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Dead Parents Club

Rudy A Stevens

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Rudy A Stevens

Prologue: The Dead Parents Club


I’ve always found it funny, as morbid as it is, that some people spend more time worrying about what people will think of them after they die, even though they won’t be consciously present to feel embarrassed.

There have been times where I have been ill, to the point I thought I may die, or in a mental state where I wasn’t sure if I might finally, you know, cave in to that nagging desire in the back of my mind to no longer be conscious, or present. Yet, in those times, my darkest, weakest, most physically ill moments, I have found myself cleaning my room, organizing my shelves, my shoes, my throw pillows, making sure my sofa and rug were aligned perfectly with the floor boards. I did this, to avoid the conscious embarrassment I would experience now, if someone found my corpse in a room that was a mess, despite the fact I would have no conscious ability to experience embarrassment if this is what they came to observe, if any of those morbid, ill-fated circumstances came to be.

I suppose this has more to do with legacy? Dignity? Pride? But what do those things even mean after you die? What purpose does it serve to people please, and focus so heavily on pride, if you won’t be consciously aware of the survivor’s observations and judgments about you, post-mortem?


Perhaps some of us simply desire an afterlife where our souls are seen as worthy of entering the Summerland, or heaven, or a reincarnation into a more advanced, less wrought-filled existence, and subconsciously we fear leaving our lives behind in rooms, houses, scenarios, that are left in disarray, may not grant us that after life we long for.

My grandmother Saundra used to say, “cleanliness is next to godliness,” then have us detail her car, and the ridiculous amount of (adorable) nick-knacks she collected through the years.

I always wondered why she had such an obsession with cleanliness and organization, until we started speaking on an adult level, as very close friends, about her spiritual beliefs. Despite her cleaning motto, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” she actually was never quite sure if there were an afterlife, despite her beliefs in the supernatural, throwing herself into the Christian faith, and even believing at one point that there were simply a higher power and reincarnation was a possibility. I think the contrast, at point here, to seeking cleanliness to gain a place in a kind afterlife, was for my grandmother, to preserve a legacy, as she was so uncertain of the afterlife. Cleanliness would be a legacy, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren would remember.

Ultimately, legacy, memories of whom you were, and practices of habit and behavior, would become your afterlife, if there were nothing to consciously experience after this life. You live on through the memories of others, your legacy is your existence when you’re gone.


Angela Maria Barnhart (June 4th, 1963-December 28th, 2004)


My mother inherited this from my grandmother, and was someone who would wake up at the ass-crack of dawn on the weekend, and start vacuuming right beside your head, as though you should feel guilty for not being up, and active, and preserving that legacy of cleanliness. She would dust, Lysol the floors, windex the windows, scrub anything she could find to clean sometimes, and then by noon, she would start drinking.

It’s become easier to understand, as I’ve grown older, how conflicted she was between preserving her legacy of cleanliness, and earning her right to her addictions. Which, unfortunately, and ultimately, became her legacy.

What does it mean to be clean? What is the legacy we leave behind? How does cleanliness at times offset our ability to maintain other responsibilities?


I had the unfortunate experience of watching my mother, Angela Maria Barnhart, battle with a desperate need to acquire cleanliness, to offset guilt, shame, trauma; which eventually backfired, and left her with a body that was traumatized by addiction, and took her from us at the age of forty-two.

There were years I hated my mother, she could hold a job for six months at a time, while my brother Shane and I were barely in grade school, and then someone from her past would always pop back up, out of nowhere, and the drinking began, the drugs began, and she would leave us with our great-great uncle Charley, who was battling dementia, and sadly, without a wife or kids, and with a railroad and veteran’s pension seemed to be a valuable babysitting check to anyone who decided to look after him in my family, except my Grandmother Saundra, whom at times he practically treated like a daughter.

My mother would be as close to sober as she could be, and keep a very clean house, bring us presents after late shifts. She brought me home an audio, read-along version of Hansel and Gretel once when I was six years old. She woke me up around midnight, after working late, to give me that book. Nights she was gone working, I would just play it over, and over, and read along. My mother bought me the train set I wanted when I turned six years old, and we set it up under the Christmas tree that year, a few months later.

Angie had moments where she could be the best mother in the world, to me, and then at the drop of a hat, as I said, someone from her dark past would show up, and “the party” would begin.

Eventually, my brother Shane and I were taken from our mother, and I have always been ashamed to admit that we were placed in foster care, temporarily, while our family on both her mother and father’s (having been divorced for thirty years), could figure out who was able to take responsibility for two more children, when they all mostly had very full plates, and dealing with my mother’s back-and-forth addiction and sobriety, had already exhausted everyone.

Our Aunt Nichole took us in for a year, with our cousin Erica, whom has always been like a sister to me. That was one of the best years of my life, and I remember and even treasure being properly punished, for the times I would do the idiotic, shithead things you’d expect a very energetic seven-year-old to do. Aunt Nikki has always been a saint, no one can deny that.

However, the time came for us to go back with our mother, after a year of sobriety and checking in with the courts. Unfortunately, to keep up with tradition, another dark part of the past came back to throw her into an eventual spiral, once again. This time, however, it was our father, whom had been estranged for years. This, ultimately, was the beginning of the end for Angie.

After months of recklessness, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, my brother called the one number he remembered to use in this particular emergency, and that was Grandma Annie. I remember the look on my mother’s face as she was taken away that day, and we sat in the van with our Grandma Annie, and Uncle Tommy. I can almost smell the dust rolling off the tires, as we drove away, from that small farmhouse on the very end of a paved road, the valley between two tree covered hills, a cornfield, and a river.

