He’s not wearing any shoes.
This thought crosses my mind every once in a random while. It’s because at 18 years old, someone delegated selecting daddy’s last outfit to me. Someone asked me to find something for him to wear for eternity like I was prepared for this. But I Googled it, and you actually don’t bury the dead in shoes because the feet may be too distorted for shoes. And sometimes shoes are just too nice to lose to a cemetery.
Love, loss and what we wore
A tall order I tried to take seriously, I had to first figure out where to even begin with his wardrobe. Daddy took pride in his style and dressed like a pro (thanks to an ex-girlfriend who overhauled his post-divorce wardrobe); however, I wonder what people thought when they saw him in the casket wearing his tuxedo. I selected his tuxedo because, when faced with an array of sport coats and ties in a closet so large the carpet installers thought it was his home office, I just wanted to get in and get out.
Aside from it being the easy button option, I selected the tuxedo with the confident rationale of knowing how much he loved formal gatherings. His company tagline was “#1 Not Yet World Famous Johnny Burnett,” and I joked to myself that if he’s famous now, he should at least be dressed for it.
Based on my non-existent experience with funerals, I imagined a half-open casket showing only his upper body. Was this the gold standard of corpse display? I thought half the lid would hide his legs and feet, so I only brought socks to the funeral home. And that’s how we buried daddy without shoes.
I selected the bow tie and matching cummerbund in teal green, his favorite color. Then I chose a pair of old cufflinks. I didn’t know the difference between them and a simpler black pair, but apparently the older cufflinks were special to my grandfather. I had no idea this accident would be so upsetting to Sonny Burnett, but I guess he eventually got over it. However, I felt I was on a roll with my tuxedo choice, reinforcing daddy’s lifestyle decisions.
Meanwhile, I didn’t have anyone to reciprocate and style me, so I did what Johnny Burnett would do: I called a local boutique, Pinky Punky, to have a few somber clothes selected for me to choose for daddy’s funeral because I barely owned anything black back then. Now, I did what Johnny would do, but Pinky Punky isn’t for funerals. It’s for proms, cocktail parties and that wild weekend in Vegas. In fact, I found my zebra-stripe patterned sequined prom dress at Pinky Punky just a few months earlier. Daddy said he’d split the cost for me, so I worked extra hours to pay my half for my $450 size 4 prom dress I wore twice.
Since 1978, daddy clothed my mom, many girlfriends and Scharmel with frocks and casual sportswear from Pinky Punky. The shop girls knew Johnny Burnett, and they curated a few black selections for me then couriered the fashions to my house to select in private. I chose a black sleeveless and shapeless knit mini dress and a black linen swing coat with a big white button. I sent the unwanted items back and paid for what I kept the following week. And for that special service, I’ll never forget that place.
When I first approached the stately, white-pillared funeral home to deliver daddy’s burial clothes, I felt a strange feeling that I’d been there before. Then it dawned on me I had been there before — two years earlier.
My high school friend (also named Heather) and I had been cruising Central Avenue on a Hot Springs Saturday night. We were 16, and I was home for the summer to live with my dad. In the previous eight months I’d lived overseas in a small village in Wiltshire County in England, my social skills with booze and boys had advanced. And yet, a lot hadn’t changed in Arkansas. Turns out cruising for boys at Sonic was still as sweet and fruitful as a Route 44 strawberry slush. Heather got to join me in Hot Springs for a lake weekend. And that’s where we saw two cute guys in their little red convertible.
“How are y’all doing tonight?” the tall, hunky one asked. His friend in the passenger seat waved to us with a kind smile.
“Doin’ just fine,” we answered back.
After the initial icebreakers, we got to the point: they had wine coolers, we had beer and everyone wanted a trade. We followed them to a parking lot (exactly the kind of thing mom, Oprah and Chris Hansen told me to never do) where we rendezvoused for the booze exchange.
“Is this your house?” one of us asked.
