I’ve been looking for a way to explain how I feel about my father dying. It’s as if I were born on a continent, and I played there, and I grew up falling, and getting back up, and figuring out how I fell. I went back there when I was proud. I went back there when I was miserable, and it was always home.
That continent has fallen and disappeared into the ocean. That’s how I feel.
There is a giant hole in the world shaped like my father. I can walk around it, but I can never fill it. He died this morning in his sleep, in his own bed, and without pain. Dying piles indignities on us, but he held on to more dignity than most.
At age eighty-six he liked to say, “Old age ain’t for sissies.” He grew up hunting and wandering around in the woods, and he spent most of his career outside. His favorite parts of himself didn’t thrive indoors. Past injuries and illnesses kept him inside during too much of his final twenty-nine years. During twenty-three of those years he spent most days sitting next to my mother in matching recliners, talking about a whole lot of enjoyable nothing. The next six years he sat next to her empty chair.
He built things on all scales. He managed projects that built schools, manufacturing plants, and a nice chunk of DFW Airport. One year for my mother’s birthday he built her an organ.
I have never talked to a person who knew him and didn’t think highly of him. That includes people he fired.
A few slices of my father’s life sketch him with unavoidable imperfection:
One day when he was six years old he was haranguing his mother about someplace he wanted to go with his dog, while she stood in the kitchen holding his little sister. She kept saying no. He finally said, “If you weren’t holding that baby, I’d throw this dog at you.”
At age nineteen he joined the Marine Corps, and they sent him to the war in Korea. Not long afterwards his platoon was attacked by massed waves of Chinese soldiers. At the end he was the last man standing on either side, and he blocked that memory for the next fifty years. Seven months later, his company was split up so that half could be sent home to help form a new company. He volunteered to stay, but his commander refused, saying, “No, you’ve seen enough of this shit already. You’re coming home with me.” Within a month the men who stayed were nearly wiped out.
My father never smoked, even though cigarettes came in his rations in Korea. After the war, he and my uncle would go to rough places in the river bottom to play quarter-limit poker and lose a bunch of money. Everybody smoked. Once in a while he would reach over to the ashtray and mash out all the cigarettes with his finger. Nobody objected, they all just lit up a new one.
My father only spanked me once, a single swat with a switch I cut. It didn’t hurt, but I was devastated. I don’t remember him ever yelling at me. I would have crawled over broken glass for him.
When I was about eight I was helping him with a project in our shop at home. I got distracted and let something drop. He frowned and said, “He who hesitates is lost.” Then he smiled and said, “All things come to he who waits.” Then he said, “Both of those sayings were probably made up by the same man.”
I don’t remember my father giving me much instruction on how to live life. He did what he thought was the right thing and admitted it when he did the wrong thing. He told me the Bible must have been written by a con man. The idea that you can hurt people your whole life and then profess faith on your deathbed to be forgiven was ridiculous to him.
In these past years my father has often told me he’s ready for death when it comes. He said he’d had a good life, done about everything he wanted to do, and had no regrets. He sometimes said you may as well laugh, because it does no good to cry. I saw no sign that he changed his mind at the end. Even when he became too weak to talk, he still smiled when we talked to him.
No one has ever called me sentimental. At least, I don’t remember it ever happening. It’s not that unsentimentality has been one of my goals. I never woke up on New Year’s Day and said, “This year I’ll learn to speak German, lose 20 pounds, and become a son of a bitch.” And yet, yesterday when I told an old friend that I don’t really have a list of people I dislike, she looked at me as if I’d said I don’t really breathe oxygen and have a peristaltic process.
I will say that I hang on to a lot of stuff that means something to me, or that once meant something to me, or that meant something to someone else. Or that looks cool, or might fit me again one day, or that I put in a drawer and forgot about. I like stuff, just as my mom did.
Whether or not this behavior is sentimental, it drives my wife nuts. I cannot possibly express how much she does not care about stuff, unless the stuff is a coffee mug or a bottle of honey-pineapple revitalizing body splash with conditioner. I know that she loves me, because she’s come to tolerate, if not respect, my obsession with stuff. And I think “obsession” is the right word, not sentimentality.
My father cares no more about stuff than he cares about any given paramecium in his yard, and he holds an absolute lack of sentimentality for holidays, birthdays, greeting cards and so forth. If you consider those things to be the cozy fire of warmth in the human heart, then he is -273.15 degrees Celsius, and you could shatter bananas on him like they were light bulbs. He’s a caring guy in other ways, but that’s not one of them, and from him I inherited my immunity to the charms of greeting cards.
When I get a card I look at it, think how nice the sender was to remember me, and smile for the benefit of my wife. Then, in most cases, I immediately toss all memory of the card into the recycle bin, along with the physical card itself. I do not add it to a stack of memories boxed up somewhere in my existence.
