Scan of a Kodachrome slide of the Australian desert, taken probably 1969. A clump of rocks or boulders are silhouetted on the horizon against a yellow sky full of small clouds

My dad died 17 days ago

Published 2014-12-16

I don’t think I’ve sufficiently processed this.

Maybe because I probably spoke with him every other week, on average, so this is…you know…not an entirely outsize gap in our communication throughput.

But today I had lunch with a good listener and I told her the entire timeline of his death, and kept referring to him in the present tense. He likes to read. He thinks a lot. He philosophizes. He is known for his long walks.

Dad won’t ever take a long walk again, Paul.

The greatest blessing of the past few weeks and months is that we had time. Not enough time, certainly — and the timeline I have relayed now twice in conversation seems blindingly brief. Three weeks ago I was having a thoroughly lucid conversation with my father who was in a hospital bed. It had the cadence and shape of many of our conversations of our adult life: Dad, tell me about Thing X that happened umpty years ago. And he would. And then we would pontificate. We have had that kind of conversation for about 23 years, including in hospitals, so even the setting wasn’t that out-of-bounds. So at that moment — three weeks ago today — he is sixty and I am twenty-five. Except this conversation had an urgency: We didn’t have 23 years to shoot the shit. (Dad was a highly-regarded shit-shooter.) We had, like, weeks. Days. The topic was more urgent: mysteries, regrets, things we would have done differently.

(He couldn’t have done anything differently, not for my sake. I wouldn’t have wanted him to do anything differently. I had an amazingly happy childhood. He did such a good job.)

On the night before his death, not four days later, as I sat vigil by his bedside, I watched my father — sleeping? in a coma? slipping through conscious states the non-dying mind cannot comprehend? — and I put my head on his hand. I imagined myself as Orion and himself as myself. In my mind at that time he is forty and I am six. I told him: you have worked so hard my entire life to make my life so good, you never stopped working. Right now you can stop if you want.

So, time: five days. That’s how long it took my father to die. It was a gentle death, a good one by my standards and his.

Dad didn’t want dotage, he feared especially senility and dementia, he rejected the concept of his body failing from beneath him. (One of many surprises I have discovered in the last month: I am maybe less like this than I would have thought.) So as he got sicker, we realized: time is catching up. That clarifies a little bit. We had chances to say goodbye.

Not everyone — maybe almost no one — gets to say goodbye.

I’m not putting these thoughts together well. There are a lot of them. I had about a week to let them build up, and felt like I could never tame them. My head was too full of words. Then: about two days after he died, I was pulled back into Regular Life. Deadlines and Things to Do and Christmastime Is Here. My clients were understanding but their timelines didn’t, you know, just evaporate so I had a week of work to pack into a weekend.

Now I can breathe a little. The deadlines are passing, the Things are Done, Christmastime Is Still Here.

There will be more words.