“No,” the passenger friend said. “I think it’s a….” he paused as he walked toward a sign, “it’s a funeral home.” Gross Funeral Home.
We took them back to Beacon Manor to swim in the pool and enjoy our alcohol, and the night ended rather G-rated. Now I found myself there, driving up to the pillars, a place I thought I’d never see again, let alone locate. I had to laugh at the coincidence and about how daddy once tried to warn me about college boys.
I skipped daddy’s visitation at the funeral home. I regret it now, but back then I was exhausted and probably wouldn’t remember anything anyway. The emotional and physical exhaustion from crying, tossing and turning in bed, driving back and forth to Hot Springs – to look for daddy, to be present at a law office as Sam Anderson read daddy’s last will and testament, and to bring the tuxedo to Gross Funeral Home the night before – it all just hit me. But I had to push through to just get past the main event. Daddy’s funeral was held on Saturday, July 25, 1992.
When I arrived at the funeral home that Saturday morning, I felt grown up in my new black clothes. I ran into many old friends of daddy’s who hugged me in the parking lot, crying, before I could even get inside myself. I hadn’t seen daddy yet, and I wanted to be with him. It was my last chance.
And there he was.
At the end of an aisle flanked by wooden pews sat his casket, half open as I’d imagined. Florists made a mint that day from daddy’s sympathizers, and there was well over a thousand dollars in white roses alone from Sonny Burnett. As I approached the end of the aisle, my gaze focused on the tip of his profile facing up at the ceiling from the casket. I ignored everything else.
Cold, firm, surreal.
I leaned in close to him. I’d never been this close to a dead body before, and I couldn’t believe it was my father’s. Vibrations of shock flowed through me and somehow sustained me. I’ll never forget my final inspection of him. I leaned in further, getting very close. Instead of heat emitting from his lively body, the cold stillness of the flesh he left behind hit me hard. He was like a mannequin, I thought, investigating how his lip or skin of his check didn’t move from even the lightest touch touch of my finger.
I moved in closer, cocking my neck and body to the left as I hovered over him to feel like we were face to face. So empty and truly lifeless, this was not my father. His eyes and pursed lips had been sewn tightly shut so they wouldn’t accidentally be moved. I inspected everything about his face, his hands and the soft coffin bed because I wanted to remember it. I slipped the red plastic Vivitar camera I brought with me back into my purse because it dawned on me that capturing this moment on film seemed tacky and out of place. I’d brought it to take pictures for posterity, but I read the room this time and didn’t want to make it weird, or worse, more pity on me.
When I delivered the tuxedo, I’d told the funeral home to “make him look suntanned,” and they tried. A thick coat of stage makeup bronzer was the only thing between me and daddy’s real skin. But it was like stiff, unbending leather now, some kind of strange material I’d never encountered – not daddy’s cheek I used to hug or hand that held mine. While his face still puffed from two days of bloating in his bedroom, frozen in time, he looked somber and sad from the gravity weighing down his jaw. A week ago, he was posing for pictures, smiling, holding a drink in one hand and gesturing with the other. Now, his hands lay folded on his torso, covered in bronzer but empty of blood pumping to bring life and heat to the surface.
“He won’t look like your dad,” people warned me. But I knew him. Oh, how I wanted daddy to walk through the back door and say this was all an awful prank and that he’d faked his death. He’d tell me this body lying in the casket was just a stunt double. But no, this was real. It was daddy but it wasn’t at the same time. This was just a strange, cold body.
We were alone here in these last moments, and I slipped an envelope into his tuxedo jacket pocket. Jason and I both wrote letters to him to say our final goodbyes.
Hesitating and confused, I grazed the back of my right pinky finger along his left cheek ever so gently. It was the strangest feeling, the weirdest thing I’ve ever touched. Cold, soulless skin. I knew it would be the last time I’d touch him.
“Wake up now!” I ordered him in an intent whisper. But he was gone.