On the other hand, my mom was created out of sentimentality. She was like a Care Bear that played mournful country music while carrying a book of baby pictures and pressed flowers on her back. She died last year, and about a month later, when my birthday was approaching, I caught myself thinking that I’d see a card from her in the mail soon. I of course stopped that train of thought right away and switched it to, “Well, shit.” Then I realized that I had thrown away everything she had ever written to me.
That realization did not support the festive birthday atmosphere that my wife was trying to create. I moped around a little while trying to look like I wasn’t moping and was instead examining the structural integrity of the birthday cake.
Then my gaze drifted over to our filing system. It consists of four piles lying on the kitchen counter. Three piles belong to my wife. I’m not sure what they contain, but things appear on them, get moved from one pile to another, and somehow disappear, at which point our bills are paid and we’re allowed to continue living in our house. My single pile gets taller and taller until it starts toppling over, at which point I throw away 90 percent of it and put the rest in a tiny pile on my desk. I throw the tiny pile away a couple of weeks later when I get tired of looking at it.
I started wondering whether the card my mom had sent on my previous birthday lay in some stratum of my pile. I dug through it in a casual fashion. It was pretty tall. The postmarks regressed through the previous year, but the last item only reached back to mid-summer. With that possibility shredded, I decided to sit in the library, where my birthday cake wouldn’t be spoiled by the stench of my moping.
A bit later my wife came into the library. She had deduced what I’d been doing, since I’d been muttering about it so loudly that our cats had been peering at me and preparing to hide under the bed if things went to hell. My wife brought me a stack of older stuff she’d taken away from my pile some weeks earlier. She had placed it on my desk in a logical and obvious spot, ensuring that I’d ignore it practically forever.
Without much hope I sorted down through this stack of neglected stuff, and I did not find the card I was searching for until the end. I mean, that card was at the bottom of the pile, the last thing of all. Somewhat stunned, I opened it up and took a peek.
I don’t believe in miracles, or spirits, or destiny. I do believe in the space-time continuum, procrastination, and the law of large numbers. I also believe in my wife’s determination to impose order on a disorderly universe. But setting belief aside, I can say for a fact that on my birthday it’s nice to eat structurally sound cake and read some things that my mom wanted to say to me.
The biggest problem I have with death is that there aren’t enough laughs. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t find death itself particularly amusing. I have lost some people quite dear to me, which was painful—and which still delivers the occasional icicle to the heart, even after a lot of years.
The silly thing isn’t death, but rather how we think and talk about death. And especially how we behave because of death. For example, look at what I said a moment ago: “I have lost some people…” It’s as if we were at the mall and they wandered over to Taco Bell without telling me, or as if they unobtrusively slipped between the couch cushions. No—they died.
Now I’m perfectly aware that our euphemisms about death are really armor against the grief of loss. If your friend Charlie died yesterday and you’re a reasonably sensitive person, you might tell his other friends, “Charlie passed away suddenly last night,” rather than, “Charlie’s dead. Dibs on his plasma TV.”
Of course, if Charlie drank enough tequila to strike the entire populace of Juarez blind, swam naked in a public fountain, and choked to death on a quarter tossed in by a little girl wishing for her very own collagen lip injections, then no euphemisms are necessary. I defy anyone to hear that truth and not giggle.
When grief is new and armed with claws and spines and scorpion tails, it makes sense to look at death only from the corner of your eye. But after a time—maybe years—the grief loses its killer instinct. Yet even then we often maintain the soft sell when talking about death.
And is that the wisest thing? It diminishes the honesty with which we remember how our loved one’s life ended—and by extension their life in general. Whether or not we like it, a person’s death is an important part of their life, and shying away from their death makes it tough to fully appreciate them.
I recognize that looking frankly at the death of someone you love and accepting that loss is a cast iron bitch. And there are different kinds of loss associated with it, such as the loss of things we spent time doing together:
“We’ll never again hang out at Wal-Mart propositioning strangers and get thrown in jail with guys named Lug-nut and Iguana Bob.”
There’s the loss of the things you shared:
“We won’t ever sit around again arguing over whether Kirk or Picard is the best starship captain.” (I’m a Kirk fan because he doesn’t have meetings and sweet talk the bad guys. He SHOOTS the god damn aliens with his phaser and then screws their women.)
And there’s the loss of how you felt:
“He was my friend, and he never made me feel like a creepy old fart for wanting beautiful young women to want me.”
Obviously that was all a bit facetious. But hey, a little humor at the expense of the Grim Reaper isn’t amiss. Anybody who wears that much black in the day time has got to be a pretentious asshole.
When someone I love has died then a part of me indeed died too—the part of me that could only exist when I was with them, that was brought into being because of them, and that has now vanished forever because they will never come back. When I grieve for the loss of someone I love, I am also grieving for the part of me that they brought to life—and that they killed by dying themselves.
And when that happens, you sure as hell better laugh all you can.