That house was supposed to save us, keep our parents from the city, from their past, from the dark entities they would let back into their lives under the guise of friends. But, it was Grandma Annie and Uncle Tommy who saved my brother and I. There was one number to call, and my brother knew that day, at that time, that was the number to call.

Our grandparents, Bob and Annie took us in, with our uncles becoming like older brothers, as grandma Annie was our mother’s step-mom, so the boys she and our grandfather had were closer in age to us.

Annie became my mother, she would ride your ass if you didn’t get your schoolwork done, she put Shane in sports, because she knew that was his passion, and she put me in choir and hired a piano teacher to give me lessons, because she knew that was my passion. This is a woman that sees the inside of someone’s soul, and sees the brightest parts, she sees the potential, and she always pushed for the best part of your character to find its way out and live on the surface, authentically. I will always be grateful, despite how much I missed my mother, that we were blessed to be taken in by such a kind soul, whom allowed us to grow into our potential.


So, now you have some backstory, and are probably wondering what this book of essays has to do with any of these preceding details.

This book of essays is not for the weak of heart. There will be good memories, funny memories, and a lot of despair. I have been fortunate enough to have hilarious, talented, brave friends in my life. However, as the years have gone by, I’ve learned more than I expected have been struck by similar tragedies:

The tragedy of losing a parent; in your formative years. The years where your parents help shape and guide you, annoy you into seeing your own potential.

Two years ago I spent a week in Lisbon, Portugal, with my wonderful friend Aimée, and learned about how she also lost both of her parents. We spent an entire night discussing the differences in our relationships with them, when we lost them, how we lost them, and how it has driven us to become the people we are today, and the trauma and pain we still feel, and how that sometimes misguides and depletes us, or drives us to make the most out of our experience during this short time on earth.

That night, we deemed ourselves, The Dead Parents Club, DPC for short. It was initially an inside joke, and meant to bring humor to our vulnerable conversations, but it stuck. As I began to see the strength I gained from my tragedy, I began to see the strengths of my friends whom experienced similar tragedies. Their ambition, their wit, their dark and light humor, and began to ask them about their experiences.

As I said, I have some brave friends, and very generous friends, whom have decided to share their stories in this book.


These are the stories of The Dead Parents Club






Losing Angie


I lost my mother three days after Christmas, December 28th, 2004. My mother’s cirrhosis lead to liver cancer, and eventual pancreatic and kidney failure. Angie was, for the most part, as sober as she could be for three years. I spent almost every weekend with her. Listening to the radio, and singing along together, as we drove far out into the country to see her best friend, Larry Mingo, who lived on several acres, in what we call in Ohio, “the sticks.”

I treasured those weekends, and sometimes hated going home, because my Mother had become a good friend of mine, almost like a sister; more than a mother. She told me as much as she could about her past; when the addiction started, why it started, why she couldn’t stop. She was honest with me, it was painful, but she knew I was wise beyond my years, as my grandma Annie had always said, and she knew I could handle it.

We would listen to Fleetwood Mac, and I would give her friends tarot readings, and we would drive back through the country together, and just talk. Those three years of (questionable) sobriety, flew by, and the disease caught up to her.

My mother spent months in and out of the hospital, in and out of comas, and finished her days in a nursing home, at forty-two years old. That was until her last coma, on Christmas day of 2004, when her organs shut down. My brother called me around 8AM on the 28th, to let me know mom was “gone”. We were both in high school; I was sixteen, and he was seventeen. I was staying with our mother’s mom, our other grandma, Saundra, as she had no one to truly console her at the time through Angie’s illness.

Shane picked me up that morning, and as cheesy as this may sound, as though it’s right out of a tragic teen TV show or movie, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day immediately played on the radio, and ended the moment we parked his truck at the hospital where our mother had finally passed away. We didn’t say a word, we just cried. There was something about that song playing, at that exact time, during that ride, that I will never be able to put words together to describe. Our mother was gone, and it was almost as if she was telling us, “I hope you had the time of your life.”

I hope you had the time of your life.

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What a beautiful and sensitively written account of your traumatic upbringing. 

The cleanliness aspect struck me as my own mother had her, shall I say -  'mild obsession' with cleanliness. I think I  unfortunately internalized this and have my own routines of having things clean and neat. My kids say I'm 'psycho neat' but hey, compared to how they keep their living spaces (total chaos) I guess it would seem like that to them. Lol...

Perhaps it was our mothers' way of having some modicum of control over their lives? My own mother had a traumatic upbringing as well and for her,  the stigma of what she suffered as well as being poor really affected her. Kind of like "Well, we may not have money but we are clean."  I'm of the era when mothers who could sew, made clothes for their kids. Butterick patterns immediately flood my memory. We always had outfits that our mother sewed and looking at us, you wouldn't guess we had very little money and lived in government housing. I think it was a source of pride for her that we didn't look disheveled or ratty as kids. Maybe that, and I guess it was cheaper to sew your own clothes back then.

It sounds like you and your brother had some albeit brief, connection to more stable family members who helped shape and have a positive influence on you. It wasn't a perfect upbringing, but those experiences are unique to your life and your journey on this earth. You and your brother are survivors. 

I have forgiven my mother for the things she did, consciously or unconsciously. She wasn't addicted to drugs or alcohol, but she could be remote. Hugging and saying I love you was not a thing. It took getting older, having more perspective and deep empathy for the damaged person she was, to heal from the past. Well, if not healing (because I don't think it ever does) at least understanding.

That takes a lot of time and growth. It sounds like you have done much of this already. 

Peace to you.

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