Sometimes, it’s helpful to revisit the past in order to see how much you’ve grown. Recently, I thought about my father’s passing — and a beautiful pen that was dear to him. It reminded me that some endings are actually beginnings in disguise.
It’s just after midnight at our hotel in San Francisco. Tomorrow is my father’s funeral. I’ve slipped away from the bed where my husband sleeps, our two young sons inches away, and into the tiny bathroom to write. Earlier today, surprising even myself, I told my family I wanted to speak at his service. They had correctly assumed that the previous me wouldn’t — couldn’t.
The floor of the hotel bathroom is cold and clammy beneath me. With my father’s Mont Blanc I begin to write his eulogy. The pen was among the piles on his crowded dresser top in my parent’s apartment, in California. There were newspaper clippings, quotes scribbled on yellow lined paper, locks of hair belonging to my sister and youngest son, my father’s military dog-tags, and an array of cheap watches. Foraging through it all, my mother pulled out a burgundy pen — most likely a knock-off, knowing his penchant for finding deep discounts — and handed it to me. “I’d like you to have it,” she said, then added quickly, “Your father would have wanted you to have it.”
As I write I become aware of the power at my fingertips, the power of the written word using a tool he once used. Ours was a difficult relationship. Do I focus on the good?
I write about the weekend road trips to state fairs and to the mountains; about our family of five redheads’ sunburnt adventure to Curacao; about the endless movie nights and bottomless bowls of popcorn; and cupboards brimming with his favorites: Canned tuna, artichoke hearts, and chocolate-covered marshmallows with graham cracker crusts.
My friends said they envied me. How I was allowed to stay up late and watch Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. How we had a house full of telephones. And a ping-pong table from Sears that we sometimes put on our tiny patch of lawn — while surprised strangers drove by and watched us play.
I write about how my father rose early to drive me to school when it rained. And how he sometimes played cards with me, and shared cookies, which he placed on the Style section of The Washington Post, reading in between turns. These memories all come flooding out, my tears as well, mopped up by the roll of toilet paper at hand.
In the morning, as my mother, sister, brother and I approach the funeral home, I see a hearse and men clad in black unloading a coffin. I wasn’t there when he stopped breathing and slumped over his newspaper at the dining room table; when my mother tried to revive his heart that had been bypassed years before; when my sister, driving at breakneck speed to get to his side, pulled into the parking lot of their community to see him being loaded into an ambulance; when they both learned he was not coming back. I was, instead, thousands of miles away blowing bubbles with my boys in the hot summer sun, after spending the week taking care of my maternal grandmother, my Nana, hospitalized for the first time in her life.
When the call came, I thought it must be her, and raced to answer. And now here I am, staring at a coffin, a coffin that must be my father’s.
“That’s Dad. Oh my God, that’s Dad,” I cry out, and though it’s my father whose heart has stopped, it’s me who cannot breathe.
At the funeral home, when it’s time to take my place on the podium, in front of the small gathering, I stand, wobbly at first, then resolute. And I recite the good during what becomes a practice session of sorts, for the memorial service that will be held six weeks from now, thousands of miles away in Washington, D.C., where my parents built their lives before moving out west.
After the funeral, at the burial site, my father’s five grandsons hop, skip, and jump over tiny tombstones that mark the graves of children. The seriousness of the day has gone over their heads, and they revel in the camaraderie of their cousins.
As the coffin is lowered into the ground, each child tosses a long-stemmed sunflower on top, and each adult, a shovelful of dirt, until Dad reaches his final resting place and I turn away.
Back at home on the East Coast, the time between the funeral in San Francisco and the memorial in Washington, D.C., seems endless, the quiet of our rural home provides no comfort.
In my younger days, I would have welcomed the silence. Throughout my childhood I fell asleep to the glass clinking, name-dropping, joke-cracking sounds of my parents’ Washington parties. There was a lot of talk, filled with words I didn’t understand. How I wished all those voices would leave my house in peace and take their smelly cigars and Chanel #5 with them. There was one voice louder than the others — it belonged to my father. Now he’s gone, and who would have guessed — it’s too quiet to sleep.
At the memorial, in front of a much larger crowd, I read the eulogy. My voice is strong and clear.
While house-hunting several months later, my husband and I find a tiny, dilapidated place in the country with a barn and stables. I remove the Mont Blanc from my purse and step out of the car, holding it tightly. As we walk up a hill, I think about how much my father would have enjoyed the view.
Suddenly, everywhere I turn I see his face — his long and ruddy nose and his large handlebar mustache. A mustache that I trimmed at his request, but also, so I could be close to him.
Then, when we return to the car, I open my hand. The pen is gone. How could something so physically obvious vanish into thin air?
Sometimes, a loss leads to something new. Though I can’t hear my father’s voice anymore, I’ve finally found my own.