“Never Say Goodbye”

I like to pretend my father’s mortician was Jon Bon Jovi’s grandfather. Granted, we didn’t go to Bongiovi Funeral Home because we don’t live in Raritan, New Jersey, and Bon Jovi’s grandpop is probably dead too, but if somehow Mr. Bongiovi had buried my dad, it would have made him happy.

He loved ’80s rock. (My dad—I don’t know about Mr. Bongiovi. But I gotta figure if your grandson is the front man of a famous rock band, the music can’t help but grow on you.) Journey, Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC—they were all regular fixtures in my house growing up. But none more than Bon Jovi. They were Dad’s favorite.

Shamelessly, he took every opportunity to tell people about the 23 times he’d seen them in concert. My mom and I would roll our eyes at each other whenever he started in. But it was an eye roll of loving indulgence, which is why I stop outside Mom’s room at the sight of a Bon Jovi shirt on top of a pile of clothes on her bed.

“What are you doing?”

She doesn’t answer. When I step through the doorway, I see the earbuds. Moving closer, I wave my hand to get her attention as she drops another shirt—the Slippery When Wet Tour—onto the stack.

Startled when she finally notices me, my mother wipes quickly at her eyes and then stops whatever she’s listening to.

“What are you doing?” I ask again.

Looking tired, she sits on the bed. “Going through your dad’s stuff. I figured it was time.”

“What are you doing with it?”

“Donating what I can. Pitching the rest.”

Noting a hole at the collar of the SWWT shirt, I stare at the pile in horror. “Is this the trash?”

Mom sticks her finger through the seam. “Does this look like something I can donate?”

Rifling through the rejects, I see countless (23) Bon Jovi shirts, along with a bunch paying homage to other rock gods. “But how can you get rid of these? They’re Dad’s Bon Jovi shirts.”

“I know what they are, Rae. What would you have me do with them?”

“I don’t know. But you can’t throw them away—Dad loved these.”

“We can’t keep them forever. It’s been a year since—”

“No it hasn’t! Not till Tuesday.”

Rubbing her forehead, Mom sighs. “I know.”

Staring at her until she meets my gaze, I challenge her with my eyes to pick up the trash bag sitting on the floor. But it’s clear she doesn’t have any fight left in her—just sadness. Scooping up the pile, I say, “I’ll wear them,” and storm out.

#

My dad died on Monday, October 22. I tried really hard to not remember the date. For weeks after the accident, every time the date would pop into my head, I’d say other numbers to fuddle my brain. October 22…25…20…27. I hate the idea of a death-iversary. But despite my best efforts, the date was insistent, and now I’ll never forget it.

The day before the one-year milestone (death-iversary), I try unsuccessfully to focus on other dates teachers deem worthy of my attention, but none of them can drown out October 22 muttering in the background.

After last period, I look at one more date: October 24. Above it is a single word: AUDITIONS. I’ve stood before this poster every day since it went up two weeks ago. The theatre department is putting on It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play. Last fall they did Peter and the Starcatcher. I had signed up to audition. Then my world fell apart.

By the time Little Shop of Horrors rolled around in March, I could have auditioned, theoretically. But I wasn’t ready to sing again. I don’t know if I’ll ever be.

“You sign up?” A voice intrudes on my thoughts, and I turn to find a boy whose most striking feature—despite the fact that he’s good-looking—is his shoes, which sport a collage of Broadway playbills.

“Um…I haven’t decided yet.”

“You should. It’ll be fun.”

“Are you auditioning?”

The look he gives me refutes the “There are no stupid questions” credo. “I don’t act. I’m the student director. Name’s Mac.”

“I’m Raina—Rae.”

“You a freshman, Raina-Rae? I haven’t seen you in our theatrical environs before.”

“I’m a sophomore.”

“Same. Why didn’t you try out last year?”

I stare at the Les Mis waif on his foot. “It didn’t work with my schedule.”

“Then now’s your chance. And come on, who doesn’t like It’s a Wonderful Life?”

“It’s not one of my favorites.”

“No? Watch it again. I’ll admit the first couple viewings are painful—the situation looks so bleak. But once you’re one hundred percent positive things will turn out all right in the end, it wins hands down for feel-goodness.”

