Lately, when I talk to my parents on the phone, they always want to spend some time discussing the inevitable, or as they say it, “when we are gone.” Today, for example, my father told me about the things he had organized and put up on the top shelf in his closet.
‘What kind of things?” I asked him. “Just documents, insurance policies and stuff,” he said. “You know, for when we’re gone.” He was quick to add that everything was fine, and he wasn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. Then he told me where he kept the key to the lock box.
According to the time stamp on the writing program I use, I composed the paragraph above one-hundred fifty-two days ago. It was January 29, 2012. I thought it could be the beginning of an essay, but I could never figure out where to go with it, so it has sat, unmolested, ever since. The working title was “Getting Ready.” I imagined many more phone calls of the same kind, containing little nuggets of light-hearted gold, maybe some amusing “old people” anecdotes I could add to the story, and then sometime in the future, a year or so down the road, I would finish it and post it on my blog, for both of my followers to read and enjoy. But when my father told me on that Sunday morning in January he wasn’t going anywhere, anytime soon, neither of us knew then how wrong he was.
We buried him on a Friday morning in June, under the hot Arkansas sun, one-hundred fourteen days later. We gathered to say goodbye, his family and his few living friends, at a cemetery in Pine Bluff, the town where none of us, including my father, had lived for a generation, but most of us still think of as home. We laid him in the family plot, next to his mother and father. A large, perspiring minister, regally frocked in the vestments of the Episcopal Church, officiated in the shade of the funeral home tent, standing next to the small wooden box that held my father’s remains. It was nice of him to do, since none of us had set foot in his church for more than twenty years, and we all agreed he did a dignified job under difficult conditions. When it was over, we gathered at a friend’s house and ate finger sandwiches and tomato aspic, and we tried to talk about anything other than what we had just done.
Beginning about the time of my father’s seventieth birthday, fifteen years ago, I have been trying to prepare myself for the day he would die. I can’t even begin to calculate the hours I spent thinking about it. How will it feel? How will I handle myself? How much will I cry? Will my suit fit? (The answers are: 1. terrible 2. okay, I guess 3. a lot 4. yes, barely.) Each year that went by, I thought about it more and more, so much that it probably met the clinical definition of an obsession. Every time I drove away from his house, after one of our too infrequent visits, I wondered, “Was that the last time I’ll ever see him?” I had the same thought every time I hung up the phone. “Was that the last time I’ll ever talk to him?” And then, when I hung the phone up this past Father’s Day, it really was the last time. On Tuesday next, his heart failed him, and he was gone. All of a sudden I don’t have to worry about any of those things ever again. It is liberating in a way, and I feel awful for saying that, but in another way, a bigger way, it is crushing. Grief is a powerful thing. For weeks I had spells where it was hard to breathe because it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. Now it just feels like a large dog. I take that as a sign I am getting better.
Sons shouldn’t have to lose their fathers, but it’s the cycle of life, and that’s what I am trying to come to terms with. I’m lucky because I have no regrets. My father and I had a good relationship, and I have no remorse about things left unsaid or undone. And he had a long, good life. I told friends who consoled me it was sad, but not tragic, because he lived eighty-five mostly healthy years, he had a family who loved him, more friends than he knew what to do with, and he didn’t linger or suffer at the end. “We should all be so lucky,” I said more than once, trying to put a brave face on it.
I’ve spent most of the past six weeks thinking in terms of how much I have lost. Today, in the course of writing this all down, it occurred to me that it might be healthier to think in terms of what I still have. Like the photographs I have of him, hundreds of them, and the home videos, and the letters he wrote to me in college, and the emails I saved after he learned to use a computer, and the dozens of mementos he gave me over the years. I can see him all around me, all I have to do is look. I can hear his voice, all I have to do is listen. Maybe my father was not wrong on that Sunday morning last January. Maybe he’s not going anywhere, anytime soon. Maybe whether he does, or doesn’t, is totally up to me.