice about taking time to grieve and take care of myself. I smiled politely, but secretly thought they didn't really know what they were talking about because I was fine. I was dealing with the loss really well and even though they'd experienced the loss of a parent, they really had no idea...
It turns out that grief isn't necessarily instant, it's more like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode at random intervals. Also, "fine" is a new four letter word my best friend has helpfully banned me from using, and perhaps those helpful people knew more than I was giving them credit for. 25 days. Right now my biggest hope is that eventually, I don't know how many days it's been since he died.
My therapist suggested that since I am a "processor" (ie- can go on for hours without pause- both in talking and in writing), perhaps I should write about my grief. So I have been doing that.
My secret dream is to someday write a book, or maybe a bunch of books. I don't have a subject yet, but I like the idea of being about to spend all day in my jammies on the couch, while getting paid to do something I love. Perhaps it will be about bulldogs, but in the past 25 days, I have found myself telling everyone, including random strangers I have met while in line at the bank, stories about my dad. It makes me happy to talk about him and my dad was a character! So maybe I will write a book about my dad.
So, since I have a whopping 16 followers, I thought I'd put my first story on here and see what it is like to take something private and put it out in public. Also, I need help figuring out what you call the guy who works at the cremation society ("cremator"?? "crematory technician"???). I have no idea what that guy's title is, so forgive the brackets. Thanks in advance for reading...
“I have a strange question.” I’ve just finished setting up an appointment for later that day and the [cremation guy--- what’s his title??] has asked if there’s anything else he can do for me before we hang up.
“I want his teeth. Is there any way that you can help me get his teeth? Am I allowed to take his teeth?” I struggle with the request, not from grief, but because I feel weird and irreverent and I want to explain to the man that I am not creepy or morbid and that I don’t actually even want his teeth.
Years earlier, when I was a kid, my dad had a significant amount of dental work done and instead of just getting normal caps on his teeth, he opted for gold; all of his back teeth, over half of his mouth, were gold. And since that time, he’d told me over and over again, “when I die, be sure to get my teeth! Do not let anyone else take them. They are valuable, take my teeth.” He was strong and healthy and young. It was ridiculous to talk about his death so I always nodded and said, “of course dad, I will get your teeth.”
We got older and he continued to remind me about his teeth and instead of just agreeing with him, I finally told him, “I will get your teeth. I told Danny that I ‘dibs’ them and I am going to have a bracelet made out of them.” Satisfied with my answer, he responded, “Yeah, and then you can walk by your brother wearing the teeth bracelet and I can bite him!” After that discussion, he reminded me of his request less frequently, but the “teeth bracelet” became a running joke and he laughed often about the idea of biting my brother after death.
In all the years of telling me to get his teeth, we never discussed the logistics of said task. Once, when I questioned him on it, he said, “take a hammer and knock ‘em out.” Even as a child, I knew that wasn’t a practical answer, so I didn’t bother to press him further. I assumed that when he died, he would be really old, which would mean I would be really old and as a “really old” person, I would automatically know what to do in that situation.
At 29, I did not feel really old and I did not know what to do about getting his teeth. When my dad’s sisters, my aunts, heard about my quest, they were horrified and gently tried to talk me out of it, reasoning, “it’s not that much gold and it won’t be worth that much money.”
It had been less than 24 hours since my dad suddenly died- that they thought this was even remotely about the money was only mildly insulting. I didn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, think that my dad’s gold teeth were my ticket to wealth or even actually worth any money. I didn’t know much about dental work, but I assumed we weren’t dealing with 24 karat, pure valuable gold, rather, some form of gold plating or maybe even just gold colored dental metal. I had no idea and it didn’t really matter because it wasn’t about the value of the gold.
My dad had just died and I was in shock and walking around in a daze while calling people to break the news. I had to tell people over and over again that he died and then comfort them as they reacted, while all I could think was, “he was my dad. I shouldn’t be supporting you.” Repeating the news over and over was worse than even his death. I was trying to be strong. I was trying to take care of all of the details because it was the only way left for me to take care of him and I was going to do everything I could to make sure I did everything he wanted. And he wanted me to get his teeth.
I know that he didn’t think through the details of that request- he didn’t imagine that less than 24 hours after he died, his 29 year old, grieving daughter was going to have to explain this morbid request as she attempted to figure out how she was going to carry it out, even though all she really wanted to do was lay on the couch and cry. In health and happiness, he could suggest smashing his mouth with a hammer- he wasn’t thinking about how impossible that would actually be to carry out. In a strange way though, figuring out how to get his teeth was a good distraction. I didn’t think about it as my dad’s teeth… which he won’t need… because he’s dead. I separated the fact that I was trying to remove part of his body, and it just became a problem I had to solve. No time for crying or sadness, I had a task to complete. So in that way, “get my teeth” was a good thing to focus on and get me through that first day of loss.
It’s against the law for a mortician to desecrate [ie--- “take apart”/mess up /take a hammer to--- word????] a person’s body. However, as the [cremation guy] explained, I could call a dentist and they could remove the teeth before he was cremated. My dentist office isn’t open on Saturday and even if it had been, there was no way I was going to call my dentist in the suburbs, and ask him to go to the morgue to remove my dead father’s teeth… “oh, and could I schedule my 6 month cleaning while I’ve got you on the line?” No.
I thanked the [cremation guy] for the information and said I would work on it before our appointment that afternoon. I hung up the phone feeling defeated and knowing that in a few months, when the overwhelming feelings of grief weren’t so strong, I would regret not fulfilling my dad’s request. But in those first moments of shock and pain, while googling, “how to plan a funeral”, answering my phone as it rang repeatedly, and struggling to remember simple things like how to breathe, searching for a dentist sketchy enough to get involved in this situation seemed insurmountable.
When I hung up the phone, my boyfriend Nate gently suggested, “what if you just waited until he was cremated and then went through his ashes? Gold doesn’t disintegrate, does it? It would be sort of like panning for gold. He would like that- it seems fitting.” When I brought the idea up later that day, the [cremation guy] told me that part of the cremation process is to sift through the ashes to remove any chunks or medical metal that have been left behind and he could make a note that anything recovered should be saved and returned to me. I wasn’t sure if that would actually work, but I was satisfied with that arrangement and I thought my dad would be okay with it too.
On the day of his memorial, the [funeral guy] handed me a cardboard box with my dad’s ashes and an envelope with 6 chunks of melted metal. I was surprised that they were not shiny gold, rather, covered in a hardened layer of ash. Later, I dropped them into a cup of water and some of the layer washed away, revealing tiny flecks of gold.
Holding the glittering chuck, I said out loud, “I did it dad. I got your teeth. I didn’t even have to wield a hammer or smash your face. I hope you know what a ridiculous request this was. But I did it.”