My dad died in February. It was sudden and unexpected. He had a stroke at home and his wife found him. She rushed him to the ER and called me to tell me the doctors said it was a brain stem stroke and there was no hope. I cried on the phone with her, and I told Coco to let him go. To unplug him. He didn’t want to be a vegetable.
Two days later, my brother and my cousin and I flew to Japan to help sort out the mess and to say goodbye. It was a comedy of errors. Planes were delayed and rerouted, but we made it to his mother in law’s house and found him lying in state. We said goodbye, we cried, I said Kaddish. We ate dinner and slept on the floor, because Japan, but also because that’s what you do.
It snowed in Ageo and we took him to a funeral home. We made sure he had his Mr. Natural shirt with him. We cried and cried and cooked and started to make sense of his computers and cried more.
If I close my eyes, I can see the entire thing. I can see his body, the way he looked impossibly smaller. He was always so big to me. A giant. A man with a bald spot who tried to surf, who loved life, who loved women. Lying there, in his mother-in-law’s house, he was small. I understand, medically, why that happens. I clinically comprehend why the skin loses its pallor and becomes ‘waxy.’ All those things, like why his skin was cold and why his body was so still, make sense in many ways.
But he looked so small.
Everything looked so small. His bones and teeth, his hands and feet, for the first time, they were all small.
I remembered reading, on an airplane with him, when we flew from San Diego to Cleveland, an article about wax museums. The part that stuck with me was the manager relating that everyone would look at the figures and announce how small they were. The reason, he explained, was that everyone and everything was smaller when it didn’t move.
Looking at my father, I think he was wrong. It’s not the stillness that makes him small, but the lack of life. The energy is different. The feel of it all is different. The essence that made him my father is gone.
There’s a resonance to a person, most keenly felt when you sleep beside the same person for years and then spend a night apart. There was a time my father and I shared a room. We had little money, we lived in a tiny house with a kitchen that was a corner, and we had little more than each other and Barkley. When Dad and Boone and I went to Japan (my first time), we shared a room at the hotels. Sleeping with Dad in the room, it was comfortable. We shared a resonance still. We vibed, as he would say.
When I felt his presence there, in the room with his body, I recognized the difference. I wasn’t feeling him there. I was feeling the him inside me. The him that has always existed in me.
It’s normally unconscious, that awareness of your parents and grandparents in you. Maybe you notice it in a mirror, when you see your grandmother in your eyes, or you hear your mother in your laugh, or your aunt and cousin in your clothes. It’s impossible to escape the genetics of it, because it’s literally in our bones and blood.
Probably this should be a comfort, but it’s not. Instead of that knowledge warming me, making me feel less alone because he’s still there, I feel an omnipresent weight. At the same time it’s a hole inside me. I can feel it physically sometimes, when I’m not moving or when I’m not thinking deeply. There’s a hollowness to my chest, an ache that extends to my limbs, filling them with tar.
And sometimes, even when I’m moving, it hits me out of nowhere.
The physical manifestations of loss.
The reality that all that is left of my father is inside me and my brother.
Not too long after his birthday in January, I’d finally found the green and off-white Stegosaur tie he’d worn for my entire childhood. I sent it to him with a photo of him holding my brother as a baby. He’d gotten the tie the weekend before he died, just a couple days. It makes me feel good to know that, effectively, the last thing I said to him was a happy birthday, and I loved him. It’s a small comfort to know he died knowing I always thought of him.
After the funeral, we started the process of unraveling his papers and clothes and insurance and all those mundane things. They’re inescapable.
I came back to the United States with a duffle bag filled with my father’s things. I wore his hat on my head, a hat that never fit me before and now, suddenly, does. I carried a heart heavier than it’s ever been.
I can’t fill the void that was him. But he gave me everything I need to be me.
Goodbye, Dad. I will miss you forever.