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A Guide to Unexpected Loss

The day will have a typically slow start, so you’ll still be catching up on news and e-mail when your sister calls late in the morning. You’ll expect her to ask if you can make it down from Brooklyn to the Jersey shore where your family is vacationing, mostly out of a genuine desire to see you, but partly out of playful sibling rivalry: your absence from a family gathering makes you the lesser child. You’ll be prepared to concede defeat, to brush off this invitation as you have with so many others, but the invitation won’t come this time. AT&T Wireless will do its part to obfuscate the message, but the important details will come through clearly enough: Dad was in the ocean and got caught in the undertow. He was still unresponsive when they put him in the ambulance. The paramedics say it doesn’t look good.

You’ll thank her for calling and ask her to keep you posted, cognizant that your lifeless response eschews the concern the situation deserves, the concern you’re suppressing because Dad will be fine, everything will be fine. But your fake nonchalance will crumble quickly, and you’ll be on the road in a rental car within a half hour.

Take the BQE West to 440 South to the Garden State Parkway. Be sure to pull over on 440 when you get the call to inform you that you your dad is dead. You’ll need some time on the side of the road.

In the two lonely hours that follow, every familiar song you hear will have new subtext. You will warily ponder fatherlessness. You will dread reaching the hospital, where your new reality will be stripped of all abstraction. Still, you won’t be able to get there fast enough. You’ll try to avoid explaining the situation when you’re pulled over for speeding, but the truth will helplessly blubber its way out. The truth knows it can get you back on the road faster.

When you reunite with your family, you will for the first time see your father without seeing your father. His gray stillness will evince a contented peace but also a cruel vacancy. Amidst tight embraces, you will curse your chemistry’s insistence on reserving overwhelming love strictly for moments like these. You will vow not to take your mother and sister for granted anymore, knowing that vow will fail.

The next and last time you see your father, several days later, he will be unrecognizable, a ghoulish victim of – according to the funeral director – a carelessness common to post-mortem organ donor surgical procedure. The embalmer will have done his best with what he was given, and his best will not have been nearly good enough. As a priest leads your family in prayer over this strange corpse, you will stare at the fabric on the kneeler in front of you, letting your eyes lose focus so the Byzantine pattern’s dull brown and gold melt into a muddy, psychedelic swirl.

There has been an incredible outpouring of support and compassion today and in the days prior. You have spent them in the house you grew up in, surrounded by many of the people you grew up with. Friends and family have brought food, fellowship, comfort, conversation, distraction. Those who couldn’t be there in person have reached out in other ways, and social media has for once lived up to its human potential. Aside from the glaring omission in the cast of characters, these past few days have actually been wonderful. But at night, when the house has emptied, and you and your mother have retired to your bedrooms, your heartache has emerged in full, and your fitful sleep has given you that many more opportunities to wake up and realize you’re not dreaming.

Back in the funeral home, the prayers will eventually end, the Byzantine kneeler will snap back into focus, and the obvious decision will be made to close the casket for the wake.

That evening, while your family greets an interminable procession of condolences, a sympathetic friend will characterize the wake, not inaccurately, as a “conveyor belt of grief.” But it will for the most part be a more formal and orderly continuation of the week’s communal support, now held at God’s house instead of your parents’. This will be the most comfortable you have felt in a church since before you and God fell out years ago. The antiquated pageantry of the various weddings and funerals that forced you back into his presence over the years was met with a hazy resentment, but tomorrow’s service will offer you an olive branch in the form of a literal pulpit. The eulogy, your first, will be written and rewritten over and over again late into the night.

For all the undeserved attitude he’s tolerated during your perpetual adolescence, for all your shortsighted focus on perceived differences, for all the wasted opportunities you’ve had to know him more fully as a person, it is not lost on you that your father is an extraordinary human being. He approaches even mundane tasks with an uncommon vigor and sense of duty. He is eager to solve problems, partly for their own sake, but mostly for the sake of the people who have them. He possesses an uncanny abundance of joy, and refuses to keep it to himself. And it has never been unclear that he loves you so, so much.

While he is still alive, your love for your father will never be expressed quite so clearly. Delivering a eulogy won’t let you forgive yourself for that, but it will give you a unique opportunity to address a few hundred of the people whose lives he impacted. And in its own way, that will be like addressing him. When you do, he will smile with thousands of teeth.

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