“How He Died” by Jamie Beth Cohen

Issue 20 / Winter 2020


This is what I know.

August: He tells the nurse who lives next door that the strange gash above and behind his right ear is from falling in the night. Disoriented and tangled in the sheets, he hit his head on a piece of furniture. But he has slept in that room for more than thirty years, and I was raised on a steady diet of police procedurals ripped from the headlines. I know a hesitation wound when I see one: the swollen, reddish-purpley mark on his bald head is a precise, straight line.

September: I secretly remove my dad’s gun from his closet when I visit my childhood home over Labor Day. I hide it overnight, in a planter in the living room. My brother checks for a serial number and then throws it in the river.

October: The ambulance driver gets in through a window and finds him on the bathroom floor, head bloodied. This time, he says he fell because he was confused by the layout of his new apartment, but he has already told me about the recent break-in. Nothing was taken, but someone was looking for something, and I know there’s a shaky lock on the backdoor. It’s why I refused to stay the night the last time I was in town. My dad owes a lot of people money. My dad’s boss is under investigation. My dad thinks I believe whatever he tells me.

November: He’s been in the hospital since the morning with the ambulance driver. The doctors suspect Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus—it’s the shuffling of his feet and his unsteady gait, it’s his cloudy mind—or Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the human version of Mad Cow. But they can’t confirm the diagnosis because of complicating factors: there’s the brain bleed from his last fall; he’s contracted E. Coli during his stay; there are seizures now, too.

December: My dad is in a medically-induced coma following two brain surgeries, one planned, one not. He dies when we shut off the machines: December 9, 2005. But that is a technicality. The machines were merely approximating life-like functions: the ones they had told me in school were supposed to be autonomic. The obituary, written by a local journalist, says my dad died of complications following surgery.

March: The letter from the hospital is addressed to me. It says, “Thank you for allowing us to autopsy your loved one, [insert name].” I have my doubts about an office that cannot complete a proper mail merge, but I read on. There is nothing conclusive in the report. A lifetime of watching Law and Order reruns has not prepared me for an inconclusive autopsy.

April: The death certificate I present to close his bank account lists the cause of death as “accidental.” It says nothing of the break-in, the seizures, the unconfirmed diagnosis, the E. Coli he couldn’t shake, the depression no one talked about. No one says the word addiction. No one says the word suicide. No one says murder.

Have you ever asked me how my dad died?

What did I tell you?

Was it a lie?


Jamie Beth Cohen is a writer who works in higher education. She writes about difficult things, but her friends think she’s funny. Her debut novel, Wasted Pretty, was published by Black Rose Writing in 2019. Connect with her on Twitter @Jamie_Beth_S.

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