Family Secrets

Picking Up Dad

We left my father at the funeral home—only to return 27 years later

Dad and me in 1963.

On June 19, 1987—my 25th birthday—my dad died. He was 46.

He was found naked in the doorway of the bathroom of his one-bedroom apartment, discovered by police after neighbors complained of a terrible smell.

My wife and I arrived at his place not long after, and our timing was not an accident. Earlier that evening, when we returned from my birthday dinner, there was a message on our answering machine.

"We've been trying to call Dad for the past few days and can't reach him," said my 16-year-old sister, who lived in California with my mother and her husband. "I'm worried. Can you check?"

The moment we pulled in the apartment complex's parking lot and saw flashing red lights and a crowd of people, we knew. We located a police officer and asked what was going on. The officer said a resident had died and he was investigating. I told him who I was and said that my dad lived there.

Apparently, my dad had died a few days before and in the early summer heat, his body was decomposing. A heart attack, the officer guessed, having found nothing to suggest otherwise. I went numb.

My dad, a sick, 46-year-old divorced man who was without a job and with limited prospects, died alone in his sparse apartment. The officer suggested we go home and that's what we did. We had calls to make.

My younger brother was on his honeymoon in Hawaii when Dad died. We met him at the airport to tell him the news. My sister was on her way to Chicago with my mother.

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After the funeral, once the visiting relatives had gone home, Julie and I set out alone to clean out my dad's apartment. We came prepared with rubber gloves and hospital masks to combat the smell. We filled dozens of large black plastic garbage bags and dumped them in the parking lot trash bins.

A week later, I got a call from Michael's Funeral Home reminding me that they still had Dad's cremains. I called my brother. Since Julie and I took care of the apartment and the funeral arrangements, he had agreed to handle that final task.

Neither he nor I picked up Dad's ashes back then, and we wouldn't until 27 years later.

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My dad was born Jan. 13, 1941, in Chicago. His father, Norris Sr., was a junkman. Dad's mother wasn't part of his life. There's just one photo of her. In the black-and-white image taken at a professional portrait studio, the woman is seated holding my dad, who is about 4, and his younger brother. Her face is gone; Grandpa Norrie cut it out of the photo.

My dad and uncle spent most of their boyhood in the care of the state of Illinois. After divorcing his wife and getting custody of the boys, Grandpa Norrie decided he couldn't raise them on his own, and shuttled them off to an orphanage.

Dad later attended Schurz High School, which is across the alley from the home where my mom's cousin, Dad's best friend, lived. Dad quit school at 16. He married Mom a few months after her high school graduation. He was 20 and she was 18. I was born nine months after their wedding.

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I'm a newspaperman. And if you want to advance in this business, you need to move. In a 20-year period, Julie, the boys and I moved from Chicago to New York to Connecticut to Kansas and back to Illinois, three hours from our families in Chicago.

Over the next two-plus decades, I often wondered what became of Dad. Sometimes I would be sick about it. But I could never bring myself to contact the funeral home to see if his cremains were still there.

I remember a photo taken by my mother on a Sunday when Dad took me to my first Cubs game. I was about 4. It was cold and the city was recovering from a late-spring snowstorm. In this photo, Dad and I are standing outside our apartment. I'm bundled up in mittens and scarf wearing a red baseball jacket with team patches on it and a Cubs cap on my head.

But that photo of my dad and me is nowhere to be found.

"Maybe there wasn't such a photo," Julie said to me, after I tore apart my mother's basement looking for it.

Julie and I weren't prepared to bury my dad back then, and neither was he. The cheapest option was cremation. He worked for a suburban Chicago printing company, never making more than $18,000 a year. He was laid off a year before he died.

A group of my dad's co-workers attended the funeral. One of the men approached me and said Dad was a great guy, a good poker player who could make people laugh. But my impression from the conversation was that people felt sorry for him.

The man said Dad would show them my newspaper articles. At my college graduation party two years before he died, Dad gave me a brown baseball cap he had personalized: "DMA #1 in '85."

When I tried the cap on, my eyes locked with his. I could see how deeply he cared for me at that moment. I didn't know that before, nor did I think much about it. He and I hardly talked about anything other than sports. I was the independent son and the older I got, the farther I moved away.

My oldest son Eric is 23, two years younger than I was when my dad died. I'm seven years older than my dad was when he died. When I see Eric's face, it's the same as my dad's in the photo when he's sitting in his mother's lap. It's also my face when I'm the same age in the photo when Dad and I are heading to the Cubs game, the photo that doesn't exist.

Besides the photo of me wearing the Cubs cap, there's something else missing and it's time to set things right. It's time to pick up Dad.

I looked up Michael's Funeral Home on Google, as I had at least a half-dozen times before over the years. This time I sent an email. A few hours later, I got a reply from Mike, the son of the Mike whom we dealt with in 1987.

"Sure, we have your father's cremains," Mike wrote. "They are available to pick up whenever you can make it." State law requires funeral homes to keep cremains until collected by the family, no matter how long that takes.

I called my brother. "It's about time we pick him up," my brother said, sounding very relieved.

I also called my sister and she was fine with us picking up dad, but I got the feeling she hadn't thought much about where his body might have been for the past 27 years.

My brother, sister and I picked up Dad on an overcast Sunday afternoon, January 26, 2014, a few days after what would have been his 73rd birthday.

Joining us in the car heading to the funeral home was my sister's 4-year-old son. As I drove, my nephew asked a lot of questions. What are ashes? Where will Grampa Norrie be when we get there? I answered his questions with short but accurate replies, and he was satisfied.

On the 20-minute ride, my brother said, "Thanks for doing this, Den." He said it at least three times. He said we needed to do this. He said he couldn't do it himself.

We arrived at Michael's Funeral Home and were greeted by Mike. He was wearing a polo shirt and jeans, not the dark suit every other funeral director I've met has worn.

Mike excused himself to go get Dad. I looked around the lobby and nothing was familiar. Nothing reminded me of the funeral 27 years ago.

After a short time, Mike reappeared and handed me the white cardboard box containing Dad's ashes. It was about the size of a small package from Amazon, lighter than I expected and discolored by age. Mike also gave me a yellowed envelope carrying Dad's cremation certificate. The documents were typed on an old typewriter.

"You can't get on a plane with those ashes without that paper," he said.

As we were walking out the door, Mike said, "He was my longest."

I smiled. We all understood.

I tried to explain our story. We were young. Dad had been living on his own. Parents were divorced. The look in Mike's eye was clear; there was no reason to explain. Still, I felt like a shit.

Once outside back in the cold and snow, we laughed about Mike's "longest" comment. "We set a record," I said.

   
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