My father died on November 12, 2012. The date matters. My mind clenches the details, hugging tight the hairpin curves of my memory. I am the cartographer of this map. November 12, 2012.
Though it was a heart attack that ultimately killed him, my father was facing terminal cancer, and so our grief had been underway for weeks before his death. As the grim test results piled up, I shuttled my father to and from doctor’s appointments, picked up his medicines, stocked his fridge with the foods he needed to cleanse and strengthen his body. I did this mostly on autopilot and very little sleep. When I did occasionally break down—in the car, in my office behind closed doors—the ferocity of my keening frightened me. The pitch of it. The way it overtook and then left me, a funnel cloud suddenly curling back into the sky.
The heart attack—his second—was probably brought on by the stress of his cancer diagnosis. When news of his diagnosis spread, friends wrote to me and insisted my father would beat it. He’s a tough guy, they said, calling up the dogged optimism of cancer culture. My father was not a tough guy, and anyone who knew him well knew this. That’s not a criticism of my father’s character. He was a sensitive, empathic man. He was also an anxious man, prone to crippling worry, and he was intelligent enough to understand the pain that awaited him in cancer. His family—my mother (his ex-wife), my husband, and me—knew how desperately afraid he was of that pain, how little of it he thought he could tolerate. We began preparing for months of brutal witnessing to the waste cancer would lay to his body.
But the wasting didn’t happen. What happened was that the day after his diagnosis, a Friday, my father made a modest will at his lawyer’s office. Over the weekend, a few friends helped me clean his apartment, get it sanitized and simplified for impending nursing visits. Then, on Monday, after we spent the day going to appointments and restocking his kitchen with new Dollar General pots and pans, my father called me at 10:30 PM, howling in agony. He begged me not to call 911—he hated going to the emergency room, complaining of the long wait—but my mother and I decided we could not abide this time. She called 911, and my husband and I drove to my father’s house. We found him sitting in his recliner chair, a swarm of medics doing an EKG while my father fought to stay conscious. Another medic pulled me aside so I could answer questions about the medications lined up on his coffee table. I never got to speak with my father before the medics loaded him into the ambulance.
But I rode in the ambulance with him. The driver made me ride up front. All the way to the hospital, I could hear the defibrillation and chest compression happening in the back. I could hear the damp, heaving sound of air being pushed through his body, the medics trying to spur oxygenated blood flow. When I couldn’t bear it anymore and turned around to watch, to put a visual on top of the sound, the driver said, “Stay with me up here. Don’t look.”
The paperwork would later reveal that my father had coded while being loaded into the ambulance. We had taken him to the hospital already dead.
I tell you these details not to shock you, but because you were not there. Because you are not his daughter who rode in the ambulance. You did not memorize those wet streets turning one to the next. You did not count the stoplights.
Death is full of lessons. Of the things I’ve learned so far, one of the most complicated has been that when your father was a public man, your grief is not private. The map is redrawn over and over like those in a social studies textbook. Outsized Europes in some. The Americas absent altogether in others. The world made by those who inhabit a slice.
For over fifteen years, my father owned a small bar called Close Quarters. The name itself suggests a claustrophobia, a tangle of lives inextricable from their shared space. He spent his entire adult life in the restaurant business, among the dramatic, moody, and often highly talented and even brilliant circle of people who, for one reason or another, made a home in the grease and tenuous, yet deep camaraderie of food and drink. Read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential for an honest look at a restaurant’s prismatic lure. The business ruined my parents’ marriage, yet gave them a place to build a profound lifelong friendship. Relationships broken in the restaurant world are often repaired there. The business has brought me to kick cast iron stoves and scream in the faces of people I’ve puked alongside later the same night. I’ve found that the line between love and hate is never thinner than between restaurant staff.
I could say much more about my father’s business and my many years working in and out of it, but what matters here is that my father spent his life in public, and despite the reputation of restaurateurs as an obstinate bunch, my father was beloved by nearly everyone. His most devoted clientele would look for his powder blue Nissan in the Close Quarters parking lot, stopping only if they saw it to have a beer and talk with Danny, the wise and witty Yoda who drank bottles of Labatt Blue and dispensed stories and advice to an increasingly disenfranchised community.
I have always been proud of my father’s ability to cultivate love and exact influence. His reach into the community has gotten me jobs, expensive meals, and the privilege of other people’s professional services. It has kept me out of jail on two separate occasions. It has done my taxes for free. It has brought me the protection of men who would do anything for my father, and thus would do anything for me. I still reap these innumerable rewards, though I deserve none of them. All of my life, I have been the beneficiary of his legacy.
