Friday, February 7, 2014

Death of a Lone Father

My father didn’t have a funeral. It was my mother’s decision. Maybe she saw it as a frivolous expense. She’d need to rent the space in the funeral parlor and buy the fancy casket. My parents didn’t know too many people in Burlington, Vermont anyway. They’d only moved there a few years before my father died. And they had never been what they described, sniffingly, as “joiners.” No bowling leagues. No church homes. No nothing. Their welcome mat said “Go Away.”

In the mornings, they’d read the paper together and my mother would cut up fresh fruit and serve it to my father in a bowl. When they got the urge to travel, they’d drive around together, investigating whatever area they lived in (Gold Canyon Arizona, Pleasanton, California, Boulder, Colorado). Nobody else was invited. They only wanted to be with one another. At a certain time of day, my father would mix the Manhattans. At night, they’d watch a movie. That would be one of the big choices. What movie would they watch? They have a few hundred DVDs to choose from, organized in categories. Westerns. Comedies. Drama. Foreign.

One of my father’s favorite films, near the end, was Departures, a Japanese film about a man who learns the ritualistic trade of preparing the dead for burial. Sheets are folded just so. The body is cleaned just so. And all the while, the family looks on.

I never saw my father in a casket. The last time I saw him, it was four thirty in the morning. I had woken up early in order to get a jump on the long trip from Vermont to Iowa. I kissed my father on the forehead and told him I loved him. He didn’t answer, but he took my hand and squeezed it. I told him it was just for a little while and I’d be back to visit him soon.  

I stopped off at Dunkin’ Donuts on my way out. Got a large coffee and two donuts. And took the back roads into New York and then down to the great interstate. It’s a comfort to set your mind on a journey. To know where you need to go and then to go there.

I’d been in Iowa a day when I got the call from my mother. They had already cleared the hospital bed out of the house. Two days later, they cremated dad’s body. That night, my mother and sister and brother sat around the kitchen table and drank a few martinis. These were the moments I missed.   

There were no eulogies or obituaries. Nothing was trending on Facebook regarding my father’s death. I’m sure he would have been pleased by that. He wasn’t a joiner, as I've said. He seemed, in fact, to grow less tolerant of people the older he got. I wouldn’t call him a lover of humanity. But I believe that he did love me.  

All deaths are personal. They can’t be anything but. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death is personal. As a movie lover, I will miss him personally. Although I don’t know who we was. I’ve read a dozen pieces written about him by now. How he had children. How he shrank into his characters. I’ve read about what drug addiction is. How we shouldn’t judge him for his addiction. How our laws regarding drugs create problems where addicts are concerned. And I’m sure they do. If heroin were legal, for instance, we wouldn’t need to get our fixes out of the public eye. But I’m sure that’s where we’d want them anyway. Nobody trips in any way other than alone.


  1. Prose stripped of sentimentality is so much more powerful than emotion-laden stuff. Thank you for moving my heart today, in this way.