Has it aged me, losing my father? Or should we say, wizened me. Both right. It is a new experience, not at all like I thought it would be. It feels as if I’ve been hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat, still, over a week later, and that I’m in some kind of daze. It is surreal, detached.
We call it Bereavement, a V code, V62.82. Thankfully I have very few of the symptoms that distinguish bereavement from Major Depressive Episode. I haven’t got the guilt over what I didn’t do, no morbid preoccupation with death, no marked psychomotor retardation (although driving has been a little scary, haven't quite got the coordination back). No hallucinations, although my dreams, really scary.
And sure, it’s hard to sleep, and it is very early in the morning. I throw on a heavy FBI sweatshirt, one that my youngest son bought on his senior trip to Washington, DC, take a tour downstairs to the kitchen. I haven’t been home in a few days, have stayed overnight with my mom. It is traditional to choose a site for visitation, so my brother and I, without ever discussing it, have been at her home for the week, receiving visitors.
It is the flip of being a therapist, ideally. Being a therapist is all listening, or 80% listening, 20% feedback. Being a mourner, in my tradition, is talking or sitting quietly, but the mourner is the initiator. You don't impose your stuff on a mourner. Visitors come to sit with you for seven days, keep you company. It's about consolation, paying condolences.
You talk about whatever you want to talk about, so if you don’t want to discuss your father you don’t have to. But this is your chance, so to speak, to honor his memory, to publicize his goodness, his life experience.
We learn about life from the obituaries, at a certain age, and the eulogies.
I'm sitting near the toy box, see toys on top, not inside, remember putting them there, picking them up from the living room. My daughter and son came in for the funeral of their grandfather, one with an almost toddler, and after they left I didn’t want to put it all away. I look at the toys and it feels as if the visit was years ago.
I make a stab at reading from a novel, American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld, a wonderful treatment of Laura and George Bush, but can’t concentrate. There are a few newspapers on the table, but the words don’t penetrate. Something about winter Olympics and bobsleds. And of course, Tiger Woods. I think, I should blog about Tiger. Then I think, I should blog about my father.
He buried my brother 40 years ago to the day of his death. Isn't that amazing? Someone says to FD, Sometimes you get a glimpse of how things are actually run. It's not all random.
Here are some of the things I said at the funeral:
My father was such a complicated man that I can’t tell you if he would want me to make you cry, or not. I think not, because he was such a social guy. He would be happy to see such a nice crowd.There are too many stories, a blog is just a blog. Okay, just a little more.
He simply had this magnanimous warmth, he greeted everyone as if he’d been waiting all week for you to stop by. Always someone knocking at the front door window, the telephone always ringing. Almost always for my Dad.
Last Wednesday morning, we're in the ER. He's in terrible pain. They put a gown on him, hook him up to an IV, his clothes are in a plastic bag. He’s on oxygen.
“You never saw me like this,” he says to me, for the hundredth time since he’s been so ill. This has been his mantra for months, now, “You never saw me like this.”
Every day it surprises him, embarrasses him that he’s weak, short of breath, and he’s embarrassed about it. Like many men of his generation who did not experience the hunger of the concentration camps, being physically weak is unfathomable. It isn’t who we are, he would say, for he encouraged us to take good care of ourselves, always. You eat right, lots of garlic, you sleep right. Your body cooperates. He has to remind me; this isn’t him.
And I tell him that it’s okay. I know who he is.
A story: Kovel, Poland: the end of the Russio-Poland War, 1920. Bands of marauding Cossacks, White Russians; they're raiding towns everywhere, especially the ones with Jews. They pillage and rape and kill babies with their bayonets, toss them into the air.
My grandfather is running an errand, probably buying something for the farm. My grandmother is in bed nursing my infant father. A gang of these animals bursts in on her. They see my grandmother, a beautiful woman, probably all of twenty, nursing. One says something, probably in Russian, to the others. They argue, banter back and forth. They stare at her, they look at my father, they look at one another. The toughest one says something. They shrug. And they leave.
My grandfather returns from the store, he hears what has happened, and he packs a few things, takes this little family to the forest at the outskirts of town for as long as it takes until the hooligans move on to another.
But you know, a small town family, they’re always waiting for another gang of Cossacks.
Probably in response to my grandmother’s fears, and being the oldest son, my father takes the protector role in life when he can, which is how I see him as a kid, watchful. Bigger than life, really. I’m a naturally fearful person, irrationally afraid of home invaders, as you know. But if he's home, I'm not afraid.
Things not everyone knows:The world is not going to be the same, not for a lot of people, without my father.
He was charitable, he couldn’t say no, especially not if people asked him for something directly. A total softy, if you looked my father in the eye, respected him for who he was, he would give you the universe if he could find a way. And honestly, he believed he owned that, too, that the world was created for him.
Which is how we’re supposed to think.
He would teach that it’s what’s inside that counts, not what you have. It’s not acquiring things, it’s living that counts, living fully. This in the heart of of the suburbs, a very material world.