But because my father was a public man, my grief is hardly even special. For days after his death, as word lit up cell phones across town, I fielded calls from people sobbing on the line. My inbox was jammed with other people’s distress. I don’t doubt a single word or tear’s legitimacy, and am mostly grateful that others can share in an only child’s devastation. Because he was, as repeated probably a hundred times in the week after his death, a father to so many.
At one point, when the phone wouldn’t stop ringing, and all the peace in my mother’s house had been sucked out by other people’s grief, my mother and I had a fight. I needed to be surrounded by people, she said, whereas she needed sanctuary in order to face her loss. “Nobody cares how I feel anyway,” she said. “I’m just his ex-wife. I don’t have a claim to what I’ve lost.”
If you really knew my father, then you know this isn’t true.
What’s true is that my mother was a precious island in a blissful and remote corner of his world. What’s true is that part of my bond with my father was always tied up in our mutual adoration of her. What’s true is that she was the last person to speak with him before the paramedics arrived, telling him she was going to call 911, telling him to take another nitroglycerin, telling him, “Danny, breathe.”
If you only knew my father from Close Quarters, you might have found his private self difficult to recognize. At home, his personality was almost antithetical to his personality at the bar. Because my parents did not live together before they got married, my mother wasn’t prepared for the sullen and unmotivated presence of her husband. She’d only known his charm and energy on dates.
Privately, my father suffered a terrible loneliness. This is not uncommon for public figures, as our tabloids tell us every time an entertainer is discovered to be acting out that suffering. In the six years before he died, my father stopped allowing any company in his apartment because he was embarrassed by the its state, yet too despondent to clean it. I had lived with him on and off in my teenage years, so I knew the extent to which my father could live in disarray, and I knew the quiet ambivalence he felt towards himself.
Few people knew his tendency towards self-deprecation and fatalism, or experienced his introspective and tender and melancholy nature. He was literary. He loved educational TV. His worldview was punctuated by the loss of his older brother during the Vietnam War. I feel almost viciously protective of this knowledge. I don’t want to tell you about the pockets of light we had together at home, in sobriety. How we synced completely on humor and aesthetics and approached nearly everything we read or watched with an analytical frame. And I don’t want to tell you about the nights he used to pace outside my closed bedroom door, listening for clues about his teenage daughter and how he could know her better. How I could hear his footsteps and the hoarse whistle as he breathed through his nose. How he hoped the music I played or the phone calls I made would tell him something he could use to close the rift of divorce. How he hoped I might open the door.
Years ago, when my husband worked as a newspaper reporter, he covered the funeral of the mayor’s wife. Because the weekly paper he worked for operated on a small, shaky budget, my husband was both reporter and photographer. As he took notes on attendance, tallied councilmen and handshakes, he also documented with pictures. During the sermon, he shot the image of the mayor’s daughter seconds before she broke into tears. Her fine-boned face reddened and about to crumple, frown tight as a rubber band about to snap and flail, the picture garnered a mixed response from the public. How dare you put someone’s grief on display like that, some citizens wanted to know. Others touted it an accomplishment, a work of art. The funeral, my husband told me when he showed me the photo, was a packed house, half funeral, half town hall meeting. People bunched up in pews and whispered, gesturing at the mayor with handkerchiefs and manicured nails. Speculation circulated about his private life, whether he’d been having an affair, whether he’d had anything to do with his wife’s death.
But in the middle of it, lost in the faces turned towards each other, a daughter watched her mother’s closed casket. Hers was a fixed point in space, and her compass found it over and over again. I asked my husband why he shot the picture, knowing it would be controversial. “Her face was accurate. It was real,” he said.
I vacillate between unbelievable gratitude for those who cry with me, who share my loss, and territoriality over my grief as a daughter. His real daughter. Over my ride in the ambulance with my dead father, through the streets of my hometown where we lived and loved so much. Over the parts of my father’s life that are painful and private and mine.
I am only at the beginning of grief. Whatever I’ve come to tell you about it is dissolving. The raw parts of me are the only parts communicating. This map is a first draft. All the lines are in pencil.
I do not mean to offend anyone. I do not mean to snatch another’s loss. I do not mean to omit an island. I do not mean to make my country outsized, looming over this land we share.
I am so grateful that you loved him, too. Please keep on loving him. Help me keep on loving him.
And this, too, I know: Your loss is real. Your tears are preparation. When you cry for my father, you are also crying for your own.