“Do I have to prepare a monologue or something?”

“Nope. You’ll just read from the script. So I’ll see you Thursday?” Mac raises his eyebrow.

“Maybe.” I turn and walk away.

“I’ll give you the moon, Raina-Rae!” he calls after me.

#

After dinner, I descend into the basement to watch the Frank Capra classic. Forgoing the couch, which faces the TV, I sit in Dad’s recliner, pulling his knobbly fleece blanket over me. I don’t mind the old movies—I grew up watching Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music and Frank Sinatra in Guys and Dolls. My grandma died before I was born, but my grandpa lived just down the street—still does—and I spent the night with him whenever my parents went out. When I was eight, we watched Meet Me in St. Louis and I was hooked.

So the simple filmmaking on the screen fills me with comforting nostalgia. When grown-up Violet appears in the dress she only wears when she doesn’t care how she looks, I remember that the actress was in Oklahoma! too, played Ado Annie.

I wonder what part I would play, in It’s a Wonderful Life—if I got a part—if I decide to audition.

During the scene when Harry returns home from college, Mom comes down the stairs carrying a laundry basket. “A little early for Christmas movies, isn’t it?”

Given that she doesn’t stop, just continues past me into the laundry room, I don’t feel the need to respond. I turn up the volume so I can hear over the washing machine.

When she returns empty-handed, she sits on the couch. Afraid she’s going to try to watch with me, I glance over, but she’s not getting comfortable, she’s sitting on the edge of the cushion. “Can you pause it a minute?”

Rolling my eyes, I sigh as I turn to face her, swinging my legs over the side of the chair.

She rubs her hands together and looks at her lap. “So, we haven’t talked about tomorrow.”

“What about it?” I stare at her until she meets my gaze.

“I know it’s going to be a hard day for you, for us. What can I do to help?”

Squirming, I look at the floor. “I don’t know.”

“Do you want to skip school?”

“And do what?”

“Whatever you need—talk, cry.”

“Haven’t we done enough of that?” I stand, letting the blanket fall to the ground.

Mom stands too, reaches her hand out as she takes a step toward me, but I back away, and she lowers her arm. “I know you’re hurting. I just wish I knew how to help you.”

“You can’t help me because nobody can fix this.” I move toward the stairs, but Mom blocks my path.

“I’m not saying I can make everything okay, but sometimes…sometimes I’m afraid you’re not really processing what you’re feeling. Of course you’re struggling. But you have to work through those emotions.”

“Oh really? Is that what I need to do?” I put my hands on my hips.

Mom’s face takes on the pinched look that’s equal parts exasperated and wounded. “I don’t have all the answers—or even one. But I’m trying to help. If you’d just talk to me, share what you’re going through, tell me what you want—”

“What I want? What I want is to go to school tomorrow and come home and have dinner with my parents like a normal kid. I want to go to bed and know they’ll both be there in the morning. What I want is to not be having this conversation. I want to rewind time and pretend the last year didn’t happen. But that’s impossible. And no matter what I do tomorrow, it won’t be even the littlest bit okay because I won’t see my dad and I’ll never get to tell him about my day again and I hate that he’s gone!”

Rushing past Mom before she can stop me, I race up the stairs and slam my door. Sitting on the floor, I reach for Dad’s New Jersey Tour shirt and hold it close to my heart as I sob.

For the past 364 days, I’ve woken up and missed the smell of coffee, which I don’t even like, because Dad was always the first one up. I’ve gone to bed and missed him raising his hand, pinky and index finger up, and saying “Rock those dreams.” I’ve missed him asking me to share one interesting thing about my day or, if I was being snarky, to tell him the least interesting thing. I’ve missed seeing his excitement when one of his favorite songs came on the radio and watching him sneak up behind Mom and wrap his arms around her and even listening to him talk about Bon Jovi concerts. I miss the smile in his eyes and his one crooked tooth and his high-pitched laugh, which I only heard when he was laughing really, really hard.

The past 364 days have been the worst days of my life, and the very worst part of all is knowing my father died because of me.