You are in for a real grim treat today, as you’re invited to join me in working through some of my grief over my father’s death this past February. Consider this your “trigger warning.” If you’re feeling sensitive to the topics of death or loss you may want to archive today’s letter and wait ’til next week.
Sometime in the past two weeks, someone arranged for three matching marble slabs—one fully carved for my dad, one partial for my mom, and one to memorialize my stillborn brother—to be lifted onto an unmarked truck and driven to a cemetery in northern Illinois.
Another person signed for the stones. Sometime later still, a small group installed (Planted? Deposited?) the headstones onto their own final resting place. I wonder if these were the same young men who tried hard not to meet my eye while they waited for me to leave my father’s freshly dug grave after lowering the casket. Those three worked hard on that cold February morning, but with the efficiency of practice, gloved hands working the machines, quietly instructing each other like lovers. Then another pulled up in a dump truck to fill that unfillable hole with sand.
I remember thanking those guys as we walked through the snow back to the car. They seemed unaccustomed to being acknowledged, but grateful.
So many layers to descend. Under the sand a concrete vault, the lid painted a strange bronze color, his name etched on a plate beneath a brass cross, entombed. Not two weeks after the burial we received a postal offer to purchase an extended warranty for the vault, the most ridiculous mail I’ve ever opened.
Inside the reinforced concrete that will protect the shape of the cemetery (if not it’s contents, warranty or not) is a sleek and heavy casket. The outside is carved from solid pecan, grown in West Virginia, and made by hand. What an honor it must feel to make such a thing. To turn a tree into art that will only be displayed for a day or two, and yet last in the mind forever.
The wood is remarkably beautiful and warm to touch. A small sliver of Scotch tape remains on the lid where flowers were draped and attached. The whole assembly is heavier than I ever imagined possible, and locks with the turn of a brass key.
Inside that work of art now, a satiny sheet covers his body, a mummy, this pharaoh. And like a pharaoh we send him on with memories and gifts: cards, letters, and pictures, including two valentines from my mother marking the day he proposed and this day he is buried.
A dark suit, his only, is artfully arranged over him. White Oxford cloth shirt cinched close at the neck by the silver tie he wore on his wedding day. The scent of summer sweat and commuter rail mixed with worn cotton is a smell that takes me instantly back to him arriving home from work during childhood summers, brown briefcase in his hand, the combination to the lock our street address.
This, tangled with stale cigarette smoke, was the scent of my father, not the unwashed body/detergent/urine smell of his last days so much like a baby’s first. Not the cloying floral of the room or the mortuary cosmetics on his cold, waxy skin.
Beneath that still, I suppose there must still be adenocarcinoma filling his chest, alongside the implanted defibrillator that saved his life twice in the year it lived within him, somberly deactivated only hours before his death by a rattled but respectful representative from the manufacturer. Poor guy couldn’t get out of that house fast enough, but who could blame him?
“Johnny, gonna need you to take a short lunch today. You’re needed at a deathbed vigil to remote-wipe an ICD so it won’t painfully try to revive a man who simply can live no more.”
I thanked him too.
Deeper still, is there anything more? Anything left now that we have traveled from pristine black granite through earth and concrete and wood and cloth and finally through to corrupt and spent flesh? Have we found all there is to touch and feel?
A father. A husband. A grandpa. A son. A man. A boy. All these roles and forms that make a human being and that we cage within a single name, maybe two, as if it were so simple to define so much that was in the end, simply, Phil. Dad.
Surely we know that a name is mere shorthand for something more, though it is what remains, facing the sky forever.
- Before moving briefly to New York in 1996, I joked that everything I knew about the city came from listening to Lou Reed. Until fairly recently, that was also true of grief. Reed’s beautiful record “Magic and Loss” makes for worthy accompaniment to struggling with thoughts such as these.
- We now live in a world with no living Ramones. They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh penned a fitting tribute to Tommy Ramone, and the band’s legacy,in Slate.
“A Ramones song cannot be unheard. The Ramones changed the pH balance of rock music’s pond water. Their existence challenged everyone else’s. They’re not part of a school. They built the building.”
- Let’s close for the week with the art of the Dad-joke, perfected: Nice one, Dad.
Thanks for reading this week. TTYS!
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